Dear Lifehacker, I love my family, and I love working from home, but these two things don’t always go well together. During the school holidays, and my wife and kids are home more often, and I’m afraid the noise and interruptions while I’m trying to work might drive me insane. How can I limit disturbances so I can actually get work done? Signed, Distracted Dad
It’s almost funny, isn’t it? Working from home is often lauded as one of the best ways to achieve work-life balance, yet the biggest hurdles to working productively at home are disturbances or demands for your attention from family members. Significant others and children often don’t realise that being at home doesn’t mean you’re available to hang out or play.
While there’s no solution for getting rid of family distractions entirely (and, no, you can’t tie them up or lock them in a sound-proofed room), a few tricks can make this situation a lot easier on everyone. These are things I’ve learned over 15 years of working from home, as well as good advice on Twitter from Lifehacker readers.
The first thing to do is have a discussion with your family to make sure they know how important it is for you to actually be able to work when you’re at home. You might say something like “I love having you near me while I’m working, but I have trouble focusing when I’m interrupted or there’s a lot of noise in the background. I’d really appreciate it if you could help me by keeping the noise down and pretending I’m not even here during my work hours. Otherwise my boss will kill me!” (Point them to this study if you have to.)
Make it crystal clear when you’re in your no-interruption zone. If you have a separate office (a real must if you work from home often with others around!), keep your door closed or even hang a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign on it. On Twitter, tbanting says he uses a red sticky note on the door as a signal he’s busy, while Lea Antonio says “I wear my 'I’m working' hat which means no interruptions unless fire or blood is involved.”
That brings me to another point. Sometimes, family members should interrupt you, but the key is to get them to know which interruptions are OK and when. Give them examples of things that are both urgent and important that you can be interrupted for immediately (disasters and emergencies), as well as important but not urgent things that can wait until you take a break. Urgent and important: someone broke a leg. Important but not urgent: someone needs new shoes. Neither important nor urgent: someone found the remote that went missing two minutes ago.
Your home office door can also be a signal system, as Joel Falconer writes on Speckyboy Design Magazine:
My system is simple: if it’s closed all the way, leave me alone — unless one of the kids is dying or the house is on fire. If it’s half-closed, interrupt me for important things — for instance, if my wife needs my card to go get some groceries — but not for anything trivial. And if its open, it means it doesn’t really matter. I’m catching up on industry news or taking a break and I don’t care if one of the kids wants to come in for a game of Angry Birds. Set your boundaries and enforce them.
Someone comes in for a pointless chat while the door is half-closed? Use a flamethrower or whatever it takes to dissuade future infringements.
You can also apply classic tricks to curb distractions from co-workers in the office at home: wear noise-cancelling headphones, give them a chore to do when they interrupt you, or move your work area (maybe to the farthest, most uncomfortable room in your house, or even the garage).
Schedule Your Time Carefully
Your wor-at-home boundaries should also include time. Set a consistent schedule with clear times when you’re working, taking breaks and officially off the clock. Set office hours. These can be flexible. For example, a couple of hours in the morning with an hour break, then a few more hours of work with 15-minute breaks) so you get some quality time in during the day with your kids or partner. Again, just make sure everyone’s in on this program.
If a set schedule isn’t working, you might have to break up your day or change your work hours to get real focus time. That might mean getting up earlier or working late at night. When my daughter was younger, I used to schedule phone calls during her nap times (oh, how I miss nap time), and I still find the midnight-to–3am writing slot to be the most peaceful. There’s nothing like working while your loved ones are sleeping soundly in the next room.
Keep Them Occupied or Make Them Self-Sufficient
An alternative is to find a way to occupy restless or needy kids and spouses. This is especially important if your job involves talking on the phone or has similar needs for real quiet. Kathy Jimenez recommends, for example, reserving TV time for when you need to be on Skype for a meeting. (And then close your office door and be ready with the mute button.) Jessica Reeder says that in addition to a closed door, it helps to plan meals and activities ahead. Anti-boredom activity boxes keep school-aged kids engaged. And, yes, this goes for adults, Reeder gives this example: “You’ve got the day off? That’s great, why don’t you go gamble all day and bring home some pizza.”
For working at home with young kids, childcare is a must, at least part time for those hours you need to concentrate. Many kids are good at entertaining themselves, but that only works up to a point. You might feel pangs of guilt dividing your attention between work and your child. That’s where childcare comes in. Encourage the caregiver to take your kid outside, if possible, because it can be just as hard hearing your child laugh and squeal in the next room without you as it is to constantly say “No, I can’t play right now.” (Actually, this kind of distraction applies to significant others too, such as when your spouse is watching the latest episode of True Blood without you.)
Also, while it’s nice to be needed sometimes, it’s aggravating to be interrupted for things that can be done without you. Identify those weak spots ahead of time so you can wean your family off your help. For example, keep snack packs in reach of little hands, create a central location for supplies (so that mum’s not the only one who knows where the tape is), and even information such as passwords for important sites so you don’t have to hear someone yelling from downstairs “What’s the password for...?!”
Embrace Your Family Interruptions
Finally, dealing with distractions is something all workers struggle with, no matter where they work. In addition to the tips above, a change in perspective might help you when you get stressed by the interruptions. As Jose says on Twitter, “I can’t tame the #homeworking interruptions, but I can shut them out and ignore them.” Father of three kids, Geof Hileman, says “just embrace it — kid interruptions are my water cooler time.”
If worse comes to worst, you might have to leave the house for a brief stint working from a cafe (or, as Jafet.js jokes “don’t tell them you are working from home, pretend going to office, get back through the bathroom window, and then hide somewhere inside and work.”)
Hopefully, you won’t have to go to that extreme.