The wandering digital nomad challenge: how to achieve a work-travel balance

View from my desk in a campsite on the Albanian Coast. It's a hard life, I know...

View from my desk in a campsite on the Albanian Coast. It’s a hard life, I know…

‘How do you manage to work and travel simultaneously?’ is possibly my most oft-asked question. Whilst some digital nomads are indeed blissfully located somewhere, usually for an extended period of time, I am a member of a small group of challenged individuals who are actually located everywhere, all the time. My partner and I are currently riding our motorbikes from Germany to Australia; we’ve travelled through 15 countries in the last 15 months, lived in a tent most of the time and I’ve managed to write almost 500 travel-related articles along the way.

Challenging enough? You could say that…

Yes it is true that wandering digital nomads face a few more challenges than their more settled (and some would say sane) counterparts, yet finding a way to earn money whilst travelling is by no means an impossible task to accomplish.

If you’d like to know how I manage my own work-travel balance, and get a few ideas on how to tackle this challenge yourself, now would be the time to continue reading.

1)      Establish good working relationships

If you’re planning to become a self-employed digital-nomad, feel free to skip this point altogether. If your income will depend on others however, do take special note.

All digital nomads will spend a serious amount of time setting up a good virtual job before they start packing their bags. Most of the time, they won’t consider making the big move until they’ve secured their needed income. This is, suffice to say, an excellent choice.

Vagabonding digital nomads however, must also establish work contracts with people who understand that they are going to be constantly moving around. This turned out to be easier than I had anticipated, although I admit that the fact I only work within the travel niche may have something to do with it. Travellers dig travellers!

You can start off every month with the best intentions in the world, but let it be known that the life of a long-term traveller is one of complete and utter chaos. Most of the time. Finding a sympathetic ‘boss’ (or three) was my top priority before leaving, and something which I recommend you do as well. No matter who it is you work for, they must realize that whilst you’ll endeavour to deliver/contact/skype/email, sometimes you just won’t be able to, end of story. The internet will be down; you’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken bike-part, you’ll be sick etc. This is why it is just so imperative that you build up a good reputation as a professional and conscientious worker and establishing a trusting relationship with your work provider. Should the inevitable happen, this will ensure the boss is not left disappointed and you are not left unemployed.

The fact that I also held a daytime job and learnt a new language during my pre-departure period is testament to the fact that…

2)     You should learn to be a multi-tasking-master

Juggling several balls simultaneously is what I do best and something with which I have the most experience. Before meeting Chris I’d worked as an overland tour guide for five years and mastered the skills of multi-tasking. After spending years answering 24,000 questions a day whilst making a mental food-shopping list and finding time for email answering, account keeping, problem solving, activities booking, mental-breakdown-preventing, leg shaving and travel itinerary researching… I knew I could do anything simultaneously 😀

Squeezing 27 hours out a 24 hour day is child’s play (once you get the hang of it) and a perfect skill to have when desiring to work and travel concurrently. The most important part of this talent is that teaches you what I call ‘mental multi-tasking’: the ability to switch your working and travelling brain on and off at will. This was by far my most challenging hurdle in the first few months; I needed at least two days to go from sightseeing and bush camping to writing a coherent enough travel article my boss would be willing to pay for! The process is getting easier and easier as the time passes and I have gotten to the point where I can go from spending five days crossing the Caucasus Mountain Range to churning out a decent amount of work, with just a good night’s sleep, a decent shower and a strong cup of coffee.

The good news here is that this is indeed a learned talent and something anyone can actively practice. Manage your work time efficiently and you won’t ‘waste’ a minute of your day.

3)     Find your groove & perfect your work routine

Whilst I may be a mental-ninja, I’m not superhuman, which means I can’t actually visit a historical site and write a travel article at the same time.

The options of work routine are various, so you may have to try out a few scenarios before you know what works best for you.

What I have managed to do is set up a completely imbalanced life balance which seems to work a treat for me: I travel most of the time and only work some of the time. I’ll stay put for a week in one spot with good internet and comfortable living quarters and work (at a campsite with a cosy cafe’, hostel or rental apartment), then travel for 3-4 weeks after that. Sometimes I also play it by ear and fit in a couple of working days when the weather sucks or if I happen to be in a particularly productive mood. This is also the reason I only accept monthly travel article requests; knowing ahead of time what I need to deliver in a month gives me the freedom to rearrange my days as I see fit.

I’ve known of digital nomads who travel and work on a 3 or 6-month-rotation basis and this may well turn out to be your preferred method. In the digital-nomad world, this is called ‘cycling’. It actually sounds perfect to me personally, yet my particular trip is so physically demanding (I’d never even ridden a motorbike before) that I really couldn’t travel non-stop for three months straight without a week-long break somewhere along the way. My work week has also become my rest & recuperation week. See? There’s that multi-tasking thingy again 😉

I plan my work-week about two months in advance and research what seems to be the ideal place to stop. A capital city, for example, will always be a good bet even in the most undeveloped countries; chances that you’ll find a decent place to stay with good Wi-Fi are surprisingly high the world over. This little plan has turned out to be ideal for me, because I don’t particularly like cities. Having to bunker down and work for a week straight in the big smoke is infinitely less painful than trying to do the same in a gloriously small beachside campsite on the southern Mediterranean coast in Greece in July. Now THAT was painful.

4)     Slow is key

When all is said and done, the only thing which will ensure your success as a wandering digital nomad is time. Give yourself lots of it; you’ll need it.

The only way Chris and I can manage to live as we do is because we travel so incredibly slowly. We cover only about 1,000kms a month and usually only visit a few places in each country. We’ll ride just a couple of hours each day and usually camp for a few nights in each spot. We tend to move faster during summer and spring and a little slower during the colder months, when bad weather can see us ‘stuck’ in one place for two weeks at a time, or more. When you’re a digital nomad you’ll never resent a rainy day on the road!

We are actually, for the first time in years, about to settle down for the winter in one single spot. I’ve recently been offered the amazing opportunity to write a long-term traveller’s guide book for a European publishing company and wish to do so from the comfort of a rental apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. This will not only give me the chance to try ‘cycling’ for the first time ever, but it will also provide me with enough income should our intended crossing of Central Asia next year prove to be a tad work-challenging. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how that pans out. Keep you posted!

You should realize by now that there is no such thing as an ‘ideal work-travel balance’ for nomadic digitalists…different strokes for different folks really is quite the apt adage in this case. Find your own grove, routine and balance and, most importantly, remember to love what you do.

Manage this…and you’ll always find a way to make it work.

Written by Laura Pattara 

1 Comment

Filed under Digital Nomads, Travel Tips, Working Remotely

One response to “The wandering digital nomad challenge: how to achieve a work-travel balance

  1. Pingback: The wandering digital nomad challenge: how to achieve a work-travel balance | Laura's Travel Tales

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