Self-Employed Work at Home Junkie – Help, I’m Addicted to Flextime!

Summary: If you’re up for it, working from home can be the best thing in the world. The pitfalls and triumphs of managing a home based business and family simultaneously.

My partner often says you can’t have it both ways. Most specifically she says that when I complain about the frequent interruptions from my daughter while I’m working. Meaning, I can’t just pull the “I’m working” card when it’s convenient for me and at the same time stroll out of my office whenever I need a break and hang out with her and my daughter.

“This is the compromise you made by deciding to work from home and not getting a separate office. If you don’t like it, then get an office.”

It pisses me off when she says this. Mostly because it’s true. You really can’t have it both ways. I have to admit though, I like it that way.

It’s a summer day, I’ve been working full blast since 4:30 in the morning,  it’s now 2:30 pm and the sweat is tripping off my forehead on to my keyboard.

“Fuck I can’t handle this anymore! I can’t even think straight with all this sweat in my eyes! Get on your flip-flops, we’re going to the beach.”


“Yes, now.”

“Yeah! Mommy, guess what, we’re going to the beach!”

“Great, have fun, Now I can watch Ellen in peace!”

I come back two hours later, completely refreshed and then jump back in to tidy up some files and check some emails. It’s a pretty sweet deal for both me and my daughter and my partner gets to watch Ellen with no interruptions. It may not sound like much, but if my daughter is driving her crazy during her show, well, let’s just say if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

So what’s the problem you may ask. Sounds like a sweet deal to me. Well, that’s mostly true. It is a sweet deal.  The real trouble is  that I can’t multitask.  I can only do one thing at a time. The upside is that I do each individual thing exceptionally well. The second my eyes hit the newspaper, everything else in the room disappears. Someone could be standing right next to my ear asking me a question and I simply wouldn’t hear them. It’s especially profound when I’m working on the computer. I’m completely lost in the pixels. I forget to eat. I forget to drink. And I definitely do not hear anything else that is going on. I’m basically dead to the world around me. Sometimes I wonder how long it would take me to notice if someone set fire to me while I was working. Till it reached my thigh? Till my mouse melted? Till my F keys stopped working?

The upside is I remember just about everything I read, hear and see. When I’m working on a design I’m so immersed in the world I’m creating that a line being one pixel out of place will jump out at me like an ink blot on white paper.

But I’m totally fine with the way my brain works. It’s served me well. The real problem is when my daughter needs to get my attention. She used to just walk right up next to me and stand there until I noticed.  Of course I had no idea she was there. So when I finally did notice it would surprise the hell out of me and in turn would react by yelling at her.

Pretty piss poor way to handle an innocent question from your kid.

Eventually she got so fearful of interrupting me when I was working that she refused to come and get me, even when it was important.

So, we needed a solution, and it’s so simple I don’t know why it took us so long to figure it out.

Since I don’t notice anything else when I’m focusing on a task you need to get my attention slowly to prevent me from getting startled. It’s like approaching a fish tank. You can’t just rush right up to the glass or the fish will slam their heads into the sides in a panic. However, if you approach slowly, you can even stick your hand in the tank and they’ll just go about their business.

So now my daughter just knocks on the door frame to my office until  I eventually notice. Since I’m no longer startled, I’m able to react to her from a relaxed state of mind. It’s been working great.

For a while my partner was getting pretty frustrated with my crazy work schedule. I was adamant about preserving my flexibility and she was demanding some boundaries. We compromised with a “stop working by 5:30 pm” policy. I think that was followed for a whole week and mostly abandoned after a couple of months. While it sounded fine in theory, it just didn’t jibe with reality. And reality always wins.

However I took her frustrations seriously. It wasn’t the long hours that bothered her so much, it was not being mentally present when I wasn’t working. So I’ve made improvements. When I switch from work to family, I physically turn my chair away from the screen and look directly at her or my daughter. Or I just get up and walk away from the screen entirely.

If I’m in the thick of things and my frustrations are high, I make sure to give my brain 5 seconds to adjust and take a breath before engaging with my family. Otherwise I’ll just snap at them. It doesn’t sound like much but even five seconds of deliberate disengagement and re-engagement makes a huge difference in you body language, you vocal tone and overall demeanor.

When I first started working from home in 1996, it wasn’t that common. I was a little worried what some clients may think.  After all, they were entrusting their business and their reputation with me and paying me good money do it. To compensate I tried to downplay the fact that I was actually working from a little room in my house.

However, things have changed a lot over the last 12 years. Working from home is not only completely normal, some of the most sought after consultants and experts are doing it. Fortune 500 companies are offering flextime and partial or complete telecommuting for some of their most valued employees.

After my daughter was born,  it was so completely disruptive to my life there was no point in even trying to hide it. I openly talked about my daughter with my clients. If there was a scheduling conflict between their needs and needs of my family, I flat-out just explain the issue to them and we worked out a compromise. Not only did my clients not care, it created a bonding experience as so many of my clients also had young children and were dealing with the same work family balance issues.

I must say I really do have the best clients in the world. They’ve just been awesome.

Now I’m pretty upfront about it. A new client knows right away that I work at home and I have a young daughter, that from time to time, will need my attention.  It’s just the reality of how it is and my clients just need to be cool with it.

