From the October 1998 issue of Startups

You are now entering another dimension--a dimension where time slowly freezes and then melts at warp speed. A place where daydreams derail deadlines, clocks exist only to be ignored, and "schedule" is just another word for something else to lose.

Welcome to the Home Office Zone.

Working at home can do strange things to your sense of time. A few minutes on the phone somehow turns into half a day; an hour flies by as you scramble to prepare for a meeting with a client. Distractions beckon at every turn, breaking your concentration and fragmenting your focus. With no schedule imposed and enforced by a supervisor or other workplace entity, it's easy to drift through the days without accomplishing much.

Then, before you know it, another week has passed--and your to-do list has doubled in size. As the owner of a homebased organizing service since 1986, I've tackled the home office time warp for both myself and many of my clients. What I've found is that the solution--and the toughest challenge--is creating an effective, easy-to-maintain schedule. Without one, all the time management tips in the world won't save you from vanishing into the Home Office Zone.

Structuring a Schedule
Working productively at home requires more than just a home office with a door you can shut (although I recommend that, too). You also need to create a schedule with built-in distraction controls. Developing a flexible yet focused framework for your days and weeks is crucial. How do you do it? The trick is to figure out two things: what your recurring tasks are, and the best days and times for you to perform those tasks.

For example, I'm not a morning person, so I've structured a daily schedule to accommodate my lack of a.m. energy. My typical day is shaped around what I call the "Four Cs": Calls and Correspondence in the morning; Clients and Creative Work later in the day. If you're a morning person, I'd recommend doing just the opposite--schedule your appointments and projects for earlier in the day to make the most of your peak energy time.

Two Types of Time
To create an effective schedule, it's helpful to think in terms of two types of time: project time and maintenance time. Project time should be prime time. When working on projects or meeting with clients, you want to be in top form and at your peak energy level. Maintenance time, on the other hand, is "workhorse" time--that necessary but undervalued, and often under-scheduled, time that needs to be spent on tasks like returning phone calls, answering correspondence, and doing preparation and follow-up.

I have a saying: Life is 5 percent joy, 5 percent grief and 90 percent maintenance. Think about it: 90 percent of what we do is stuff we have to do over and over and over again. And when you don't schedule adequate time for maintenance, your business suffers.

For example, two of the top complaints about businesses are unreturned phone calls and unsent materials. The result: lost credibility and lost business. The cause: not enough maintenance time set aside for business communications. The solution: Figure out how much time you need to block out each day for communication maintenance.

Phone, Mail and More

I've learned to schedule an average of two hours each day for phone time. Your business may not demand as much phone time; then again, it may need even more. Phone time includes handling incoming calls and making outgoing calls. If someone calls while I'm on the phone, the caller can leave a message on my voice mail and I'll either call him or her back right away or by the next morning. Likewise, if a call comes in after my day's phone time is over, such as when I'm working on a project or out of the office, voice mail comes to the rescue. (In my opinion, voice mail is a homebased business owner's best friend. Your callers never get a busy signal, nor do they have to contend with call waiting. It also sounds clearer than most answering machines and is less likely to break down.)

Keep in mind that the phone will likely derail your schedule if you let it. Homebased entrepreneur Lee T. Silber of CreativeLee Speaking and author of Time Management for the Creative Person (Three Rivers Press), admits that the phone was once a big distraction for him. "I used to stop and chat, losing track of where I was and what I was doing . . . losing my concentration on the project at hand," Silber says. "Anything new is better than what I'm doing now, right? Wrong. Now I put the answering machine on during working hours." When you do choose to answer the phone (and remember, it's a choice, not a requirement), limit the time you spend on each call. That's easier said than done, which is why I keep a kitchen timer near my office phone. I set it for five minutes to help me put a limit on calls that might otherwise make my day spin out of control.

Outgoing calls usually take as much as 80 percent of my allocated phone time. I make approximately 12 calls per day; each lasts between two and 20 minutes on average and falls under one of four categories:

  1. Return calls. I return most calls within 24 hours.
  2. Follow-up calls. These include everything from post-consultation calls to following up with prospective clients.
  3. Networking calls. These cover everything from staying in touch with existing contacts to initiating new connections.
  4. Research calls. These involve gathering information for a variety of projects.

Mail and More
Setting aside approximately two hours daily for mail maintenance (incoming and outgoing) has also worked well for me. As with phone calls, I often generate more correspondence than I receive, so that's where I spend the bulk of this maintenance time. I use the U.S. mail, UPS, FedEx, fax and e-mail to send client-prospect packets, thank-you notes, query letters, press releases, birthday cards, and order fulfillments for books and audiotapes. I keep track of what, to whom and when I send things by maintaining an outgoing mail log, a simple and useful recordkeeping system.

After lunch, the second part of my day--the bigger half--usually follows one of two tracks, and sometimes both: I leave the office to meet with a client (a consultation, organizing session or speaking engagement), or I stay in and work on a specific project, such as writing articles like this one. Since I'm a night owl, I often stay up late writing, which is one reason I rarely schedule morning appointments.

