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I have been freelancing from home for about a year now. On the work side, things have been going very well; I am making good money and having a blast. On the personal side, however, things are getting strained with my girlfriend, who shares an apartment with me.

She knows that I am working and tries to take it seriously, but she seems to have trouble understanding why I need to stay focused on work for a full 8 hours, and can't wrap up the day early or frequently stop to see things she wants to show me, or ask for my opinion on an email she's working on. (She is not currently employed or in school, although she is working on rectifying those issues). I don't think she realizes how often she interrupts me, and she gets very upset when I start refusing to take a short break to do x.

Sometimes I'll be working on a complex piece of code, or stuck on a difficult paragraph in an email to a client, and get very angry when I'm interrupted 3 or 4 times before I finish the task. Other times, she starts yelling when I underestimate how long it will take to finish up the last thing I'm doing (often an email summary of my work for the day) before I clock out.

I'm hoping to get advice from other freelancers who have gone through similar struggles at home. What is a good way to sit down and discuss this with her, and help her understand the importance of working with minimal distractions? Are there any good articles or resources I could encourage her to read? What can I do better to make her happy and not feel neglected or like she's always waiting for me?

Some of the things I've tried:

  • Telling her to think of it the same way as if I am at an office (doesn't work for her because I'm not at an office and I "made that choice")
  • Telling her this is how I make my income and if I work less, I get paid less
  • Explain in detail how I get very frustrated and even angry when constantly interrupted while I'm working
  • Putting a Japanese divider between us (the cat mauled it in very short order; there goes a hundred bucks...)

We are living in a smallish apartment and there is no practical way for me to have a dedicated office space. I have one computer desk and it's where I do all of my business and non-business activities that require a computer. Her desk is right next to mine.

I've tried all the common sense but this is a particularly difficult case...

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  • Hey, check the link I've posted. It's a similar question. If there is something extra you'd like to ask, please do so. – Peter MV May 4 '15 at 21:15
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    Spray bottle full of water. -- Spray her at every interruption... she'll learn.... works for pets too :) – Scott May 5 '15 at 2:02
  • None of the answers in the other question are adequate for me; most of them boil down to common sense and basic communication, but I am here because common sense and basic communication have failed and I need something more. I'll elaborate more in the question. – user45623 May 5 '15 at 4:44
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    Looking for work is a full-time job. If she's got time to bother you constantly, she's not doing her bit. – Voxwoman May 16 '15 at 1:55

10 Answers 10

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I am in the totally same situation. Instead of 8 hours I need to focus for 15+ hours a day recently in order to improve my skill in short period. Got complained? Yes for sure.

But finally I made some effort to set up a communication mechanism with my girlfriend. I share what I did and hope it helps.

  1. I made a daily tasks checklist and let her know all tasks I have to complete by today. Instead of keep telling my girlfriends I need to focus on my "stuff" (In her perspective, just stick to the computer like a nerd). When she understand how many work I need to accomplish and the progress (when she come to interrupt me), I can explain to her that I love her, but I still need to work hard for those 3 tasks. Sometimes you need to have a break, I will happily tell my girlfriend that lets go for coffee when this task is finished just in 15 minutes. She think everything is under her control and willing to wait without anxiety.
  2. Keep a good quality headphone. Let my girlfriend get used to my focus status. She knows little noise will not distract me, but when she need my help, she can talk to me loudly. I can focus on my work since we both keep in mind that it's not that easy to make conversation.
  3. Pay attention to your girlfriend for several minutes in every one or two hours (You also need to relax your body). Ask her how is it going, give her a hug or chat a little, let she know you miss her.
  4. Share your dream with her, let her participate to your dream too. I don't think I can achieve my dream alone, all of what I did is supported by everyone around me. Let her know how important she mean to you and let's walk to your dream with smile.
  5. The last one is to keep your promises. Whatever you promised to her, try your best to make it real. I put all my attention to her when dating, share my life with her in my heart.
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    On the subject of headphones, use the big can-style ones rather than the small in-the-ear kind: I find they act as a clear visual sign that says "I can't be disturbed." – Dre Oct 29 '15 at 17:43
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I have gone through the same situation something like 10 years ago, the girl could not understand that even if I was working from home I had a work schedule and hours, the fact that I was not in an external office, or inside a company, in her eyes was like it was not a real work but something that I used to do to earn some money while you stay in a endless holiday. She was not working or studying and at the same time she was very demanding and pretending to go shopping or doing sports for hours in the middle of a work day. We used to argue about that and for this (and other reasons) I quit with her and sent her home.

The good news is that now I am still freelancing from my home office and I am happily married with my wife, we get along very well because (among other things) we respect each other work spaces and times.

What to do to make your situation better? I would explain to her that even if you work from home, it is like if you own a shop open to the public, you just need to be there at your shop and you can't just close for 30 minutes or go away from time to time, and you can't get distracted.

