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Overcome the challenges of working from home

In this episode, I talk to Joanna Penn, best-selling author, podcaster and speaker based in the UK. She can be found online by searching for The Creative Penn.

We talk about the physical and mental challenges of working from home, the importance getting out of the home and varying the environment you work in, attending summits and conferences, and the friction of working with your partner.

Discover more about Joanna’s work here: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/ or search for her podcast on iTunes.

Follow Joanna on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/thecreativepenn

And on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/thecreativepenn

Joanna Penn author


Alongside every episode, there are these Show Notes which include a summary of the content of the show and any useful links as well as the full transcript which you can find below.

Follow Homepreneur on social media and keep in touch:

Website: https://www.homepreneur.co/podcast/

Email: Amanda Brown

Facebook group: Homepreneur Community

Twitter: @amanda_brown

Read the transcript

Amanda Brown: Hi, and a warm welcome to the Homepreneur Show. My name's Amanda Brown, business consultant and founder of the Homepreneur Community. I'm here to help you overcome the challenges of running a home-based business.

Whether you're just thinking of leaving the nine-to-five, or you're a seasoned homepreneur, my aim is to provide you with guidance on productivity, focus, and motivation, so you can maintain the perfect work-life balance.

This year, I celebrate 20 years of working from my home office, through both the ups, and downs. You can discover the show notes, free courses and downloads at www.homepreneur.co.

So, let's get started.

Hello everybody, and welcome to the short interview between myself, Amanda Brown, of Homepreneur, and the lovely Joanna Penn, wonderful author of many fiction, and non-fiction books, and a homepreneur herself with an extra challenge, which she's going to tell us about later on in the interview.

So Joanna, can you introduce yourself and tell us all about what it's like in your home office?

Joanna Penn: Yeah, sure. It's really great to talk to you Amanda, as we said, I reached out to you on Twitter and I was like, “This is a great topic, it's so difficult.” So basically, I started writing in around sort of 2006. I had a day job. And then in 2011, I left my job to be a full-time writer.

As of right now, I've got 26 books; 16 fiction, 10 non-fiction. I'm also a speaker. But most of my life is spent on the computer. I do online marketing, so I run my life from my laptop.

So in terms of, when I left, you know, we can cycle back to the problems at the beginning, but right now, my home office. I live in a two bedroom flat with my husband in Bath, in the south-west of England, and one of our bedrooms is our home office. We both work at home.

So my husband left his job in 2015, and we currently share an office. I also write in cafés. So I write fiction in cafés. So I kind of jump around a bit, so maybe we can talk about why I do that.

Yeah. So it's all been quite varied really, but I've been doing this, full-time, since 2011.

Amanda Brown: Well that's amazing I think. I celebrate 20 years actually of working from home this very year.

Joanna Penn: Wow, congratulations.

Amanda Brown: Thank you.That was one of the things that's spurring me on to write my book. Of course, I have read several of your books, the non-fiction books, including The Healthy Writer, which I found absolutely fascinating. As I sit at my computer a lot, I really found a lot of the advice in that, you know, it resonated with me a lot. What drew you to writing that particular book, Joanna?

Joanna Penn: Even in the first year of working from home, I think what's surprising is that you think you will almost do more, but because you don't have the commuting time, so you know, it's great not to have to commute, but when you don't commute, you're not moving around as much.
What happened to me in that first year was that I got really chronic back pain, I ended up in hospital having a scan for spinal tumors. I was waking up at the middle of the night with back pain. I had also put on weight, like many of us when you are home. Like, you just don't move around enough.

I was spending so many hours, like I was working more hours. You know, I wasn't getting up for meetings. It literally is the lack of movement. So that began a kind of journey, and The Healthy Writer book, which I co-wrote with Doctor Euan Lawson, so a medical doctor, I don't give medical advice, obviously.

Amanda Brown: Me neither.

