The Secret Truth about the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

digital nomad location independent lifestyle

I’m about to tell you something that most travel and lifestyle bloggers are afraid to say.

I’m going to reveal the truth about the “digital nomad” lifestyle.

The term “digital nomad” (or the phrase “location independent”) refers to people (like me) who have the freedom to work from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. Bali, Barcelona, Belize — the world is wide open. We can roam the globe freely.

Most articles about location independence only highlight the awesomeness. (And to be fair, it’s absolutely awesome.) But most bloggers gloss over the rough edges.

Fortunately for you, I’m not “most bloggers.”

What’s a Digital Nomad?

First — (for the sake of readers who are new to this idea) — the benefits to location independence are obvious.

  • Want to live in Italy or Argentina or Thailand? Go for it.
  • Want to lounge at home-sweet-home? Sweet. You’re 100% free to choose that.

Nothing ties you down. The benefit isn’t the travel itself … it’s the freedom, the choice.

I don’t need to elaborate on these points. You get it.

Wealth + Travel? Enjoy Both.

There’s an extra benefit, actually, that most people don’t think about.

I’ve met a ton of travelers who don’t run their own businesses. Instead, they float from country to country, picking up whatever odd jobs they can find.

They harvest grapes in Tasmania. They wait tables in Sweden. They work the front desk of hostels in Luxembourg.

They’re having an epic adventure. And they’re living a rich life. I admire their lifestyle.

But they’re scraping by.

They’re stressed about qualifying for a work visa (or they’re working under-the-table while on a tourist visa). They’re stuck in one location (one village, one farm) where their job is based. They toil for a low hourly wage. And after years of labor — sometimes hard physical labor — they often have no savings, no retirement plan, no long-term escape plan.

Ouch.

Conversely, I’ve met plenty of people back at home who earn fantastic money, but they’re chained to their desk. They sacrifice their dreams to sit in a cubicle.

Eventually they hit a midlife crisis, feel pangs of regret, and self-medicate by leasing a BMW. The next day, they’re back in the cubicle.

Double ouch.

Those of us who run (successful) businesses from our laptops, however, enjoy the best of both worlds. We travel the globe PLUS earn awesome money.

What could be better?

The Crappy Side of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the drawbacks, as well.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining — (I’m not) — but I want to share an honest insight into “a day in the life.”

Here we go, no-holds-barred.

#1: You’re Obsessed with Internet Connectivity

You’re always concerned about internet connectivity. Always. If someone says, “let’s go here!,” your first thought is: “How’s the bandwidth?”

Antidote? Limit your working hours/days. Plan days when you’re buckling down, and days when you’re wild and free.

#2: You Stay in Civilization

I just returned from my first trip to Ireland. (Pics on Instagram). Before I left, I thought: “It’s a First-World nation. Internet connectivity will be easy!”

But it wasn’t. Ireland is filled with gorgeous but remote locations — cliffs, forests, seascapes — that have next-to-nonexistent wifi connectivity. If you can pick up a signal, it’s slow as snails.

Antidote? Head to a major city for one or two mega-work-days of harnessing high-speed internet. Limit this to just one or two days a week, though. Remember: Work expands to fill the time you give it.

#3: You Can’t Unplug

You CAN work from anywhere, which means that you DO. It’s hard to unplug. Work travels with you, everywhere you go.

Antidote? Remove temptation. Set up an “away” message on your email, then voyage into the wilderness or any other area with a terrible wifi signal.

#4: You’re Inefficient

Here’s the biggest truth: You might be able to maintain your business while you travel, but it’s tough to grow.

You’re less efficient than you would be if you were grounded in one spot. Your internet speeds might be slower. You don’t have access to physical tools like a scanner or printer.

Antidote? Acceptance. Don’t try to grow your business. Instead, focus on spending as little time at a computer screen as possible.

#5: You’re Hurting Your Body

You’re working on a laptop, which is less ergonomically healthy than working on a “real” keyboard with a “real” mouse. I know this sounds like a minor detail, but after a few hours on a laptop, your neck/shoulders/wrists feel the effects.

Antidote? Yoga and cardio. Love it, live it, practice it every damn day.

#6: You Don’t Meet People

One benefit to picking grapes in Tasmania or working at a ski resort in New Zealand is that you’ll meet other travelers. Working solo removes the opportunity to make friends in new places.

