Doing More with Less

Spartan Traveler

Doing More with Less.


22 Things I’ve Learned as a Digital Nomad 53

Posted Oct 06, 2013 by Clayton B. Cornell In: Travel Tips, Work 2.0

kuta-lombok-digital-nomad

Digital Nomad: individuals that leverage digital technologies to perform their work duties and more generally conduct their lifestyle in a nomadic manner….

Over 2 years have passed since I quit my job.

Despite the image of me sipping Mai-tais on the beach somewhere (which can happen), there’s a big discrepancy between what my friends think I’m doing and what I’m actually doing. I write this overlooking the stunning crystal-blue water of the bay in Kuta, Lombok, but there’s a difference between me and every other traveler here:

I’ve been working on my laptop for 5 straight hours.

Luckily, I’ve known for a long time that the vision of life outside the real world wasn’t ‘hanging out’ on a tropical island. The vision was to build the structure that would guarantee freedom to define and execute my own goals.

Michael Covel: “Your dream is what? To go sit on the beach…and have no knowledge no wisdom or anything and just smoke pot and sit there and chase girls…? Is that what you want to do? Is that really what you want to do? Or is that the idiotic version that has been sold by media for the last 20-30 years?
Dan: “It’s the fantasy of someone who hates their life…”
From: TMBA#45 How to Get Rich

Leaving the “real” world was not an escape from life but an escape from the inefficient or (in my view) flawed systems that would never produce the results I was looking for. As Tim said in the 4-Hour Workweek, “if the recipe sucks it doesn’t matter how good a cook you are.” I was tired of cooking in someone else’s kitchen.

From some shaky beginnings I’ve seen that success at this is not just possible, it’s inevitable–assuming you have the right amount of focus and continuously applied effort. My initial goal was simple: by the end of 2012 make enough money to break even, and to do that from anywhere on earth.

Exactly one year after quitting my job I hit this milestone. I started making more than I was spending, regardless of whether I was in California or Timbuktu.

In the following year it became clear that my life would never be the same.  Once you’ve tasted complete control of your time and trajectory, it’s impossible to imagine giving that freedom away for any amount of money.

“And believe me, when once your tastes have conformed to the tranquility of such travel, you will suffer real pain in returning to the turmoil of civilization.” - Sir Richard Burton, in Burton: A Biography…

But the only way to guarantee success in the long-run is to build a system that creates consistent income. This is what being a lifestyle-business-designer is all about, something I’ve aspired to be for a long time.

What follows are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this journey:

1. The hardest part is getting out the door.

getting out the door

[Photo: Packing for the latest trip]

Quitting your job, getting rid of most of what you own, and leaving home–this is scary stuff.

Even now, when I embark on a new trip I always have a day of “WTF was I thinking?”. Much of this has to do how the brain is wired: we hate losing things more than we like gaining something else  (loss-aversion). But action conquers fear, and you just have to go for it to get started.

After quitting my job and traveling for 6 months, sitting down to start making income on the internet was about as fun as a trip to the dentist. But after a day or two of digging trenches I was waking up at 6am with an excitement I hadn’t felt in years.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do to get started—it’s best to do anything to get going. The only way to find the path you want to be on is to start moving in the general direction.

On checking out of the real world, my advice is this: make a plan, but don’t wait for all your ducks to be in a row. You probably won’t be making 100% of your salary from side projects when you step out the door, but guess what, you won’t need to (it’s cheaper out here) and there’s no greater motivation than necessity.

Don’t kid yourself that you’ll build a side-business quickly while still in your current job. Think you’re going to work for an additional hour or two each night after work, the gym, and any other responsibilities you have? Yeah right. Get the hell out of there.

2. Everything in life is a trade-off, but you can get it all in.

“Don’t you get sick of moving around all the time?” my friends ask.

Well, of course. But don’t you get sick of being stuck in one place?

Everything is at least a temporary trade-off. I am deeply aware that every minute I spend here is a minute I’m not building community or some kind of “life” back “home”. These are the trade-offs that I’m willing to accept to have this lifestyle.

There is no question as to whether or not it’s worth it.

How do I know this? Because I know exactly what my goals are and I’m marching toward them at an astonishing rate.

The big misconception is that the digital-nomad lifestyle is a temporary aberration and eventually I’ll have to stop doing this and “settle” down. I may choose to do that, but I might not either.

The major logical fallacy here is thinking in either/or propositions. For instance, you couldn’t travel and  build a business, or you can’t travel and have a home base. I might decide to start spending 6 months in one place to build stronger ties while I spend the other 6 months traveling. You can do both. You can have your cake and eat it too. You just can’t always do everything at the same time.

3. Owning your time is an exceptionally large advantage.

'Office' in La Ventana, Baja Mexico

[Photo: 'Office' in La Ventana, Baja Mexico]

Besides the obvious perks it turns out that the time and focus available to someone with no 9-5 is incredible.

Guess what: most people are locked into a job that swallows most of their day, and the rest of it is used up by exercise, social events, and/or family obligations.

Additionally, most businesses these people work for can’t innovate for a number of reasons. They may not have the bandwith, they may be beholden to investors, or their employees may only be motivated to work hard enough to ‘do a good job.’

This gives those with no 9-5 a distinct edge:

  • You’ll have more time than anyone else to learn, research, experiment, and hustle.
  • Since you’re creating your own assets you will work much, much harder to make it work.

Of course, there’s a caveat to everything:  you have to be exceptionally driven to utilize this advantage.

4. All the how-to information is already out there, you just have to find (and learn) it.

bintang-bingin-study-time

[Photo: Kindle/Bintang study time in Bingin, Bali]

If  I could only provide one piece of advice it would be this: become an extreme autodidact. Become an expert in learning: figure out how to inhale information, process it, and immediately change how you do things.

Almost everything I know about building an online businesses I read in a book or found on the internet. Sure, mentors played a role, and I learned a lot from individuals I worked with, but most of it has been sitting down to read, test, repeat.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a book a week. Experience has made it clear to me that this alone is the key to ongoing success.

We have access to more information on our iPhones than any other humans have had in history, and that rate of information-sharing synthesis is only accelerating, in every field. Let me underscore this point: the same amount of information is available to everyone. It’s all out there in a how-to blog post or book somewhere. All you have to do is dedicate the time and energy to find and learn it.