No, exactly. But it really spans my own journey from that chronic pain to right now, pretty much pain free back. And as I'm talking to you, I'm at a standing desk. I go up and down on this desk, and I just put on my Instagram channel actually, even when I write in a café, I have a laptop riser, that mean an external keyboard, so that I'm always, my neck is always at the right kind of angle. When I'm seated, I use a swiss ball at home. Obviously, I don't carry that around to the cafés.

That would be good.

Joanna Penn: It would be. And I also now do Yoga three or four times a week. Those are things that have developed over time. The other thing I do is, I move more. So some people might have heard of Pomodoro, which is 20 minutes of concentrated work, five minutes break. I don't really do that, but I make sure that I drink a lot of tea, and I get up to the toilet.

Amanda Brown: I think that's great. I run a thing called, Hoffice. That's H and Office joined together, where I have my kitchen open to local people, and they come and co-work with me once a month, and we do the Pomodoro technique as well. We do 50, 10, 50, 10, and we go through cycles. To encourage people to get up and move around, go in the garden, whatever they want to do. So I can whole-heartedly share that needing to move and clear the brain.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, well it's interesting you say that because some writers do go to writers' groups, but what I've heard about writers' groups, I don't do them myself, is there's not much writing done, it's mainly talking, and wine, and things.

But it's interesting, because one of the things we found with The Healthy Writer survey, was people's loneliness and their isolation. It's so interesting, because I'm an introvert, I love being on my own, but I really did find that when I left my job, I left my social group. Even just the casual discussion about TV, or books you're reading, or office gossip around the kettle, or the coffee machine, or nipping out for a coffee. All of these social interactions are something that can be really badly missed, even for introverts, and even worse for shy introverts.

Now, I'm not shy, but I am an introvert. So what I had to do in that first year was, well I did two things that first year that kind of made a real difference. One is that I started going to a library, so I used to commute into a library, the London Library where I was living at the time, and that's also the reason now that I go round to a café. It's like, it's a routine, but it's also, there are people there, and there's life there, and you realize that things are going on.

And then secondly, you actually actively seek out other humans. So you know, I might do two-and-a-half hours at a café, and then I might meet a friend, another writer, for a coffee. That gives me human interaction and also, over time, you build a community.

So I think that loneliness and isolation, it's so important to do things, like you mentioned, like your kitchen and meeting other people. You can't be on your own all the time.

Amanda Brown: No, I spend an awful lot of time on my own, because my children now have grown up and flown the nest. So I actually live on my own. In the evenings, I go out. So I balanced what I do on my own in the day, because I'm quite sociable, but I do then, intentionally, go out. So I'm a member of Rock Choir, which I think-

Joanna Penn: Oh, brilliant!

Amanda Brown: … we sang in Bath.

Joanna Penn: Oh.

I love Rock Choir. Rock Choir is one of those things that I have on my list. If people don't know, you sing modern rock songs, right? And you don't-

Amanda Brown: You do.

Joanna Penn: … have to be a really good singer.

Amanda Brown: You don't.

Joanna Penn: You can just join in!

Amanda Brown: And today I see that we are, not headlining, we're opening the Meraki Festival in Hertfordshire, in August. It's so funny just to see this poster up with, “Rock Choir,” and thinking, “I'm going to be standing on a stage!”

Joanna Penn: I think that's fantastic. And for writers, you know, especially novelists, or people writing books, as such, that it's not something you do in a day job. It's something that most people do in the evenings or weekends. Writing is their hobby.

And then, if you go full-time, if it becomes your job, you realize that, you know, like often people will say to me, “What's your hobby?” And I'm like, “Well, actually, I really like reading, and I like writing.” That's kind of my job, but it's so interesting with choir.

So Yoga, I've taken up as a hobby, but choir is a really interesting thing. It has no relationship at all, really, to the writing process, although it's just got so much in it that is beneficial.

So I've got dancing on my list as well. I think things that are different to the things we do. But it takes a real mindset shift to go from, writing is my hobby, to, writing is my living, and therefore I need to add some other things, so I don't become one dimensional.

