Rules for Managing the Perils and Pleasures of Working From Home

© WavebreakMediaMicro - Fotolia.com
© WavebreakMediaMicro – Fotolia.com

I’m two months in to this new routine, working from my home office most of the time and commuting into my Chicago office once or twice a week. For the most part, I think, I’m settling in nicely.

The schedule, which, I’m sure, wouldn’t work for everyone, actually is remarkably well-suited to my personality, allowing me to be more myself. I like intensity; moderation is a challenge for me. So, on Mondays – my one, fixed “Chicago” day – I give myself over completely to my work, leaving home at 5 in the morning and returning around 9 at night. There’s a bit of driving (read: NPR time) in there, but, mostly, my commute is by train. On the way in, I read the entire Sunday New York Times, and, by the time I arrive, I feel like an intelligent, fully informed citizen, ready to begin a day jam-packed with the face-to-face client meetings and media relations work that are essential to the business I run, managing communications strategies for law firms and their clients.

Perhaps surprisingly, I feel like I’m performing better in this role now, as a commuter, than I did when I lived ten minutes outside “the Loop.” For one thing, the nature of the commute – leaving before my kids get up and spending time in one of Metra’s “Quiet Cars” – allows me to be fully in “professional” mode, less harried than I am when I am switching quickly back and forth from mommy-me to executive-me. Though I love people and value relationships, I am, at my core, an introvert. Being around people and being “on” in a professional capacity requires tremendous energy; energy I don’t always have after a frantic morning of making breakfast, packing lunch, and getting my 3 boys off to school on time. My job also requires a focus that I’ve sometimes felt I was, well, faking, not having had time to consume a full media diet during my kid-intense weekends and evenings.

The commute sets limits – something I’m not great about doing for myself. It fixes boundaries on my time, so I know that things have to get done in a certain amount of time so that I can be on the train that gets me home in time for the end of our nanny’s workday. I can’t waste time in the middle of my day on personal things and, as a result, this highly concentrated day is hyper-productive.

I reward myself on the trip home. I stop at the CVS by the train station and buy a snack and a soda – instead of the nutritious meal I’d eat if I were home with my kids – and, waiting in line with a bunch of guys buying beer for their own commutes, I feel like I’m part of a secret club, getting away with something. On the train, having a candy bar or a bag of Chex Mix “bold” for dinner, I zone out to something on my iPod, maybe taking a quick nap, or (ahem) catching up on a blog entry or reading a book. And, reader, I confess: I kind of love it.

My stop is the very end of the commuter line, just on the Illinois side of the Wisconsin border. Almost by definition, if you’ve chosen to live out here, this far from downtown, your city-based career is not the center of your life. I don’t see many passengers texting back and forth to the office, rattling off the last emails and voicemails of the day, the way they always seem to be on the shorter rides of the El trains. It’s taken me a little while to make peace with my place in this scene. I can’t really be said to be much of a careerist either, at this point. I’ve built this life around my kids – the rural-ish life close to nature, the great public schools – and am making it work, business-wise. It’s not the other way around. Weirdly, I’m still working on reconciling myself to this – my deeply Type-A soul remains slightly freaked out that I am not the CEO of some far larger firm by now.

That said, my Monday work day does take a lot out of me. And, on the last leg of the journey, driving west, further into the darkness, I’m tired.

The first few weeks, I raced home, trying to get there as fast as possible. In optimal conditions (making no stops for gas, coffee or a bathroom and violating the posted speed limit), I can make it home around 8:15. My kids get tucked in between 7:30 and 8:00, but one or more of them is generally still awake at this hour. Rushing to get to them was, I’ve come to believe, fairly stupid. For one thing, it was no favor to them to get them all riled up and wanting to tell me every detail of their day, just when they ought to have been settling in to sleep. And, for another, I had little energy left for either the intensity of the drive or the long, patience-testing process of getting them re-settled into bed. Now, I take it easier, and safer, on the highway and I give them kisses on the forehead and see them in the morning.

