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.
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20 Responses to “The Secret Truth about the Digital Nomad Lifestyle”

  1. Mrs. Frugalwoods
    21. Aug, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    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. Judy Leaver
    21. Aug, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    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. Steve
    21. Aug, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    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!

    • Afford Anything
      22. Aug, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

      @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. Andrew
    22. Aug, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    I hate working for “the man.” I do it but it sucks.

    • Afford Anything
      22. Aug, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      @Andrew — Then you’ve come to the right place! I hope the information I share on this blog can help you “cut the cord” from working for The Man.

  5. Will @firstqfinance
    22. Aug, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    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.

  6. J. Money
    22. Aug, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    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…

    • Afford Anything
      22. Aug, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

      “sometimes I just email you randomly to see what it’ll say” — I can totally imagine you doing that! Haha! I need to come up with more clever away messages … :-)

  7. Justin @ Root of Good
    22. Aug, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    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.

  8. Jeff Bronson
    22. Aug, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    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!

  9. Steve | Live Smart Not Hard
    22. Aug, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    Thanks for such an honest look Paula. For those on the edge and wondering, an honest good and bad look is helpful.

  10. Shayna
    23. Aug, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

    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.

  11. Emily @ evolvingPF
    24. Aug, 2014 at 7:37 am #

    Very interesting point on the ergonomic stress of using a laptop in non-optimized workspaces. I hadn’t thought about that.

  12. Evan
    24. Aug, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I am so far from a nomad it is unbelievable so it is nice to hear that it isn’t all amazing lol

  13. Jean
    24. Aug, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    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. :-)

  14. Pineview Style
    26. Aug, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Commit to a “limited mental bandwidth” lifestyle.

    This! I’ll also add that clutter breeds more clutter….

  15. Daisy
    27. Aug, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    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!

    • Afford Anything
      27. Aug, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

      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! :-)

  16. Jay @ ThinkingWealthy.com
    29. Aug, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    I’m not a digital nomad but I’m still afraid to be without connectivity! Gotta stay plugged in and make sure the ole BlackBerry is getting email. Nature of the beast I suppose…

    Jay

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