Working From Home: It Rules, Simply Put

wfhWhen you decide to work from home, you give up all those delicious guilty pleasures of office life. Making personal phone calls on the company’s dime. Bringing home office supplies, or bags of coffee, or the occasional fax machine.

I don’t think the reality of self-employment hits home till the first time you go out and buy yourself a box of paper clips. Until that moment, paper clips have simply appeared in the office supply closet, left there late at night by the unseen Paper Clip Fairy. Suddenly you realize that the Paper Clip Fairy doesn’t make house calls.

But there’s no need to despair, my friend. Those of us daring–or foolhardy–enough to wean ourselves from the corporate teat get to wallow in our own share of guilty pleasures.

Like sleep. When I worked in an office, my feet had to hit the cold, hard floor by 6:30 a.m. If I was going to make a timely appearance. And now? My business must open by 9 every morning–so that means I’m out of bed by, oh, 8:45. If I set up the coffee the night before I can stretch it to 8:55.

And what about bathing? For office workers, it’s just one more chore to be raced through on the way to the job. But as a self-employed person, you can linger until your fingertips turn pruney, while listening to a radio station that broadcasts traffic reports. There’s a 90-minute delay on the Long Island Expressway due to a jackknifed paper clip delivery truck? Gee, I guess somebody’s going to be late for work.

The home office is also a haven for hard-core smokers. I’ve read countless articles proclaiming the home-based business boom is a result of national economic conditions, corporate downsizing, computers empowering the individual–heck, I’ve written my share of those articles. But watching a pack of office workers huddled outdoors one bitter January day just for the privilege of sucking down nicotine, I realized where the new crop of entrepreneurs is really coming from.

And for those of us who are electroholics–addicts whose pulses race at the thought of acquiring the latest wonders of the electronic age–a home-based business is a perfect excuse to feed the need. That new lemon-scented hard disk, the waterproof shower pager, and the rechargeable digital envelope moistener are all vital for running my business efficiently. I don’t have to justify my purchases to anyone except, of course, my wife. And if she questions my spending, I have the kicker ready: “This will help me get through my work faster, honey, and that means more time with you.”

And then there’s the guiltiest, most irresistible pleasure of all: Enjoying tales of corporate layoffs. Yes, of course I feel bad for those folks and their families.

But I’m paying nearly twice as much in Social Security as business employees do. And while they pay corporate rates for express delivery, long distance calls, and rental cars, I get the rates reserved for criminals, sinners, and the self-employed. MY health Insurance premium? It’s enough to make me sick.

So when another 200 heads are rolling off the business-suited bodies at FatCat Industries, I kind of enjoy it. I know it’s wrong. But darn it, if you’re going to take on self-employment, you’re entitled to gloat once in a while. I may struggle to pay my bills, work seven-day weeks, and forget what a paid vacation is, but at least I won’t downsize myself out of a job. And if I hear about a new wave of layoffs while I’m listening to my clock radio in bed at 8:55 a.m., so much the better!

Don’t Try To “Go Up Against” The IRS

dttgaFEW THINGS WILL RUIN YOUR DAY MORE THAN receiving an unexpected envelope with Internal Revenue Service marked on the return address. In spite of your best efforts to comply with the law, sometimes things go awry. If you understand the way the agency works, you can settle most disputes relatively quickly. But even when you begin to feel like you’re living inside a Kafka novel, there are a few steps you can take without incurring the cost of a lawsuit.

In two-thirds of small-business-owner clashes with the IRS, simply laying out the facts and answering any of the tax collector’s questions clears up the problem. Most of the rest can be settled within the agency’s own appeals mechanisms. There are two basic problems you’re likely to run into with the IRS: The agency made a mistake in its procedure or you disagree over the total tax due. If your initial responses to IRS queries don’t settle the issue, you will only deal with the agency effectively when you pick the right method for each problem.

With procedural cases–say, you have a canceled check for a tax payment that the IRS says you did not make, or the agency erroneously credited a payment to your personal account rather than your business account–entrepreneurs should “go to the problem resolution officer in their district,” advises David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union. “That should be the first step when they’ve reached the end of their ropes.”

But if the problem is about the amount of the tax–if the IRS decides to audit you and disputes an expense’s deductibility, the reasonableness of compensation, or the method of valuing inventory–ask the agency to refer the matter to an appeals officer. “The appeals officers are sometimes more reasonable than the front line,” Keating notes.