Ready to make something happen? Here’s the exact series of posts on building niche websites that I used to get started (Thanks Pat!).

5. It will take much longer than you think.

It seems to take about a year from idea to real revenue, unless you know what you’re doing.

All those tidy examples in the 4-Hour Workweek where Bob or Sally have a product idea and have it up and tested on Google Adwords in a day don’t pan out if a) you can’t figure out Google Adwords to save your life and b) nobody clicks on your ad anyway (or Google cleans out your bank account in 3 hours).

And there are always major distractions, especially if you’re traveling (that’s one of the major perks right?).

Trying to build a business on the road can be difficult unless you carefully manage your environment. In certain situations it can make sense to get some of the building phase out of the way before you leave home, which is another reason that some people opt to start their first project from the safety and predictability of a job they’ll be leaving.

As I said before, you won’t work as hard if you do this, so you have to start much further out. Get things going a year before you leave and you’ll be in good shape.

6. Building a lifestyle business and maintaining it are wholly different.

As with anything, maintenance is easy, building is not. I can check website stats in 5 minutes and not work more than that if I want to if everything is on track. But in order to get there I put in 2 years of effort in building websites, engineering systems, generating traffic, monetizing, tweaking, iterating, etc.

If you read the 4-Hour Workweek, the importance of getting the building stage out of the way was glossed over in roughly one sentence: ‘…at first you have to spend a few months throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks…’.

Right… It only takes 4 hours per week to maintain, but it will take 80 hours a week to set up the system in the first place.

I’d recommend blocking off something like 1-3 months for building projects. Be somewhere with few distractions, a quiet room with a workstation, and preferably terrible weather. This part is no 4-hour workweek—it’s more like working for a new startup. I easily spend 10 hours per day working under these conditions, usually in 3-4 hour chunks.

I can do this for two reasons: I’m building assets that I own, and because I know this phase won’t last forever (which is the difference between working for a real startup and building your own lifestyle company).

If you build things correctly, and by that I mean a process-based fully automated online business, then the rest is easy.

7. Lifestyle-design is a skill - Being 100% accountable for your life isn’t all fun and games.

Working in Canggu, Bali

[Photo: Working in Canggu, Bali]

If you aren’t having fun now guess who’s responsible?

Work or play? Stay put or travel? How many hours should you work, anyway? And what the hell do you do if all your monetary needs are actually satisfied by four hours a week?

Welcome inside the brain of a semi-neurotic lifestyle-designer.

Working for yourself and taking full responsibility for your life is no joke, and finding the right balance between working for the sake of work and blowing everything off is an ongoing process.

As it turns out, the “real world” is incredibly structured, and until you leave it’s hard to realize just how little free will you actually have when it comes to scheduling. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the US there may be virtually 2-3 weeks a year where you get to decide where you’ll be and when you’ll be there. The rest of the time it’s already set: this is where you have to be, and this is when you have to be there. End of story.

But upon reclaiming your time it’s interesting to realize how difficult basic decisions can be. If you’re working for yourself, having a hang-over can be a great excuse to take the day off. It takes an iron will or some incredible motivation to grit your teeth and be accountable to yourself.

Fortunately, like anything else, this kind of design-work is a skill. The payoff for learning the skill is massive, and once you start down this road it’s hard to imagine not having total control of your life. Having someone else define when and where you have to be is like being in kindergarten again.

It will take some work to figure out how to build your own reality, but there are more and more examples of alternative lifestyles as more people get involved in location-independent business and non-deferred life-plans. There’s a lot more information available than there used to be.

As it turns out, one of the hardest parts is to have a guilt-free way to stop working. Here are a few important points:

  • Everything is easy when you have goals in place. Start With the Why and Build out your Dreamlines. If you don’t know where you’re going how do you know where to stop?
  • If you don’t have a general routine (I try to work 5 hours a day in the morning), clearly defined goals (make over $1,000 a month in passive income by the end of 2012), and an month by month action plan (build website, get to X traffic level by doing Y), you’ll be hit by a vague sense of guilt whenever you stop working ‘early.’
  • When things are going well, I might work less. When they aren’t, I hunker down and shut out the world until something changes. Knowing that you’re on track for excellence makes it easy to pull the plug when you don’t really need to work.

8. The key to freedom is simplicity.

el-hombre-chicama

[Photo: El Hombre. Chicama, Peru]

I’ve written an entire essay on this, but basically, the less you spend the less you’re going to have to make from lifestyle business efforts to be a digital nomad and do whatever you want.

If you can figure out how to live on $500 a month (which can be done), I almost guarantee that that you’re going to figure out how to break even.

Do I want to live that way forever? No. But it’s a skill and an asset, and as long as I’m comfortable dropping to that threshold as needed I have infinitely more lifestyle flexibility and I can take bigger risks.

For a treatise on the topic, see:  The key to Freedom isn’t Making More, it’s Spending Less

9. Baselining in less-developed countries can be rough.

Oh yeah, living on $500 a month isn’t always that much fun. It’s important to understand that being productive requires at least a modicum of predictability, routine, and comfort. You can definitely work on the road and get things done, but it’s easy to get frustrated by slow internet, power outages, bad coffee, and the inability to sleep enough.

I’ve written an entire post on this too:  The Less Romantic Side of Geo-arbitrage

While there’s an inherent risk in working in a country where nothing works like home, that’s a big part of the adventure too. Success requires the right mindset and the right approach. I still live cheaply these days, but I will spend the extra money to get my own room and set up a predictable environment where I can get things done. I also travel much more slowly these days, posting up for a minimum of a few weeks so I can establish a routine.

The other major risk though is working too hard to enjoy where you are. If you always have your face pressed against your laptop’s screen you still get the cost advantages of the location, but you lose a lot of the experience of travel unless you make an effort (“Oh yeah, I’m in LOMBOK!”). That’s why restricting work inside strict parameters, having a routine, and cycling priorities is so important.

10. Hire virtual assistants/employees as soon as possible.

I read the 4-Hour Workweek in 2007 and I’ve had a virtual assistant ever since. His name is Paul, he lives in the Philippines, and he does great work for $4/hour. I also recently hired a part-time admin to handle higher-level tasks.

