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Secrets to Staying Focused in Your Home Office

Tips for minimizing distractions so you can stay on track

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Q: While I love the freedom and flexibility of working from home, sometimes the distractions just drive me nuts. Between the kids, the dog, the neighbors, the garbage truck, the TV and the refrigerator, I often find myself longing for my old cubicle back at the office. Please help!

A: First of all, relax! You're not the only homebased business owner to face this problem. Especially for people accustomed to working for a big company with bosses, meetings and deadlines, it can be difficult to adjust to an environment where you have complete and total freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. In reality, of course, that freedom is only an illusion. The truth is that you still need to feed your family, pay your bills and turn out excellent work in a timely manner. That's why it's essential to find a way to minimize the distractions that keep you from accomplishing these important goals.

Here are five of my favorite ways to stay focused in your home office:

1. Create a to-do list. The best way to impose order on the chaos of running a business from home is to give your work some structure. This is especially important when you're just starting a business and you're waiting for sales to come in. Whether you use a handheld PDA like a BlackBerry or a Palm Pilot, a software program like Microsoft Outlook, a datebook or just a scrap of paper, it's important to jot down your goals for the day, week and month. Not only will you get more done, but you'll also feel a sense of accomplishment every time you check off a task on your to-do list.

2. Schedule your time. By the time you've made yourself a cup of coffee, checked your e-mail, returned some calls and surfed the Net for the latest news and stock quotes, it's often time for lunch. That's why it's important to develop a daily schedule to organize your time. If you're a morning person, for example, you may want to hit the phones first thing in the morning and start calling potential clients. My former partner, a software developer, did his best work at 2 a.m. after the phones stopped ringing and the rest of the world was asleep. How you structure your schedule doesn't matter-as long as it works for you.

3. Shut the door. This may sound obvious, but it's hard to screen out distractions when your spouse, kids, pets and neighbors can walk into your home office at any time and strike up a conversation. That's why it's a good idea to set up shop in a den or spare bedroom that has a door that you can close when you need to make an important phone call or concentrate on your work. If that's not possible, explain to your family that there are certain hours during the day when you will be working and ask them to respect your boundaries. (Of course, that's easier said than done!)

4. Hire a babysitter. While it's tempting to think that you can save money on child care by working when your kids take a nap, that's generally just a fantasy. Not only is it difficult to schedule your clients' needs around your children's sleep patterns, but you will also find that you need to spend more hours working as your business grows. If you can't afford a babysitter, you should consider swapping babysitting duties with another homebased parent, working weekends or nights when your spouse is home to watch the kids or dropping off your kids one or two days per week at a day-care center. While none of these solutions is perfect, you'll get more done in less time once you have some free time to concentrate.

5. Invest in a pair of headphones. If you can't physically remove yourself from the noise and chaos of the world around you, try to screen it out. My former partner, the programmer, used to put on a pair of headphones when he was writing code so that he could listen to his favorite electronic music. This allowed me to play my country western CDs, which he absolutely despised. Especially if you're working at home with a partner or spouse, it's essential to find a way that both of you can focus on getting the job done.

Rosalind Resnick is the founder and CEO of Axxess Business Centers Inc., a storefront consulting firm for startups and small businesses. She is a former business and computer journalist who built her Internet marketing company,NetCreations Inc., from a two-person homebased startup to a public company with $58 million in annual sales.

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