Remember, however, it will be up to you to prove your case in every instance. The IRS doesn’t have the obligation to prove that it’s right, unless you resort to the expensive alternative of taking the government to court. “You’re guilty until you’re proven innocent,” says Craig Willett, who owns a Provo, Utah, accounting firm that specializes in small-business tax problems. “It’s the only system in the United States that’s stacked that way.”

Taxation With Representation

There are times when you have to call in the big guns. Smart business owners know when it’s time to leapfrog the IRS’s chain of command and seek help from someone with real political clout.

“If you’ve been involved with an IRS issue that just isn’t getting resolved, try writing to your Congressperson,” says CPA Martin Kaplan in his book What the IRS Doesn’t Want You to Know (Villard Books). “Typically, someone in the Congressperson’s office calls, followed by someone in the IRS, and in a matter of weeks the issue gets resolved.”

Congressional intervention works best when you simply need someone to listen to reason–that you are not responsible for the tax bill of a company in another state with the same name as your firm, or that the agency should waive a penalty because the reason you were late in filing is that a fire destroyed all your business records and put you in the hospital. Sometimes the IRS employee you’ve been dealing with is simply wrong on the law but needs pressure from a higher-up before he or she will back off.

If you’ve moved through the dispute settlement process and the IRS continues to insist that its position correctly reflects the law, your next move is to see if your Representative can change the law. This happens more often than you might think. Hundreds of technical changes in the tax code are made every year to settle small-business people’s problems.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for instance, originally sought to work out a compromise settlement between the IRS and shipping-boat owners based in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Fisherfolk who crew the boats consider themselves self-employed, because their compensation depends entirely on the size of the catch they make. But–following an old New England tradition–a boat’s mate, engineer, and cook get an extra $25 from the crew’s portion of each week-long trip’s earnings. The IRS feels this turns the crew into employees.

Although the $25 “pers” were dropped in 1988, the family of Boat Niagara Falls president Kathy Downey is facing a past-due bill of some $35,000, with interest. The IRS claims that Social Security taxes are owed for the crew of her husband’s boat. The bill for the entire 110 boats in the New Bedford fleet might top $20 million.

Because his initial efforts were rebuffed, Rep. Frank is now leading an effort to change the underlying law. “The entire Massachusetts delegation has been supportive and they’ve worked hard” says Downey.

Mercy, Me

If you decide to contact your Representative or Senator, get any necessary help from your tax adviser in drafting the letter. If you are arguing for compassion, however, send the letter yourself. Congressional offices also react best when you are in the right and can show that the IRS’s standard dispute-settlement process just isn’t working.

Help from your Representatives in Washington, however, isn’t foolproof. A strong letter from then Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.) didn’t help Sharon Herald in her dispute with the IRS over the status of workers at her pet grooming business in Milford, Michigan. “The IRS wrote a separate letter to the Congressman: ‘Thank you for your concern, but it’s no concern of yours,’” she explains. Herald ended up paying the amount taxed plus $2,000 in penalties.

Of course, the best way to handle a sticky problem is not to have it develop at all. Make sure IRS agents see you as a diligent taxpayer willing to pay everything you rightfully owe when you first contact them.

“The more promptly you reply, the easier the IRS is to work with,” Willett says. Writing a rude reply to an IRS communication or ignoring it completely is likely to make a bureaucrat assume that you have something to hide. It might even kick off an intrusive full-scale audit that delves into your family finances when a simple explanation could have settled the matter. And how many of you have the time to spare answering unnecessary questions when you could be landing new business?

Phone Systems: Madness Abound

psCONFUSED OR ANNOYED BY THE INCESSANT PITCHES OF long-distance telephone companies? To use a phrase that was popular in 1934, the last time Congress overhauled the nation’s telecommunications laws, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The 1996 telecommunications reform bill signed by President Clinton earlier this year will have a profound impact on home offices and small businesses. The legislation completely changes the landscape for wired and wireless communications, not surprising since most of today’s technologies were not even envisioned 62 years ago. But just how good is this news?

If all goes according to plan, the telecommunications system that has only recently yielded such handy home-office tools as call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling, call return, auto redial and so forth–services that have long been available to big businesses at big cost–will soon enter a period of unprecedented innovation for all phone company customers. Rural businesses, in particular, can hope for improved choices in communications as a result. But they are also the most the new competitive because prices for the expected new services are likely to rise unless state regulators step in to help.

