The Reality of Being a Digital Nomad

(This is part three of Life-Travel Balance week.)

Like many working twenty-somethings, my best friend and I GChat back and forth most days, her at her desk in Seattle, me at our kitchen table in Sayulita Mexico.

Last Wednesday she was complaining about some annoying guy in her office who was causing a disturbance. “I know how you feel,” I replied, “there is a donkey outside right now and it is being SO LOUD.”

Oh wait, that’s not normal, is it? People in offices aren’t generally harassed by roaming donkeys squealing at the top of their lungs, I reminded myself.

That got me thinking about how odd my typical day at “the office” is and how totally used to it I’ve become. After all, I haven’t worked a regular job in 3 and a half years. Over time I’ve adjusted to a lot of strange realities of working on the road.

The Portable Office

Diet Coke is an office staple

Do you have a desk? What’s on it? Probably your computer, your keyboard, maybe some files, a phone, a stapler, pictures of your family. When you sit down at your desk you know that it is time to work, or at least time to look like you are working.

I don’t have a desk. When we’re traveling my desk is basically my laptop. If I have wifi and my Macbook Air I’m good to go, whether I’m sitting on the beach, tucked into a cafe or crashing on a friend’s couch. Unfortunately my laptop is also my personal entertainment system, connection to the world back home and a general distraction machine. I use several computer programs to make sure I stay productive and don’t while away hours on Facebook instead.

Here in Mexico Mike and I mostly do our work sitting on opposite sides of the kitchen table. It’s one of the better set ups that I’ve had: when I turn my head I can see palm trees swaying in the breeze and the sparkling blue ocean down the street.

Coworker Vacuum

Cranky co-worker

I’m a pretty solitary person so I actually don’t miss coworkers that much, especially since I still have Mike to bug me. I think that if I were working from home alone though the quiet might get to me after awhile. Yeah coworkers can be annoying and distracting, but sometimes you want that human interaction and GChat just won’t cut it.

Weird Distractions

Try working with this going on outside

Like the donkey I mentioned above, my world is full of strange distractions. There are the lizards that live in the tree outside our window (I’m obsessed with them). There is the crazy American lady downstairs who shouts at the passing tourists who don’t stop to look at her shop. There’s the churro truck that parks under my window every afternoon and wafts the delicious smell of fried dough up at me for hours on end. Then there is that beach, just down the street, just begging me to come lie on it…

I’ve had to develop serious concentration and self-discipline abilities if I’m ever going to get anything done. Which is important because…

Don’t work, Don’t get Paid

On the one hand, being self-employed means you get unlimited off days if you want. On the other, you definitely don’t get paid for them. Unless I am sitting at my computer, writing, querying, doing advertisements and running campaigns, I am not making money. Which means that in order to keep the money coming in, I need to be constantly hustling. Even though there isn’t anyone tracking my work hours, I work a pretty orthodox Monday-Friday week.

This really complicates the whole work and travel dynamic I first envisioned for myself. Mike and I have tried many different combinations of work and travel at the same time, and often found ourselves totally burnt out and exhausted. We’ve discovered that for us, having a home base is essential for our sanity and relationship.

The Blurred Line

Quitting Time

As a direct result of what I mentioned above, Mike and I struggle a lot with finding a work-life balance, much less a life-travel balance. When you don’t have any set hours, it is difficult to define quitting time. There is nobody to make us stop, and a never ending list of stuff that needs to get done. It’s hard to walk away when there is so much more you could accomplish (and money you could possibly make).

Lately I’ve been insisting on quitting work at around 6 pm each night and having at least one, if not two days off each weekend. I actually think this makes me laxer/lazier than most digital nomads I know who seem to work from the moment they are out of bed until it’s time to go to sleep, but I just can’t live like that.

The Bottom Line

Despite all of these weird job quirks, I really do like being self-employed. I like the self-determination, the variety, the fact that I get to decide what direction my career goes. I get to eschew alarm clocks, write all day and I only want to beat my head against the wall like 30% of the time.

My tips for people considering a digital nomad lifestyle are simple:

  1. Be realistic about your expectations. Some days you might get to work while sipping cocktails on the beach, but that’s not always the reality.
  2. Be honest. A lot of the first couple years of my journey was trial and error- learning what I could work with and what I couldn’t. I’d love to be a person who can wake up at 6 am, do 3 hours of writing and then go hang out at the beach all day, but that is not how my brain, or my job, works.
  3. Be flexible. Mike and I are constantly re-assessing what works for us. For a long time I eschewed the idea of travel-work-life balance completely. To me they were all the same thing: my life was working while I traveled. In the past year or so I’ve felt a kind of internal change, where I want to separate those threads again and have a life beyond my laptop and suitcase.

More and more I’ve come to see the balance between travel and life as a moving target. What works right now might be totally different than what works in a couple of years, and having the flexibility, and more importantly the will, to change is the only way to stay on top.

24 thoughts on “The Reality of Being a Digital Nomad”

  1. I can identify with everything you said, but I’m working alone most of the time, in a fairly quiet apartment, and don’t mind it. It’s a better work environment for me than a cafe. I can’t focus if there are lots of people around, specifically cute girls.

    Mike appears to require a lot more gadgetry than you. External drive, speakers, extra monitor. He also doesn’t seem thrilled to be in that photo 🙂

    This past weekend I pushed myself to work Saturday and Sunday, and found myself much less energetic when Monday rolled around. I’m certainly capable of working 7 days a week, but I find having at least one full day off helps recharge my mental batteries.