Amanda Brown: I think that must be a danger, becoming one dimensional, because I'm an online marketing person for other people, so that's what my day job is, and the Homepreneur brand is a new brand, if you like. That, so I've been a social media person for other people, now I'm going to turn it all into my own stuff. I think that, yeah, you do need that interaction with other people, you're so right with that. It puts a different perspective on things.

I go to quite a few summits and conferences, particularly in London, and I found quite a nice community online as well of freelance people, they're great as well. I know that isolation is something that came out in my survey. I surveyed 550 people about the challenges of working from home, and isolation was high up on the list. Very high.

Joanna Penn: I think you also have to, like I call it, “friend dating,” because I've moved around a lot. So I was in New Zealand, in Australia, then we moved to London, now I'm in Bath, now we're moving again. To take those online relationships into the physical realm, so to, like you say, go to conferences, and go to the same conferences. I think if you go multiple years, to the same conference, you actually can build relationships that persist over time.

So I go to Thriller Fest in New York, and Crime Fest in Bristol. And you know, that really helps develop relationships, especially if you are an introvert. But also, just kind of taking it beyond Twitter.

I mean even you and I now, you know, meeting on Twitter and then taking it forward into a conversation, you actually kind of have to push yourself a bit out of your comfort zone when you first start out, otherwise, you will end up running back to the day job.

I know that that first year, I was just reviewing the blog post I wrote about my first year, and I noted that my self-esteem completely dropped. It disappeared. Like I felt awful. I felt like a … not a failure, but I just felt like, “What am I doing?” I went from a high status job with people who respected me, to the bottom of the food chain really.

And like when no one knew who I was really, nobody … I didn't have any status in life, and I didn't really kind of consider myself a status-person. But just when you are in an office environment, or in a day job environment, other people kind of bolster your self-confidence and your self-esteem.

So the other thing you have to really do is to find ways to build up that self-esteem again. The little wins that you get from working from home. Whether that's, “Okay, today I finish that article,” or, “I finish that chapter,” or, “I did that one particular thing on my list.” Like you have to set your goals.

Amanda Brown: Yeah.

Joanna Penn: Because you're the only one who's gonna set your goals for you. There's no external manager.

Amanda Brown: I always tell people, or I advise people to not only have a … and I'm not a great fan of to-do lists, but let's call it a to-do list, but also to have a have-done list, because very often that's bigger than the to-do list, because people sneak things in.

And so actually, you've got to look back and say, “Yeah, I did that, and that, and I also did …” You know, “I had that extra phone call”, or, “I had that finished a little bit more,” or, “I had that idea about something.” And that does keep your mind healthy. I think that, you know, I listened to a podcast with John Luma, do you know John Luma? The Facebook Ad Specialist?

Joanna Penn: Oh, I've heard of him, yeah.

Amanda Brown: Yeah. He did a really moving podcast about suffering from depression from being isolated, and he works from home, and he has a family around him. But you know, even the isolation have caused him to become feeling very, very miserable. And other online marketing people have suffered the same thing. So I think there is a danger that it's not always good for your mental health.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and you mentioned family there, so let's talk about that, because at the beginning, these first four years I worked from home, and my husband was at his day job. And because I was isolated, he would get home, and I would just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk at him, because I haven't talked to anyone.

And so, there was a lot of pressure on him to kind of be everything. But there was also pressure on me, like this is one of the issues I think when you're at home with a partner, maybe family, is; who does the chores?

Because it's like, “Well, you're at home, you should do the shopping, cook the dinner, clean the place.” Like, physical chores around the house can become a real bone of contention when you are at home, and your partner is out at work. You know, even though they'll be commuting in a nice relaxing way, listening to audio books, or going out for lunch, or whatever.