Thousands of entrepreneurs have moved to small towns and rural areas in recent years, some because they were fed up with big-city problems, some because they were downsized from corporate jobs. Traditionally, for such corporate refugees, the benefits of small-town life have come at the cost of isolation, both physical and virtual. The Internet and satellite communications offer tantalizing connections to urban centers. But as a general role, the more stars one can see in the sky at night, the fewer options there are for connecting to the Internet at 28.8Kbps a second or faster or for finding a reliable cell for mobile phones, at least at reasonable rates.

In Montana, for example, where television satellite dishes are the unofficial state flower, the new competition among media companies is likely to result in a blossoming of available interactive services. That is the thinking of Congress, anyway, which reasoned that regulatory hurdles were keeping companies from offering cheap wireless services to citizens in areas where stringing wires and fibers is impractical.

It is unclear whether Congress’s thinking is realistic. Many home-based workers in remote areas are worried that telecommunications companies, free to chase customers in new markets, will ignore them or will raise rates to prohibitive levels. Thinking optimistically, commerce, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and someone is likely to step in to reach this growing market.

Even in places where the stars are not always visible, the new communications environment will change significantly. Bundled services are likely to proliferate. The local cable company will probably offer phone service and Internet access. The local phone company will probably offer long-distance phone service along with seven HBO channels, via satellite. The long-distance phone company will offer interactive shopping and Web-hosting services. The local newspaper will offer Internet access and cable modems and digital rock ‘n roll radio.

You get the idea. Before long, when the phone rings, my resident teenagers will probably trip over themselves trying to figure out whether to answer the television set, the computer, the videophone, the stereo, the intercom, or some other smart appliance.

It is easy to get carried away with visions of unlimited cheap bandwidth and ubiquitous communications devices. The reality of this new regulatory environment will be more mundane.

When deregulation starts having practical effects, my family dinners will be interrupted more frequently by “slam” calls from fast-talking operators trying to get me to switch Internet and cable carriers. Tipped off by my previous online browsing habits, advertisements on each Web site I visit will ambush me with offers of package deals for cable and phone service. My productivity will sag as I waste hours calculating which combination of telephone, cable, and Internet service offers me the best deal.

The country’s most famous home-office workers, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, hail this new telecommunications landscape as a triumph for Congress and America. They say it brings us into the 21st century. It will be interesting to see if the 21st century looks as good to them a year from now as it does today.

Consolidate Those Phone Numbers!

ctpnCOMPARE YOUR PERSONAL AND BUSINESS LIVES. MOST people have one name, one Social Security number, and one home address. Now think of your business card: office, 800, fax, and cell phone numbers. You don’t suffer this kind of confusion in your everyday life. Why do you put your clients through torture to track you down?

Hoping to tame this number jungle, several long-distance phone companies are now offering lifetime, or 500 prefix, numbers. These follow-me phone services let clients dial a single number to rind you–no matter where you roam. Whether you’re in your office, at home, in a remote office, or in your car, calls get through to you. Say goodbye to clients dialing three or four numbers and not finding you.

Follow-me services save you time and (possibly) money by ensuring that your customers can easily and immediately reach you. If you are in a service business that depends on personal contact, you owe it to yourself and your business to investigate follow-me services. These new services, however, are not without their pitfalls, and alternative technologies may soon duplicate their capabilities.

There are any number of variations on follow-me service. But in general, your service provider assigns you a follow-me number and then you program the service (over the phone) to redirect incoming calls automatically to another number-including a remote office location, cellular phone, or whatever other number you choose. You can even forward your fax number to redirect incoming faxes to a hotel or neighborhood Kinko’s while on a business trip. Here’s what two of the major services provide.

Going Long AT&T was the first long-distance carrier to use 500 prefix numbers with its True Connection follow-me service. After AT&T assigns you a 500 number, you can use the service one of two ways. Your clients can dial 1-500 and your number in the same manner as a regular long-distance call. Unfortunately for your clients, they get billed for the long-distance charges.

If you want to pick up a client’s tab, they have to dial 0-500 and enter a PIN number that you provide. Voila, you’ve combined some of the best features of 800 calls and 500 calls. It’s not as convenient as dialing a single toll-free 800 number, but it does reroute calls to any second number you choose. AT&T does virtually all of the work. Yes, you have to tell the service which number to bump to, but with a variety of plans that can run as little as $1 per month, the service cost is a relatively modest one.

