One Year as a Digital Nomad: Do you have what it takes?
In October this year I celebrated one year of full-time travel, not as a backpacker (am too old), not as a gap year girlie (am far too old) or as someone who was lucky enough to take a sabbatical from work or be retired (am not old enough – phew!). Instead I took my work with me. For one year I have been working and travelling as a digital nomad – a new(ish) breed of travellers who are location independent and require only one constant to maintain their business – the internet.
While in digital nomad terms I’m actually a toddler, waddling around with the padding of training pants softening the unexpected falls – of which there are many – I have learnt more in the last twelve months than I thought possible. Because I get lots of questions about how, why and when I became a digital nomad, I wanted to take some time to share with you all that I’ve learnt and to give you some food for thought to consider if this lifestyle – one of perpetual travel and freedom – is for you.
The reasons why and how I became a digital nomad are many but the short version is I met and fell in love with another digital nomad and after only a little persuading I converted to his religion. Prior to this I was a single girl deeply in love with my city – London – I had a good job, a great social life and the perfect bachelorette pad with one of my best girls. I travelled often for both work and for pleasure but always came home. I assumed that this was as good as it would get for my wanderlust. This is my first piece of advice about life that I’ve learnt in the last year – never assume that this is as good as it gets!
It was at the end of the first holiday my boyfriend and I shared - a quick 10 day tour of Malaysia – as I folded clothes back into my suitcase, when my boyfriend turned to me and simply said: “You know it doesn’t have to be like this. We could both travel much more often. You could work for yourself,” And thus the seed was planted…
Almost exactly one year later we left London for good. The year that followed has taken me to 19 countries across three continents. We have travelled slowly staying in some places for a few months and this has enabled me to build my copywriting business as well as use my blog to get travel writing gigs. It’s not always plain sailing. There have been moments when we don’t know where we will be one week to the next and there have been weeks when jobs have fallen through or I’ve had to chase payments – it may sound strange but it’s the work problems that worry me more than the travel problems. Travel and all its unexpected turns and conundrums is a known unknown quantity but working for myself and all the fear that comes with that is still a little unpredictable.
So is this a life for you? Have you ever considered becoming a digital nomad? I found myself faced with innumerable questions before I left London but I now know these five questions are the most important ones that you should ask yourself to help you determine if it’s something you can and want to do:
1. Can I work remotely in my current job? This question could seem straightforward – I bet you’re thinking “No, of course I can’t, case closed, dream abandoned forever” – but remote working is seeing a real surge in popularity at the moment and you’d be surprised how many companies are prepared to be flexible to keep hold of good staff. There’s only one way to find out if you can keep your job and travel and that’s to ask the right person.
2. To freelance or not to freelance? If you can’t work remotely for your current employer but could freelance in your current profession or if you have transferable skills then you’re already half way to being a digital nomad, all you need to do is focus on the service you can provide a client and build the client base. This was probably the biggest challenge for me as I’m not able to go to networking events or meetings very easily. However, a lot of companies and clients don’t need to see a face to give you a job. There’s a lot of work online and for creative industries the market is currently very competitive thanks to online job boards like Elance. At the beginning, focus on applying for jobs you are confident about working on so that you can deliver high quality work on time. In an ideal world you should also have at least 6 months of savings behind you to act as as a buffer so your drop in income isn’t so frightening. There are numerous websites out there offering practical advice about freelancing as well as industry specific job websites; a few Google searches and you’ll be enlightened and encouraged.
3. Warning: This is not a holiday! Do you really want to work and travel? For every beautiful beach I’ve sunbathed on, for every mountain I’ve snowboarded down and for every delicious bite of Asian street food I’ve enjoyed, there have been at least ten emails I’ve had to handle, not to mention sitting and doing to do the writing work I’m tasked to do. People at home laugh when I tell them I need a holiday because they think our life is a constant holiday. It isn’t; I work harder than I ever did in my previous job in London. But I enjoy the work I do, especially as I get to do it against the ever-changing backdrop of all the places I never thought I’d see or enjoy. That’s worth a lot to me and if it is to you then read on…
4. What are you prepared to give up? So say you’re a freelancer with clients and you’re happy to take your work-life balance seriously so really all you need to do is pack your bags and go… Go on, go! What are you waiting for? Well, if you’re still hanging around and reading this you’ll know, like I do that travelling full time is not for everyone and as glamorous as it sounds, it’s not as dream-like as people think especially if you’re working too. There’s a lot you miss out on. I miss people – my Mum! – and when we are in places we don’t warm to quickly or if we have a problem (e.g. delayed flights, dead rats in our rental apartment, collapsed ceilings in our hotel – all true stories) then I am very quick to reassess our lifestyle. I also miss silly things like having a wardrobe I can fill to bursting with clothes I don’t wear, I miss my recipe books, I miss my sewing machine and I miss being in the same time zone as my friends and family. You have to be prepared to sacrifice and miss things.
5. What do you want to achieve? While many nomads are happy to take each day as it comes, for me it’s important to keep asking myself what I want to achieve by this lifestyle and in addition to ticking destinations off a bucket list, our lifestyle is all about a better quality of life for less money and a life of more freedom and flexibility. Being a digital nomad gives you a great opportunity to devote time to fulfilling personal goals because you have the freedom to change your environment to suit that. This year I wanted to write a novel so we found a comfortable house in Thailand for two months and I locked myself away and worked on that. Next year we want to snowboard for a few months and see the Northern Lights so Finland here we come! These are personal goals we’d really struggle to achieve if you had a full time job in a fixed location.
Being a digital nomad isn’t for everyone and it remains to be seen how long I’ll keep going; I may never make it out of my padded training pants! That said, I know that I’ve grown more, learnt more, laughed more, worked more, smiled more and loved so many more wonderful places in the least year than any other in my life and for that I’m incredibly grateful and proud to be a digital nomad.