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Balancing Act: Working at home

About a year ago, I left my office cubicle and joined the ranks of more than six million people who work from their homes most of the time. Having always enjoyed the camaraderie of the newsroom, sitting alone behind a desk in a home office sounded kind of lonely to me. Even more, home had always been a refuge, a place to escape from work.

Some consider working from home a huge work-life perk. For me, it was a transition. I save time on the commute and I'm home the moment my kids return from school to hear about their days. The challenge has been using my new flexibility wisely and confining work to a 9 to 5 day.

In the past two years, the work-at-home population has spiked, partly because of the downturn in the economy and the surge in self-employment. Indeed, the number is up 40 percent and most of the people who work from home now are men, not just mothers seeking flexibility, a new census report shows.

Like others making this transition, I quickly discovered that the moment you relocate the office into your home, the barrier between what is work and what is not starts to break down. It takes discipline to stay focused and set boundaries. Kate Lister, coauthor of Undress for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home, told me the biggest documented challenge for work-from-homers is overworking.

I find myself seeking tips from successful work-from-home business owners or employees. To avoid a deterioration of work-life balance, here is some advice I've received:

• Set work hours. Anne Alexandra Kessler raised six kids while working from home as a legal assistant. Her advice for those whose schedules aren't dictated by an employer: set office hours. They don't have to be 9 to 5, she says, they just have to work well for you.

Kessler would work intensely from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and take the afternoons off to spend with her kids. Then, she would return to her office in the late evenings.

For the throngs of men who are joining this work from home, setting office hours also lets those who you do business with and those you live with know when to expect your availability.

• Close the door. Closing my office door makes me feel isolated. Yet, it appears to be the reason I'm less productive than I should be. One of the biggest adjustments is getting family and neighbors to distinguish between my physical presence and availability.

Laura Herde works as a sales manager for Continental Airlines. When the airline closed its Fort Lauderdale office five years ago, Herde set up a home office in her bedroom. Closing her bedroom door has helped her set the ground rules with her children, ages 18, 11 and 5. ``They know don't bother Mommy unless they are bleeding.'' At times, she's had to put a sign on the door to remind them of the rules.

• Allow set breaks. My friend, Linda DeMartino, works from home as a communications consultant and schedules a lunch break into her day. ``The exact time may fluctuate, but the allotment remains the same,'' DeMartino says. I know some men who do this, too. She uses that one-hour period to run errands or join a friend for a meal just as if she was working from an office. It's a disciplined approach to allowing yourself to leave your home office without losing the integrity of the workday.

Planning breaks also prevents you from jumping back and forth to do chores haphazardly. The first few weeks I worked from home, every piece of laundry I owned was clean, but it was taking me twice as long to write an article because of all the disruptions.

Some, like Herde, advise staying away from chores altogether during the workweek.

• Use flexibility as your ally. If the car breaks down or the washing machine explodes, I can get it repaired without messing up my workday. If I were chained to a desk with a taskmaster boss, this wouldn't be as easily possible.

•Create a trigger for winding down. Ending the workday can become extremely difficult. Lister says you need to develop cues to help you wind down. She sets an alarm at 6 p.m., giving herself an hour notice to wrap up e-mail and clean up her desk. ``I enjoy what I do and get absorbed in it.''

Howard Lawton, who works from a home office for a technology company, makes a to-do list for the next day at 6 p.m. as a signal that his day will end. It's his way of wrapping up the workday guilt-free.

• Establish ground rules for after hours. It's a slippery slope from hopping onto the computer just to read a few e-mails after dinner to emerging at midnight. Herde has made a rule for herself -- no sneaking back on the computer in the evenings or on weekends. ``My husband doesn't like it if I do. He says, `you already gave a full day, why are you on the computer. What about me?'' Instead of turning her computer on, Herde uses her BlackBerry after hours like many office workers do to keep an eye on any urgent e-mail.