If you have separated office you can print your working hours and put it on the door, explaining to your girlfriend that in these hours you are not available unless for emergencies because it is your work place and schedule, exactly as you would stay at an external office, because you need to be available to your clients in any moment and be in time with deadlines.

But at the same time you have to be respectful to her, if you together decide that you stop the work day at 18:00, then do that, it could be 5 or 10 minutes more but don't postpone for 2 hours more.

You have to negotiate together work time and free time and do both your best to respect your agreements.

  • Thanks; unfortunately we have to share space because our apartment isn't big enough for me to have an office. Trying to explain this to her (typically several times a day, 6 days a week) is not having any impact. I'm not sure there is much of a solution but I want to be hopeful. – user45623 May 5 '15 at 4:43
  • That reminds me my first situation with the girl I quitted. Unfortunately she seems not understanding and this is not a good sign. Just think about what would be in other situations along your life togheter. At this point I think that your only solution is to find yourself an external office or go to work elsewhere, maybe even for a few days a week. Have a look at this: freelancing.stackexchange.com/questions/3140/… – Mario May 5 '15 at 9:31
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This is a common problem with everyone who works from home, and has been since the dawn of time. My mother was an author and she had to teach her friends and the rest of the family not to bother her during her writing time (and this was way before the Internet and telecommuting was a thing).

I know you said you have a small apartment. I am hoping that you and your girlfriend share a space that can be closed off in some way? If so, I strongly recommend that you relocate her work area as far away from yours as possible (ideally, in another room, where your space can be closed off with a door).

If that is impractical, my second recommendation would be to invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and make a playlist of "Music to Code By." Tell her that when the headphones are on, you can not be disturbed unless the apartment is on fire.

Finally, you need to cut your girlfriend some slack (and cut yourself some slack, too). Do you think for a minute that if you were in an office, which if you are a programmer would most likely be a cube farm or part of an "open design" space that you wouldn't be constantly interrupted by co-workers and managers? I know when I was in an office (just 5 months ago!) - and it was a single office with a door - I would "waste" 2 or 3 hours a day with non-work-related conversations and interruptions by my co-workers and managers with stupid tasks (literally: "can you cut this piece of paper for me?" - yes, that happened for real) or really basic questions about Microsoft Word or some other thing that wasn't directly related to my impending deadlines. I've always been much more productive at home (the best is when everyone in the house has other places to be)

  • I'm thinking about the noise-cancelling headphones, but my understanding is these are only useful for blocking out steady noise (i.e. white noise), and they are expensive as hell. If I was in an office, I would be getting paid salary, and I would be paid the same regardless of how often I was interrupted or how much time I spent chatting (assume it didn't get me fired). I don't get paid salary when freelancing. If my productivity is reduced by 50%, I make 50% less money. Even if it's an hourly job, I can't charge for 3 hours of chatting... – user45623 May 16 '15 at 2:15
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    The headphone suggestion is still valid - if they are large enough (i.e. headphones and not earbuds) they will provide a visual cue to the girlfriend that you are in "flow" and can't be disturbed w/o serious loss of productivity. (and maybe you need to explain "flow" to her so that she understands it). Even as a freelancer, you shouldn't be paid piecework. You should also factor in "downtime" or "creative spark time" when estimating how long something is going to take. Also, the music will block out distracting noises, like if she's reading facebook at her desk and laughs out loud. – Voxwoman May 16 '15 at 16:46
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    +1 for "get real" – Luceos May 20 '15 at 6:53
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Simply put, you have to train any partner. I know that doesn't sound pleasant, but it's the reality. Any inability to understand that you must work when you are working kind of shows a lack of maturity to me.

If your girlfriend kept using your razor to shave the cat.... wouldn't you explain to her why that is unacceptable? It takes the same amount of determined explanation to some in order for them to understand that work is work and it makes no difference if you are sitting 5 feet away or across town.

I've been in your situation, where interruptions, although not malicious, become overly costly in terms of focus, concentration, and work. In some cases, all it takes is a good explanation that working from home does not mean you are free to do anything. In other cases, it can end a relationship. After all, if you had a girlfriend showing up at a job or calling you every 30 minutes to ask you're opinion on something, it become destructive and if you value the job, you'd eliminate the issue.

You probably just need to thoroughly explain to her that your work requires periods of focused concentration and ANY interruption can set you back. She may not be considering that you're in the middle of 5000 lines of code and the moment you look away it takes you 20 minutes to get back to where you were.

If none of this works.... I'd start looking for a new girlfriend. If she doesn't respect your wishes when it comes to supporting yourself (and probably her a bit) then she's clearly detrimental to your success. That's not what a girlfriend should be.

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I mostly just want to say "I feel your pain" working from home with a spouse who is also home. He does not interrupt me too much - but I have a separate office which helps.