When you’re trying to maintain a small (hopefully automated) business while on the road, saving even 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference (especially if you’re only working for a few hours).

Besides saving time, handing work off to someone else will teach you how to create processes. It will force you to figure out what you’re actually doing by writing it down, creating a recipe for the task that is both an asset and a modular piece of your business.

Anything that you do more than once can probably be outsourced. Most people don’t believe this, but most people haven’t tried it. Some things I’ve outsourced in the last 5 years:

  • Website development
  • SEO
  • Social media
  • Reporting
  • Blog writing/posting/editing
  • Basic research
  • My email
  • Flight arrangements

The bare-minimum personal time requirement for one of my largest businesses now requires exactly 57 minutes per month for me to run. I work more than this because I love building systems, but I don’t have to.

I found Paul on Elance through a simple posting about a one-off task, but there are almost unlimited postings for VA’s and other contractors out there. Hiring is another skill-set, which means you have to work at it to get good at it, and I realize developing this skill is the entire future of my online work.

Task that needs to be done? => Delegate or Hire

Make sure you give people small test projects before you hire them for anything bigger.

11. You must continuously build yourself out of a job.

God help you if you do this in the real world, but you should always be building systems that can scale, be optimized, and be automated. I never want to have to do the same job forever, and neither should you.

If that sounds like I’m speaking in code, let me explain: everything I do more than once now I write down, to the nth detail (I mean, like “Open Chrome, navigate to X website, click THIS button”!). Do this a few times and you have a set of instructions for a given set of tasks. Once you have this you can then take a long hard look at the process to eliminate unnecessary steps as well as hire someone else to do them.

Once someone else is doing them you can focus on the next piece of the puzzle. The best part? A lot of these executable scripts will apply to just about any online work you do in the future. They’re assets, secret sauce, and the engine that drives a hyper-automated online business.

When people ask me what I do now, I want to say systems engineer. I usually say “online marketing” instead, so their eyes don’t glaze over (which happens anyway).

For more on this  Read Work the System or listen to the LBP #134: If it makes you money you shouldn’t be doing it.

12. Establishing a work routine is key to getting sh*t done.

“The acquisition of skill requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.” - From Thinking, Fast and Slow

Generally, I like to do things when I feel like doing them, but relying on your passion isn’t always a reliable way to make things happen. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and roll your sleeves up.

Often, this has meant locking myself in a room with no distractions for a few weeks and working feverishly until I have something to show for it. But on the road, unless you’ve stopped somewhere and have a living space, it can be nearly impossible to stick to any kind of routine or make anything happen. That’s why I now travel slowly, rent apartments, and pre-define when I’m going to work for a few weeks.

Although I’ve spent the last 2 years playing around with each of the different daily elements of when, how long, and how hard to work, play, sleep, and it’s still a work in progress. There is no one-size fits all routine.

  • You’re going to have to experiment to figure out what works best for you
  • What works best for a particular project or goal.
  • And, what works in your current location.

Sometimes I get up and exercise first. Other times I start working at the crack of dawn and finish early (like working 6:30-11:30). Often the tide or the wind determines my daily schedule for me.

Some of the most important things I’ve learned are:

  • Have a focus and a pre-defined schedule for set period of time, like 3-week work sprint followed by a few weeks of traveling.
  • Have a defined end-point for work each day.
  • Do the most important thing first.
  • Focus on only one thing at a time.
  • Organize your work around some kind of exercise.

13. Cycling priorities produces maximum results.

Stand-up desk on the N. Shore of Oahu

[Photo: Stand-up desk on the N. Shore of Oahu]

I’ve finally come to understand just how important cycling is. Variety really is the spice of life. As I learned in Thinking, Fast and Slow: everything depends on the ‘reference point,’ or put another way: things are only interesting in relation to the last thing you did.

A few rules of thumb I use for my own optimal results:

  • The optimal amount of time to travel is 3 months.
  • The optimal amount of time for an activity-specific trip is 6 weeks.
  • I work best in 3-6 weeks sprints followed by at least a week off.

Cycling makes things more fun, more productive, and more interesting. There is nothing you want to do forever, which is one of the big reasons that life after college sucks for most people: it’s a never-ending slog with no breaks. Humans are cyclical creatures, our bodies are tuned to circadian rhythms–nothing is static–and it makes sense to try to design our lives that way.

Right now I’m experimenting with a 3+1 schedule: 3 weeks of working hard with a transition/cleanup week on either end, then the same period of time for something else (traveling, surfing, learning a new skill).

Ultimately I think Tim may have nailed it with the mini-retirement schedule: 1-3 months of work paired with 1-3 months of mini-retirement language + activity focus. I have yet to successfully try this.

14. Organization is everything.

budapest-global-offices-c

[Photo: My apartment in Budapest]

Win the first hour and you win the day. This is the most important habit I’ve developed this year. Sit down and spend the first hour looking at your goals and planning what you are going to do. Make sure that everything moves you closer to higher-level goals and don’t do anything that doesn’t.

In terms of how/where to organize: It doesn’t matter if you keep this information in an Excel spreadsheet or with an online project management tool. The important part is that you a) have it written down, b) look at it every day, and c) apply consistent effort toward the one thing that will make a project successful, and d) that each thing you do has a metric attached to it. Read the dreamline post for more on this.

I’m a big fan of the free project management tool Trello. I now create a new project board for a 3-week work sprint and then create a new to-do list for each week in advance. I don’t work on anything that is not on that list, and I recently started using the Getting Things Done system to deal with additional stuff that comes up.

There are a lot of project management tools out there:

  • BasecampUsed to be the best option but now charges for all accounts ($20 / month). I can’t justify paying for this when there are other free options.
  • Excel: I’ve got spreadsheets for my spreadsheets. One of the most important ones is a numbered list of general priorities (for life, work, fitness, etc) and the top 100 things I want to do before I die.
  • ToDoist: What I used until I needed to collaborate with others. ToDoIst is a glorified Google Tasks. If you don’t need complicated project management, start here. It’s free.
  • TrelloI’m a visual guy, so the card-based system works well for keeping track of simple stuff. I was skeptical at first but I’ve grown to love this tool. Makes picking up where you left off a snap.
  • AsanaFor more complicated stuff involving groups of people, I’d give this a shot.

