On the digital nomad life

In the period of 2014 to 2016 I’ve become fascinated with the idea of becoming a digital nomad and traveling the world. I learned a lot on the way and wanted to share it.

With increasing global connectivity, the popularity of a Digital Nomad Lifestyle is constantly rising. Idealized images of sitting on a beach with your laptop, sipping a cool beer while enjoying the surroundings are ubiquitous.

The reality often looks different, with hundreds of hours surfing the web, looking for new business opportunities, remote job offers or the next drop shipping scheme. The drawbacks of a “backpack-only” lifestyle become apparent as soon as you make the jump. Both financial and physical precariousness can present a severe burden. As much fun as island and cross-culture hopping may sound, confrontation with theft, illness, assault or even something as basic as lack of sleep can turn the living dream into an ordeal.

With all due respects, the digital nomad lifestyle including even a high income is definitely achievable, and I’m sure there are people out there that really fit the profile, I’m just trying to show things from a different perspective, and maybe some ideas on how to make it actually work for you.

My Experience

In 2014, I made the decision to spend 3 months in east Asia, predominantly Japan and South Korea. Although I didn’t have a clear goal of making the step towards complete nomad, I learned what it means to spend long stretches of time without a private space, a proper office or desk, healthy food, exercise and proper sleep.

At the time, I was working as a freelancer, doing opportunistic work (web programming and some graphic design, mostly remotely), trying to build a brand, while living off my savings during travel. Things were pretty good as long as I had a private room in central Tokyo with all the conveniences of accessible infrastructure. I was able to put in a regular 4-6 hours every day while exploring the city. As soon as I moved around the country some more, particularly sleeping in dorms, things started to become really unproductive. When staying in hostels (and being quite the extrovert as I was), there’s an infinite amount of distractions. You always meet new people, interesting stories, places to go and grab food etc..

After going out for some drinks you really don’t feel like doing anything productive. Also, space in hostels is limited - if you’re lucky they’ll have some kind of desk or lobby that you can use. Checking my mail and writing my peers was usually the most I would do. This continued more or less for the rest of the trip.

In addition, it’s really time-consuming if you constantly need to figure out how things work in your surroundings. Figuring out where to buy groceries, how to get to the city center or where to grab some proper food really cut into your productive time.

Since sanitary standards are extremely high and crime very low where I was travelling, I didn’t have any inconveniences like catching an exotic disease or having my equipment stolen. Nevertheless, something as simple as getting a haircut or going to the dentist can be quite the hassle if you’re in a country with few English speakers.

Overall, my experience was quite positive - it just dampened my eagerness to go full on digital nomad.

Choose your tempo

There are myriads of ways to live like a digital nomad, just like there’s an infinite number of places to visit. One important metric I felt was often overlooked is time spent in a place. When going on vacation, people usually want to see as much as possible in a short amount of time. If travelling is your lifestyle, you’re not nearly as restricted.

With going to a different place every day on one and moving maybe once every few years on the other end of the spectrum, switching locations every 1-3 months (so-called “slow-travelling”) is probably the sweet spot for most. Moving fewer times per year will save a lot of time and money and still offer a lot of opportunities (if not more) to experience the place you’re visiting, including its’ surroundings.

Go for quality

If you work in the digital economy, you probably don’t have a lot of expenses besides your laptop and a data plan. You should really try to avoid the cheapest accommodations. Find a place where you can sleep well, work properly in the lobby (or desk) or get an additional co working space, the money spent will pay off in productivity. Co working spaces are also a great place to connect, which brings me to my next topic.

Connect with the locals

Looking up tips and places to check out in a city will only get you so far. If you want to truly experience the culture of a foreign country, you need to connect with locals and have somebody show you around. In my experience meetup.com is a great option. The meetups are usually themed (Yoga, board games, pub crawls etc.), so you can pick something you like, connect and make new friends.

Depending on the culture of the country, it will be easier or harder to make new connections in conventional places like bars or public gatherings. In the end, you just need to find out what works and keep and open mind.

Beware of local cuisine

As delicious a freshly picked mangoes or pineapples may look, you should always be careful about the sanitary standards of the country you’re travelling to. Most governments provide information about recommended vaccinations and food consumption (as well as geopolitical updates).

Keep the discipline

When travelling to a country for the first time, you will be confronted with a lot of new impressions and possible activities. With this amount of distraction it’s really hard to keep a steady 40-hour/week work schedule. You can improve this by making a plan for the week with things you want to check out, when to work, and when to take time off. Also keep a journal with daily and/or weekly review on how you did.

There’s nothing easier than just spending all your time at a local pub or at the beach relaxing, only to realize the day is almost up, and you didn’t get anything done so far.

Bottom line

The ways in which modern technology enables us to increase our work-life comfort, are truly amazing to me. Global connectedness, be it technologically or culturally, will only increase in the future, with more and more countries becoming more accessible for people from around the globe.

After a few years of being drawn to the idea of travelling continuously, other things took precedence, like being successful in business, spending time with friends and family or focusing more on sports and nutrition. These are all things that I would have to compromise on, if I were to follow my prior ambition.

To paraphrase Milton Friedmann: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Living the life of a digital nomad will consume more resources (both money and energy) than living in one place. This is an often overlooked constraint, but for some it’s a compromise worth taking.

If you think, the digital nomad lifestyle is for you, I recommend you spend a few months abroad before putting all your stuff into a storage facility and taking a one-way ticket to some destination. The grass is always greener on the other side, same goes for prolonged travel. Nevertheless, constant travel can be a truly life-fulfilling experience. It’s right for some, but not for everybody.