A Home Office Can Get the Job Done, but You Have to Work at It

As prices continue to rise, more and more of us have begun working at home--either to save office expense or to push a sideline that can provide a little extra income.

I've been working out of my home since 1956 when I quit gainful employment to earn a dubious living as a free-lance writer. On-and-off over those years, I also had offices at the site of part-time employment--notably at UC Irvine where I taught part time for two decades. But I've always had an office in my home, and for much of my life--including right now--have done my writing there.

So for those of you who are redesigning your homes--or reshuffling your present space--to provide for a home office, the following suggestions might be helpful:

Isolate yourself. If at all possible, make sure that no other function takes place in your office space. A desk in a bedroom or garage or family room doesn't work. Even if you have to convert a closet, make it possible to cut yourself off totally from the outside world.

I've managed this virtually everywhere I've lived. In a rambling old house in a Chicago suburb, I walled off a bay of our dining room--embracing a large window overlooking the back yard--as an office. At a summer cottage on an Indiana lake, I moved a ramshackle old garage to the rear of a rolling lot and converted it into an office. And in my present home, we've done over what was once a greenhouse into a spacious office.

The main objective is to have a place apart that is strictly your own.

Provide distractions. People who design a home office with Spartan appointments on the theory that a total lack of distractions will better enable them to focus on work are kidding themselves. What happens is that you hear the phone ring in another room and wonder if it's for you, or you check the TV set periodically in the family room to see how the Angels are doing or you stop by the kitchen to brew a cup of instant coffee. Anything to get you away from work.

You'll actually get more work done if you have a TV set--even one of those desk-top models--and a telephone and a coffee maker in your office.

I've learned to work while watching sports (especially baseball) on TV with the sound turned off. I've become expert at working in the dead spots between plays. This is a skill that takes years to develop, but it is well worth the effort.

Although it would probably be helpful, I've never been able to bring myself to use my phone answering machine to audit phone calls--partly because I don't want people saying, "I know you're in there, so please pick up the telephone." I always pick it up, which leads to a fair number of solicitations for investments in oil stocks, home remedies, and tickets to various charity balls--distractions I don't really need.

Make sure you have an opening to the outside world. A window overlooking some sort of open space is best. It provides a feeling of expansiveness that is certain to be reflected in whatever it is you are doing. It also allows you to be less stir-crazy when you are doing something you don't enjoy. And a private entrance is also useful for an office so your comings-and-goings--which may be more frequent than is compatible with dedicated work --can't be monitored.

Provide plenty of filing facilities. This enables you to put all of the paper work that has been spread about your house, gnawing at you, out of sight. I have learned over the years that it will then 1) go away, or 2) prompt a follow-up letter with which you can deal expeditiously because your desk is clean.

Admittedly, this can sometimes get you in trouble. I have in my files Christmas cards from 1988 and 1989, most of them addressed, on which I planned to write warm, little notes and never quite got to it.

Don't plan on saving an unrealistic amount on your income tax. The IRS is remarkably stuffy about what you can deduct as home office space. And you actually have to work in it. A home office helps on your taxes--but not as much as you might expect.

An extra home office complication has been introduced in our household since the first of the year when my wife also quit gainful employment to become a free-lance writer. She obviously needs office space, and it was imperative to make it clear from the beginning that sharing my office was not an option since that would violate some of the most sacred precepts of a home office.

That's the main reason we refinanced our house--so we can add on another office that fills all the qualifications noted above. I don't know how the IRS is going to deal with this, but I don't have to worry about that for another year. Besides, we're legitimate.

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