The key here is that good project management tools allow you to a) stay focused and (most importantly) b) pick up where you left off. There can be a lot of interruptions on the road and you don’t want to have a huge startup cost (figuring out what you were working on) every time you come back to work.

One last thing: a project management tool is not enough. You need a system to make it work. Check out Getting Things Done for a good one.

15. Learning how to cultivate motivation/momentum is paramount.

Finding the motivation to get started is so critically important to owning your life that I can’t overstate it’s importance. And it’s something that only you can figure out how to generate.

If you’ve read this far down the page I’ll assume that you have a fair amount of motivation already, and most people have it for the first 6 months after quitting their jobs. But it’s a lot more difficult in month 8 when you’re out on your own with no guaranteed income and some loosely defined ideas about where things are going.

Some ways to develop motivation:

  • Start with why: Why the hell are you doing any of this?
  • Visualize the end-game: What do you get if you win?
  • Brain-storm how to get there.
  • Connect the dots with a plan.
  • Start knocking it out.

Keep in mind that action can create emotion. Hold a pencil in your teeth for long enough and the physical act of smiling makes you happy. In the same vein, I think the best way to generate motivation is to define the above and start a work routine. The hardest part is getting the ball rolling, but once it is moving, amazing things start to happen. My motivation comes from the development of that routine and the positive feedback that comes from seeing progress. It also comes from knowing that I’m building systems that move my goals forward.

And that’s where momentum, or inertia of progress, comes from: the snowball effect of this applied effort over time, and the positive feedback loop created when things go well and pick up speed.

Similarly, squandering momentum can be a deal breaker.

Momentum is like an avalanche you started. It’s a productivity multiplier. Not only do you get a lot more done but you have twice as much fun doing it–it’s where the real miles are knocked out. See how Sean Ogle’s struggled with this and ultimately cancelled a trip to Thailand in order to keep his business moving.

It’s also easy to blow things up if handled incorrectly. When things are moving, I leap out of bed in the morning, and when they’re not it’s hard to get more than a nod in the direction of any projects I’m working on. A lot has been written on the topic, but ultimately you’re going to have to experiment. As Dan put it: ‘when the winds of passion blow, put up your sails.’ The ephemeral nature of motivation/momentum means you need to make hay while the sun shines.

If you’re fired up and getting things done, don’t change anything. As time goes on, it gets easier to re-start momentum in any direction, but it’s so much easier to maintain than to re-start it that now I keep it going at all costs.

What to do when motivation wanes? Generally, I find it best to close the laptop and do something else. It usually comes back relatively quickly if I’m doing something I want to be doing.

16. Dedicated office space multiplies work efforts.

The office in Santa Cruz, California

[Photo: The office in Santa Cruz, California]

Working in coffee shops or hostel lounges doesn’t compare to what I can do in a quiet room with two screens and no distractions. When I’m really trying to get things done I like to roll out of bed and start working, which means I can get 4 hours of work done before I’d even make it to the coffee shop.

If you’re planning to nail it for a period of time, figure out how to get a room to yourself. You will probably have to pay extra, but it’s totally worth it. See my guide to finding cheap accommodation anywhere.

A few places around the world where I’ve worked:

  • In rented apartments either through locals or AirBnb.
  • In the homes of friends who work (means you have their house to yourself for the entire day).
  • Community college libraries in the US (dark, silent desks and fast internet). Public libraries usually aren’t as good.
  • In the back of quiet internet cafes (where I’ve paid for hours in bulk).
  • In the restaurant of my local homestay (currently).

Earlier this year I tested out free office space from Regus.com that I learned about through HackTheSystem. I won’t steal Maneesh’s thunder here so check out how to get free office space on HackTheSystem for more.

17. Don’t let work expand outside strict parameters.

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available.

If you find yourself working just for the sake of it without a clearly defined mission, close your laptop and get the hell out of there. There is nothing more soul-crushing than sitting in front of a computer screen in self-inflicted torment because of some vague notion makes you feel like you “should.”

Even if you come back and work more later in the day it’s worth taking a break and re-defining what your specific goals are.

The other most effective thing you can do to combat working for the sake of work is a) spend the first hour planning, and only work on the list you make from that, and b) to actively constrain available work time. When I create a firm deadline that I’m only working for 4 hours in a given day, all critical tasks somehow get done. Sure, I don’t answer my email or check stats 50 times or read any blog posts or Twitter updates or Facebook. Nothing is worse for productivity than endless office hours.

Time is also a poor measure of output. Only results matter. Re-reading the 4-Hour Workweek recently this quote jumped out: ‘lifestyle-design depends on massive output’.  With absurdly short deadlines you become a heat-seeking productivity missile. If you lose your focus, walk away and come back when you have it again.

Time constraints also add value to other activities.

I had this driven home in a big way last year when I went to Indonesia for an indefinite period of time. For the first few weeks I was listless and couldn’t seem to get motivated to do anything. Then, citing ‘not enjoying myself’ as the reason, I bought a ticket home.

Overnight my whole outlook changed. With a constrained time budget I now had to get my ass out of bed or I wasn’t going to see all the sights or accomplish anything while I was there. The sunrise was brighter, the scenery more brilliant, and the whole experience much sweeter.

Basically, it turns out that nothing unlimited is fun.

18. Only focus on one thing at a time.

Others might disagree with me on this one, but my general travel philosophy (“always say yes”) does not apply to work opportunities. I’d suggest “always saying no” to any distractions from the core mission.

It’s easy to get lost in the mundane details, but in my experience there are only a few important things that actually need to get done at any given time. If you do the one thing right that actually creates revenue, everything else falls into place.

More generally (in life), it makes sense to only focus on one major thing at a time, sometimes with a supplementary activity. For example, working and a language, sport, or travel. Pairings tend to work particularly well, a la Tim Ferris and the mini-retirement plan.

19. When in doubt, get some exercise.

spartantraveler_surfing_peru_crop

[Photo: Los Lobitos, Peru]

This is one of the most important things I’ve ever learned early in life.

Most problems can be put back into perspective by getting your blood flowing. This goes for a general lack of motivation as well as being overwhelmed with existential angst (“what the hell am I doing with my life?”).