Amanda Brown: Exactly.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I would say that that is something to be aware of, like when people are about to leave or, you know, go full-time at home is, to have that discussion. To say, “Look, I am at home, and I will do the shopping or …”

Like, we started to get online shopping delivered, which meant just a bit more time to do the work, and also, this is a contentious thing, especially for women I think, which is; get a cleaner.

Amanda Brown: Definitely. Get a cleaner, do online shopping, batch cook, and have somebody mow your lawn if that's what it is, because actually, if you work it out, that's what … Why have you come home from a corporate job to work? If you enjoy doing those other things because they're part of your rest time, or your activity time, then that's fair enough, but it's actually, if you're really, really truly busy and trying to build a business, if you can outsource those things that you don't like doing, then go for it, is my view of the world.

Joanna Penn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I think that friction, because once my husband did start working from home as well, it still became friction. Like, who's gonna do it? So we still have a cleaner. We're just like, “Okay well, fair enough, both of us now work from home. So we need …” That's something that takes some friction off.

Now, because we share an office, so right now, I've thrown him out of the office, because I'm talking to you. So what you kind of have to do is a bit more scheduling around who has what time in your home office.

Now I don't think most people would share an office with their spouse, but when I left my job, my first goal was to get to six figures, but my second goal was to hire my husband out of his job.

So I do know many successful writers who end up breaking their other half out of a day job, but sometimes it can be, you know, there can be friction with doing that because roles and responsibilities might have been defined before, and then things change.

So I would just say, be aware of that, and make sure that you're not just wanting your spouse there to do all the jobs that you don't wanna do.

Amanda Brown: Well I'm sure he does a lot more than … So can you describe what he actually, you know, how your day looks together? I mean, you know, you share the office, but what's his role and responsibility within your setup?

Joanna Penn: We're both kind of morning people, so we tend to get up about five. I go to the café first thing. So I write in a café between seven, when it opens, and ten o'clock. And Johnathan, my husband, he's writing now as well, so he'll write here. So if he's got dictation or anything, he'll be here.

Then we tend to both go to the Yoga school, so we do that together at about ten. Then we come back and in the afternoons we do marketing stuff, so he does all my video editing. I have a YouTube channel, I have a podcast. He does a lot of that editing. He does some advertising. He does the support for my multimedia courses.

So there is a segregation of duties, as such. He's also in charge of foreign rights for my books. But it's taken time to kind of work out how we split the roles, and that's why it's so important, I think especially when your other half, you know, he's joining your company, but you don't necessarily have a clear role for them. They have to find it themselves.

Jonathan was really interested in videos, so we almost started to do more videos, I mean, because that's what he was interested in.

Joanna Penn: And I know a lot of people are not working with family, so I would put some caution around that. We are happily, and by choice, child-free, which does take the pressure off us. But I do know people who have young children, for example, where you have to be juggling childcare, as well as, everything else.

Joanna Penn: So what I would say is, just be aware, if you're moving from working in an office, or working in a very regimented environment where you're like, “Okay, I'm out the door at seven, kids are at school. I come home. We make dinner.” It becomes a lot more fluid than that, and what you have to do, I think, is set that routine. You have to have a routine.

Amanda Brown: You do.

Joanna Penn: Otherwise, you will never get anything done. I think people resist that. They think, “Oh, I'm leaving my job. It's just like a holiday.” But, you can't have a business if it's just a holiday.

Amanda Brown: Definitely not, and I think that's right, that routine actually allows you to have … Like using techniques like Pomodoro, it makes you more efficient, it makes you more productive, and therefore you can shorten your days, because you actually do have a framework that you're working to. I think that does definitely help. These things … I mean, do you have board meetings together? You know, like a review meeting.

Joanna Penn: Yeah we do. We run a limited company, so we are 50% shareholders and directors of our own company. So when you have a company, there are responsibilities, and one of those are director's meetings. So we have a weekly meeting. We minute those meetings.

So this is the other thing, it's kind of in the same way you would take your finances seriously, you have a company bank account, you also need to take your company seriously. So we talk about the different responsibilities, the goals we've got, the different author names because I have multiple author names now.

