“I don’t know how you do it. I just spent two months travelling and working, and I am exhausted,” said my friend Vivian recently. She isn’t the first to ask me how I do it, and I am sure she won’t be the last. While many people seem to envy the freedom of my digital nomad lifestyle, how I travel also seems to lead to many questions… So, how do I do it? How can I travel this much, changing city or country every few weeks, and work as a therapist online at the same time?
How do I avoid burnout as a digital nomad?
Well, I don’t do it like Vivian and most other people who try out this lifestyle for a few weeks a year. I don’t travel like a tourist, so I don’t attempt to see all there is to see. I try to avoid thinking, “I might never come back, so I need to see XYZ.”
If I spend a month in a place and manage to go to the old town twice and maybe go on a free walking tour and check out a museum while I am there, then that’s a good month for me. Most of my travelling consists of eating the local food, wandering around my neighbourhood and sitting in cafés, writing blog posts like this one and watching the locals. It also helps that I alternate between places I have already been to and new places I want to discover. I adapt my workload to the current circumstances. I can spend a few weeks working only 15-20 hours a week if I prepare enough in advance and can follow that up by a month in a place working more.
So, if I have some friends or family visiting, or I am visiting them, if I am somewhere new for just a week, like right now in Seoul, I will definitely not work 40 hours or more. I schedule most of my calls on 2-3 days a week and maybe spend an hour or two on my emails and other urgent matters in the morning, but then I will go out and take the rest of the day off and explore if I feel like it.
That’s how I do it.
But what can (and should) you do to avoid burnout as a digital nomad yourself?
1. Know yourself
Are you a beach or city person? Do you need a familiar environment to keep your routines and healthy habits and be productive, or can you easily adapt to new environments and climates? Why do you want to live this lifestyle? Do you want to explore as much as possible or really get to know a place? Do you want to meet locals, learn new languages and go off the beaten track, or are you happy sitting in one megacity or another, going to the movies and maybe to a museum or two?
Just because most digital nomads on Instagram look like they spend all their time in Chiang Mai or Bali, that does not mean those places are right for you. I recently spent two months in Japan and loved how modern, organised and clean everything was while still getting to know some more traditional aspects of a culture that is very different from the ones I grew up in. And I love Japanese food, so it is a win-win.
The important part is that you have to create a life that suits your needs, not mine. So, if you are someone who needs more time to transition and get settled, then why don’t you do just that?
We chose this lifestyle because it gives us the freedom to live the way we want, not the way some influencer on Instagram thinks it should look like after all.
2. Budget and Finances
It’s a myth that digital nomad life is cheaper than living in your (western) home country. Of course, it is possible to live on a shoestring, but do you really want to sleep in hostels and stay in all the cheapest places? I have met way too many digital nomads who get stuck in Chiang Mai because it’s so easy, convenient and, yes, cheap. But is that really what you want? If so, then go for it! But remember that even as a digital nomad, you will have to plan for the future, save money, take care of your medical bills and pay taxes, at least, if you want this to be a long-term sustainable lifestyle.
As an online therapist, I need my own private space to work, and as a mid-to-late-30-something human being, I am way past sleeping in dorms or my friends’ couch on a regular basis. I want my own bed and a kitchen, and I need a second room in my Airbnb because I don’t want to send my partner out of the house or make him sit in the bathtub every time I have a client session. As much as I love budget-friendly countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, I also want to be able to spend time in Paris, Wellington or, yes, Japan. I want to eat out, try all the great food, and not spend all my time looking for the cheapest option.
Financial planning and budgeting are some of the best ways to avoid constant anxiety and stress, especially as a digital nomad. Make sure you have enough money in your bank account for an emergency flight home and to splurge on a night in a fancy hotel if your accommodation turns out to be right out of a horror movie.
3. Friends, friends and friends
We all need friends, colleagues and a support system. We need to feel connected, especially when everything around us is changing all the time, and we live in a permanent state of transition.
As a digital nomad, it can be hard to maintain friendships with friends back home, but for most of us, it is a vital part of staying mentally healthy. So make sure that you take the time to Skype, chat or call your friends and family on a regular basis. Organise an online coffee or wine date (or maybe both at the same time, as you will probably be in very different time zones), watch movies or play games together online. Or pick up the phone and call someone. Even if you feel like they don’t really get your lifestyle, find the common ground and make sure to visit them whenever you can.
On top of keeping in touch with old friends, go to meetups and events wherever you are. But maybe even more importantly, find online friends and communities that will travel with you wherever you go – there are many great online communities out there for digital nomads. Two of my favourites are run by friends of mine, the Digital Nomads Girls Community and the 7in7 society.
4. Create healthy, location independent routines
Sleep enough, eat well and exercise. Pretty basic advice, but so important and oh so easy to forget, especially when there are so many great things out there every day competing for your attention.
Just because you can work whenever you want and (hopefully) love what you do, doesn’t mean you should work all day, every day and be available and connected at all times. Just because your friends want to go to the beach or every guidebook tells you the sunrise on top of that mountain can’t be missed, doesn’t mean you can’t actually stay in bed and sleep in if you prefer. Respect your own biorhythm and ensure you get the sleep you need – another great reason to get your own room and a comfortable bed.
Find a way to exercise that you can do everywhere: go running or do yoga, get an apartment with a gym in the building or join one in the neighbourhood for a few weeks. Just go and do something, listen to your body and treat it well. You will need it for many more years.
The more you travel, the more you need to find ways to create a sense of home within yourself. Create little daily routines, from how you get up to how you go to bed to how and where you work. If I find a café I like, I will usually come back to it instead of finding a new one every day. Even the way I start working daily, the programs I open, and the people I reach out to. All those little routines can help you establish that sense of stability no matter where you are.
5. Reach out and get help
If you are struggling, and you feel like all the small self-care things you are trying to do are just not helping any more, it might be time to consider getting some professional help. Burnout is a serious risk for most self-employed people and entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, and digital nomads are no exception. There are many places you can find a therapist online. You can check the Location Independent Therapists (LIT) directory and search for a therapist working online in your language and from your own cultural background. I highly recommend finding a therapist who understands your lifestyle and where you are coming from. I work with many globally mobile clients and know that quitting this lifestyle is not the only solution to your problems (an advice quite a few of my nomad clients have received when reaching out to friends or therapists alike).
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