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The Reality of Working From Home

Ground rules don't always cut it when it comes to homebased business. Here's how to deal with the unexpected.

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Time to challenge some conventional wisdom about working from your home. Some home office experts talk about the need to keep your work life and home life strictly separate. You are told that you shouldn't get distracted by chores that need to be done around the house, and that you should tell your family that between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you cannot be interrupted.

According to these folks, when the septic system is backed up, you should tell your working spouse you are too busy preparing for next week's important client meeting to baby-sit the plumbers. Who are they kidding? The reality of the home office is that you must be available to do at least some household and personal stuff during "normal" business hours.

And not just to keep your spouse or domestic partner happy. "One of the main reasons people want to work from home is to get more control over their personal lives," says Patrick Gilligan, a Michigan-based radio and TV personality and author of Patrick Gilligan Says Be Your Own Boss. "The beauty of a home office is that you can go to the gym in the middle of the week when there are no lines for the Stairmasters; you can get your nails done on Tuesdays; you can be there for the furniture delivery guys who say they'll come to your house 'sometime between noon and 5 p.m.'"

The problem is that household chores (referred to as "honey do's" in the home office literature, even though you are doing them without any prompting from your "honey") have a way of becoming "time vampires," eating up so much of your day that your office work ends up being done evenings and weekends. How to manage your time, get everything done and still have a life?

The first step, according to Gilligan, is to cut down personal chores to an absolute minimum. "If you plan to receive a lot of registered mail or UPS deliveries in your business, get a MailBoxes Etc. account, and have everything go there. Otherwise, you will be running to the door to sign receipts every 10 minutes, to say nothing of the daily trip to your Post Office to pick up the stuff you weren't around to sign for," says Gilligan. "If the lawn is starting to look a little too much like a Nebraska wheat field in July, budget your mowing and showering time into your daily planner the same way you would a work assignment. If there are after-school programs that can keep your kids safely out of the house between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., sign 'em up." Know what your time is worth, on an hourly or daily basis, and ask "Should someone who charges $XXX an hour really be doing this?" If someone can do the job for a fraction of what you charge for your services, hire them.

Next, according to Gilligan, you've got to get really good at multitasking. "Right now, I'm doing this interview with you. I am also responding to e-mails, doing a load of laundry down in the basement and taping two TV shows."

The final step is to negotiate chore time with your family. Ask your spouse or domestic partner "I'm going to the bank this afternoon--do you need anything in that part of town?" or "I may have some down time Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon this week--is there anything I can do for you?" By letting them know the amount of time you have available on given days, you give them the opportunity to pick and choose the things they really need you to do. Don't say "I've only got time to do one household thing today"; it sounds like you think your time is more important than theirs.

One more thing: You should do one thing each day around the house to let your spouse or domestic partner know you love them. Just a small thing--like cleaning out the coffeemaker, setting the dinner table, brushing snow from the birdhouse or picking a beer can out of the gutter. Don't tell your spouse or domestic partner you did it; let them discover it on their own. Nothing says "thank you for supporting my independent lifestyle; I'm doing this for both of us" better, or more effectively.

Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on the Small Business Television Network at www.sbtv.com. E-mail him at cennico@legalcareer.com.

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Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.