February 4, 2005, 2005
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As any high-tech freelancer will tell you, one of the major problems of
working for yourself is knowing when not to work. Unlike the traditional
office hours of corporate work, freelance work can happen nearly anywhere
at any time. I could just as easily write this column at 2 in the morning
as 2 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, this freedom can lead to the feeling
that you are never “at work” or “at home”, but
always at an odd combination of both. If you aren’t careful, you
could end up working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or, at least, you
might come to feel that is that case.
I started thinking about this issue when we visited friends and relatives
in Ohio over the holidays. Many of them hold traditional jobs that ask
for 8-9 hours a day and nothing more. When work is over, they go home
and enjoy the company of their families, without thinking, too much, about
work. In some ways, my wife and I are envious of this. Since we both work
from home, the office is always there. The computer is always calling
out to you, sometimes mocking you, “shouldn’t you be working
on something?” Too often we find ourselves sitting at the computer
at all hours of the day, fixing that last paragraph, sending a quick email
or researching computer issues on the web. If we don’t pay special
attention to developing time for ourselves, work never ends. Too much
of this and we find ourselves irritable, tired and just plain worn out.
Since I also use the computer for “fun things”, I am in even
more danger of working when I shouldn’t. Too often, reading web
sites and RSS feeds for pleasure can turn to heavy-duty troubleshooting
research as one topic leads me to another. I read the web much in the
way I would read a magazine, but sometimes I can do the online equivalent
of moving right from Wired to a textbook on Windows networking protocols.
Just like in my life the line between work and home can become dangerously
Customers and clients
For most corporate high-tech workers, a direct call to your home from
your customers or clients is a rare thing indeed. You might get called
in to provide emergency service or answer a quick question, but for most
of you, the office stays at the office. In my work, my clients contact
me directly and frequently. I am luckier than some of my peers, though.
They have clients that contact them at all times of day and night. Even
without an established “office hours” policy, they instinctively
known when it is inappropriate to call. Conversely, I know that when I
receive a client call at an odd time of day, it must truly be an emergency.
If your clients are like mine and don’t require a firm rule on office
hours, you may need to set one for your own good. Some people who work
in a small office/home office environment find it beneficial to have the
office isolated from the rest of the house. When they leave that room
for the night, they are off-duty. Such physical separation doesn’t
seem to work for me, since I also use the computer for recreation, but
I am looking into ways of providing some sort of split to my day.
Since I am the main cook of the family, dinner time provides one possible
dividing line. Starting to cook dinner removes me physically from my office,
even if a client will sometimes call. I try to let the answering machine
pick up calls during this time, but even that is difficult for me. I am
a telephone junky and a ringing phone seems almost irresistible. Having
separate phone lines for work and home would help in situation, but the
added expense doesn’t seem necessary.
Even though I might dream about a job with no responsibilities once I
leave the office, in truth, the freedom my freelancing life provides me
far outweighs any advantages. I can set personal appointments, school
functions with my son and just plain fun during the middle of the day,
if I wish. If I work on a Saturday, I can take a Wednesday off. If I work
one evening, I can set another aside for a date with my wife. This flexibility
is probably one of the biggest joys of working for yourself, even if it
opens up the possibility of overworking.
If you want to make the best of your freelance, high-tech career you need
to manage your own time and the expectations of your clients so that work
doesn’t take over your entire life, but still supports you and your
family. Do whatever you need to do to divorce work from life and don’t
let 24/7 become the reality of your high-tech career.
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