Every time I’ve been in a slump on the road I’ve been able to at least mitigate the damage by getting out the door. This isn’t always easy, especially where frequent hangovers are common (ie, living in hostels) or exercise is logistically difficult (smoggy cities), but like anything else the key is developing a routine. Running, renting a bike, Crossfit, doing pushups, surfing, hiking, whatever you can make happen where you are. If I can’t workout outside (due to smog, danger, or just unpleasantness) I’ll find a gym or do it in my room.

It’s generally more effective to exercise early in the day, but as long as you do it, it works. If you don’t know where to start, do this first.

For more on this topic, see my post on How I broke my body and then fixed it.

20. Figure out how to do as much as possible offline.

The hardest part about traveling in really less-developed countries, or just moving a lot in general, is finding reliable internet access and an associated workspace. I’ve spent time in places where it’s not just a wifi problem: power goes out for hours daily. Or the internet goes down for the entire region.

I’ve also been to a lot of places where you don’t have wifi where you’re staying, meaning that ‘commuting’ to a work location can be a major hassle and logistically limits the workday to a single session.

If you’re spending a lot of time moving, either on buses, planes, or trains, you’re going to have a lot of time wishing you could get things done.

Some tools I use to work on the road:

  • Iphone 5 with a local SIM card - This has been a game-changer, but I’ve been turning my phone into a wifi hotspot and working on perfectly functional internet from rural Indonesia lately. Total cost for 5GB a month data plan on Telkomcel is less than $10.
  • MarsEdit (Mac) or Windows Live Writer  - Let’s me write as much as I want and get basic formatting done for blog posts. While a basic notepad also works, these tools sync with your blog and give you the ‘feeling’ of what you’re working on. An intangible but important benefit for me. Download Windows Live Writer here (free) or the trial version of MarsEdit.
  • Gmail Offline -  Lets me answer emails on the road assuming I want to do that and don’t have wifi/internet. Gmail offline is still a little funky in that if you happen to close your browser window before you get reconnected you lose everything, and you also have to make sure it’s open before you go offline. Not perfect, but usable. Set up Gmail Offline here.
  • Kindle - I’ve read more books in the last 2 years than ever. Besides fiction this thing is always loaded it up with at least 15 business-related books I want to read.
  • Podcasts - I make sure I’ve got an iPhone full of good podcasts at all times. I must have listened to the Lifestyle Business Podcast for 10 hours on the train from Budapest to Zagreb (and it’s probably the only thing that kept me sane).
  • A Business Notebook - Keeping a small business notebook with me at all times. At the very least I can start sketching out new ideas or outline projects or blog posts.
  • A laptop with good battery life – My new Macbook Air (see my rtw trip pack list) does extremely well, although not as good as the original Acer Aspire one (see entry-level gear for digital nomads).
  • Dropbox for storage - Don’t become dependent on Google Spreadsheets because you won’t have access to them on the road (I’ve never gotten offline functionality for this to work properly). Google Drive is also a poor substitute for Dropbox.

21. Celebrate your Victories.

thespartantraveler

[Photo: Somewhere in Baja, Mexico]

I’m terrible at this, hence the shortness of this section, but I’m working on it. As soon as something good happens I seem to expect this as the new baseline.

Make sure you take some time to celebrate the milestones you cross. Work hard, but take a lot of breaks. And when you do something great, enjoy it, because you’ll never get another chance.

22. Surround yourself with amazing people who are doing what you want to be doing.

I’ve only recently come to fully understand the maxim that you are the average of the 5 people you associate with the most.

It can be lonely out there in the ‘barren Sahara wasteland of entrepreneurship’, add to the fact that as a digital-nomad you often lock yourself in a room and avoid social situations.

A big part of writing your own success script is surrounding yourself with people you aspire to be like. Stop hanging out with people that don’t get or care about what you’re doing.

You’ll likely have to leave the real world to do this. Check out some of the big digital-nomad hotspots like Chaing Mai, Saigon, or Berlin, or the incredible online community the guys at TropicalMBA started (some of my original inspiration, and folks I’ll be meeting in two weeks!). There are a lot of great people out there who are working on similar things. Once you join this community you’ll wonder why you didn’t sooner.

Oh yeah, and don’t hesitate to reach out and get in touch!

You might also like: 365 Days: 20 things I learned from traveling around the world.

Get Spartan Travel Updates by Email
Your Name
Email *
email marketing by activecampaign

53 to “22 Things I’ve Learned as a Digital Nomad”

  1. Krista says:

    You have quite the organized mind- I think it is tremendous that you are brave enough to continue traveling through life! Keep it up- I will just live vicariously through you. :)

    • Clayton says:

      Organized…or perhaps I just have too much time on my hands :). I think there are a lot of difficult moments leaving home or quitting a job, let alone renouncing traditional life aspirations, but many of them are shared with general entrepreneurship. In some ways traveling is the easy part. Once you start hanging out with other travelers and the folks who have been doing this for years, you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

  2. Nice man. What an amazing article, you must have spent some time on this one! I will keep what you write in the back of my head and read it again in a month or so.

    I have a few comments. What i did to transition from a 9 to 5 job was to offer my former employer to freelance for them on a remote basis. Obviously had to agree on less money and benefits, but it still made out better money living in Asia. I only worked half time which gave me time to work on my own projects.

    This gave me time to transition without losing any money. I wrote about it here if you are interested! codingtraveler.com/freelancing-to-escape-9-to-5/

    Again awesome article!

    • Clayton says:

      Gustaf, thanks for the feedback. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about everything on this list. This is an accumulation of about 2 years of pondering, trial by fire, some dark moments, and some big wins. Every time things got really bad I had a breakthrough — most of the time I was doing it wrong.

      I tried the same with my 9-5 but they wouldn’t go for it. In the end it was better that way: having no income really lights a fire that having a guarantee salary will never do. Thanks for the link, added to pocket!

  3. Dan says:

    Great post! Been really enjoying following your blog.

    • Clayton says:

      Thanks Dan! And thanks for deciding to start a blog and share things as you blazed the trail for the rest of us. Your early blog posts were in no small way the original kernels of all these thoughts. Looking forward to meeting up in 2 weeks!

  4. Will says:

    Loved this post. I work remotely for my day job but am not as much of a nomad as I would like for the time being (have a young family). It seems as if mindset and time management are the big takeaways that everybody can use.