There’s probably a whole parenting book to be written just about this decision alone: about the huge priority I place on getting them to bed early, much earlier than many of their peers, and about the choice I very consciously made to be more like the working dads I know [how odd that phrase sounds, in contrast to “working mom,” which seems like a necessary explanatory note] than my usual, guilt-ridden mom impulse. Say it with me: It is okay that, once a week, someone other than me puts my kids to bed. It is okay that, once a week, someone other than me puts my kids to bed.

It takes a little while, on Monday night, to settle back down from an adrenaline and caffeine-filled day. So Tuesday mornings can be tough, though the fun of hearing about everyone’s adventures from the previous day usually keeps me pretty energized. After dropping my 4 year old off at his preschool, I’ll sometimes drop in to a yoga class to further re-invigorate myself.

The work at days at home present certain challenges: most notably, the endless household tasks I’m tempted to just “get out of the way” before actually sitting down to work. It only takes a minute, I tell myself, to throw some clothes in the washing machine or to empty the dishwasher, and won’t it be lovely to get that done while the kids are out at school? And then my mind will be clear to focus on work. Or, perhaps after a quick run to the grocery store, and a much-needed reorganization of the garage. It would be easy to let half a day escape without even making it to my laptop. It’s happened.

There is also the problem of the three-pound jar of gourmet jelly beans I bought at Costco. But that’s a separate issue.

Quite uncharacteristically, I’m trying to adopt a philosophy of moderation on this stuff. I’ve decided that it really is okay to do a few non-business, non-writing things in a day, especially if they allow me the mental space to muse/stew/brainstorm a bit while doing them. (This has long been my justification for mid-morning runs and yoga classes.) The freedom to do this stuff, to actually have and live a life, is the greatest thing about my whole, entrepreneurial setup. I’ve decided to relish it, rather than beat myself up about it.

The truth is that, thanks to years of having daily deadlines, I can be wickedly productive and efficient. I’m also just slightly addicted to the thrill of cutting things close. Procrastination makes life interesting. And I’ve finally started to forgive myself for indulging my domestic inclinations.

I’d also like to think I’ve matured a bit since my newsroom days. And, anyway, I no longer have the luxury of complete freedom in choosing my working/writing hours. Dinner with my kids is a priority, as are homework time and reading time and all the other rituals that make life with them rewarding and [often] lovely. So, I have realized that, unless I want to work all night (something that has, alas, gotten a bit tougher to do as I enter my 40s), I do need to set some rules for working from home so that work gets done during “business hours.”

First, I make my own coffee. I bit the bullet and bought one of those fancy espresso/cappuccino machines. And it’s been totally worth it. A run to the closest Starbucks could kill a significant portion of my morning (farewell, city life), not to mention offering up way too much errand-running temptation.

As it happens, I’ve discovered that making my own latte is both easy and gratifying.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve never fully emerged from the navel-gazing exercise that was my college minor in Women’s Studies, but I have a certain tendency to over-think things. Like the communal coffee maker at my Chicago office. When I find it empty, should I brew another pot? Or is that just too utterly mom-ish and nurturing of me? Will people lose respect for me if I make the coffee? Sometimes, I head to the lobby coffee shop just to avoid the dilemma.

At home, there’s no debate, no second-guessing myself. Want coffee? Make coffee.

Second, I wear a bra. Well, and clothes, too. And even something on my feet. Because even though, on most days, I could sit at my desk barefoot and in pajamas or workout gear (Skype interactions are still blissfully rare), I just wouldn’t feel like I was actually “on the clock.”

Third, I track my time. I keep track of billable hours for clients anyway and, extending this to tracking all my time, I’ve found that the simple discipline of recording how much time I spend on each task forces me to do the things that must be done and keeps me from wasting endless hours on the Internet or on side projects that will never go anywhere. I am my own boss, after all, so I need to hold myself accountable and, occasionally, give myself a performance review.

Fourth, and finally, I am grateful. I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to live this life. At 40, I am coming to an understanding of what balance really looks like for me. I am recognizing the truth in what so many wiser women have always told me – that you might be able to have it all, but not all at once. Having some clearly demarcated “work” time, some equally sacred “home” time and some much squishier work/home time feels right to me just now, especially because I’ve also gotten to carve out some “me” time in there as well.

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