That’s the good news. The downside of this equation is the cost of the calls themselves. First, the service only works if you use AT&T as your long-distance carrier. If you prefer MCI, Sprint, or another carrier, don’t look to AT&T for follow-me service.

Second, AT&T charges the long-distance calls at a pretty high rate: 25 cents per minute during peak hours (namely, during prime business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and 15 cents per minute off-peak. Although instate calls vary by state, you can pay as much as 22 cents per minute peak and 13 cents off-peak. If a client dials your 500 number from next door because he doesn’t know where you are, you (or he, depending on your billing option) pay up to 22 cents a minute for the call. This is far more than either local or in-state longdistance calls under most billing plans.

To be fair, you do get the benefit of any discounts that AT&T offers for your total long-distance service. If your plan provides a 10 percent discount, for example, you also get a 10 percent savings on the total. monthly bill for your follow-me calls.

Still, AT&T’s basic service only lets you forward calls to a single number. If you want the system to track you down by dialing your office number first, then a cellular phone, and finally your pager, you’ll have to pay for AT&T’s premium plan, which will set you back $7 extra per month.

Friends Call, Friends Pay MCI also offers a variety of services as part of its Personal 500 Connections packages. The basic follow-me service from MCI only costs $1 per month, but it has a number of benefits over the AT&T plan with the same monthly cost.

First, MCI doesn’t require that you or the caller be a current MCI long-distance customer. You can continue using Sprint and just receive a bill from MCI for your follow-me service. Second, MCI’s basic plan includes the ability to program the service to automatically track you down at up to,three numbers.

Also, MCI is a bit less expensive: Its base rate is 24.5 cents per minute peak and 15 cents off-peak. If the caller is an MCI customer, however, he gets an automatic 25 percent discount, lowering the day rate to 18.25 cents. Unfortunately, in the MCI setup, the caller always pays–which could anger touchy clients.

Better Ways? Since each of the major follow-me services has its holes, maybe Sprint can improve on the formula after its 500 service gets OK’ed by the FCC. Because the service was not yet officially approved, Sprint couldn’t offer us any details about costs. They were, however, taking reservations for specific numbers as we went to press.

Many local Bell companies offer similar services, as do a number of cellular carders. Also, independent firms are looking to provide this service, and there should be a host of options available during 1996.

Looking ahead, newer versions of the telephony cards currently included on most retail PCs could provide follow-me technology at an affordable price. Priority Call Management already provides a very sophisticated (and, with prices starting at $50,000, very expensive) service that’s based on a Unix workstation, software, and switching equipment that routes calls for an entire company. Scaling back the technology to the PC level might make these capabilities affordable by early 1997.

For now, you need to weigh what you can and can’t get from a 500 number. With costs as low as $1 per month, a 500 number can increase your availability to clients. However, if you saddle your callers with long-distance charges on what they assume to be a local call, expect some disgruntled clients. Also consider how often you want someone to be able reach you on a moment’s notice.

A follow-me line has plenty of potential benefits, but neither of the existing services we examined has exactly the right combination of features at the moment. You’re unlikely to stop giving out your current phone number in favor of your follow-me number, but it’s a nice second point of contact when a client is in a hurry, or if an emergency arises. Plan on making it a useful addition to your arsenal–and adding another line to your business card.

Getting Efficient: Master Tips For Time Management

mtftmWith a mere 1,440 minutes in a day, homebased workers need to make every second count. There’s no justification for getting lost online, struggling to stay in touch with clients, or sorting through junk that piles up in and around your computer. But these are the sorts of interruptions and hassles that plague just about everyone who works from home. It’s up to you make these daily disturbances go away.

Even if you think you run a tight ship, it’s tough to keep up with emerging technologies and timesaving ideas that can slice the fat out of your daily routine. With this in mind, we interviewed computer experts, efficiency gurus, and home-office veterans to come up with a list of surefire ways to optimize your operation and increase productivity.

Who knows? With all the time you’ll save, you may even have an extra five minutes to kick back and scroll through that new Web site you found.

The 10-Minute Web Search

Your 56Kbps connection may help you zip around the Web, but speed increases are only the beginning, says Dr. Anthony Petrosino of Vanderbilt University’s Learning Technology Center. His first rule of Web searches: Think before you log on. “It’s like when you go to the library, you wouldn’t just start pulling books off the shelf,” Petrosino says. “You want to know what you’re looking for before you start looking.”