    I need to get around to filling out one of the dreamlines…

    • Clayton says:

      Thanks Will. What I understand very clearly now is that the Dreamline, or however you decide to set some serious goals, is the key to everything. There is no other way to make decisions, know you are on track, or really get to where you want to be without it.

      As for the family thing, good for you! There are a lot of families who move around. Check out the TMBA podcast episode What is the best place for location independent families.

  5. AC says:

    I’ve done the whole $500/mo. thing for several years now. In my case, I kind of screwed myself early on (in my 20s) by going abroad to live cheaply, rather than finish university. A lifestyle based on that amount of money only continues, but out of being the only option, in the case of not having qualifications to get better employment (no university, scattered job experience). I’ve worked online the whole time but the work has come from friends and family, something that is by no means certain and steady.

    It’s odd to live this way because I get the benefits of living on the cheap, in cool places, places where the dollar gets me more than it would back home (often 4x more), but at the same time, I stay pretty poor. And there are many instances where I just have too much free time and I fill it with the “early retirement” lifestyle (of learning/teaching myself things). All the while, though, what I’m trying to reach now is an income similar to what I’d get in the US but while living in these cheaper countries. I’m talking 2-3K/mo. and I’d be living like a king (at least, in my book). I was slowly getting to that point last year but the startup I was working for went under. It’s been a struggle to find a similar set-up but I hold out hope.

    • Clayton says:

      Hey AC-

      It sounds like you need to get into the TropicalMBA.com groove and learn from those guys. There is no substitute for real skill, and a lot of us did serious time at ‘real’ jobs or startups. It’s never too late to do that, although most of what you need you can learn on your own. The hard part is finding the real will or motivation to do it. There’s also a lot of intangible stuff you just learn from really high-level people you have the opportunity to work with. One thing you miss out on on your own is working as a team, and that’s a great thing. Anyway, sounds like you are on the right track, keep it up!

  6. Judy says:

    So how do you keep your 20 lbs. of absolutely essential stuff secure? What do you do with it all when you are out surfing, for example?

    • Clayton says:

      Stays either in the hostel locker or my room. I’ve never had anything stolen in a hostel, and the good ones have excellent security and places to lock your valuables.

  7. Genuinely informative and great article here. I am currently in the “transitioning” phase of my own adventure. Now I am just starting to get out and would love to build a sustainable income. My travel plans are already locked and I will be leaving in December with no return in sight. My goal is to have an income that I can survive off of and enjoy life within 12 months of hitting the road. This article hit so many points dead on and has been extremely informative to me. Please keep up the great work!

  8. Wow, this is a pretty comprehensive blueprint. Have bookmarked and will be referencing often. Thx!

  9. Dave says:

    You have it spot on with ‘Need to build yourself out of a job’. I think this is the key difference with lifestyle businesses and people who dive head first into a start up with no calculation of how much work/time needs to be put in.

    We are yet to outsource, but it has been on our minds for some time.

  10. Danny says:

    I enjoyed the article, so thank you. But hearing that bit about “living your vision” as a nomad always pisses me off.

    Covel has a good point: “partying is not the endgame.” It seems a bit hypocritical though; how many digital nomads quit for some higher purpose?

    The DC has its roots in a random party that Dan and Ian threw in SEA. It all started because of a party.

    The problem with this kind of didactic “oh you want to have fun? You’re not a true digital nomad” way of thinking is not that it’s wrong, just that it’s only half true. And it can be massively dissuading for anyone looking to walk that path. Thought bubble: “oh, my purpose isn’t grand and glorious? Guess I better keep working.”

    David Deida talks about this concept. Paraphrasing: “it’s better to chase whatever stimulates you, then once it’s no longer stimulating, move on to something greater.” Telling yourself, “I’m not going to go after what I want because it’s not part of a grand vision” is a crippling rationalization, imo.

    Sorry if that sounded like a rant, but Dan’s new-found status as “king of the nomads” gives him the freedom to have vision and purpose. Don’t forget that when he started, he (to a degree) hated his life, was partying around the world, learning tactics from the seduction community, and SEO consulting.

    • Clayton says:

      Thanks for the comment Danny. I had a good chuckle over this because yes indeed: shortly I quit my job I went on a bender that spanned Honduras to Uruguay. However when I came to my senses I realized something major was lacking, that this wasn’t really going to meet my needs long term. I realized that I needed a perfect balance of 3 buckets: health/fitness, build/create, person/social development. This isn’t really ‘higher purpose’, just that once I found targets in each of these buckets I eliminated everything in my life that wasn’t getting me closer.

      As you can see, only part of this is work, and a lot of my aspirations have nothing to do with the digital nomad piece and aren’t necessarily grand either. Besides ‘build a solid online business’ I’ve got a lot of ‘learn X language’ and ‘get better at X sport’. I’m a big fan of the Tim Ferris concept of cycling and learning/doing things that excite you. Work is a huge part of that if you do it right, as Derek Sivers said the business is the lab, and the framework that lets you play with all this stuff ad infinitum.

      Ultimately, you can be a true digital nomad and do whatever you want. You can make a ton of money and party your face off if that’s what you you really want to do. And it really depends on what you define as “fun”. But the key here is that I sat down and said “this is where I’m going, this is what gets me out of bed in the morning.” The nice thing about big goals though, to disagree, is that they really fire me up. It’s not about “I’ll never make it so I shouldn’t start” it’s the vision of getting to this end point is so incredible I have to get started right now.

      Final thing I want to say about this: once the pressure to make ends meet is off, you do have the opportunity to aspire to something bigger. That excites me, just as much as anything else, and I think it’s fun too. I think there are a lot of platitudes out there, like the term “digital nomad” but whatever you want to call it, there are some solid principles being thrown around in this space.

  11. Ben says:

    Nice post,

    And thank you a million times for your post about fixing your broken body – I bought BASL off the back of that – what a great book!

    One question if I may? Will you still be doing this when (if) you have kids?

    • Clayton says:

      Hey Ben, glad it helped man!

      If you mean travel, hell yes. My first year of life was spent in a Volkswagen bus in Mexico. I was hauled around in backpack all over the world and look how I turned out! But seriously, I don’t see kids as an impediment, they just add some logistical considerations. Whenever I think about this I like to think about kids and parenting 13,000 years ago (I think they can survive modern-day travel.)

