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. 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

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 🙂

  8. 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!

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