Antidote? Sleep in hostels from time-to-time, even if you have the budget to stay somewhere nicer. They’re an amazing place to meet people. Tap into the local Couchsurfing or AirBnb community. Head to Meetup.com and find a social outing that jives with your style. Chat with strangers at parks, restaurants, bars.

More Tips for an Awesomesauce Experience

 

  • Ruthlessly prioritize. This applies to your time, not just your money. Act fierce and ferocious about how you prioritize your time, money and life. Don’t answer that email, no matter how tempting. Ignore that GChat or Facebook message. Your time is your most valuable asset. Protect it.

 

 

  • Commit to a “limited mental bandwidth” lifestyle. Clutter is a killer — and that applies to mental clutter, as well. Your brain is like a wireless router — it can only process limited data. Don’t let it download junk. I quit clipping coupons, for example, not (just) because of the time involved, but because of the mental bandwidth that it occupied.

 

 

  • Just say no. Delete emails. Don’t take on extra projects. Put your ideas into a folder … and leave them there. Bonus tip: Don’t organize your files into a zillion folders and sub-folders, thinking you’ll get to them later. Stick everything in the trash can, or at least into an “unimportant” folder.

 

 

  • Remember the jugglers. You can juggle five balls. But when you try to add a sixth ball, they’ll ALL fall down. Steer clear of Ball #6.

 

 

  • Travel slowly. Slowing your pace presents a bazillion benefits, including lowering your costs, improving your language acquisition, allowing you to make new friends, giving you a deeper understanding of the culture, and making it easier to balance life-work.

 

 




Comments

  1. says

    I must say, I know this was about the pitfalls of the digital nomad lifestyle, but, I’m pretty attracted to the upsides! Sounds great to me! I think many of your antidotes can apply to traditional jobs/lives as well–especially for those of us working towards FI. I love this: “Act fierce and ferocious about how you prioritize your time, money and life.” Inspiring!

  2. says

    I wondered where you were, Paula… off the grid in Ireland! I definitely agree with your points about the awesomeness of being a digital nomad and the crappiness… I laughed out loud when I saw “You’re obsessed with internet connectivity”…

  3. says

    One of my many potential future paths I envision is to be able to work independently of location.

    Currently chained to the desk at a 9-to-5, but I’m a bit cautious in terms of monetary safety so it’ll take 10 years of intense savings and investments to have the safety to quit the 9-to-5 life and transition into something with lots of freedom and independence.

    If I’m leaving the 9-to-5 world, it better be for good because I never want to be forced to crawl back once I officially unplug and leave. For that, I personally need a very large stash of capital producing assets/investments!

    • says

      @Steve — Don’t forget, there are two escape routes:

      • #1: Work for yourself, from a laptop. You’re NOT financially free, but you’re at least no longer chained to a desk.
      • #2: Financial freedom (though passive income).

      You can achieve #1 (self-employment) pretty quickly … about 6 to 12 months.
      Achieving #2 (financial freedom) takes quite a bit longer … at least 6 to 12 years.

      I went to self-employment first … I then started pursuing financial freedom (buying rental properties/index funds/etc.) with money that I was making from my laptop, working for myself.

      But that said, you don’t need to be self-employed … you can skip ahead to financial freedom … if you can tolerate staying at a desk. I couldn’t tolerate working under an employer, so I busted out of the cubicle at age 24 and never went back.

  4. says

    What a delightful list of negatives! It’s so short and light! I’m not (yet) a digital nomad and I’m still obsessed with internet connectivity. Last week I went to a new restaurant. They didn’t have their wiki setup yet. I really wanted to work on a guest post (I hate just typing in a Word doc.). I told my mom who was eating with me that I felt like, without internet, the world’s conversation is going on without me.

  5. says

    Every month I’ve emailed you, and every month I’ve received one of your “away” messages and I love it. Not cuz it’ll take a while to get a response from you, but cuz they’re always from different parts of the world and get me to stop and say “Keep hustling, man! You’ll be at that point too one day” :) sometimes I just email you randomly to see what it’ll say too, haha…

    Anyways, great article and thanks for being *real*. It gets draining seeing all positive “life is perfect” articles on this, and money/business/everything else when they purposely leave out the crap parts. It doesn’t matter what dream lifestyle you have – there are always drawbacks so we appreciate you sharing them.