      Check this out: http://www.tropicalmba.com/tmba33-what-is-the-best-place-for-location-independent-families/

      • Ben says:

        I grew up mostly abroad too, it was pretty interesting coming back to the UK at the age of 9 with a broad Jamaican accent :-)

        I guess I meant how location independent do you think you will be? My wife and I for example were thinking of moving back to Bali, but we also want to have a stable base here in the UK to come back to… It was bad enough coming back to the UK and having to find somewhere to live and get a job the first time round, now we have two kids!

        Have you met many location independent families in your travels? What do they do?

        Thanks for the podcast, I’ll have a listen to that on the way home!

        • Clayton says:

          I think we’ll just have to see what happens. I’d love to have a home-base and live there part of the year, but hopefully there’s no need to find a “job”. I personally don’t know many location independent families but that’s primarily because I’m hanging out with a younger crowd. I know they’re out there. Enjoy the podcast!

  12. Robb says:

    Wow, what a fantastic article. I’m just getting started down this path as an entrepreneur, but I’ve backpacked pretty extensively so I can already see a lot of truth behind your words. It is a pretty scary first step, and clearly it is going to be a lot of scary steps. But having a plan helps. I have a tendency to crave change and when I get frustrated or bored I’m quick to jump on a bus to the next place. But I also love your idea to set up a routine for yourself, I can see that being very helpful for my process.

    For now though, I just gotta write, write, write. The next steps will come soon enough.

    Thanks again for such an informative article. I’m bookmarking it to come back to again later!

  13. What a wonderful roundup of resources! I appreciate the mention and will check out a few of these other great links. Posts like this have me itching to get back to SEA and the community and resources over there! :)

  14. Jenny Lynam says:

    Really insperational stuff here, but also great practical advise! I’m doing a masters in Digital Marketing and would love to work for myself eventually, but don’t know if I’m adventurous to do it on the go! This is the first blog post of yours I’ve read, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Keep it coming, and I hope your enjoying wherever you are!

  15. anthony page says:

    Disagree with #10 strongly, I have been successful more when I don’t hire assistants, they are a drain on time and money.

    • Clayton says:

      I’m not sure how saving 10 hours a week for $40 is a huge drain on time and money. In my experience, if it is then a) the system is not set up properly or b) I haven’t set aside enough time for onboarding a new person.

  16. Drew says:

    Awesome post..

    Really agree about the reading.. ALTHOUGH I’ve been now in SE Asia for the last 3 weeks and I have all the time in the world and a shit load of books lined up but I can’t seem to spare an hour! Working on that..

    How much do you read daily in order to hit that book a week mark?

    • Clayton says:

      Hey Drew, it’s really hard to make it happen unless it’s baked into the schedule! The most successful people I know at this have 30 minutes to an hour a day set aside for reading, as part of the normal work day or routine. I can’t seem to keep it up for more than about 3 weeks at a time, but it usually takes me an hour a day of reading to finish a book a week.

  17. Brandon Nolte says:

    Wow, that’s one heck of a post. I dig your writing style, Clayton.

    “Work or play? Stay put or travel? How many hours should you work, anyway? And what the hell do you do if all your monetary needs are actually satisfied by four hours a week?

    Welcome inside the brain of a semi-neurotic lifestyle-designer.”

    I can definitely relate to this. Recently I found that lack of motivation meant I was working on the wrong projects — not that I was lazy. So I scrapped a couple projects that were draining energy and now I feel MUCH better.

    It was great meeting you at DCBKK and chatting Paleo with you. Are you back in Bali now?

    Cheers,
    Brandon

  18. Sarah says:

    I couldn’t agree more. There is a need building amongst the working population to fit their work around their lives and not the other way around.

    People want to be free to undertake their leisure pursuits (camping and glamping, etc) while also being able to work from wherever they wish while they do that (even from the beach!).

    Thankfully technology today allows us all to do this. Anyone can do it, we just have to be shown how.

    I particularly felt this when I set up my camping information website (http://www.inspiredcamping.com) after suffering from a serious illness, which put me out of work… a life changing moment you could say.

    This gave me the motivation and desire to discover ways I could work while also taking part in what I love… without any negative impacts on either. That’s why I now consider myself to be a ‘digital nomad’ (if such a thing exists) and able to work from the road, campsite, beach, campervan, or wherever.

    I feel very strongly that everyone should be given the chance to do this. After all, life is for living!

    If you want to find out more about how I’ve done it then there’s a bit more detail here http://www.inspiredfreelance.com

    BTW Thanks for sharing your tips and inspirations. I particularly love ‘if in doubt get some exercise’. I also dunk myself in the sea when I get stuck on things.

  19. Amber says:

    Great inspiration. I’ve been on the road more or less for the last 16 months, but am settling down in Bali starting in Thursday. Can’t wait to have a home base and use some of these tips to get myself back on track and more organized on all of these projects I have knocking about in my head! Looks like you were already through my hood, but if you end up in Ubud, let me know.

    • Clayton says:

      Nice!

      I never made it to Ubud. The problem with Bali for me is the surf: I can’t sit in Ubud if something is happening in the ocean, but surfing in Bali is about as fun as driving is there. I hope it’s going well, thanks for the comment!

  20. Joe says:

    Great article!

    Just one question though: what are some of the projects you work on that allow you to live and work remotely or location independently? Can be a general answer, doesn’t have to be specific.

    Thanks!

    • Clayton says:

      Hey Joe, thanks for the feedback.

      An example project would be this blog / online publishing. For starters, internet traffic = $$. If you can write material, divert some amount of internet traffic there, then you usually make money from it (although this site is almost entirely un-monetized for good reason). A lot of people get started building hyper-focused niche sites and monetize them with Adsense. Another way is to find contract work from Elance/Odesk and so on in an area that you have some expertise in, and use that to pay rent while you work on other projects or you “productize” that work.

      Basically, any internet work applies here, it’s just that doing it for a traditional employer is what keeps you locked into an office.

  21. Nice post. The cycling priorities tip, having one dominant focus at a time, and working on that thing till it’s done is important for me. I’m having major issues getting any effective outsourcing set up. Am finding people SOOOO unreliable e.g., they work ok for a couple of weeks and then get super slack and unreliable or just disappear.

