How to Manage 27,642 Things at One Time


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Working from the comfort of home is many people's idea of a dream job. Unfortunately, reality seldom matches your expectations. Whether it's on a permanent basis, or just occasionally on children's sick or snow days, there are things you can do to make your working from home a successful experience for everyone involved. Following is a list of 49 tips on how to accomplish this. (It's in bullet format rather than complete sentences, because that was easier to write. Make that tip #50.)

  1. If you have a choice of what business to start, pick something involved with children or home-based workers - use your situation to your advantage.
  2. Buy a portable computer, so you can work at the playground with your kid, or go to the library while a sitter watches your children at home.
  3. If your children are older, set up the office away from them, and teach them not to interrupt you unless it's important.

    Younger Children

  4. Set up your office where you can see most of the area your children will be playing in.
  5. Put a fence around the office space so then can't get in. I used a "portable play yard", designed to be an outdoor playpen, and available in major toy stores for about $50.
  6. Move phone extensions so small children can't pick them up while you're on business calls.
  7. Go to parks or restaurant playlands that are fenced in - children can play while you sit at a table and work, and you don't have to worry (as much) about chasing them.
  8. Create a small office for your children near yours. Give them their own space (or better yet, desk), with a broken keyboard (call around to computer repair shops, and make sure they can't pull off the keys), old disks, a play telephone, tape, used envelopes, scratch paper and crayons. Older children can do their homework there.

    All Children

  9. Time is your most valuable asset, you want to save it wherever possible.
  10. Give them their own things, and they'll be more likely to leave yours alone.
  11. Get the children to help any way they can - licking stamps, drawing pictures, hitting the "return" key for you, and so on. This will make them feel good about themselves as helpers and teach them about work.
  12. Don't answer the phone if you can't talk. It's much more professional to get a machine than a screaming baby in the background. Soon you'll be able to ignore it when yo'ure in a good work mode as well.
  13. Use time zone differences - if you're on the east coast, you can call the west coast up to at least 8 pm, after spouse is home or children are in bed (and when rates are cheaper).
  14. Plan to do most of your work, especially telephones calls that need a quiet background, during nap time.
  15. Older children can still have a "quiet time", when they can play alone in their rooms or watch a movie.
  16. Get up and work before the children wake up.
  17. Work after they've gone to bed at night, or after your spouse is home and in charge of them.
  18. Don't try to work both ends of the day, unless you are willing to take a nap when the children do. If you're tired, you'll feel miserable, the children will sense it, nothing will go right.
  19. Enlist your spouse's aid. Have him/her take the children out (say, to do the grocery shopping) on weekends so you can work uninterrupted.
  20. Use electronic mail instead of the telephone whenever possible. Your clients can't hear the children screaming, and you can stop in the middle of composing a message to take care of them without making someone "hold the line" or listen to "Mommy, I have to go potty".
  21. Buy a phone with a mute button, and practice using it.
  22. Use the web for reference whenever possible (but make sure of your sources).
  23. If your local library has a website, you may be able to search their catalog by subject, and select books to be held for you. Then you just run in and pick them up from the front desk. No trying to keep children quiet while you browse the shelves.
  24. Avoid going out to run errands when you can do things by mail or by phone.
  25. If you have to go out, use your work-related errands as outings with your children.
  26. Frequent copy centers that have toy areas, where children can play while you make copies.
  27. Some mailing stores have a bowl of free candy for children - make this stop in the middle of a round of errands, to give the children a treat.
  28. Warn the children ahead of time when someplace is not going to be fun, tell them how long it will take.
  29. Have the children help by crossing things off your list as you find them in the store.
  30. Children can count how many of something you're buying, older children can figure out how many things are in "3 packages of 4 items".
  31. Keep your workspace organized and clean, so whenever you get a few minutes you can accomplish something useful.
  32. Save complicated jobs that require concentration for quiet time.
  33. Plan your trips to alternate a fun place for children with one that's not, if you can.
  34. Find stores that are child friendly, and stick with them. Make friends with the people who work there, and they will become your allies, entertaining the children while you conduct your business. (My children love to go to the copy shop, because Joe (the owner) plays with them while I make copies. They even take him pictures they've drawn for him, and he hangs them on the walls of the store.)
  35. Keep one master calendar for the whole family. Write everyone's events on it, and insert flyers, tickets, letters to be mailed in the proper place.
  36. Find other people in the same situation, and trade babysitting hours with them.
  37. Do whatever it takes to get through the day. Some days you just can't wash the windows.


  38. Get Stamps by Mail envelopes from your letter carrier. Then simply fill out the form, enclose a check, and put the envelope in your mailbox. Stamps will be delivered with your mail in 2 to 3 days, with no service charge.
  39. The Post Office has free coloring books for children.
  40. Use Priority mail. Envelopes are free at the Post Office, and all you can fit goes for $3.00. Weight does not matter.
  41. If you have to purchase packaging materials, do it at the post office so you can mail the package at the same time.
  42. Write the mailing and return addresses on labels before you go and take them with you. Then stick them on the newly purchased containers - no trying to remember a zip code while the children are running circles around the post office.
  43. Stock up on strong envelopes and packing tape.
  44. Get a small postage scale for your home, and keep an assortment of stamps in various denominations so you can put on only the amount of postage required, and no more.

    Office Supplies

  45. Collect catalogs. Use them to determine what's available, and what will meet your needs.
  46. Call the stores to compare prices, check availability and check store hours before going.
  47. Use mail order - for example Reliable Office Supply offers free next day delivery, right to your door.

    In Summary

  48. When children interupt you for the 14th time, take a deep breath and remember that you are doing this to be there when they need you.
  49. Enjoy playing catch with your children when they want to, and play catch up with your work after they are in bed.

The author, Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., has been running her own scientific software consulting and website development business from her home for almost 5 years. Her assistants, Jack and Alex, are currently 6 and 3.5 years old.

Editor's Note: This article was originally pubished in 1997.

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