So yeah, we do have those meetings. And then we also use Asana, which is a task tool, because we also have some virtual assistants who help us with managing the blog, doing my transcriptions, managing book stuff. We use Asana to assign tasks, and we also assign them to each other, which is kind of amusing. So we do that.

But yeah, we do take it very seriously. We have quarterly bigger meetings where we try and act in a more strategic way. Jonathan has kind of taken responsibility for the more strategic direction of the company, because I'm so focused on the, “Have I written 2,000 words today?” And he's like, “Well, you know, what if we did this, and that would impact things in this way.”

So it can be, you know, I think trying to keep all of that in-the-air, as well as maintain a marriage, for example, or a friendship. You know, many people who work from home will end up working with a friend. There's actually a podcast I really like called, Being Boss. Have you heard that one?

Amanda Brown: I haven't actually, I'll note that one down.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, that's really good. That's two friends, and they have young kids, so they talk a lot about their businesses and they work as friends together. So that's another variation, I think, of the way companies can work when it's from home. Like it doesn't have to be just you, I think that's another point.

One of the first people I hired was a bookkeeper. That was the very first person I hired, because I just did not want to keep my accounts up-to-date in that way. So I hired a bookkeeper, obviously I have an accountant for the annual accounts, but that day-to-day, month-to-month management of accounts, that was so important to get done, so that I could do the important creative things.

Amanda Brown: I think that's such good advice. I think the other piece of advice I'd give people starting out, would be to get somebody you know, or some contractor, to do your IT problems, and not to be spending hours and hours searching on YouTube videos, or on Google, for answers to your IT problems, because you can just end up either wrecking things, or just finding you've gone so far and you can't go any further, it would've been much quicker to call in an expert. So knowing what you're good at and what you're not good at is also really important.

Joanna Penn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Although, what I would say there is, I think those two examples are really good examples of things that outsourcing is a good idea. But a lot of people, I find, especially authors, they come into this and they don't want to learn things like internet marketing.

Both you and I know that marketing is an integral part of your business, and if you try and hire someone to do all of your marketing for you, that's basically like a full-time position. So what I would say to people is, yes, hire out some things that you can, or want to, but there are a lot of skills that you're gonna have to learn that you don't know at the moment, and they may push you out of your comfort zone.

Say for example, you know, doing interviews is something that is actually quite critical for most authors and many people who want to get out there. Professional speaking might be another one. Marketing, you know, internet marketing. Use of social media.

These are things that … And just, I guess, business, you know, income and expenses. You have to learn some of this in order to run your home business. So it's a bit like the book, The E-Myth, I think is the most famous thing. You have to work in your business, but you also have to work on your business.

Amanda Brown: Definitely. I couldn't agree more. It's fun learning new things, you know, and that's why we read your lovely books, because I read your book about How To Write a Non-Fiction Book, which is the latest non-fiction book to come out. That, I spent a very happy weekend reading.

And yes, the mindset bit was particularly interesting. I thought that was very good. And it very clearly laid out step-by-step guide as to exactly what you need to do if you want to self-publish your own book.

So I really did enjoy that, and would encourage anybody listening to this to go out and buy yourself a copy, even if you're not thinking of actually publishing a big book. You know, you can publish a small book. I think that definitely helped me lay out my book that's coming out later in the year.

Well I'd like to thank you so much for your time Joanna, it's really kind of you. It's really lovely to speak to you. We got there eventually with the tech, and we could both giggle our way through the rest of the afternoon. But I'm going to let you get back to dipping your quill in the ink and penning a few more words today.

Joanna Penn: Aw.

Amanda Brown: Thank you so much indeed.

Joanna Penn: Well thanks so much Amanda, and I'm at thecreativepenn.com. Penn, with a double N, if anyone has any questions, or lots more information about writing and publishing, and book marketing there. So thanks again.

Amanda Brown: You're welcome.

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