Thoughts on Working from Home – One Year Later

One year ago, I began my journey as a full-time writer working from home.

Prior to making that leap, I worked full time in a research lab with a small, rather tight-knit group of people and I spent my spare time (when I could find it) working on The Simple Dollar. After a year and a half of essentially managing two careers, I began to realize that it was creating a great deal of wear and tear on my family and on my relationships, so I made a difficult choice – and took a leap of faith on the writing.

I did a status report at the four month mark regarding how the transition was going. Among the highlights:

The huge amount of time that I didn’t have before has opened the door to countless projects
I feel genuinely fulfilled by my work
I miss my old job – at least the socialization aspects of it
I get stir crazy and often have to leave to go do something
Time management is a completely different challenge than before
My biggest frustration is the interruptions
The new money management stresses me out sometimes

That’s actually a great description of the situation as I saw it four months after changing my career. At this point, though, different things have moved to the forefront and other things have moved to the back burner.

What I’ve Learned After a Year of Working from Home

My biggest challenge is often loneliness

This might seem like a strange complaint, but it’s true: the biggest frustration I regularly face is simple loneliness. I miss the ability to simply stroll across the hall and talk to people throughout the day. I miss social interaction, in short. This was made somewhat worse by a very rough Iowa winter, coupled by the fact that I live in a rather rural area, meaning there isn’t a local place I can visit for that interaction.

What’s the solution? One of the best tactics I’ve found is actually just calling people regularly. I call my parents quite often during the afternoon, mostly to hear what they’re up to and recharge my social batteries. Not only do such calls help keep the social circle going, it enables me to get past any loneliness I may be feeling, gives me a sounding board for ideas, and also helps me keep in touch with the concerns of others.

My biggest benefit is time flexibility

The single biggest benefit of working from home is the time flexibility. I can easily address any task that I need to focus on, whether it’s personal or work-related, as it comes up, provided I’ve built up enough of a “buffer” with my work tasks. Aside from a solid three hour block of time each day that I devote to my family (5 PM to 8 PM, roughly), my weekdays are basically filled with whatever task (in any aspect of my life) seems most urgent at the moment.

There are some big caveats here, though:
First, I have to maintain a work buffer – that means I usually have quite a few articles already completed and ready to go before you read them. Second, I have to have a good sense of what’s a priority and what isn’t. Both of these attributes take a great deal of time to develop and maintain in order to gain flexibility. Things don’t become flexible just because you’re self-employed – you have to be able to make the situation flexible.

Meditation and prayer have grown in importance for me

When I was at my previous job, I rarely felt like I had time for things like meditation or prayer. They seemed like good ideas, but there was always something else to do. When I switched careers, I made it a goal to get more in touch with my spiritual side – and it’s the best thing I’ve done in terms of my personal growth.

Each day, I spend a bit of time in what I would describe as a mix of meditation and prayer. Most days, I do it twice – once early in the day and once in the late afternoon. These sessions are simple – I usually just attempt to relax myself, empty my mind of cluttered thoughts (I actually jot down everything I think I’ll need to deal with later), then sit still for a long while, clearing my mind of everything. Whatever comes, comes. Doing this twice a day has done wonders in terms of my clarity of thinking in all aspects of my life.

If I ever return to a “nine to five” career, I will take this aspect of my experience with me.

It’s easy to get overly introspective

It is very easy for me to start chasing windmills. I’ll get obsessed with some little detail of some project I’m working on or on some strange idea in my head or some little aspect of my health, and it will draw all of my focus if I’m not careful.

For me, good task management helps. I’ve become devoted to the use of task management tools to keep me going with my work. Whenever I finish a task, I try to move quickly to a new one. If I find a task is becoming overwhelmingly detailed, I stop, make an effort to break it down into smaller pieces, then work on those pieces. I also make an effort to eliminate distractions, and I’ve come to pride myself on days where I stick to my “to-do” list and accomplish as many items as I can on it. Without that kind of guidance, I’d get obsessed with all kinds of wasteful things.

Finding the right balance of not taking on too much is still a challenge

Sometimes, I feel like I can accomplish far more than I’m doing. Other days, I’m hit with a gigantic case of writer’s block and I can’t seem to accomplish anything. Given that I choose what I work on and what to commit to, I can put myself in great danger if I commit to too many things – but I’m also driven enough to want to commit to plenty of projects. There’s a balance there – and it’s still a tricky one.

My solution revolves around doing as much work up front as I can. If I’m going to start a series on The Simple Dollar, I usually have the whole series framed and quite a few of the articles already written. If I’m shopping a freelance article, that article is either done or close to it. My second book is already extensively outlined and half-written, but I still haven’t signed a contract for it.

Doing things this way gives me the maximum amount of freedom to work with my own personal ebb and flow. I can work hard when things are flowing well and not be panicked if I get a big dose of writer’s block.

Careful bookkeeping is essential

When you work for an employer, keeping track of taxes and other expenses is done for you – you just collect your paycheck and do your taxes at the end of the year. Once you’re working for yourself, you have to keep careful track not only of any income, but also of any spending that you do during the year that’s related to your work.

Take the time to develop a filing system that you understand. Mine tends towards the simple – I mostly just focus on making sure I have every receipt and invoice in a constant place. I also maintain a careful calendar of all financial due dates – quarterly tax dates, for example. Without it, things would get problematic very quickly.