The Four Cs structure gives me a framework on which to build a flexible schedule that keeps me on track. Not every day is a Four Cs day; sometimes I have late-morning appointments or I'm out of the office all day. I supplement the Four Cs with weekly or biweekly maintenance time for "F & F": Financials and Filing. My business is quite streamlined in that I rarely have receivables (I usually get paid upfront or on-site) and I don't have employees; so for me, Financials mostly means banking and paying bills. If your business requires invoicing or payroll, you need to allocate more time for F & F than I do.

If you don't seem to have enough time for all your tasks, delegating certain maintenance tasks to independent contractors is an option worth considering. Bookkeepers, payroll services and temporary employment agencies exist for precisely that reason.

Delightful Distractions
Besides the mail and the phone, there's a veritable smorgasbord of delightful distractions calling to you when you work at home: the television, refrigerator, pets, your kids, fun stuff to read . . . not to mention household chores and errands that sometimes seem more appealing than business chores. (As humorist, drama critic and actor Robert Benchley once put it, "Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he's supposed to be doing at the moment.")

"The best way to handle outside distractions is to manage the ones you put in your own path," says Silber. Here's an example: Silber, who works at home, controls the temptation to watch television during the day by having his wife take the remote with her to work.

Managing the temptations of the kitchen requires a different tactic. Don't panic--there's nothing wrong with taking periodic snack breaks. But if snack attacks are gobbling up your time by sidetracking you too often, I'd recommend putting a minirefrigerator (or at least a small cooler) in your office.

Overall, the best way to avoid getting sidetracked by such distractions is to plan for them. That's right--plan to be distracted part of the time. After all, one of the joys of working from home is that, well, you're at home! The trick is to accommodate distractions without blowing your whole schedule. It's not as tough as it sounds. All you need is a little "white space."

White Space
People who design ads for newspapers and magazines know the importance of white space. An effective ad generally has a good balance of white space (unfilled area) and ad copy/graphics. If an advertisement is cluttered with too many words or images, it's usually ignored; readers will skip right over it.

Take a look at your calendar or time management system. Does it look like a poorly designed ad, with too many activities and not enough white space? Although it may seem more efficient to pack your days with side-by-side commitments, ultimately it's not as effective as leaving some free time in your schedule. Block out white space in your schedule as a buffer between appointments, deadlines, errands and so forth. White space functions as a sort of shock absorber for scheduling bumps caused by distractions, interruptions, emergencies and delays. White space pumps flexibility into your schedule, and flexibility is one of the keys to an effective structure.

In her book, Organizing Your Home Office for Success (Blakeley Press), Dallas-based organization expert Lisa Kanarek discusses the importance of "structured flexibility." After all, she points out, "Even the best plans change. Be willing to change your priorities throughout the day. It's usually easier to get the low-priority items done than it is to accomplish the important ones, so make a conscious effort to concentrate on the high-priority tasks."

Time for a Makeover

Before
In 1988, Lesa Heebner made the incongruous leap from stock options to stock pots. The former stockbroker founded Garlic & Sapphires, a multifaceted firm offering kitchen design, menu development and nutritional consulting services. Ten years later, Heebner continues to run the business solo out of her Solana Beach, California, home office.

But Heebner's recipe for success was overpowered by too many ingredients. Over the years, the number and range of her ongoing projects became staggering: designing kitchens for builders, developers and individuals; presenting seminars nationwide; creating menus for restaurants, spas and interactive software companies; writing cookbooks and magazine articles; teaching cooking classes; hosting a weekly cooking segment on a local TV morning news program; and providing nutritional consulting services for corporate clients. Her business was cooking, all right--but Heebner was getting burned out.

"I feel as if I'm stuck on a treadmill," she says. "There's no time for planning, figuring out what's next, how to grow, where to cut back. I've had to put a lot of good ideas on hold."

After
Heebner's challenge is common to many entrepreneurs, and not just homebased ones. Planning for growth may not seem like a priority when you're busy trying to grow. But eventually you hit a point when your plate is filled with projects that have started to feel stale, and you're itching to develop those new ideas and opportunities you've been keeping on the back burner.

I recommended Heebner establish a weekly process for planning so she can operate more proactively. To carve out the necessary chunks of time from her packed schedule, she needed a bookkeeping software program to streamline her invoicing process. (This strategy would ultimately reduce by about 50 percent the time Heebner spent on bookkeeping.) But the very first step Heebner needed to take in order to regain control of her time was much more low-tech: sitting down with a pen and paper to make two lists. One would include the things she was tired of doing, the other, the things she'd rather be doing.

It's crucial to identify not-so-profitable clients or other business activities that have become onerous time-eaters. In Heebner's case, these included some seemingly glamorous money-makers that were actually taking more time than they were worth: the weekly TV news gig, the food editorship of a local magazine and out-of-town seminars. "Any kind of presentation involving food requires a lot of prep time; plus, there are the transportation logistics," Heebner explains.

Eliminating or reducing activities your business has outgrown can open up the time you need for those "back burner" business projects you'd rather be doing. For Heebner, this has certainly proved true. "One of the items on what I call my Master Dream list involves national TV pursuits," she said. "Not long after I said goodbye to my local TV segment, which I'd done for five years, I was hired to co-host an infomercial for a yogurt maker." The segment is scheduled to air nationally in October.

In the meantime, Heebner will be busy cooking up other projects. That back burner is already starting to fill up again.


Harriet Schechter is a time management author and speaker, as well as founder of The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego.