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Home-Office Hell

I'm gazing at my IP Magic 8 Ball. I give it a shake and ask, "Oh, Magic 8 Ball, what wisdom do you have for me?" Gradually, a message rises up from the inky void: "Ask Again Later." Not exactly the answer I was looking for. I try again and the 8 Ball says, "Peter, IPs need to know about setting up their home offices. You must tell them everything you know about home offices. Tell them immediately."


First, the good stuff. Some IPs find that a home office is a great way to keep the overhead down.Why pay $1,000 a month for an office in a strip mall 15 miles away when you're already paying for an apartment or house that you can actually live in? Others do it to take advantage of the home-office deduction (always a popular reason for my accountant and me!). A number enjoy reducing their commute from an hour of bumper-to-bumper frustration to a 15-second walk down the hall. The rest of 'em just like the idea of spending more time with friends and family.

But working at home isn't always the big bed of roses that it's made out to be. In fact, it can be pure hell -- the kind of hell that can cause the quality of your work to sink and your client relationships to swoosh down the drain. If you think you were stressed working at a wage-slave job in some cushy little downtown office, you ain't seen nothing yet! Try making a 5:00 p.m. FedEx deadline for getting an important report to a client while your two-year-old's trying to jam his Teletubbies videotape into your computer, or concentrating when your roommate decides to move this afternoon's rehearsal for her band, the Velvet Tangerines, into your living room.

Question is: How can you work at home while balancing your work and your personal life to make everyone happy -- your clients, your friends, your loved ones, and, perhaps most of all, yourself?

In our hot-off-the-press new book, Home-Based Business For Dummies, self-employment experts Paul & Sarah Edwards -- and yours truly -- address this very question. The good news: Not all home offices are fated to descend into home-office hell. The bad news: It takes work to make life in your home office a happy one. Here are a few scientifically proven tips to push you in the right direction:

  • Give your home office its own room. If you live all by yourself, and if there's no reason for your clients to ever visit you at your office, then it really doesn't matter where you put your home office. Your kitchen, a spare bedroom, the servant's quarters, the john -- whatever's most comfortable for you will work. But once you fold another person into the batter, you should give your business a room of its own. Preferably one with a big lock on it. And if you want to take the home-office deduction on your federal income tax -- and believe me, you do -- you'll need to ensure that your home office and the equipment is used exclusively for business. (Claiming a home-office deduction on your taxes is like waving a red flag in front of a cranky bull. Your friendly local IRS agent will ask a lot of detailed questions about that home office if you're ever audited.)

  • Establish a regular work schedule. One of the few good things about working for a regular company in a regular office with regular employees is that work schedules are, well, regular. (That is, they're generally well-established and widely adhered to.) When moving into a home office, however, it's easy to find yourself working an hour here, half an hour there, and so forth. The good news is that since you're the boss, you can control what happens to you while you work. And that's exactly what you should do. Establish a consistent work schedule -- one that makes it more likely that you'll get work done when it needs to get done -- and stick to it. Once you've established a schedule, make sure that everyone knows about it, honors it, and respects it. Not only will you know when it's time to get the job done, but those around you will know when it's okay to interrupt you, and when it's clearly not.

  • Focus, dammit! The Game Boy in the corner is calling your name, your favorite soap opera starts at 11:00, you have five auctions on eBay closing in the next two hours, and you're dying to check out that online chat with Tom Cruise! How are you supposed to ignore all these distractions and get any work done? Start by clearing all the distractions out of your work area. Move the TV out of your office, tape your soap and watch it after work, and log on to the Internet only when you're checking your email or doing research for some business purpose. And get everything off your desk that isn't going to contribute to whatever project you're working on at the moment. This means lose the latest issue of your favorite magazine, get rid of that crossword puzzle from this morning's newspaper, and avoid answering calls to your regular home phone if you can (you do have a dedicated phone line for your business, right?).

  • Get help! Instead of trying to handle your obligations at home at the same time you're dealing with your obligations to your clients, consider getting some extra help. If you find yourself spending too much time doing laundry or vacuuming the floors, then get a housekeeper to clean your home and relieve you of the burden. Got kids? Get a babysitter to come into your home to watch your young children. You might even farm some work out to another IP. Can't afford the green to pay for all this help? Ask your spouse or a friend or relative to cover for you, or consider bartering your services in exchange for services that you need. If you do taxes for a living, then offer to trade some intimate time with their 1040 for some relief on the kid front.

I don't know about your Magic 8 Ball, but mine says that if you don't already have a home office, there's probably one lurking in your future. If that's the case then avoid home-office hell by following the advice I've mentioned above to turn your place of business into something different -- home-office heaven.


We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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