Lifestyle of a Digital Nomad | Work and Travel Don’t Have To Be Mutually Exclusive

02/12/2014

Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson is an emerging photographer and director focused in travel, lifestyle, and non-profit organization projects. He currently splits his time living between Nicaragua and the United States, producing photo and video content for various projects, organizations, and brands.
My curiosity on the lifestyle of a digital nomad led me to ask him if he could share his thoughts on this topic. His thoughts are below!
World travel has long been thought of as an expensive proposition reserved for the wealthy and the famous. Gallivanting around the world for months on end sounds unlikely at best and more than likely just a flat out unobtainable. However, while people say it’s impossible to have it all, there is a growing community of people being described as digital nomads becoming savvy in the art of combining world travel with a career growth.
A “digital nomad” is a professional who takes advantage of the digital tools at their disposal to foster a career while simultaneously traveling the world.
This type of lifestyle wouldn’t have even been possible just 10 years ago. As internet-connected devices became smaller and more powerful, Internet speeds increased and became more widely available around the world. These two technological advances (along with cheaper airfare and a greater demand for tech related jobs) gave a certain group of professionals the opportunity to create a new lifestyle for themselves.
I am currently writing this in a small beach town of Nicaragua where the sun is warm year round, there is consistent surf, and of course, the Wi-Fi is fast enough to keep up with email, send images, and make calls over Skype. Upon graduating from college in the Spring of 2014 I accepted a full-time position with Amped For Education, a growing non-profit organization dedicated to creating educational opportunities to children in developing countries. With a couple thousand dollars saved up, a few vaccinations in my bloodstream, and a backpack full of camera gear packed; I set off on a 6-month stint as the Digital Media Coordinator for the organization. In the 5 months since being here the organization has grown significantly. We have successfully constructed a learning center, employed several local instructors and contractors, and even developed a recreation program giving students a safer environment for after school. I have documented the past 5 months thoroughly with photographs and videos while significantly expanding our social media presence, created countless pieces of digital content, and helped to execute marketing and outreach strategies. The work has been a fulfilling and rewarding experience that will effect my outlook on life and business for years to come. However, the small bits of time in between all the filming, photographing, and team meetings are where I have made the most personal growth. When you find yourself alone in a hostel in Liberia, Costa Rica or the remote Corn Islands of Nicaragua, you tend to strike up interesting conversations with people. Those conversations are the ones that have opened my mind to the concept of living a digital nomadic lifestyle.
Although I am just 5 months into my own version of digital nomadism, I have picked up a lot of advice from fellow travelers, learned some valuable tips by my own mishaps and stupidity, and discovered some great tools that I think will help you get your own adventures started.

Getting Started:

Picking a city

There are several factors you have to take into account when making the decision about which city best suits your needs. Depending on your budget and the type of work you do, you will probably have different ideas about living standards and which type of space will best accommodate for that.
Nomad List is a site that was created for digital nomads to decide which cities re best to live and work remotely. The typical travel visa is 3 months, which is a good amount of time to truly experience a city before your forced to move on. Though it will vary slightly depending on your lifestyle and the time of year you visit, Nomad List rates cities by typical monthly living expenses, climate, and internet speed, among other factors. If you are working on a small budget or bootstrapping a start up, living abroad might even help you to get your business up and running since it is possible to dramatically cut your living expenses. For example, according to Nomad List the average monthly living expenses in San Francisco is $4,854 as opposed to the living expenses of say Chaing Mai, Thailand at just $641 each month.

Finding a place to stay

 By staying in a city for an extended period of time (probably 3 months), you will be able to negotiate better deals on hostels, hotels, or apartments. I personally haven’t had to go through this process since my housing in Nicaragua has been provided by the organization I work for but if you are figuring this out on your own there are several tools available to make the process easier.
Airbnb can be a useful resource for finding an apartment or house to stay in for an extended period of time. Make sure you ask the owner several questions before committing to the place for an entire month since it is going to be critical to your work to have a high speed internet connection and a quiet atmosphere to power through work.
Trip Advisor is a key tool when staying in hostels or hotels. You’ll want to use it to check reviews prior to checking in to make sure all of your needs will be met. You can also email the hostel/hotel prior to visiting and ask to have them preform a speed test and send you a screen shot of the results. You have to remember you aren’t just on vacation, meandering through cities. You have job to do and excuses like my internet is slow is not going to fly with clients or your employer allowing you to work remotely.

