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For many, a home office sounds like the ultimate work fantasy. Visions of working in pajamas, spending more time with family, scheduling your own time--what could be better?

Unfortunately, all those images are exactly that--fantasy.

When the line between home and work gets blurred, things can get a little complicated. There are several obstacles that make working from home more difficult than it seems at first, and it actually requires a lot of discipline to make sure you're staying at the top of your game when you're not in an office.

Fortunately, we have a few guidelines to help you do just that. We consulted a few experts and self-employed sources to find out how you can maximize your home office situation.

 

First: Should you work from home?
Working from home is most definitely not for everyone.

Some personality traits to be conscious of: Do you need the presence of others to hold you accountable? Do you already have trouble putting down your BlackBerry when the day is done? Do you thrive on professional interaction? Characteristics like these can mean that you're not a great candidate for working from home.

Most importantly, "you have to be self-motivated. Some folks just need someone to push them along or to be sure they stay on task," Jeff Erickson, a self-employed strategic marketing consultant advises. "That's hard to do on your own."

You know yourself best--do the hard self-evaluation before you commit to the idea of a home office.

Set it up right: You'll need a desk, a door, and business-quality materials.
Setting up a professional-quality workspace is crucial.

"Have a real office with a real desk. Tucking it in the family room or kitchen just doesn't give you the separation and quiet you need to work. At the very least, put it in a room that you can shut the door," Erickson suggests. "Have the right equipment for your job--computer, monitor, printer, high-speed internet, etc. Make sure you have good lighting as well."

A separate room, in particular, "helps create a sense of separation, making it easier to 'go home' at the end of the day," says Kate Lister, co-author of Undress For Success--The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home.

And it's very important that you "get along with technology," Lister adds. You are your own IT person now--not having the latest business tools could put you at a disadvantage.

Of course, your home office should also be a space where you look forward to going and where you enjoy spending time. Need inspiration? Check out Lifehacker's series on cool home workspaces here.

Treat your home office like a "real" office.
One of the best ways to maximize working from home is to act like you're in a "real" office.

Erickson lays out a potential schedule: "Get up at a normal hour, have breakfast, get dressed, make your coffee and go to your home office. Stay off Facebook and other personal sites except for lunch. End the day like you would a normal work day and go off to do what you normally would have done after work--pick up the kids, go to the gym, happy hour, whatever."

The bottom line is to "create some structure for your day." It'll minimize distraction, force you to work efficiently, and allow for clear demarcation between work and play. Easier said than done, of course, but doing so should be a top priority.

Keep your work life separate from your personal life...
Getting distracted by your personal to-do list can be one of the biggest obstacles to effectively working from home. If it becomes a habit, your productivity will quickly go down the tubes.

One source advises to adopt the mindset that your office environment is miles away from your home. Whether that requires just closing your office door or more drastic measures, like turning off your personal phone, be sure you have some system for barring personal distractions while you are "at work."

And keep your personal life seperate from your work life.
At the same time, "one of the biggest problems cited by home-based workers is over-working [...] you'll continually have to wrestle with working too much. It's by far a bigger challenge than staying motivated," Lister comments.

The solution? "One guy we interviewed for the book resorted to getting in his car at the end of the day, driving around the block, and returning home to start his evening routine," says Lister.

Ken Sheridan, Managing Director and co-founder of Remote Employment, advises:"Set helpful rules: I don't talk about work when the laptop is switched off. I don't talk about work in this room (i.e. the main family room). No work chat between [these hours], etc. Set a forfeit if the rules are broken."

"And don't have 'creeping hours'," he adds.

A special note for those with children:
Building an effective home office can be especially difficult for people with children, but it is not impossible.

"Help the kids understand what it means to work from home. Draw the boundaries--as in be quiet when you're on the phone, knock on the office door, etc. The sooner you start, the more likely they'll eventually do it," Erickson suggests.

One source offers this creative solution: Place a sign on your office door that let's them know right away whether it's alright for them to come in, or if they shouldn't disturb you. For younger kids, use colors--green for "go" and red for "stop."

Setting boundaries and instilling certain habits from the start helps make the situation work.

Home offices can be lonely...
When you work out of your home, you don't have the opportunity to build the deep personal connections you can make when you work with the same people every day. Without that interaction, it's easy to feel isolated, one source notes.

That physical remoteness can also result in mental isolation, too--which can in turn stifle innovation and affect the quality of your work.

"Don't lose your external focus. Get out and stay in touch. Meet people. Seek advice. Get a process for acquiring and sounding out ideas," Sheridan says.

So make a concerted effort to not turn into a hermit.
Above all, don't isolate yourself further. "[Avoid] turning into a hermit. Because you're out of sight, you need to be particularly vigilant about staying in touch" with clients, partners, and other associates, says Lister.

Don't fall into the trap of doing everything remotely, either; when appropriate, encourage real interaction.

"I had a situation the other day where a local client (who also works at home) and I needed to have a quick one hour meeting. Easy to do over the phone," recalls Erickson. "His immediate suggestion was 'Let's do it over lunch!' After 40 years surrounded by people at work, he was missing the social interaction--and desperately needed to get out of the house."

Some other take-aways:
Sheridan offers a few more points to consider:

  • Don't under-price because you are home-based.
  • Stay productive and be able to prove it. Never charge by the hour: charge for output/results--it's a big plus versus office workers.
  • Know when to upgrade [your] business infrastructure; don't stay small and miss the bigger opportunity.
  • Keep your other interests. Stay driven, but don't get boring.

Lister says, "Common sense suggests that working at home, away from the watchful eye of society, will exaggerate any other 'holic tendencies you may have. If food, alcohol, drugs, or other indulgences are a problem for you, [a home office] may not be a healthy choice."

"While I've been successfully working from home for over 20 years, my personality and skills aren't a perfect fit," she adds. But, "if you're motivated and willing to work, you're more than halfway there."