On October 6th 2022, I celebrated my 8-year anniversary as a digital nomad. It was a great occasion to sit back and reflect on all the places I’ve visited and the experiences I’ve had over these years of working remotely and travelling around the globe, so in this blog post, I’m going to share with you my 8 key learnings from 8 years as a digital nomad.
Co-working with my Virtual Assistant Charlotte (who took this picture) in Montréal
1. Digital nomad or location independent?
First up, let’s start by looking at the term “digital nomad”. Many people cringe at this title and prefer to refer to themselves as location-independent or remote workers. That’s because digital nomadism is often associated with the so-called bromad culture.
The word bromad is used to describe digital nomads who pick up this lifestyle primarily to make money by living in cheap places. They’re often characterised by a lack of respect for women and local cultures and a rather annoying online presence. Unfortunately, the bromad voice is prominent enough in the digital nomad space that it can be easy to forget that nomads come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.
To me, this just highlights how important it is to reclaim the term digital nomad and show the world that we’re not all like this. There are also countless women-led digital nomad initiatives to prove otherwise, such as the Digital Nomad Girls network or the feminist nomad podcast Nomad + Spice, on which I’ve featured several times already. If you want to learn more about the issues of bromad culture, Nomad + Spice dedicated an entire episode to the subject:
2. What does the digital nomad life really look like?
While many people may instantly think of clichés such as freelancers working with their laptops on the beaches of Bali, this lifestyle really looks different for every individual.
I would describe the way I travel as relatively slow, as I often stay in my host city for at least a month. Depending on who you ask, however, some would consider this fast travel. Some nomad friends of mine change their location as frequently as every two weeks or more often, while others spend several months at a time in one place, and yet others alternate extended stays in their favourite location with faster travel in between.
And that’s one of the many advantages of this lifestyle! It’s a life of constant change and adaption, which means that I’m also free to live it whichever way I feel at any given time.
At times, this led to me establishing a home base and buying my own scooter on a small Thai island for several months and at other times, it involved much more frequent changes of scenery. In many ways, even the pandemic was just another phase of adaptation on this journey.
Working on a blog post from my terrace in Vietnam
3. Community is everything
Constantly moving to new places can get lonely, which is why it’s all the more important to put in the extra effort to establish and maintain your social relationships. Although meeting new people and getting to know the local culture is a key part of travelling, I’ve learned that it’s all about the right balance between the three groups of people in my life: The friends and family back home or in countries far away, those that live a similar lifestyle to mine, and those I can meet locally while travelling.
Many nomads and backpackers try to fully immerse themselves in the local culture. I’ve also seen those who focus only on maintaining the relationships with their friends and family back “home”. Either of these approaches can work in the short term, but there’s usually something vital missing in the long run, which is why I believe that making sure to connect with all three groups in a balanced way is the best option.
For me, this means visiting friends and family on a regular basis (knowing that many of them are spread over multiple countries anyway) and enjoying the fact that many of them also love to travel and meet me across the globe while also going to local meetups and events and trying to meet new people – whether that’s talking to the barista at my newest favourite local coffee shop or attending networking events, walking tours and more.
Finally, my online communities – I wouldn’t be able to live this life without them. From nomad groups, such as my monthly nomad book club, to my own LIT Community, these virtual meet-ups are a great way for me to meet and stay connected with people living similar lifestyles to mine. And sometimes, I get to meet these online friends in the real world too, for example, at this year’s 7in7 conference in Montréal, which provided a brilliant opportunity to catch up with old friends and establish new connections or my recent in-person co-working session with my colleague Dorothee in Quito, Ecuador.
Co-working session with Dorothee in Quito, Ecuador
4. Planning ahead
Something I realised early on in my travels is that a little bit of planning goes a long way. One of the things I will always organise in advance of my arrival is where I will be staying. Since I’m spending a lot of time working from home, for example, when I take my online counselling calls, it’s important to me to be in a nice apartment. I also enjoy exploring places on foot, so I usually make sure I’m in a central enough location, with a big supermarket and nice cafes to work from within walking distance.
Other things I may do before I arrive in a new city are booking a walking tour or signing up for a class at a nice local yoga studio. While it gives me something to look forward to, planning (and paying for) these things in advance also means that I’m much less likely to let jetlag, stress, work, or pure laziness get in the way of them – because I know what I’m like.
Usually, I’ll also spend some time figuring out if there’s a public transport network and what the best local SIM card providers are. That said, my next mobile phone will definitely be one that supports eSIMs, as that will make this whole process even smoother.
5. Routines and rituals provide structure
Although I’m constantly changing locations, my life is still fairly structured.
I have a number of rituals that I do whenever I travel and settle into a new place. I usually don’t work on travel days and spend long journeys listening to audiobooks or music while watching the scenery go by. I also don’t like being stressed on travel days (those are complicated enough already, especially when it’s in a new country), which means I’d rather arrive at the airport a bit early and enjoy a nice cup of coffee instead of having to run through the airport because I’m late. Some of my travel routines have also changed over the years. I’d now much prefer to pay for an extra night at my Airbnb when I have a late checkout instead of spending half a day at a café with my luggage.
