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EMOTIONS AT WORK // Some find home, stress, home

Published Jul. 6, 2006

A few years ago, the lights were often on at 3 a.m. in Garret Sheldon's home office.

There were plenty of computer chores to do, and lots of calls from clients traveling in Asia. But even those long weeknight hours were not enough to keep Sheldon from working weekends, too _ to complete projects, to talk to clients and to meet with the other members of the Potomac Group, his information-technology and management consulting firm in Arlington, Mass.

Sheldon soon realized, however, that his business had taken over his life. So he set out to change his work habits.

He still offers 24-hour availability to clients, but only for limited times, and he charges extra for it. He and the other members of the Potomac Group are also trying to avoid communicating with each other on weekends or at night.

And Sheldon is thinking before he dives in. "Now, when I consider doing something after hours I ask myself if it is critical that it be done right now," he said. "If it is not, I push it off to work hours."

During a slow period at the Potomac Group several years ago, Sheldon had a different, but related, problem in his home office: too much eating. His frustration at lackluster sales sent him to the refrigerator and he gained 40 pounds. His solution was to remove problematic snacks from the house. He is now on a low-fat vegetarian diet and has shed his extra pounds.

As Sheldon learned, overworking and overeating are major hazards of working in the same place you live. A home office makes it easy to return to your desk after dinner or on weekends, or to amble into the kitchen during working hours.

Work pressures can contribute to both kinds of behavior, as can the absence of co-workers. These are risks that home workers should be aware of as their ranks grow, and as National Telecommuting Week, which starts Monday, increases awareness of the at-home option.

Many veterans of home work have developed habits to combat the potential excesses. About 10 years ago, for instance, Richard Siedlecki, a marketing consultant in Atlanta, found a way to fight his tendency to overwork. The technique: to work in spurts on several projects and to take many breaks, rather than to labor non-stop into the night on one project until completed.

"I still work long hours but I do it McNuggets style," Siedlecki said. The manageable pace also enables him to produce higher-quality work, he said.

Here are other ways to put limits on your labor:

Just say no. When you are faced with a request to work on a new project, ask your caller if you can call back in a few minutes. Then think carefully about whether you can handle the extra work, and inform the caller of your decision.

Set a specific time to end your workday. And when you reach it, "close" your office.

Turn down the ringer on the phone, or unplug it. Shut off the computer. Turn off your desk lamp and office light. The point of all this, of course, is to resist the temptation to drift back to the keyboard.

Don't overwork in order to prove that your work arrangement is succeeding.

Home-based business owners often fear that if they let up on work, they will fail. And corporate employees who telecommute a few days a week often worry that if they do not work extra hard, they will be summoned back to the office.

Leslie Seabrook has worked at her home in Millersville, Md., for a chemical company for more than 2{ years. At first, she spent long hours on clerical work that she should have handed to her in-office assistant. Why? Because she feared she might create the perception that her at-home arrangement meant more work for the company.

Define your job. Some home workers fail to delineate their tasks and consequently do much more than required.

That is what happened to Seabrook, who was not sure what her manager expected. "Now I create a list of what I am working on _ which keeps him in the loop and makes me feel comfortable that I am doing what I need to," she said.

If it is the kitchen rather than the keyboard that beckons, these strategies can help:

When you get the urge to snack, ask yourself if you really want food or just a break from work. With no co-workers to talk to, home workers often turn to food when they are bored, restless or tired. Try to incorporate a new activity into the day, like getting the paper, taking a walk, listening to music, playing with a pet or calling a friend.

Take your lunch. Pack food to "take to work" as if you worked in a traditional office, and eat only that food during the workday. In other words, don't open up the whole kitchen to yourself.

Acknowledge that you need to snack. Rather than unrealistically abolishing snacking, improve it.

Buy fruit, flavored tea, fat-free foods or other healthy items. Cecile Schoberle, a designer and illustrator in New York City, stocks her apartment only with sanctioned snacks. "If I keep nothing in the fridge I'll run out to the store and get something bad," she said. "I'll stock up on sugarless gum or low-fat yogurt if I know I am going to be working really hard for a few days."