They also find out pretty quickly that I only do three things in life: work, surf and spend time and with my family. If I’m not with my family I’m working or surfing. If I’m not surfing I’m with my family or working.

The first time I told a client “no problem, I’ll get the print ready file to you by 11:00 am, but right now I need to go surf” I was a little hesitant. Did it sound flakey? Did it come off as rude or that they were somehow not important to me?

If it did, they never told me. But then again, when the file really does get uploaded at 11am, I guess it doesn’t matter.

If you work from home your life is pretty blended. If you work at home AND you’re self-employed, the divisions between work, family, and play completely disappear. How can it not? Your office is right there. There’s work to be done…always. There are current clients to nurture and new ones to land. So of course you’re going check your email just one more time before you go to bed. And if it’s one of those “love your work…I have a project in mind…please contact me ASAP” type emails that make your heart skip a beat, you bet you’ll be spending the next 30 minutes checking out their website and crafting the perfect reply. Even if it’s just to tell them that you’re definitely interested and you’ll be calling them first thing in the morning, that email is going out. Get two of those emails before bedtime, and well, you’ll get to bed when you’re done.

Things move incredibly fast. You think you’re the only person they contacted? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t count on it. If you don’t step up to the plate someone else will.  And in the online world, 24 hours is an eternity.

This is why I can’t turn it off. Everything depends on me. I’m the sole income provider and I’m not on anyone’s payroll. I earn my keep everyday. So when I suddenly stop eating dinner and rush to the computer because the solution to a problem suddenly struck me or because I just realized I forgot to click send on that email I had written an hour ago, it seems totally reasonable. I got shit to do, a  family to support and a business to maintain. There are no sick days. There’s no one to”cover my shift”. If I don’t perform, the machine stops. End of story.

However, my partner only sees the annoyances, the interruptions, the distractions and the broken promises that come from maintaining the machine. The machine’s by-product, the money, is largely invisible. When it’s flowing you don’t even think about it. So to her, I’m once again not paying attention. To me, I’m paying extremely close attention, just not to what she wants me to at that moment. I got my eye on the ball all the time. This means that sometimes I’m not as present as I should be, or would like to be.

It can be really hard to shift gears. I need to go from trouble shooting an ecommerce website or finalizing the dieline for a new gourmet food package design to helping my daughter with her homework or making her a snack in under a minute. I don’t have the luxury of a fifteen minute break to adjust my brain and regroup. I’m doing this, ooops, now I’m doing that. Then back again.

It can be tough, be for me, not nearly as tough as what so many other dads are doing. Around here, driving an hour over the hill to your job, working ten hours, then driving back is all to common. I know dads that leave in the dark and come home in the dark. They’re lucky to see there kids for an hour a day. By the weekend they are spent.

So while 10 hour plus days are common for me, it’s a different 10 hours than the highway 17 commute crowd.

As I write this, it’s 4:57 am and I’ve been up since 4:05. It took a whole 30 seconds to get from my bed to my office. I don’t set an alarm ever. I get up when my body tells me, which is naturally pretty darn early. I’ve already checked my emails and made notes for today’s projects. I’ve checked my Google analytics for all my client’s websites. And now I’m finishing this up to post. When it’s time to eat I’ll walk 25 feet to the “cafeteria” and make myself breakfast and chit chat with the family. If there’s waves and the tide is right, I’ll be loading the car and heading to the beach just before sunrise and then eat when I get back.

This morning, the tide is super fat and the swell is a small steeply angled NW windswell.  So I’ll just keep working and maybe cut out around noon to surf. By then I would have been working for eight hours. When I get back in two hours, I’ll put in another three hours before dinner. It’s pretty easy to have a ten-hour plus day when you start at 4am. Then again, find me another career that includes a 3o second commute, breakfast with the family, surfing at lunch and working on your personal blog as part of the job description.

Now if I lacked discipline, this couldn’t work. If I didn’t absolutely LOVE my job,  this couldn’t work. If I had any self doubts that this is the right path for me, this couldn’t work. That’s why it’s not appropriate for most people.

Everyday is different for me. I don’t have a schedule in the normal sense. There is no boss, but instead a bunch of little bosses, each with their own agenda and needs. There’s the typical 12 hour days but it’s a fluid 12 hours filled with surprises and unexpected challenges. There is no separation between work, play and family. Each one excites and fulfills me in a different way and they all inform each other.

It takes its toll but I absolutely love it. What can I say, I’m a self-employment junkie and my home office is where I get my fix. I’m addicted to the rush, fascinated with the challenge and enamored with the flexibility. If you can take it, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Like the commercials say:
Building your new computer: $2,700
Taking your daughter to the beach at 2:30 on a Monday afternoon: Priceless.

That’s it for now.

Update: Today my daughter woke up a 6am because she was so excited about loosing her first tooth last night and she knew there would be a surprise for her. My partner was still asleep so I made us breakfast and was back working by 6:30 am. Still got six more hours till I check the waves.

File Under: Working from Home – Small Office Home Office – Self Employed Dad – Self Employed Father – Balancing Work and Family – Raising Children While Working from Home

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