Workspace: (A Coronavirus Stay-At-Home Special Reprint #2)

Current News free nonfiction Freelancer's Survival Guide

In honor of our strange times, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to revisit some old posts. So many of us are stuck at home, and being asked to work by our employers, or we’ve decided to use this time to get back writing. I’m going to share some early posts from my Freelancer’s Survival Guide series on how to manage your time so that you can be efficient, and still have moments with your family.

I’ll be reprinting them in the order in which they first appeared on this site. I’m not updating the posts at all, so they’ll appear with all of their 2009 cultural references. For example, some of the advice assumes you can leave and see friends or go to the gym. Substitute phone calls and FaceTime and walks. 

This post is shortened, because I’m leaving out the parts about a workspace outside of the home.

I do hope the advice found in these posts help you.

The next post will appear tomorrow.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Workspace

From April 2009

Most freelancers work out of their homes—or should. In the words of Randy Tatano, who has freelanced for NBC for four years, “The freelancers I’ve known who have had problems are the ones who set up fancy offices and buy all kinds of equipment. I’m sure you’ll have a chapter on minimizing overhead.” (Check out Randy’s website here:

In the future, I will have a section on overhead. But this is a good place to start. An office in the home saves money. For those of you who are afraid to take the office-in-the-home deduction on your tax return because you’ve heard that it’s a red flag for an audit, stop worrying.

If you follow these rules, you’ll make it through any audit just fine. (Please do remember, however, that I am not an accountant or a tax attorney, so any tax advice I give here is based only on personal experience which includes surviving two full audits and several small ones.)

  1. Your home office must be a workspace only. Don’t store your Christmas decorations in the back corner, don’t put the exercise equipment in the center of the room, and don’t set up next to the washer and dryer. Your office must be a professional workspace, the kind you would have if you worked in a corporation. If you wouldn’t put the kids’ toybox in your office at your former day job, then you shouldn’t put the toybox in your office at home either.

  2. If you must use part of the utility room (or the dining room) as your workspace, block your workspace office. When I moved to Oregon, I had a small one-bedroom apartment. I used part of the dining room as my office and walled it off from the living room with bookshelves. The office space, while tiny, housed a desk, my computer and printer, my chair, two filing cabinets and my bookshelves. I couldn’t see the living room from my office, and no one in the living room could see me. The only problem that office had was noise—I could hear everything in the apartment. Fortunately, I lived alone, so the noise problem was a minor one.

  3. Figure out what you need and buy the best equipment you can—used. I have a custom-made desk in my office. My husband found the desk used at an insurance liquidator’s auction for $75. The desk is built for someone 5’5” (my height), so I don’t have to elevate my chair and put little blocks under my feet to sit in a proper position at the keyboard. None of my file cabinets, mismatched though they are, cost more than $25. Some were free, since businesses often junk the things that they no longer need. Remember that your office is not a public space, so it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be functional.

  4. Your home office needs a door, preferably one you can close. I didn’t have a door that I could close in that dining room office, but I could have rigged one up with a beaded curtain or a blanket. But you need some way to shut out the world, to let your family know that you are working and cannot be disturbed except, as novelist Nora Roberts used to tell her children, in cases of fire or serious injury (she actually said arterial bleeding, but I think injury is a bit more prudent). If you live with others, keep your door closed when you’re working. Open it only when you want company. Post your hours on that door, so that everyone respects them—including you.

  5. Remove all distractions. I took the television out of my office when I stopped writing nonfiction. (It was a good thing too, because I’m a political junkie and in election season, I can watch the cable channels 24/7.) Take the games off your computer and anything else that might waste your time. (I finally had to ditch Garage Band from mine because it kept me from writing.) Figure out what your business requires and put only those things in your office.

  6. If your business is not something like E-Bay that needs a continual on-line presence, then set up a separate computer for your e-mail and your internet connection. You can buy a good internet computer used (on E-Bay, in fact) for a few hundred dollars. It’ll be the best investment you can make. E-mail distracts. Most computers are set up so that the system pings when new mail comes in. My internet computer pings for e-mail, bongs for instant messages, and trills when my FaceBook page updates. Those little sound effects are hard to ignore. So is the temptation to research something when you should be producing. Make a list and research later. I’ll deal with these things in depth in a section on time sinks, but if you’re setting up your office now, find a space for another computer and use it for the internet.

  7. The same goes for the telephone. If your business does not require you to use a phone most of the time, take the phone out of your office. Set times to make phone calls. Let voice mail pick up when you’re working and return calls later. The fewer distractions you have in your office, the more efficient you will be. The more efficient you are, the more you’ll get done—and you won’t have to spend as many hours at your desk. You’ll have more time for leisure or family or health (see the section on priorities).

  8. Make hard and fast rules that help you become more productive. For example, I do not allow any fiction in my office except my own fiction. I am too prone to reading other people’s work instead of doing my own. No novel without my own byline crosses the threshold. For some reason, nonfiction doesn’t distract me, so I can keep all my nonfiction books inside my office. But fiction—forget about it. You’ll find your own time sinks. Ban them from your workspace.

  9. One insurance point (and yes, I’ll do a section on insurance later, but this is important here): Get a business rider on your homeowner’s policy. Insurance usually doesn’t cover business computers in the home and often won’t cover any other business equipment in the home. So your family’s computer in the kitchen is covered, but your precious work computer, where you make your living, is not unless you spend an extra few bucks per month to insure it against disaster. (Also, if you have people visiting your workspace [your yoga studio or your therapy practice, for example], then you’ll also need liability insurance, with a multimillion dollar rider. People can sustain lifelong injuries just by falling down stairs. You don’t want someone to fall down your stairs and sue you for everything you own.)

  10. Finally, make your workspace comfortable. Make it a place that’s your haven, somewhere you want to go every day.

Setting up your workspace is complicated, and you won’t get it right at first. You’ll have to re-evaluate it as you get used to freelancing and you identify what your needs really are. Be flexible. Try not to spend too much money. And make sure your workspace is yours, not someone else’s.

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