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Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Five Tips for Balancing Work and Life When You Work From Home

April 16th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Working from home is fantastic for introverts like myself. Every morning I put on a nice pair of soft pajamas, wander down the hall to my little office, and work for hours on end with minimal interruptions. No one drops by to tell me how much they drank the previous night. There are no loud conversations near my cube about pitifully disappointing local sports team, no overheard conference calls from the project manager who isn’t happy unless she’s shouting, and no random dropins from the village idiot who can’t understand why he doesn’t get anything done. I’m enjoying productivity levels I’ve never had before in my career, and I like it.

To make things better, my schedule is very flexible. I can pick up kids from school sometimes, take a short nap in the afternoon if I need one, and if I get up in the middle of the night and work is on my mind I can get to it, not on a tiny laptop screen over the vpn, but on 42″ of widescreen monitor madness in the comfort of my skivvies.

Working from home is a dream come true for me.

It hasn’t always been so great for Shannon, my wife. Sure, I’m around more (which she likes), but that doesn’t mean I’m always mentally available to her. The boundary around my work life, once distinct in a very 8-4:30 sort of way, is gone. Work is always there, just a few steps from my bedroom, sandwiched in the little guest bedroom down hall, waiting for me, luring me away to fix just one more defect, answer one more email, or simply lurk in IRC to see what’s going on with my colleagues in other time zones.

I used to come home from work and leave it all behind. Somewhere in the 35 minute drive from the north side to my little suburb I would forget about the job I disliked and my thoughts would turn to home. I would plan home projects, activities with my kids, dates with my wife. I almost never brought my laptop home with me, and even when I did it almost never left it’s bag.

Now, however, work is everywhere. I feel guilty if I’m in front of a computer and I’m not working. I can hear IRC chirping away down the hall at night, and it’s hard for me to resist getting up to see what’s going on. Sometimes, I will spend nearly every waking hour of the day working.

I knew I had to make some changes when my nine year old complained that she saw me less now that I worked from home than when I had a “normal job”.

Here are five things I’ve figured out about making working from home work for me and my family.

Establish a routine that includes your family
An 8 to 5 job creates a predictable routine for your spouse and children. “Daddy’s home” used to be a clarion call in my house. Family members are comforted by predictable routine’s – the knowledge that a parent or spouse will be available at regular times each day is valuable in establishing closeness and communication.
I try to make lunch for my son every day when he gets home from school if I can. I think he looks forward to this interaction with me as we share a box of mac and cheese.
On Fridays, I pick my daughter up from school in my old beetle and take her out for an ice cream cone. Every day, I take breaks with Shannon. Together we play Dr. Mario on the Wii, talk about the kids, or plan family stuff like meals, vacations, etc.

Create boundaries between work and play
You’ve got to leave work behind for at least three things in your life:
1) Meals and bedtime. Don’t miss opportunities to sit down with your family and share a meal or talk with your children as you put them to bed. Meals and bedtime are critical social events for your spouse and your children.
2) Dates with your spouse are off-limits for work. Leave the blackberry behind. Better yet, pro-actively plan them. Don’t make your spouse beg for your attention.
3) Exercise. Life in a cubicle is already too sedentary. Move the cubicle to your house and you will lose even more physical activity as walking across the parking lot, climbing the stairs, and wandering from meeting to meeting disappear from your daily routine. Block off time to exercise and don’t let work intrude.
Take advantage of your schedule’s flexibility to lighten the burden for your spouse
Remember those breaks around the water cooler? The trips down to the coffee shop with your co-workers? Replace them with a load of laundry, meeting your kids at the bus stop, changing a dirty diaper (the stinkier the better), or making a random bed. Be helpful.
Being helpful around the house has at least three benefits:
1) Your home will be cleaner. Cleanliness (not sterility) is conducive to productivity for many people.
2) Your spouse will like you more and have more free time. Plus, she’ll notice how cute you look with a duster.
3) Manual labor has a way of clarifying problems and evoking solutions from the subconscious. Folding clothes is a thoughtless activity that allows your body to function with little input from your mind. As a result, it wanders through the problems of your life in an unstructured way that often results in valuable insight.
Be cheerful and nice
For me, the commute home was always a purging event for me. I used to pick a landmark like a bridge or a mall at which I was committed to not thinking about work anymore. It was the boundary – work ended at the red bridge halfway between home and the office.
There are no bridges between my office and the living room, no checkpoints where I can dump my work baggage and transition to the father/spouse/friend mindset. I have to switch between those mindsets more rapidly and more frequently now. Even if I’m banging my head against my desk trying to understand a monster sql statement, that’s no excuse to be short with Shannon or to ignore my son’s pleas for help with his shoelaces.
For me, it has really helped to simply adopt a more cheerful mindset. Everything’s going to work out. When work is frustrating me, I take a break and flirt with my wife or play with my kids. I try to take a moment to bring happiness to them, and then I find my brain is more capable of re-engaging the difficult task in a more positive way.
Have an office door and use it wisely
I have a few meetings each week. I use skype for most of these, taking advantage of the excellent built-in microphone on my iMac. This also means that it picks up other noise, like my 5 year-old son shouting “Dad, can you look and tell me if my bottom is clean?” from the downstairs bathroom. I shut the door when I’m on the phone, but it’s just not to prevent embarrassment for myself. It’s also to reduce the stress for my family – if I shut my door they don’t have to modify their routine to keep an atmosphere that’s conducive to productivity for me. Shannon has enough to worry about without trying to keep the kids quiet so Daddy can work.

Working from home can have its complications, and it often requires a period of adjustment from you and your family. Some of those adjustments can be difficult, but if you are determined to be cheerful and helpful throughout you will find ways to balance your commitment to your employer and your family in effective and productive ways.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Robz // Apr 27, 2009 at 12:50 am

    This is great! Thanks!

  • 2 Tester_QA // Sep 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I know ur a tester,but as ur working from home Iam curious what do u work on…freelance projects??

  • 3 davidray // Sep 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I don't do freelance work right now. I have a full-time job working on TriSano (trisano.org) for Collaborative Software Initiative (csinitiative.com). I also have two hobby projects, TroopTrack.com and uladoo.com.

  • 4 Kayla // Oct 9, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I work from the couch with a laptop and it's working out pretty well :)

    Good tips, though I may need to start implementing them.

    http://webhosting.reviewitonline.net

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