When I first left my full-time job to become a work at home mom, I thought I’d have it made. I envisioned myself rolling out of bed at nine o’clock every morning, shuffling the few steps from my bed to my home office, and spending several hours a day completing my freelance work. Instead, I found the obligations of parenting two young children while tending to our house an overwhelming task to complete while trying to perform a paying job at the same time.
It’s now been close to a year and a half since I embarked on this work from home journey, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Some are no-brainers, but others took me months – in some case, well over a year – to figure out. Now, I’m passing my advice along to you.
Rule #1: Define Your Work Hours
Because of my children’s schedules, I tended to squeeze in 15 minutes of work while my oldest watched a TV show, or I attempted to fit in another 45 minutes while my youngest napped. By the end of the day, I’d always managed to get my work done, but it was accomplished in fits and spurts, rather than long, concentrated stretches. Ultimately, I realized I was hindering my on-the-job productivity. Doing market research for media companies forces you to get inside the minds of TV viewers and radio listeners – a time-intensive process that was hampered when I only gave myself a few minutes here or there to do it. I was never able to completely dive into my work, limiting my ability to truly focus on the task at hand.
It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a problem, but solving it wasn’t as simple. As a work at home mom, I had to start by getting my children on a set schedule; once their days had a definite rhythm, I was able to more accurately – and adequately – chart out my own day to day work plans. For example, I was able to get my infant son to nap during the two hours during which my daughter was at preschool, giving me a solid chunk of time every morning to do my freelance work. Likewise, I asked my husband to spearhead bath and pajama-time every evening, giving me another full hour each day to check items off my to-do list.
Rule #2: Limit Your Work Hours
Closely related to rule #1, limiting your work hours is also a key factor in establishing a healthy work from home environment. Since I started working online from home, I’ve found it tempting to work morning, noon, and night. In fact, I can’t tell you the number of times I’d be laying in my bed at 2am, thinking about an idea for a freelance work article, only to pop out of bed and log on to the computer. The problem went even deeper, though. When I was working full-time, I left my office every day at 6pm, leaving behind the server on which all my projects were stored. But because my freelance work had me working online – and Internet access is so widely available these days, even if you’re far from your home or office – I was logging on just about any time, any place. I did some work on our family vacation to the beach last year. I did some work during story time at the library, using one of the library’s computers. But the final straw came when I tried to use my mom’s laptop to log on to one of my work websites while we were in a hospital waiting room as my dad was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery.
“Do you really have the energy to focus on work right now?” my mom asked me. She’d called me out – and she was right. I didn’t have the energy – mentally or physically – to be doing any type of work.
Since that day – which was only a few months ago – I’ve started keeping tabs on my hours. Each week, I budget out 15 hours specifically for my work from home duties. I make sure I do them at home, and I only work additional hours beyond those dedicated 15 for special circumstances.
Rule #3: Find A Dedicated Work Space
Right now, my house is on the market. My husband and I are looking for one key thing in our new house: a home office.
For the first 15 months that I was a work at home mom, I had my desk and computer set up in a corner of our family room. That meant I had to compete with my two children, my husband, and whatever was on TV in order to do my work. I rarely got any peace, I never got any quiet, and I found it was cutting into my bottom line, thanks to the extra time it was taking me to complete my freelance work.
A few months ago, as we were cleaning out our attic in anticipation of putting our house up for sale, my husband found my old desk from college that we’d stored and promptly forgotten. “What if we put this in our bedroom?” he suggested. It had to be better than our current situation, so I gave it a try. While it’s not ideal having my work space located 10 feet from my sleeping space, it does mean that I can go upstairs and shut the door to my bedroom/office whenever I have work to do. And, as long as I follow rules #1 and #2, it doesn’t affect the rest of my life.
Rule #4: Learn To Say No
When I first got into doing freelance work, I struggled to find enough projects to pay the bills. However, by the end of my first year of doing work from home, I started getting more inquiries for my services than I’d ever imagined. Before long, I’d taken on more work than I could handle given the limited schedule I’d set for myself. Something had to give.
As I evaluated my family’s financial situation, I realized that I didn’t need any more work than I already had. I’d reached my maximum – I was at a threshold where I was bringing in more than enough money to make ends meet, put some extra to savings, and still have fun. Working any more than that, and I would have compromised the freedom and flexibility that had led me to become a work at home mom in the first place.
It was hard the first time I had to tell a potential employer I couldn’t handle a project. In fact, I nearly changed my mind two or three times. How much harm could a few extra hours of work a week do to my life? It was my husband who proved to be the voice of reason, reminding me that balance was the key – and that there would always be time to take on more work a few years down the road, once both of our children started school.
Reader, if you do freelance work or work from home, which rules do you follow to protect that work/life balance?