    And on that note, back to refill my coffee at a cafe – I’m a digital nomad in just one city, haha…

  6. says

    I gave the (sort of) digital nomad lifestyle a shot when we set out on a road trip to Canada for a month. Even in the middle of Montreal (one of Canada’s largest cities) I had a hard time getting a connection due to our apartment rental having flaky internet.

    So for the few days it was broken, I gave up doing anything online, turned of the laptop and went outside to play.

    I’m not dependent on online income, so I have no problem deleting the wide assortment of “hey, I’m an awesome writer and I’d like to share a few articles for your readers” emails and other emails that I’m not really interested in. That leaves me more time to enjoy wherever I am and to focus time and effort on responding to the emails that I do find important.

  7. says

    I’m getting ready to bust out of the cubicle at 39, fully aware of the downsides and huge potential upside of not being chained to a desk all day long. I’m taking the path of self employment/freelancing in an industry I’ve got 10 years experience in…and I’ve saved a year’s worth of savings, by U.S. standards.

    As others have mentioned, it’s a scary thought to blow through savings, leave a fantastic job and potentially find yourself back at a desk if it doesn’t work out…but I think it’s better at this point to take the chance, then live with regret!

  8. says

    Great points. #4 is so true – and you’re right, the only solution is acceptance of the maintenance phase. Avoid like the plague the toxic “I should be working more…” guilt.

    I’ve definitely felt the pressure of #1 and #3, though it depends on what type of business model you have. If you sell SaaS or online courses – and/or you have employees or a personal assistant who can handle any urgent stuff – your online income can become semi-passive or nearly entirely passive… at least temporarily, for that week/month when you’d like to get off the grid, or when you have unreliable internet access.

  9. says

    Great article. I can relate to the ergonomics and work expanding to fill the space. I’m not a true digital nomad (yet) — but for my job I am either in a home office or flying to customer sites. It allows for some flexibility but has many of the same tradeoffs you’ve mentioned.

    All that said, like you I don’t see myself ever going back to a true office job. :-)

  10. says

    To be fair, I think many of these negatives are also parts of a traditional 9-5. All day long, I sit there on a computer in my day job so that trashes my body. It doesn’t hurt that I am working really hard toward location independence, so in the evenings this is true as well.

    It’s hard to unplug, maybe, but you can! Make a habit out of taking at least one day off, or two afternoons, or whatever, each week.

    I think travelling the world opens up a lot of doors to meet MORE people, especially as a blogger. There are readers and bloggers in most larger cities!

    • says

      Haha — I guess these are the drawbacks to “working” in general!! :-)

      On the whole, I’ll always work, regardless of how much money I have in the bank. I enjoy having a work-related mission and purpose. But there are two sides to every coin … and sitting at a computer is definitely a drawback! :-)

  11. says

    Being a digital nomad is much more difficult with kids. I can work anywhere in the world in theory, but can’t because I am tied down to their school schedule. Oh, and my husband still has a 9-5 job too, which means that we have to work around that. Maybe I will finally have the freedom to travel wrecklessly after the kids are in college and my husband can quit =)

  12. says

    Yes, those are all true! Just recently I embraced my get-up-and-goedness of my work over the internet job. I left the husband at home (tied down with his typical 9-5 office job) and took the kids to Colorado to meet my family. And hike. In the mountains. On a whim. (We live in a city in the midwest. This was a big change for us!)

    It was great. Until I found out that my uncle didn’t have WiFi. There was just a little panic while I realized that I had to quickly re-plan my work. And then there was the alone time while I was stuck up in his office plugged in to his internet by a cable. It both kept me from being around the family and also caused my aunt and uncle not to be able to be on their own internet whenever they wanted. Plus, since their boys were crashing in the office while we were staying there I just couldn’t stay up late or get up extra early to get my work done.

    It took some doing, and honestly my level of work dropped considerably, but it was still worth it all. Seriously, if I have forego some comfort or jump through some hoops in order to hike in the rocky mountains with my boys and some cool cousins (and I didn’t even know how cool they were until this trip) I’ll do it. Work for pay AND fully experience life. Booya!

