Being a digital nomad isn’t always going to be easy.
But Jenn Miller has a few tips on how to manage the pitfalls and make the most of the benefits of working from the road.
I’m writing this piece from 30,000 feet, on a United Airlines flight, making use of the inflight wifi to upload the final result. I could be using the inflight wifi to watch movies, like my neighbors, but instead, seat 30C is my mobile office for the day.
After a nail-biter of a first twenty minutes in the air thinking, “Come on, come on!! Connect already!” the tenuous thread of connectivity that stretches out there somewhere into the deep black and then bounces back down to our little blue ball hummed to life and I was back in business. I’ve been monitoring my Slack feed for important stuff and chatting with a coworker about a bigger project, building the Japan country resource for the Travel Access Project, and now, I’m writing. It doesn’t really matter where I am, this is my life.
- Switch out work-life balance for work-life integration.
Like most digital nomads I know, I’m not that interested in work-life-balance. Instead, I strive for work-life-integration and creating a rhythm of work and play that meets all of my needs, not just my deadlines. It’s the whole point of the juggling act that is freelance work and life on my own terms. Occasionally, someone will point out the obvious, that my life is one big vacation, jetting from place to place, uploading beach and museum pictures to my Instagram, on the hunt for the next big adventure.
Yeah, right. Some of that’s true. I do travel. I do love a warm beach. I’m a big fan of museums. I post too much on Instagram. But in between those little snapshots of the highlights, there’s a lot of work.
If you’re considering taking the dive into a digital nomad lifestyle, consider this your reality check.
- Be prepared to work hard.
Sure, you can cobble together a hand to mouth existence while skirting beaches, barefoot, for a year or two to keep your adventures afloat with your blog, busking and some under-the-table bar tending. I know lots of people who have, and are. But if you’re going to make this thing your grown-up career, I have news for you: it’s work. (Just like any career, right?)
Do not expect to put in fewer hours than you would at your “real job” for a good long time. Maybe a few years even. Expect to pay your dues. The biggest facilitator of my husband’s digital nomad success was the seven years he spent with Apple. Those connections continue to be priceless. Expect to hustle. Hard. I’ve been pitching and writing with consistency for eight years. Number of years I’ve been making career type money at it: two and a half. There’s truth in advertising. Maybe you’re smarter, maybe you’ll get there bigger, better, and faster. Maybe you’ll be all Four Hour Work Week right out of the box. Maybe. But maybe not. Just sayin’. You should expect it to be work.
- Be prepared for a few logistical nightmares
Nothing will give you an appreciation for 9-5 and an office quite like 24-7 and a plastic cafe table in a monsoon rain in Hanoi. Finding consistent wifi is a pain. Organizing conference calls across 6 hour time differences is not a joy. 12 hour time differences are worse.
It’s a constant set-up-tear-down game with your office gear and a constant worry as you’re carrying the electronics that put food in your mouth and a roof over your head through every imaginable travel scenario that makes a great story later but is a pain in the moment. You can trust me on that. Add a partner, or kids to the mix, and chaos really is exponential. You can trust me on that too.
- There’s no autopilot on the road.
Showing up on autopilot to an office job where everyone knows the drill is easier. Don’t look at me like that. Yes it is. It’s easier because you’re not constantly making decisions about everything.
That gets tiring. If you jump on the digital nomad bandwagon you can expect to be thinking constantly and making a myriad of decisions about how to work, where to work, when to work, what to work on, if it’s working, and how to make it look just a little more legitimate to the potential client on the other end of the line.
- Slow down.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Slowing down helps, a lot. Less is more on the six countries in six weeks kind of traveling. Staying in decent places helps. Newsflash: You get what you pay for! Five bucks a night might serve a purpose, but it’s not the place to expect to get that $500 project knocked out over a weekend.
If this is your grown-up career, stay in grown-up places (decent hotels, houses or apartments that you rent, or co-living and working spaces that cater to people who actually are trying to get things done.)
- Make the most of your flexible schedule.
There are downsides to everything, including being a digital nomad, but there’s also no getting around the fact that it’s the most flexible way to live. Once you minimize your stuff, and your location based liabilities, you’ll find that living and working anywhere really is possible. You might be the only person you know who can buy a ticket Sunday afternoon, just because it’s cheap, and be on another continent, working, by Tuesday evening. That doesn’t suck.
You’re free to work the hours that are more productive for you, most of the time. For me, that’s between 5:30 in the morning and noon. Your job performance won’t be measured by the hours you log in the hot seat. Instead, efficiency is incentivized: you’ve just got to get the job done. If that takes you fifty hours this week, it takes you fifty. If it takes you ten, well, you just bought yourself some downtime.
For me, this is the big perk. I can be there in a heartbeat if friends or family need me. Or I can evaporate with the morning mist if what I need is a week of yoga and space to clear my head. I can take my kids places, on my own schedule and terms. And if I want to work in my pjs on my Guatemalan bean bags, the client is none the wiser.
- Give yourself 3 months to get past the learning curve.
Like anything else, it takes some time to perfect your groove living and working nomadically. Do not expect to leave one life and just fall seamlessly into the new one. Be gentle with yourself. Know that hiccups, crises, and “I hate this!” moments are normal. You didn’t get great at what you’re doing now inside the first two weeks, it took time. This will too.
You can help yourself by slowing down, especially at first, when the instinct is to run a million miles an hour. Intentionally set boundaries, around work time, play time, family time, whatever time you need to protect. This is especially important if you are new to managing all of your own agendas. Think hard about who you are, how you work, and what might be best in that department. Don’t be afraid to try things, change things up, admit mistakes, celebrate and build on victories. Explore systems that will streamline your repetitive tasks and increase efficiency, this will save you hours when you’re in a pinch on the road.
Three months. That’s about the time it takes to find your feet in full-time travel and digital nomad life. At the end of three months you’ll know what’s working and if it’s going to work for you. It won’t all be perfect by then, but you’ll be getting there. You’ll be learning about yourself and what you want out of this lifestyle. You’ll be making connections with enough other people of the same ilk that you’ll have compared notes and be helping each other forward. Don’t pass judgement on yourself, or the experience for at least three months; that’s my best piece of advice.