5 Tips for Surviving as a Digital Nomad
How to make the most of your nomadic lifestyle -- and actually get work done.
A few days after arriving in Nepal in the fall of 2015, I spoke with a fellow traveler who asked me what it is that I do for a living. After explaining to her that I’m into digital marketing and tend to work with clients all across the globe, she said, “Oh, so you’re a nomad?”
Prior to that conversation, the only type of "nomad" that I was aware of was the kind that goes on a 2,000-mile journey across the Himalayas to fulfill a spiritual pilgrimage. I had lived and worked abroad for a number of years before that, but it was only once I arrived on the other side of the planet that I became aware of the "digital nomad" label.
It does seem like there is a lot of hype being generated around the digital nomad lifestyle, and rightfully so. Who wouldn’t want to live on a tropical island, while still having the means to earn a living? Of course, this comes down to what your profession is, and whether it is sustainable enough for you to work remotely and still earn a decent living. Those with remote work positions are an exception to the rule, but freelance work isn’t so hard to find these days. Developers, designers and digital marketers are in high demand, and these are the types of jobs that can easily be done remotely.
I have spent the last two years travelling across Southeast Asia, India and East Africa. Every place I have been to has in many ways provided a set of cultural and mental challenges, but in terms of work, the majority of the places have been developed enough to welcome digital nomads with open arms, with reliable internet, affordable accommodation and plenty of beaches for me to unwind after a sweaty day grinding away on my notebook. There comes a time that you simply forget that you’re on the road, as living abroad has become the norm.
Here are some of my tips and advice on how to survive as a digital nomad, whether you’re only planning to become one, or have been one for a while.
1. Find a comfortable workspace.
When the sun is scalding your skull with 104 degrees of raw sunshine, the last thing on your mind is going to be productivity. And that is the last place you want to be.
The solution is to seek comfortable workspaces. These can be coffee shops, or coworking spaces built purposefully for nomads.
While sitting in your hotel room with the air conditioner pumped all the way up can feel good in terms of body temperature, you don’t want to be stuck in that room forever. Get busy with searching for places that will let you work during the day in exchange for a couple of cups of coffee; don’t settle for the first place you find, weigh your options and put yourself in an environment that inspires you.
Coworking spaces in particular have a lot to offer, as they help you to connect with like-minded individuals whom you can network your ideas with, exchange contacts and perhaps even launch a business together.
Word of mouth works great for finding places that inspire others. I found that attending an art, yoga or dance class can give you the social context to ask questions and get to know local customs much more quickly.
2. Figure out your most productive time of the day.
What makes remote work great is that you can create your own schedule and work during the hours you’re most productive. When you’re going to new places you naturally want to explore, finding a good balance between work and play is essential.
Experiment with your schedule; see if your productivity is better in the evening -- when the heat of the day is starting to wear off -- or maybe early in the morning, while everyone else is still waking up.
I found that early morning hours until lunchtime work really well for myself, starting my day with a bunch of tasks at hand to help me keep that focus for several hours.
There was a period last year when I was staying in Cambodia during the hottest month of the year, and I would never do that again. It was an absolute killer to my productivity, no matter the time of the day. My best advice is to avoid traveling to locations where you know it’s going to be scorching hot for a long period of time. I learned that hard way.
3. Pay attention to time zone differences.
If you’re doing a ton of freelance work, make sure that your clients know that you’re living as a nomad, and live in a timezone different from theirs. This will save you plenty of headaches and missed calls whenever there is an important issue at hand, and no one is going to turn you down because you’re living this particular lifestyle.
Some of the best ways to stay in touch with clients are to use Slack, Skype, and, of course, email works. This allows you to create an environment where you can catch up on any messages and notes, without having to stay up until 2 a.m. in the morning to do so.
4. Remember why you are a digital nomad.
Everyone travels for different reasons, but it's important to know yours. If your intention was to live in a country where it’s always nice and sunny, remember that and give yourself enough time to actually enjoy that weather. If you left your home country because you wanted to get away from something, use your traveling experience to fill that gap with something new and positive.
If your intention was to find a business partner for an idea that you have been working on, don’t sit around -- go find him or her. It’s easy to get carried away by beautiful beaches, but the beach is an unlikely place to find a co-founder for your startup.
There have been a number of times when I’ve felt really low, and it was helpful to remind myself why I am traveling, and how traveling is improving my life experience.
One of the things you learn rather quickly when traveling, as a digital nomad or otherwise, is that people are much more receptive towards whatever it is that you do with your life. It creates a space where you can focus on fostering meaningful connections that could potentially turn into lifelong friendships. You never knew you needed an employee/partner until you found him or her!
5. Your bad experiences only make you stronger.
Traveling can be as exciting, but it can also be miserable. Hotel managers who fail to recognize your booking, sleazy locals who will try and squeeze every single dollar out of you, the occasional loss of electricity and bacteria that put your immune system to the test -- it’s all real, and it will happen to you. In fact, it will keep happening to you until one day you stop caring, but by then you will have grown out of it.
One of the best ways to learn in life, and in many cases business, is through discomfort. It shows you who you really are and how you handle yourself in an unforeseen situation.
So, don’t take it for granted. When someone tells you that digital nomad lifestyle is all roses and wine, it’s simply not true. My best advice is to research a location well beforehand so that once you arrive you know what to expect. Eventually, you’ll find a way to laugh about it.
Last but not least
During my stay in Bali in late 2016, I was living in a beautiful jungle home amongst lush rice paddies, and because of the convenience, I often chose to work from my desk at home. One day, while working on an assignment, I looked up and noticed a snake crawling out from behind the swimming pool.
It was a surreal moment, as up until that point I had never had a real life encounter with a reptile such as snake, especially not when it’s just a few feet away from me. It was roughly 7 feet long, althought luckily not poisonous.
The experience was meaningful in that it reminded me of how beautiful traveling is -- here I was doing work on my computer, and all of a sudden I have this beautiful encounter with an animal in its natural habitat. You can’t help but be excited, because likely the only other time you would see a snake is at the zoo, where it’s locked up in a tiny glass cubicle.
And that really has defined my journey as a digital nomad. I feel much freer than I have felt ever before in my life. Stripping away that "cubicle environment" has helped me to refine my perception on what makes me happy.