Work/Life Balance:

Of course the allure of becoming a digital nomad is the idea of living a life full of travel and excitement, and while there will be time for exploring and fun, you HAVE to stay in a working mindset. The majority of your time is not going to be backpacking and surfing. This isn’t your vacation. It is a lifestyle choice that requires careful planning combined with a lot of self-control and self-motivation. In fact, at times your going to need to work even harder to make sure things run smoothly. Time zone differences mean you might have to adjust your sleep schedule to accommodate for clients normal working hours. Just because you made the choice to base your operation on the other side of the world doesn’t mean your client/boss is going to be communicating with you at all hours of the night. It is your job to be working at 10pm while they are in normal business hours. There are a few tools I have come to use almost on a daily basis to stay on task.
Evernote is an invaluable tool for keeping my thoughts organized. In fact, I am writing this post in Evernote right this minute. It works across all platforms (phone, tablet, and desktop) and has the ability to store images, text, .pdf’s, business cards, web clips, just about anything you want to save for later. It makes everything searchable and you can organize notes into different notebooks, which makes everything easy to find with a few clicks. I use Evernote to store everything from our weekly staff meeting notes, project ideas, and deadlines, to contact information, receipts, and interesting quotes and articles.
Slack is a platform to make for team project communication easier. It puts all team communication into one central location and makes everything searchable. Email is slow and important information gets buried in an ever growing inbox. With slack your team can take advantage of dividing communication into different categories so that the entire team doesn’t have to be bother by communication that doesn’t concern them. You can also transfer files, connect Dropbox folders, and work across different devices.
Lift is a habit forming mobile application. If you want to form a habit it is important to be conscious and deliberate about it in the beginning to solidify it as a true habit. Lift is an easy to way to track your progress towards your new habit. It also sends push notifications to your phone if you fail to do so, giving you a reminder to keep up with it. I have found it to be most useful if you only focus on 1 or 2 habits at a time and when the habit forms try adding another. If you overload yourself you won’t change anything and you’ll fail at all of them.
Focus Timer is a small menu bar application. My productivity goes through the roof when using it. It is a simple application but even a timer on your phone or a kitchen timer will do the same task. I choose one task to focus on, usually something that seems like an overwhelming task to complete, and set the timer for 45 minutes. I shut down all other applications and turn off notifications to eliminate distraction. Then for 45 minutes I work on the given task. Its surprising how much more efficient you can be within a time constraint. At the end of the 45 minutes I will take a short break to walk around and stretch then set another 45 minutes on another task.
RescueTime does exactly as the name suggests. When you install it onto your computer RescueTime tracks the time you spend in different applications and webpages. Each week a report is sent to your inbox giving you a detailed breakdown of how long you spend actually doing work vs. browsing Facebook or Reddit. This combined with Focus Timer has made productivity almost into a game, each week you can see how well you were able to eliminate distractions and time wasters from your life.

Travel Advice:

Becoming travel savvy is an ongoing process where you will most likely learn more from mistakes than you ever will from reading about it. That said, I have traveled to 15 different countries on every continent except Antarctica (I have to cross that one off the list one day), picking up some good tips along the way.

Pack light

 Condensing the amount of stuff you have down to a large backpack and a day pack is ideal. Being able to pack up and be on the move is key when you’re on an extended travel period. Even though you will be spending an extended period of time in each place, being able to condense your things down to a single checked bag and a carry on is key. The majority of things that you think you can’t live without are actually not all that important. Leave the extra pair of Nike’s at home. Worst case scenario you can always buy something you need when you get to your destination.
Always have a few photo copies of your passport — Keep them in various locations. One folded up in your wallet, one in your backpack, one in your phone case, wherever you see fit. If your passport were to get stolen or go missing it is imperative that you have a way of identifying yourself.

Cash is king

 More specifically USD. Always make sure to have some extra US dollars handy in case of emergencies. US dollars can be exchanged in just about any country and they carry a lot of value meaning you can carry less physical paper and it will still serve it purpose of getting you out of any trouble. Also, when traveling I always prefer to carry a money clip rather than my wallet. I keep my wallet in a safe place tucked away in my backpack with all my backup credit cards, ID’s and spare cash. The money clip is what I carry around in my pocket. Keep some cash and one single travel rewards credit card in the money clip.

Stick to a budget

When your on the road it’s easy to blow through money and not even realize it. Snacks in the airport, a magazine, a cab ride, hotel room for the night, it all starts to add up quickly. Try to take note of how much you can afford and how much your are spending. If it becomes too tedious to keep track of every little purchase, you can simply take out a lump sum of cash and restrict yourself to that amount for the day. If you need to save receipts for reimbursement from a client or employer, use Evernote. Use your phone to take a picture of every receipt and save it to a specific notebook in your Evernote account. You don’t have to worry about keeping the paper slips and all your transactions will be saved across all your devices. Later you can add up all the receipts when you have time to go through expenses.
If you have been feeling stuck in you life, travel could be the greatest investment you can make. Personally, I have found the experience to be invaluable both personally and professionally. Hopefully some of these tips will help you to get started or, if you already on the road, perhaps you’ve picked up a few new resources to use as you continue on your travels.

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