One suggestion I do have is when she asks you what time you will wrap up, or how much longer, always say much longer than you really think. That way if a miracle happens and you're done early it's a great surprise for her, and when the usual happens and it takes 5 times longer than you thought, you won't be as late as usual. You could even sell it a little if you get done early and say "I've got more to do but I'm going to stop because it's really important to me to spend some time with you today.

The noise canceling headset idea someone mentioned is good too until you can at least get a wall. I suspect your girlfriend is bored and wants your attention and just seeing you there is way too much of a temptation for her.

My biggest issue is relatives thinking that because I work from home I have unlimited time to vacation with them, or entertain them if they come to visit. Some get really resentful, but if I had a regular job I know they would not assume I could just stop work in the middle of the day to play tour guide or go visit for days.

Also, understand that when we are focused on the computer we are in "task" mode and it's natural to feel very irritated when interrupted. It's not okay for her to keep this up, but the natural instinct to show how exasperating it is may also be disproportionate to the crime.

It is so @&^%$^&* frustrating though to be interrupted right when you're in the middle of concentrating.

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One issue is physical space and that's not changeable (much) in the short term. You've tried ways of dividing it into social and work areas and that is probably worth continuing to pursue (but in some way that isn't vulnerable to the cat). It might be as simple as an agreement between you that: "When I'm wearing the headphones / the red hat / some other visual cue, I don't want to be interrupted unless it's about fire or blood." Then don't overuse it. Remember, if you worked in a cubicle farm, you'd get social drop ins, conversations right outside your doorway, get called away to meetings, fire drills, and pan-handled for a co-worker's birthday / baby present / the holiday pool / whatever. If the interruptions at home are that bad, you may need to work at a work-space, coffee-shop, library, or elsewhere outside the apartment. But I bet they are a whole lot fewer.

The other issue is social. You've discussed why you need to work, that your work IS work even if you choose to do it at home, and that you get angry at interruptions. Does she do something, techie or otherwise, she also needs focused time for? If not, she may not get that software developers mentally juggle lots of concepts at once, and that starting up that juggling sequence can take us 15 or 20 minutes, each time we are interrupted!

My wife's and my agreement is that she'll say "When you get a minute..."; nothing more, and won't expect more than a nod or a waved finger in reply, and she knows I'll break off when I can do it with less consequence than if I answered right at that moment. Or if dinner time is approaching, she won't ask "When can you break for dinner?" but just say "Dinner's ready in 5..." which I can process without losing my train of thought but now I know that I need to wind it up shortly.

  • I like this answer, as you show your partner and you have good communication skills, you have a system in place, and you're both happy to use it. – Canadian Luke REINSTATE MONICA Aug 31 '15 at 17:07
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If I was in your situation, I would make the leap and get office space. Working from home sucks for all the reasons that you just mentioned. Find something that is 15 minutes away and reasonably priced. If the business is going well, there isn't any reason not to.

  • +1, this makes a huge difference. Especially once you add other variables to the mix (e.g., kids, pets, etc.) it becomes impossible to draw that line without there being some physical separation. It's counterintuitive, but in this case, my experience is that distance makes the heart grow fonder ;) – timmyc Oct 29 '15 at 16:21
  • While I agree it's a possible solution, I think the OP is looking for a solution while he's working out of his home, not relocating – Canadian Luke REINSTATE MONICA Oct 29 '15 at 17:27
  • I'm not making enough to justify renting an office. – user45623 Oct 29 '15 at 20:00
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I've dealt with a similar situation here at home although not with my girlfriend.

It is tough and I understand your frustration.

What I did was I had to strategically create time blocks of my work. This means I had to carefully plan what I need to do during the day.

If I need 3 hours of uninterrupted work based on my schedule, I will find a place outside of the house (usually some decent coffee shop) where no one else can just distract me.

I will only do casual / light work inside the house (e.g. check emails, review stuff). That way even if the people could be quite distracting, I can still be productively doing stuff.

  • I have a powerful desktop with three monitors at home. I can't do my work effectively in a coffee shop. – user45623 May 14 '15 at 18:50
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I had a similar (although obviously not nearly as disruptive) issue with my Dad visiting during my work hours, because he knew I was home anyway. Hey, I could take an afternoon off to help help replace his broken printer, couldn't I? Things like that.

He started to get the point when I started sending him invoices for my time. Yeah, he never paid them, and I never expected him to of course, but it got the point across and he respects my work hour boundaries now.

If you stopped admonishing her, but at then end of the week gave her a detailed invoice, would it demonstrate the disruption of her interruptions on your working life, or would it just piss her off? (Granted, it will probably do the latter in any event, but if it achieves the former as well without too many nights on the couch it may be worthwhile.)

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One tactic I found to work was to give an hour of time to the girlfriend, and to especially cuddle/be near her as she fell asleep. Then it was back to work. Hard for them to complain when they are asleep. But keep in mind that if SHE happened to need to work long hours she would think it's silly for you to complain even once. People act very differently when the roles are reversed, I think you'll find this to be true in life. So always measure your priorities and the value of things.

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