If images aren’t important to your search, get rid of them. Waiting for a picture to download when you’re only trying to verify a fact or locate a mailing address is one of the most frustrating experiences on the Net. The solution: Go to the “options” menu in your browser and turn off the “autoload images” toggle switch. From that point on, only text will be downloaded, and you’ll notice an immediate surge of speed.

Bookmarks–preset Web sites–are crucial to quick searching. Petrosino recommends bookmarking a good search engine like AltaVista, Lycos, or Yahoo. Rather than learning a little bit about multiple engines, master one particular service so you get comfortable with its quirks and quarks. Also, bookmark link-heavy pages or useful sites that are updated at regular intervals.

A natural language query–asking a direct question like, “What is the weather in Austin, Tex.?”–is a reliable, basic search engine tactic. For more specific results, choose two or three search terms–always in lower case, unless they’re proper names–and use Boolean logic (and, or, not) to narrow your search. Other shortcuts include using the word “image” followed by a colon, which will search only for pictures. (For instance, “image: Great Wall of China” will search for pictures of the Great Wall.) You can also search for text only (text:) or title page only (title:).

Finally, Petrosino recommends going online late at night or very early in the morning, when Net traffic is slower and download times are faster. “Ten minutes can mean one or two searches during the day,” he says, “but it could mean 15 searches at midnight.”

The 30-Minute Power Meeting

You’ve heard about the 30-minute power lunch? Well, you didn’t hear it here. Traveling to and from the restaurant can eat up a good hour of your day, and what happens if you have to wait 20 minutes for a table or repeatedly flag down a snooty waiter? Today you can have a business lunch with someone without leaving your workstation. And it can cost less than a fancy meal.

Diamond Multimedia’s Supra Video Kit ($199; www. diamondmm.com) allows you to make Internet video phone calls over standard phone lines. The package includes a color video camera, a video capture card, and all the software you need to hook up with a client across town or across the country. VTEL’s SmartStation ($2,000; www.vtel.com) is a high-end videoconferencing solution that comes with an interactive whiteboarding feature that allows both videoconferencing parties to “write” on a document in real time.

The only catch to all of this: The person on the other end of the line needs videoconferencing equipment as well, and not all packages are compatible. Check them out before you make a purchase. And check out the image quality too–you may be surprised at how good it is.

“The images used to be pretty herky-jerky,” says Jon Jackson of Intel. “But it’s really a clear image now because of MMX technology.”

“The only disadvantage for all of us is self-consciousness about how we look,” says Paul Edwards, author of Working From Home (Tarcher/Putnam). “We’ll have to be groomed more than we normally would for a phone call. But you can always set a photo of yourself in front of the camera.”

The Two-Minute Phone Call

Everyone knows the most annoying, time-consuming interruptions don’t come from the kids or the neighbors, but from telemarketers. By making a quick call to 800-CUT-JUNK (www.privatecitizen.com), you can slice most of these interruptions out of your daily routine.

“If you’re working out of your home, you’re getting an average of five [telemarketing] calls a day,” according to Robert Bulmash, founder of the Chicago-based CUT-JUNK. “And depending on the type of work you do, that call could mean you’re putting someone else on hold. You risk losing a client on the other line.”

Bulmash sends a directory of names to 1,500 surveyors, nonprofit charities, and sales representatives, informing each institution that you’re unwilling to accept telephone solicitations. Ten of the largest telemarketers in the country–with the firing power of 24 million calls per day–receive the CUT-JUNK list. Targeted companies are subject to penalties of up to $500 if they continue to call you.

CUT-JUNK members, who pay a $20 registration fee, report a 70 percent drop in junk phone calls. “Telemarketers adhere to the list,” says Bulmash, “not because every one of our members will sue. But our members who do sue act as a minefield.”

The 15-Minute Computer Fix

For product specialist David Day, the biggest time waster when he’s diagnosing a computer isn’t the customer’s slow modem speed or lack of computer knowledge. It’s lying. Fifteen minutes into a computer-fix phone call, the caller suddenly remembers–or admits, “Oh. Maybe the problem happened when I added that joystick.” Day hears this all the time: “It’s like the Spanish Inquisition or calling your mother when you’ve done something wrong,” he says. “Every tech support provider was a novice user at one time or another. We all make mistakes. The more information we have from you, the easier it is to fix your problem.” To speed up your tech-support calls, don’t try to diagnose your problem–just list the symptoms and let the technician work.