The first thing I do whenever I arrive somewhere new, especially when it’s been a long journey, is to take a few moments to sit down and observe my surroundings. Giving myself 5-10 minutes to breathe after going through immigration and customs at the airport and before starting the search for local transportation or the Uber pick-up space is a travel routine that’s proven incredibly helpful over the years.
One of the first things I do is figure out which corner of the apartment I’m going to use to take my online counselling calls from. I also always invest some time into making myself comfortable in my new apartment. This involves removing any smelly candles, incents, and tacky decorations and can sometimes go as far as completely rearranging the furniture. Once I’ve made myself at home in my new place, I’ll venture out to check out the nearest supermarket and look for a nice cafe in the neighbourhood, which will then become my go-to workplace when I’m not working from my apartment.
Folklore Cafe, my favourite spot to work from in Adelaide
My work also remains the same, just as my laptop looks the same wherever in the world I happen to open it. My regular to-dos and work routines don’t change because no matter where I am based, I will still check my emails, take counselling calls, review the work my team has prepared for me, or attend co-working sessions in my LIT Community. I might take short breaks in between calls or other duties by heading to the supermarket or walking around the block, which of course, looks different in every location, but overall, my work days pretty much look the same wherever I am. And separating between work days and days off means that I can use the days I’m not working to be a tourist and explore my new temporary home.
6. Digital nomads need holidays too!
Many people are under the impression that digital nomads are on a never-ending holiday. Trust me, that’s far from the truth! This is our way of life, which involves all the typical chores, such as doing the dishes and washing the laundry – although admittedly, I probably don’t have to clean as much as other people do, as I rarely stay in one place long enough – and all the usual work stresses that everybody else struggles with. In fact, many nomads tend to work even harder, as we link a large part of our identity to our work. And, sometimes, the most basic chores can be more complicated when you’re somewhere foreign and often require more energy than they would have at home. That’s why a good work-life balance is just as important for digital nomads as it is for everybody else.
For me, this means that I try only to work four days a week. For a few years now, I’ve also been taking an entire month off every Christmas, and I’m gradually moving towards taking more extended breaks throughout the year. Sometimes, such as during my recent short visit to Peru, I won’t take any counselling calls but may still have to fit in about an hour a day of work that cannot wait. Most of the time, however, I aim to (literally) switch off by turning off any notifications on my phone and deleting any work-related apps, and often also social media, for the course of my holiday.
This year, I will likely take up to 12 weeks of holidays. And this, for me, is one of the major advantages of running your own business – especially when you have a great team supporting you – you can schedule your days, weeks and months in a way that works best for you.
Camping in Bosnia and Herzegovina
7. The environmental impact of this lifestyle
Flying as frequently as I do naturally doesn’t come with a small carbon footprint, and neither does all the work I do online, from the emails I send to my Zoom calls and the cloud storage I use. I do believe, however, that it’s possible to still live in an eco-friendly way, based on your personal values, as a digital nomad. For me, this includes things such as buying local products, reducing my use of plastic, and trying to walk or take public transport over cars or taxis whenever possible.
The key for me is being aware of your impact, talking about it, educating yourself and finding solutions that work for your lifestyle. I will always choose a 9-hour train journey over flying from Paris to Berlin. When I do fly, I pay a little extra for a direct flight rather than choosing a cheap flight with a stopover to minimise my impact. And although not flying at all is always better than carbon offsetting, it’s still a step in the right direction when taking a plane cannot be avoided. I also think twice before buying something (who am I buying from and what’s their impact? And do I really need this item?) and, on the rare occasion that I do buy some new clothing, I will buy it second-hand.
8. Finding my way
Finally, and perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned: We all need to find our own way of living this life! Over time, I have tried many different things and have frequently adapted my way of travelling and working. Like those times when I would schedule calls on only 3 weeks each month and make sure the 4th week would be reserved for uninterrupted time spent working on bigger new projects. Or how I now schedule client calls on only 3 days a week and make sure to have at least one day a week for admin work that I can do anywhere, including the nice café nearby. And I continue to adapt to this day. Different time zones, for example, can require specific changes to my work schedule. Currently, as I’m in South America, I work something like a “normal” 9-5 because most of my clients and my entire team are based in Europe and Africa. Whenever I’m in Australia, however, I tend to work from cafes in the morning, followed by an extended break in the middle of the day, and finally, continue my work day late in the evening with my online counselling calls.
It can take a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and I continue to try out new things to see what works best for me and adapt accordingly. This flexibility is one of the beauties of this lifestyle!
Was there anything that surprised you among these findings? And if you’re a digital nomad too, what’s been your personal biggest learning?