By Melinda J. Irvine

When I first created my home office back in 2006, I had recently split from my partner and was living in a shared apartment: my bedroom would be my office for the next four years. Since then I’ve moved and travelled so much my ‘office’ has been the local coffee shop, hotel rooms, tents and caravans, boarding houses as well as a dedicated room at the house complete with office furniture and a real filing cabinet. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about minimizing interruptions (no matter where you are working) to help keep you focused on your project, your clients and your bottom line.

Set Dedicated Work Hours

When you’re working on a project you need uninterrupted time. I learned very quickly that setting dedicated work blocks and sticking to those routines was essential if I wanted to complete client deliverables, do my billing and keep my accounts up-to-date. Also if your work hours are consistent, it doesn’t matter so much if your office is in the back shed. In the early days, a 10:30 am yoga class looked great: but if I’d only started working at 9:00 am and at 10:15 am dash off to a class that didn’t finish until 12 noon, I’d often find at 2:00 pm all I’d done for the day was answer a few emails. There were a lot of late nights in the beginning.

Setting routine work hours the same as if you were working for an employer creates an expectation in your own mind. When you are working for an employer, you don’t wake up on a Monday morning wondering if you’ll have coffee at 9:00 am or take the dog for a walk or catch up on a bit of reading; you get up and get ready for work without even thinking about it. Part of being a successful small business owner is re-creating a business mindset inside your own home office.

Plan a Productive Work Day

Take advantage of the flexibility of working out of your home office by being smart and planning your day. If you’ve still got your heart set on that 10.30am yoga class, include it in your daily plan structuring business errands or client meetings so they coincide with your class. Don’t be like me in the early days leaving the house (as well as my projects) multiple times (you can imagine I was using any excuse to get out of my bedroom) and then finding myself working until dawn.

Operating from a home office (particularly if you’re working alone) requires a great deal of self-discipline and when planning your day you need to include a number of mini goals. Your daily work program might have you working on the Jones and Co project from 7:00 am to 9:00 am, but there should be blocks where you write/post/update continuously for at least 30 minutes without leaving your chair for any reason. Reasons to leave your chair include getting a coffee, refilling the water jug, going to the toilet, opening the window, adjusting the air-conditioning, putting on a pair of socks, closing the blinds … it’s these little things that break your momentum and reduce your productivity.

Establish Clear Boundaries with Friends and Family

When you have a home office you have to be absolutely strict with the time you allocate to your friends and family. If your friends are shift-workers, on holidays or retired it can be tempting to impulsively say yes to mid-morning coffee or take a fun phone call leaving your client project or billing for yet another day. I don’t mean you need to cut yourself off or be rude, just aim for standard work hours and a consistent approach to your friends. If you never answer the phone between 8:00 am and 12 noon chances are your mum will habitually begin to call you later in the day. When working on a project you can set your phone to flight mode or even better use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature, enabling calls from a few key clients only.

I’d have to say my number one fault in the first few years was wasting time during the day and then spending nights and weekends and holidays plugging away at client projects (or worse the quarterly accounts), ironically declining party invitations that would have been available to me if I’d just been smarter during the day.

Be Smart with Facebook, Social Media and Instant Messaging

We all know days, weeks and probably whole decades can get lost inside social media: Facebook a notorious offender. The trouble particularly for small business owners is you can be legitimately posting on your business page when one of your friends messages you or something cool scrolls through your newsfeed. I won’t bang on about it too much here because it’s been said before a million times and we all know the alluring sound of a text alert.

Most problems surrounding text and instant messaging is not having clear work boundaries with your friends, family or kids. Some years ago I remember using Skype almost exclusively for business meetings with clients, but as all my friends also had Skype accounts my meetings were regularly interrupted with funny, but poorly timed jokes and emoticons. I suggest using separate media for business and personal; it’s really annoying having two Skype accounts and it just doesn’t seem to work. I don’t have any of my personal contacts on Skype anymore, I mainly use Messenger or Facetime for family and reserve Skype for clients and business colleagues.

The little time-wasting things I’ve listed in this blog post are really simple, but I’ve given them so much focus and attention because when you are a small business owner (particularly if you are a sole trader) your time is the most valuable commodity available to the business. Your own personal productivity and ability to efficiently manage your time will remain central to business success and profitability.