Here’s a list of information to have on hand when you call tech support:

* Complete brand name and model number of your equipment

* Serial number (it’s usually on the back of your PC)

* Invoice number, purchase order number, or warranty number

* A written description of the problem, the steps you’ve taken so far, and any error messages that have been displayed

* Any emergency or backup disk you created when you first powered up the PC

Another way to expedite the process is to pay to get to the front of the line. If you’ve ever tried to utilize “free, 24-hour” tech support from a software or hardware manufacturer, you probably know how it feels to wait for a seeming eternity. But with Digital Equipment Corp.’s Client Services Support Card (www.digital.com), you can pay in advance for tech support and your investment will connect you to a technician in a hurry. Thirty minutes of support sells for $69; three hours worth of help costs $319. Similarly, IBM’s ServicePac End User Support helpline (www.ibm.com) offers a pay-per-call plan that begins at around $105 for five calls.

But the biggest time-saver, according to IBM media rep Talya Bosch, is to write down any tech-support information you receive. “Often people have the same problem more than once,” she explains. “By the time it happens again, they’ve forgotten how to fix it.”

The 45-Second Voice Mail Message

“Voice mail is a great way to speed up the flow of information,” says Lisa Sack, who designs and moderates audioconferences from home. Learn to think of voice mail as a business tool rather than as a safety net that catches calls when you’re out.

First, redo that outgoing message. Don’t promise to return every call. Adding an unnecessary layer of pressure to your day will slow you down and generate stress. And record your message with a smile on your face after you’ve had your first cup of coffee in the morning.

When making a call, always assume you’ll be getting that person’s voice mail or machine so you’ll be prepared to leave a short, detailed message explaining what you need from them. “I don’t want them to call me back to find out what I need,” says Sack. “I tell them right there, `I’m calling about X, Y, and Z. This is the information I need from you.’ End of story. You can’t spend the whole day playing phone tag with people.”

If you have an especially chatty client who always keeps you on the phone for 20 minutes, call her when you know she won’t be around. Wait until she’s gone home for the day and leave an assertive, detailed message.

If you work for or with a larger company with a full-featured voice mail system, find out if you can wire into that system from your home office. “That leads to a world of options,” says Sack. You can take snippets of information left on your voice mail and forward them to the appropriate person–no need for paraphrasing. “A lot of people don’t know how to use this feature,” Sack says. “But it’s a huge timesaver for me.”

The Two-Hour Business Plan

Most home-based entrepreneurs enter the business arena without a written plan–not a great idea. These documents help you clarify the direction of your company and make it easier for you to chart growth and make course corrections as your venture grows. But because the complexities of drafting a business plan can be intimidating, it’s tempting to ignore this crucial step and hope for the best.

Don’t let fear paralyze you and your business. Several software programs can help you create a concise business plan in the space of an afternoon. These applications come in two distinct flavors: templates and interactive programs. We recommend interactive applications such as Palo Alto Software’s Business Plan Pro 2.0 for Windows ($99.95) or Business Resource Software’s Business Plan Write 4.0 for Windows ($129.95). Both use an “interview” format, leading you through a simple question-and-answer session to help you organize your ideas and goals. And both include multiple charts chat help you visualize your plan of action and enable you to cut and paste sample copy into your personal plan.

Palo Alto Software president Tim Berry remembers the countless days–and nights–spent with a yellow pad and calculator, trying to put together a business plan. “That nightmare is still fresh in my head,” says Berry, a Stanford MBA, who took a semester-long class in the 1970s just to learn to write a business plan. “Now you can let the computer figure out the math–all chat dumb math chat used to get in the way of thinking,” he says. “Now you’ve got online help, glossaries, and software chat can take and format your page and merge text, tables, and charts.”

The 60-Minute Purge

How much time do you spend searching through chat jumble of scribbled-on Post-it notes or your messy hard disk? Paula Ancona, author of Successabilities! 1,003 Practical Ways to Keep Up, Stand Out and Move Ahead at Work (Jist), has a solution for you: Purge!

Reserve an hour on your calendar each month to concentrate on mess maintenance. “Set a kitchen timer and see how much you can do in chat amount of time,” says Ancona. “It’ll give you something to work against and won’t allow you to waste the whole day. You’d be amazed at how much you get rid of in an hour.”