  13. says

    I love this article so much I wanna marry it. I can completely relate to all the downsides, but especially #1 and #6. The first thing I think when I travel: “But will the plane have Wi-Fi? Will the hotel have Wi-Fi? Who’s got Wi-Fi?” It drives me nuts, too. Thanks for offering some useful solutions. :)

  14. says

    Wow, that is pretty interesting to here. It would take time to get used to it. How easy is it to change out your equipment or get replacements if needed? I just think of the few years I lived in Argentina out in the country and things weren’t accessible unless I traveled a few hours to the big cities of Rosario or Buenos Aires.

  15. says

    Wonderful article.

    I did live the digital nomad style few years ago. We spent 6 months 3 years in a row in NYC and then 2 months in Spain. For 20 months my business moved with me and the laptop.

    Sure, it was amazing to travel and also earn money, but, as you said, growing more wasn’t the case. I was earning very well, but kept my development plans for when I got back home, so that I can work better and implement them.

    • says

      @Dojo — I’m glad you can relate!! I’m totally in that same boat — I’m earning well, but my future development is “on pause.” Still, all things considered, I certainly can’t complain. If I really wanted to grow, I could always — (gasp!) — stop traveling so hard. :-) Thanks for sharing your story; it’s always great to hear from people who have had the same experience.

  16. says

    This is such an inspiring post!! We just moved from AZ to NC and part of the reason we could do it is because I work from home :) The opportunities are endless once you start being location-independent. We have two little kids, though, so traveling overseas probably won’t be happening until they’re older. We do plan on traveling the US by car/RV each summer exploring new areas!

    But you are very right about one thing – it can get lonely working from home!

  17. says

    Thanks for the nicely balanced article. Too often do we read about only the positives paired with a picture of some gorgeous remote beach location. It’s good to see the other side of that story… which probably involved a bit of searching for a wi-fi connection fast enough to even upload it. :-)

  18. says

    I am a person that is chained to my office desk 9-5 every work day and absolutely hate it. I am a wanderer and always dream about how wonderful it would be if my job were location independent. My biggest concern about working from home or while traveling is definitely the fear of missing that connection with coworkers and people outside of my home. This post gave me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  19. says

    As a digital nomad, I have to say, you have this SPOT ON! Literally every number, I thought to myself, “Oh ya, I definately need to do that”, or “Ya, that is always super annoying when I’m on the road”. Couldn’t agree with you more on this topic. Freedom is amazing, but don’t forget, we never turn off, unlike the weekend warriors of the 9-5’ers.

  20. says

    What are your thoughts on a semi-nomadic lifestyle? I have been working online for 4 years –earning awesome money–, and I want to start moving around in a few months, but ergonomics and growth of business are really important to me.

    I’m thinking on combining the nomadic and sedentary lifestyles, and do the following:
    1) Establish a base town for a year at least. In this base, set up an ergonomic office/desk. This ‘base’ should be a small, beautiful town (not a big city), to take advantage of cheap cost of living –internet shouldn’t be an issue unless it’s a village in the middle of the jungle–.
    2) In the base town, do high productivity work for a couple of months, while visiting nearby cities and towns every few days.
    3) Every two or three months, travel for a month with the laptop. During this month, practice a purely nomadic lifestyle, maintaining the business as any other digital nomad, with the advantages/disadvantages listed in the article.
    4) After the nomadic month, go back to the base town, and repeat 2-4 until the one year mark.
    5) After the one year mark, move to a new town, starting the cycle again.

    Any thoughts?

    • says

      @Andy — That sounds like a perfect plan. In fact, that’s exactly what I’d recommend.

      Great ergonomics are important to me, too. At my normal home office, I have an adjustable sit/stand/treadmill desk, a split ergonomic keyboard, ergonomic mouse, a widescreen monitor on a swivel arm, and anti-RSI software installed on my computer (which forces me to take stretch breaks). When I’m traveling, of course, I’m hunched over a laptop — which is bad for your arms/hands/back. So I follow a plan that’s similar to yours: I base myself from a “base camp” that’s set up exactly the way that I like it, and I take frequent trips from there, for periods ranging from 1-4 weeks at a stretch. (Plus, maintaining a “base camp” allows me to have a sense of home and rootedness, while still enjoying the freedom to travel often.)

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