Your new remote life is under way—it’s time to dig deep and learn a little about perseverance.
You’ve decided to finally do it. After months of eating the same Pho for lunch and Thai takeout for dinner, weeks of virtually cycling through the French countryside in spin class, and night after night of expelling wistful sighs as you scroll through the #wanderlust hashtag on Instagram, you couldn’t take it for a minute longer. So you made up your mind: you decided to become a digital nomad!
Congratulations *throws confetti* and welcome to the club!
I’m Michelle Sander, and I live abroad and work remotely while running my own marketing consultancy. I’ve been working remotely for just shy of two years now and I’ve been living abroad while working remotely—how most people define a digital nomad lifestyle—just shy of a year. I’ve traveled a rocky road to get here, but now that I’m really doing it, and doing it successfully, I want to help you navigate your first steps down the path to making this lifestyle a reality.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to read all about your first steps to leaving the status quo behind in Step 1: Becoming a Digital Nomad: Creating Your Exit Strategy, Step 2: Digital Nomad Prep List—Things to Do before You Go, and Step 3: Digital Nomad Co-working Spaces, Flights, and Accommodations. Now we take the summit!
Part 4: I’m Finally Here! Now what?
“Same-Same, but Different.”
In Southeast Asia, I hear this phrase often. It means this is what you want, but this other thing is what you are getting instead. Think of it like fraternal twins: “same-same, but different.” The problem might be—at least for many Americans—that we are used to having things the way we want them—exactly the way we want them. (Grande, sugar-free, extra hot vanilla latte with soy, anyone?) Living abroad and on the road requires learning to adjust your expectations.
There are, however, some cases where it’s harder not to bend. For example, I don’t eat red meat. Saying a beef burger and a turkey burger are “same-same, but different” doesn’t work for me. I also need to work from home sometimes to meet clients at strange hours. Saying the room I’m renting has Wi-Fi when it really just has connectivity in the area doesn’t work for me either. The trick is to not overreact.
Traveling as a digital nomad means that you won’t have time to storm around being upset. There are too many sights to see, there’s too much work to do, and there’s barely enough time to get both accomplished. Attempt to find humor in the miscommunications and try to not dwell on disappointments for long. After all, how many times in your life will you work from your laptop, watching the sunset in Bali? Shifting your focus to something positive may help you let go of those minor (and sometimes major) issues that will arise in your new mobile life.
Create a Routine.
As a digital nomad, everything will always be changing for you. Your accommodation, your diet, your social life, your level of activity, even the language and the climate are variable. So much change is exhausting. Maybe it’s because I’m not in my twenties anymore, but sitting on a plane or train for four to seven hours can leave me in a puddle and completely unproductive when it comes to work the next day.
Learn what drains you and what energizes you and plan accordingly. If you’ve got a major deadline at work, make that project a priority—and maybe skip the sightseeing for a day. Since I’ve taken away the stability of having a home and the routine that comes with it, I feel like I have 10-20% less energy generally. So much of my energy is spent navigating while lost in a new city, and a lot of mental effort goes into learning simple things like which switch controls which light and how to keep from getting locked out.
I recommend adding as much routine to your day as possible. Wake up every day at the same time and drink a coffee, go for a walk, or do whatever it is you’d like to do. Do something that signals to your mind and body that the day has begun, regardless of where you are. These little snippets of routine will help build small doses of comfort right into your varied days. And if you are traveling solo like I am most of the time, it’s a great way to meet other expats and new local friends.
Keep in Touch.
A few weeks after I left home, I went out to a club after a long day at the pool. I was so wrapped up in enjoying the moment and spending time with new friends that I neglected to update social media for hours. This is—I will bashfully admit—quite rare for me. When I finally jumped online again, around four in the morning, I had too many notifications and missed calls to count. My friends were close to contacting the local authorities.
This was a big wake-up call for me. I needed to have a conversation with my friends and family to reset their expectations. I didn’t want anyone to become overly stressed without proper cause. It’s impossible to keep some people—hi, Mom!—from worrying, but letting people know where you are and your relative level of safety in the area is a great idea.
That said, it becomes slightly melancholic when your friends stop checking in. I get “Where have you gone to now?” quite often. I move so much and have been traveling for so long that it’s lost the novelty it once had for many of my friends in the US. You’ll come to know that there is a huge difference between Laos and Myanmar, but your friends and family back home might register only gorgeous sunsets and majestic temples and then move on.
On the flip side, it might become difficult for you to show true interest in your friend’s new BBQ grill or your brother’s new job when you’ve just walked the Great Wall of China. Seven wonders of the world aside, your friends and family back home are important, and it’s vital to maintain those connections. When you find yourself delirious with fever in Cambodia, you will be glad to FaceTime with someone who reminds you of home. Plus, you will probably go back one day, so make the time. Add a Google Calendar reminder if you must, but keep in touch.
Follow Your Gut.
Something will be wrong and you will know it. I’m not sure what it will be—taxi driver acting strange, or someone wearing a watch and asking for the time—but it will happen. When it does, you should always follow your first instinct.
Get to know that knee-jerk response, and test yourself by following it every once in a while. While it’s hard to quantify the number of times you’ve avoided something bad, I can tell you the precise number of times I didn’t follow my intuition and ended up in a situation I was less than thrilled to be in. When in doubt, trust your gut.
I tell my friends to invite me to every book club meeting and dinner party on Facebook. I can’t stand not seeing the photos posted and the bit of discussion after the events. They know I can’t come, obviously, but it’s too hard to not be invited—even when I’m thousands of miles away.
When I left the US, I left behind a good friend who was very sick with metastatic breast cancer. She was a big part of the reason I decided to start my own company and travel the world. Even with a terminal diagnosis, she was travelling as much as possible while I sat freezing in a windowless cubicle farm.
She was right: life’s too short. If she could make time for travelling the world between chemo treatments, then I could make time, too! And that’s what I did.
I got the message that she’d passed away when I had just arrived in Timisoara, Romania. She’d visited a sea turtle sanctuary in the Florida Keys and was on her way back home when it happened. Being in a new city, I didn’t even have anyone to hug or let out a few tears with. I’d already scheduled a dinner with a group of some of my friends’ colleagues and I seriously thought about cancelling. But I didn’t.
I went to dinner with these pleasant strangers. They showed me the beautiful river walk, and the Austro-Hungarian architecture of the old city center. They pointed out where the rebels stood in the fight against the Romanian communist system in 1989, and where you could still see the bullet holes in the buildings around the theatre. They told me that Timisoara remained a symbol of the revolution and a symbol of freedom for them.
Life continues, even when you’re on the road. People will get married; your friends will have babies; birthdays will come and go; you may even lose someone very dear. Whether you travel or not, nothing can prepare you for the emotions and realizations you’ll have on this winding road of life. For me, going to dinner with these strangers provided a bit of comfort, but there are no shortcuts to recovery. If you need to go home, go home.
One thing this crazy nomadic lifestyle will teach you is the importance of knowing what you can handle. Maybe you can live in a hostel with ten roomies, and maybe you can’t. Maybe mystery meat is “same-same, but different” as far as you’re concerned. Maybe you can feel okay missing your dad’s birthday or your friend’s wedding in exchange for the opportunity to explore foreign landscapes and quaint marketplaces, but maybe you can’t. Either way, you probably already know the answer.
Thank you for joining me on this Digital Nomad Starter Guide journey. Good luck on your new adventure as a #DigitalNomad. Look me up when you are on the road, and we’ll catch dinner.
Cheers and safe travels!