Sort and arrange the wayward files and folders loitering on your operating system desktop. And rename files so they have a uniform style and correspond to paperwork–something Ancona calls “parallel constitution.” As positive reinforcement, keep a little box in your office and drop a quarter inside every time you file or ditch a piece of paper or useless computer file. At the end of the week, buy yourself a treat.

The main rule, she says, is to always have a few key tools on hand while you purge–calendar wastebasket, file folders, envelopes, stamps, and highlighter pen. “Don’t try and go through a pile if you’re not ready for it, because you’ll just wind up going through it twice,” says Ancona.

Whether your litter is taking up disk space or desk space, you need to read it, ditch it, or mark it on your calendar. Just get it outta there so you can move forward. “Don’t save all those little pieces of paper,” she says. “If you need something, clip it and stick it on your calendar. Better yet, create a concise calendar in your computer and file it there.” Place as much as you can on your favorite storage device and get it off your hard disk to eliminate duplicates.

The 90-Second E-mail Check

Rather than helping us work more efficiently, e-mail tends to slow us down. Like the junk mail that clogs up your real-life mailbox, e-mail junk is crowding your computer screen–and your brain.

But you don’t have to just log on and sigh. Anti-spamming sites and e-mail sorters can streamline your e-mailing, says Cindy Tolliver, author of Going Part-Time: The Insider’s Guide for Professional Women Who Want a Career and a Life (Avon).

You can filter out promotional e-mail, get-rich-quick pitches, and other invasive forms of spam by subscribing to services like Nospam (nospam@drsvcs.com). The free “wash list” is used to eliminate your e-mail address from mass mailers. The sites make their income from sponsors who advertise on the banners of their pages, so you don’t have to worry about your e-mail address being sold as part of some new list.

Another way to cut down on e-mail maintenance is to utilize e-mail robots, also known as mailbots or autoresponders. These special e-mail accounts automatically reply to incoming mail with prepared messages. If you operate a Web site and want to spur customer/client interaction without getting bogged down on your primary account, one or more can save you hours.

“If you still find yourself with more e-mail than you can handle,” says Tolliver, “find an e-mail management program, like Banyan System’s BeyondMail Professional 3.0″ ($69; www.banyan.com). Equipped with 89 predefined agent actions and plenty of expansion capabilities, BeyondMail works like a personal assistant, reading and rerouting messages so you don’t have to waste time on everything that arrives in your mailbox.

For drastic action–the Rambo solution–Tolliver suggests a mass execution. “Select a bunch of unread e-mails with questionable return addresses and then push delete,” she says. “But like most mass executions, this sometimes results in some innocent bystanders getting axed.

The 20-Minute Office Workout

Some days, the trip back and forth to the gym just has to be sacrificed. But that doesn’t mean your workout has to fall by the wayside as well. An efficient ergonomic or aerobic exercise is as close as your living room, says ergonomic guru John Kella. His workplace exercise firm, Kella Communications, provides equipment and training for corporate clients.

First off, always start with a stretch. Lean your hands against the wall, keep your back straight and heels down, and stretch your hamstring. For the upper body, interlock your fingers and stretch your hands behind your head. Push your elbows back gently. For your neck, turn the head from side to side, looking over your shoulder. Do a few head tilts, leaning ear to shoulder. With your hand at your elbow, gently draw your arm across your body for some arm stretches–and hold for 15 seconds.

For aerobic activity, run in place, raising your heels off the floor. “You can do this to music or to a video, so you don’t get totally bored,” says Kella. “Or use some sort of aerobic activity enhancer–a walker or a stationary bicycle.” Speed up gradually over a 10-minute period to increase your heart rate.

Because you spend so much time perched at a desk, try some ergonomic exercises. Stretch your fingers by making a gentle fist, then gradually relaxing, then opening wide, then gently relaxing. Repeat 10 times. Do some wrist bends to extend your forearm muscles and tendons. Extend your arm and droop your hand till it’s limp. Push down on the hand with your other hand and bend the wrist gently. Do the reverse: Make the “stop” gesture with your hand and gently press your wrist back.

If you spend hours on end at a monitor and are worried about developing nearsightedness, take a few moments to stare out the window and focus at an object in the distance. Bob Anderson, author of Stretching at Your Computer or Desk (Shelter Publications), recommends raising your eyebrows and eyes wide while opening your mouth as wide as it will go. It will relax your face, relieve jaw tension, and make anyone within view burst out laughing. Just one more reason to be glad you work at home.