    • Clayton says:

      Hi Kathryn,

      This has been a huge problem for me as well, and I hate to say tends to occur more in some cultures than in others. A few things that have helped me solve this are a) volume (the sheer number of outsourced employees I’ve been through. Try breaking things into smaller chunks and hiring several people to do each. Check out this article http://sivers.org/how2hire) and b) being willing to pay more to retain top-talent. In the long run this pays for itself.

  22. Fred says:

    Good Post, I like the quote by Covel, he has others, look into a podcast called Nomad or the one called process vs outcome… I read a lot of the trading books b/c i trade Forex. I am wanting to make Forex my tool for income because it does not rely on customers so to say… and places the responsibility on my shoulders. On the theme of reduce costs i use Linux for my office, LibreOffice can save in anyformat, and free is always good, i carry a usb that has the whole OS and can go from harddrive fail to back up and running in about 45 minutes.. This is the first post of yours i have read so i have some more to read, i have been following warren and betsy over at Married with Luggage as well… enjoy your time … good luck and thanks for the good read…

  23. Renato Elizarde says:

    I love travelling also. I like the way you organized your stuff. I`ve been travelling to Europe, Asia and North America as well. Although I`m doing this already, finding cheapest hotel, cheap airlines yet fulfilling one. Thanks for the blog.

  24. Noel @ RCTRL says:

    This is a GREAT list, Clayton!

    I was going through them, trying to pick a favorite. Pretty impossible, although I’d say these two are pretty spot on:

    5. It will take much longer than you think.
    6. Building a lifestyle business and maintaining it are wholly different.

    You make it look easy, but it certainly isn’t. It seems a lot of people make the “both at the same time” mistake, start a venture and go remote simultaneously. I’m all about going for it, but I believe that’s making it a lot more difficult for yourself.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and have a Happy New Year!

    • Thanks for the comment Noel. I think my next post may be along the lines of “4-hour WorkWeek Myths” because it certainly is NOT easy. I am constantly reminded that you’d better find something you want to work on because you WILL be working on it constantly, every day, for a long time if you want it to work.

      • CH says:

        “Right… It only takes 4 hours per week to maintain, but it will take 80 hours a week to set up the system in the first place.”

        Man it feels *so good*, liberating almost, to hear people talk about the ’4-hour WorkWeek’ like this… It’s so true, that book reads like setting yourself up as a digital nomad can be done quickly and easily… the opposite is true. Maybe you can spend 4 hours a week managing your empire… after you have spent years setting up.

        I have spent the last 18 months working towards setting up passive income streams that will allow me geographic independence.. Only now am I starting to get enough income to even think about taking the leap out the front door.

        “I think my next post may be along the lines of “4-hour WorkWeek Myths””

        I would love to read this post!!!

  25. Nina says:

    Ah, I love this! It’s spot on. I too am a digital nomad! :)
    People think I travel. Period. But I most definitely do work!

    I hope you are enjoying Chiang Mai and if you haven’t, you should certainly go to Pai! You’re only three hours away.
    I missing Pai like crazy, however I can’t seem to leave the beaches of Krabi yet. Oh traveler problems… :)

  26. Jan Beck says:

    I’m a digital nomad for just a few months, currently traveling Thailand. This article is inspiring as I can relate to all the things mentioned in it. I’m always torn between working too little and fighting with the psychological fears of it or working too much and be physically (not to to mention socially) exhausted after some days.

    I will try work on making my life more cyclical and spend more time on planing my work as well as activities. Thank you very much for this article.

  27. Brandi says:

    Thank you for this post! Today, I finally decided that the Digital Nomad Lifestyle was for Me!!! I no longer want to be a desk jockey confined to a cubicle, when there is an Awesome World out there to see. Why wait to travel until, retirement?!? This will help me get started, in planning my escape from “cubiclized normalcy!”

  28. Conner Hogan says:

    As a 20 year old, I wonder if I’m too young to be pursuing this lifestyle. But your blog posts have really inspired me to take the leap. I currently design and publish iOS apps (games mostly). So I’d definitely be supporting myself overseas in a pretty untraditional way compared to other nomads, but it does provide with the passive income I’d need. Sometime in October I’m heading out to South America. Can’t wait!

  29. Ray says:

    Hi there.

    I am currently in Afghanistan working, and in a few months I will complete my year here and head back stateside. I have taking many trips on my own to travel and explore and I have gotten it in my head that I need to become a full time traveler. Not that traveling is an occupation, but rather a lifestyle that I yearn for. However, after reading a few of your online articles I have once again added to my knowledge and once again refined my plans. I am now making a spreadsheet to accurately figure out how to fund (long term) my future venture.

    I have some steady income from my previous career that can sustain me but nothing is for certain. By that I mean, I rather know that I have other income coming in. Also, as you said, it’s important to have goals and have something to do and achieve to feed our nature.

    I am continuing to read your other articles and suggested readings. I wanted to express my admiration and thank you for taking the time to write in plain English about your ups, downs, and approaches. Thank you

  30. Thank you SO much for this thorough list. The Gmail Offline tip was really helpful. We included this post on our list of top resources for digital nomads, FYI :)

  31. emma says:

    Absolutely amazing mate, I would so love to be able to do what you do, it’s a dream, just started planning to travel america for a year and the more I look into it the better it becomes, so well done x



What do you think?


  • About SpartanTraveler

    spartan traveler My name is Clayton.
    I've been traveling around the world for the last few years while building a small business on my laptop. SpartanTraveler is my personal travel blog of uncommon travel adventures, logbook of travel hacks, and forum for thoughts on lifestyle design and working in the 21st century. You can get updates from the site by signing up with your email address below. Feel free to reach out on Twitter (@spartantravel), , or contact me / read more about the site.

    Current Location: Budapest
  • Get SpartanTravel Updates:
    Your Name
    Email *
    email marketing by activecampaign
  • Other Subscription Options:

    Google+
  • Opening Thoughts…

    "I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife."

    - Ralph Waldo Emerson


    "May your journey be rough."

    - Nigerian Proverb

  • SPT’s Most Popular Posts

  • Recent Posts

  • The Microblog: @SpartanTravel

  • Archives

  • Topics

  • Tags



↑ Top