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How to cope with the
stress of a home office

Dealing with stress in your home officeYou've kissed off the corporate life, deep-sixed the suits and left the cold sterile office for the warm confines of home. So why aren't you more relaxed?

Home-office entrepreneurs face just as much stress as their cubicle-dwelling counterparts: Kids who don't understand why Daddy or Mommy can't play with them. Spouses who "need" errands run. Friends who drop by to chat. And clients who demand attention 24/7.

Take heart. There are a few things you can do to save both your business and your sanity. First things first: Pace yourself.

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Home-based entrepreneurs need to recognize that establishing a successful business can take years, says Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker known as "The Stress Doc" and author of the soon-to-be-released book, Practice Safe Stress With the Stress Doc: The Art of Managing Stress, Burnout and Depression.

"I see my small-business operation as more of a marathon than a 100-yard dash," says Gorkin, who works from his Washington, D.C., home. "I need to build in strategies that will help me for the long haul."

Begin with a meeting
Many home-office experts recommend inaugurating the business with a family meeting. Gather everyone together to set some boundaries. Spell out what you need in terms of work hours, privacy and help from various members of the household.

This is also the time to talk about what you will not be doing: cleaning the house, walking the dog, cooking dinner and running errands. Being at home does not make you responsible for the home.

And if you're starting a home-based business, how happy is your home? If your marriage is rocky or your family is going through a tough time emotionally, you might want to stabilize your home life before you add business stress to the mix.

"If you have serious family problems, get some family counseling before you start the business," says Gorkin. "A home-based business is a family affair -- and the family needs to be ready."

If you are the only source of income for the family, you might want to consider launching your home business as a part-time enterprise and gradually increasing the hours.

"You avoid setting up that all-or-nothing, do-or-die scenario," Gorkin says.

Office space: your final frontier
You need an office -- preferably one with a door that closes. It's tough to run a business from the kitchen table if that's where the family eats three times a day. Try to find a room that can be set aside exclusively for your business. First, when you walk in, you'll be primed to work. And second, no one else will have an excuse to interrupt you or move your things.

Since you'll be spending a lot of time in your office, the room needs to be bright, well-lit, neat, clean and appealing. "Care for yourself enough to do that," says Ruth Luban, a California psychologist specializing in burnout and author of the book Are You a Corporate Refugee?, which is due out in November. "You have to live in that room."

Your most important office accessory? A comfortable, ergonomically sound chair. It's more expensive, "but it makes a huge difference in your stress level," says Luban.

Get organized. It doesn't matter if you use a file cabinet or milk crates, but you need to establish a system so that you know where everything is. Nothing is more stressful than having a client on the phone and not being able to find what you need, says Lisa Kanarek, author of 101 Home Office Success Secrets and Organizing Your Home Office For Success.

And what if you find your conscience tugged by household chores? "Take all of your materials into your office with you -- including a snack -- so you won't be tempted," says Kim T. Gordon, author of Bringing Home the Business: The 30 Truths Every Home Business Owner Must Know.

Follow that schedule
Set a schedule and stick to it -- with clients, family and yourself. It will keep you out of the fridge at 10:45 a.m. and off the phone at midnight. Don't fall into the trap of saying you'll stop when you're finished. With a new business, you're never finished.

"Most of us entrepreneurs are compulsive about completing tasks," says Luban. "That's the paradox of success. When you've given everything to the business and have prestige and recognition, you are too tired to enjoy it."

You are your business's greatest asset, so treat yourself well. This means three meals a day, scheduled breaks and regular exercise. "There's no way you can stay healthy and resilient unless you take care of you," says Luban.

Don't neglect emotional support, says Gorkin. He has joined several small-business groups that provide support -- and a good network of contacts.

Home-business owners also need to beware of the loneliness factor for you and your spouse. Get out of the house on a regular basis and talk to other small-business owners. If your spouse is your only source of emotional support, "you're both going to burn out," says Gorkin.

Expect setbacks and hang on to your sense of humor. "You're going to get kicked on your butt 16 different ways starting up a business -- and it's so important to be able to laugh at yourself," says Gorkin.

Just say 'no'
Learn to say no. Even if your clients know you work from home, that doesn't mean you are available to them 24 hours a day. Answering your business phone after hours may give the impression that you are unprofessional -- or even desperate. It helps if you have a second phone line -- one your entire family can safely ignore.

"Certain time has to be private time," says Gordon. "Try to picture what you would do if you were in an office and act accordingly."

Friends will assume that if you're home during the day, they can call, drop by or send their kids over to play. You will probably have to beg off only once -- politely -- before they get the message, says Gordon. Saying "I work between 10 and 3, could we get together after that?" or "I'm working today but I can schedule a lunch with you on Thursday" will let them know that even though you're home, you're also a busy professional.

The same goes for family. Just because you're home doesn't mean you're the designated maid, dog walker or carpool driver. Set a schedule with family and -- within reason -- stick to it. You also want to schedule time to be with your family -- and away from your business -- on a regular basis. Part of eliminating stress, says Luban, "is knowing there is more to you than this business."

How to not work
Getting out of the house at least once a day will spur your creativity, says Gorkin. If you can't leave the house, grab a cell phone and a pad and go out onto the porch, into the backyard or just to another room. A change of scene can give you a much-needed new perspective.

When the day is over, stop.

"Set up a decompression ritual," says Luban. It can be anything -- a walk, a hot bath, or just time to sit in the yard. Just like your old commute, it's a signal that the work day is finished.

Don't be afraid to fail
Part of eliminating stress is dealing with the fear of failure.

"Keep in mind you are taking a risk," says Kanarek. "What kept me going was the thought that, 'If this doesn't work out, I can get a job.' Once I had that attitude, I started enjoying the work more and I made money."

Most important: Remember why you set up a home business. "People get so into the business, they forget why they started it in the first place," says Gordon.

During a recent talk, she asked a group of entrepreneurs why they chose to work from home. One father said he wanted to be there when his kids came home from soccer practice.

"So are you?" Gordon asked him. "Not really," he replied. Her lesson: Remember why you launched the business -- and make those goals the priorities.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Georgia

--Posted: Sept. 28, 2000


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See Also
When to move your business out of your home (8/14/00)
Finding the ideal office chair (9/30/00)
Tools of home-office success (9/2/99)
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