  2. Thank you for the tips, and the series. I have only recently started my blog and investigating how I might make money as a digital nomad in the near future. It’s a scary thought to be honest but I’m hoping that if I am willing to try various things out, I will hopefully find the combination that works for me 🙂

  3. I’ve been loving this series! Flexibility and self discipline are so important. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’m looking to buy a MacBook Air as well. I need something light and easy to travel with and my iPad just won’t cut it anymore now that I’m blogging. Are you happy with yours or is it worth buying the pro?

    Happy travels 🙂

    1. I love mine! It’s light, perfect for writing and has held up really well for nearly three years now (knock on wood). I don’t do a lot of video editing or heavy photo editing so that is something to consider if you do, but it works well for my primary activities of writing and watching netflix.

  4. It’s nice to hear both sides of the digital nomad lifestyle. So often, I think how much I’d enjoy to try out that way of working (and I do think ultimately I’d really enjoy it) but it’s the things like the interrupting donkeys that never seem to cross my mind when I allow myself to daydream 🙂

  5. I think the title of the series says it all Steph – it’s all about balance and what works for you and Mike. If something stops working, assess it and change it but life on the road is surely all about evolving in every aspect of life so fingers crossed you manage to keep the balance because yes, whilst you don’t make money when you don’t work, you’ve got to enjoy yourself simultaneously 🙂

  6. I don’t understand the point of working on your own and being location independent if that means you’re constantly tied to your computer 24/7 – you’re not able to enjoy traveling or life…so why not work in an office and have regular time off?

  7. I love this post because so many people don’t realize that self employment can be just as stressful as a regular job. I have a day job but I work as a freelancer nights and weekends and that income is critical. If I blow off writing one night to go out to dinner with friends or watch TV, I lose money. That makes it hard to ever stop working, so I have to force myself to back away from the laptop occasionally!

  8. This is a great post, I really appreciate your honesty on the topic of being a digital nomad as I try to find my way into it. I suppose even doing your dream job comes with sacrifices!

  9. This is a really interesting read. Since I’m just starting out with blogging and trying to become a digital nomad (just over a year now), I can relate to many of these things you mention, but only in a limited sense. In one way, it puts me off trying to persue working location independently myself, but it also motivates me, so it’s weird to have those opposing feelings about the same thing. Either way, I definitely realise it’s not all tapping away effortlessly at a laptop while sipping cocktails looking out over the ocean with no distractions whatsoever.

  10. This is a great post and basically sums up my life right now. Both my boyfriend and I are self-employed (he is a professional athlete/social marketer/web designer and I am writer/blogger) and we are constantly working on this balance. Sometimes we just get fed up and relinquish the computer work for a few days, but there is always that moneymoneymoney hum in the background. So hard!

  11. I pretty much have always worked online ever since I graduated college, so all this stuff sounds totally normal to me. Just because you’re working somewhere exotic doesn’t change the fact that it’s still work. It’s really just a change in location. 🙂

  12. I definitely struggled with work balance when we travelled (I didn’t do MUCH work but the days I did were kind of a writeoff). Doing it as a permanent thing must be even more of a juggling act.

  13. It is so funny to read about the distractions you have from home! Donkeys, lizards, shouting shop owners lol.

    I can totally see how difficult it must be to find balance. When I have a whole day to myself to get things done I get up stretching everything into the very night….just because I had no time frame whatsoever. Sometimes you need a “9-5” work schedule to just bring a bit of time management. Easier said than done, of course!

  14. This is really great info to know, thanks! I’m just starting to set up my own travel website after having written for another one. Right now I write all the time, because I’m really excited and motivated to do so. But I feel your advice on setting up a time schedule will come in handy later down the road.

  15. Great post, Steph! I’ve experienced the same highs and lows that you have. Home base is key, and I’ve also self-imposed two days off per week. I don’t always stick to it, but at least I try! That being said, I agree that I wouldn’t change my life. As long as we stay flexible and positive, this is really an awesome way to live!

  16. A portable office is definitely the way to go. It just takes a bit of initiative and hustle to discipline yourself to get work done when you’re living in paradise!

  17. Thank you for the tips Steph, I love the way you write your articles, even if your routine is nothing but usual you remain really humble !
    Absolutely inspiring.
    Greetings, Leen Nilsson

  18. Nice article – My friends think I party all day when the reality is that I work more regular – but the work is much more enjoyable. I re-assess every 3 mos to see if the work schedule is working and try to reevaluate – I 100% agree – it’s an ongoing process.
    The freedom though is the BEST reward.

  19. This is super insightful! Thanks 🙂

    I guess with anything in life it’s about balance, but with a ‘nontraditional,’ nomadic career, where the guidelines aren’t drawn out or set in stone, you are 100% in charge of constructing this balance. It provides freedom. But with a highly motivated personality and aura, where do you draw the line and cut yourself a break? I feel it to be more fulfilling for sure and that the benefits outweigh the costs. Look at the opportunities for growth and learning that you surround yourself with every day, as a result of your career choice. I mean, kudos to you, someone that’s doing it right. I’m curious to where you see youselves transitioning with your careers in a few years. Will you settle down somewhere, at least part time; where do you project the 30-somethings?

    Cheers, Morgan

    1. Hi Morgan,
      Glad you liked the article! Actually yes, we have settled down significantly in the past year. We’re now living in Seattle and traveling only occasionally. I don’t think this will be the norm forever but for us right now it feels right.

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