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Why The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

digital nomad 1

We’ve all seen the Instagram posts: the sun setting over a beach in Koh Samui. The caption reads, “Work finished, going for Mai Tais and grilled Cobia #blessed.”

Does it make you jealous? It shouldn’t.

I’m writing this from my home office, looking out over another gray and dismal day in Yorkshire. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Digital nomadism can be a lot of fun and, for some people, it’s the perfect lifestyle. But “perfect” is a dangerous word.

Those who work in a fixed location don’t think about the frustrations, complications, and even dangers associated with being a digital nomad until after they’ve made the switch. And, by that point, it’s often too late to get back what you’ve given up.

By the time you get to the end of this post, you might find yourself wondering just how #blessed that Instagrammer really is.

The Rise Of The Digital Nomad

digital nomad 2

The idea of being a digital nomad has been heavily romanticized in recent years. You can now read blogs about being a digital nomad, trawl job boards aimed specifically at them, or even take a course on how to become one.

But does that mean you actually should do any of those things? Not necessarily.

Being a digital nomad isn’t some newfangled invention that millennials came up with.Click To Tweet

As much as we might act like it, being a digital nomad isn’t some newfangled invention millennials came up with.

Many older freelancers would look at the digital nomad lifestyle and think, “What’s the big deal? I’ve been doing that for years.” The only difference is that, although they may work from coffee shops and hot desks, they usually go back to the home they own or rent at the end of the day.

Some would argue that being a digital nomad is simply just the work-life balance taken to its natural conclusion. Alisa Afkhami writes that “I now LIVE everyday, not just for the weekend or for some distant date in the future.”

With home ownership among 18- to 30-year-olds at a low, being a digital nomad seems like the ideal solution. If you’re going to be stuck renting forever, why not do it somewhere cheaper and more interesting than a city in your home country?

50% of the workforce is predicted to be working remotely by 2020! Click To Tweet

And, with 50% of the workforce predicted to be working remotely by 2020, the days of the digital nomad are far from over. In fact, digital nomadism is only going to get more popular.

There’s no doubt that this is a pragmatic and often cost-effective response to a problem in the system of home ownership. Still, the idea that a change of scenery is always a recipe to get more done and get the most out of life is one that is fundamentally flawed.

Do You Really Crave Change? (Or Is It Just FOMO?)

Let’s be totally blunt about this. There is often an element of humble bragging involved when it comes to being a digital nomad.

“For everyone who has ever come back from holiday and wished they could have stayed, I am living the dream – and working in paradise,” writes Anna Hart for The Telegraph.

Not particularly obnoxious as it goes, but constant updates of sandy beaches and incredible-looking meals very quickly begin to dishearten city-dwelling office workers checking their feeds behind a Tesco or Walmart sandwich.

People present idealized versions of themselves and their surroundings on social media, and digital nomads are as guilty of omitting the negative aspects of the lifestyle as anyone else.

But, because the highs are so high, it’s one that people continue to aspire to.

One of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received is a Scratch Map®, a map of the world that allows you to scratch off locations you’ve visited:

ScratchMap

Credit: Scratchmap.co.uk

But, as much as I love my Scratch Map®, I’m painfully aware that it’s a testament to how well-traveled I think I am. The more countries I scratch off, the more I’m perceived to be “living the dream.” As the popularity of Pokemon Go demonstrates (at the time of writing anyway), plenty of us are still keen on the idea of “catching ‘em all” and there’s not a doubt in my mind that digital nomadism plays into that idea.

When travel goes from being an experience that broadens the mind to just another way to show off or provide a bunch of boxes that you feel you need to tick, it’s no longer a valuable tool in the freelance/remote worker’s arsenal.

Being A Nomad Is Complicated

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Travel planning. Visas. Tax implications.

Being a digital nomad isn’t easy. Writing about the ups (and downs) of her experience with Remote Year, a company that introduces groups to the digital nomadic lifestyle, Stephanie Walton wrote:

An ad campaign for the nomad lifestyle would likely showcase young, beautiful people lying in hammocks on the beach, laptops in tow and a drink in hand…Living the reality, however, looked a little different.

As I sat on the phone with a client at 4 a.m. in Malaysia, the phone on mute while I sobbed silently into my headset, the initial conversation I’d had with my boss five months earlier echoed in my head.

My commitment to “do anything” to make it work with my job had waned.

Walton’s experience may be a little different than that of many other digital nomads because of her commitment to a full-time role, but it still highlights how trying it can be to balance culture shock with an entirely different way of working and living.

Ultimately Walton concludes that, for her, the experience was a positive one despite the negative aspects. “It’s the catalyst many people need to cut ties with a stagnant career path and take the plunge into perceived independence,” she said.

For many, digital nomadism may not be the end goal but a dose of medicine that cures some other ailment. Of course, that can in itself be extremely valuable; if you’re feeling lost or stuck in a rut, some time spent on the road could be exactly what you need.

But, if you’re using it to try to get away from something, remember the wise words of Confucius: “wherever you go, there you are.”

Digital Nomadism Is Exhausting

digital nomad 4

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being a digital nomad. You can pretty much do whatever you want without the nomad police knocking down your door. But some nomads have a rule that they don’t stay in one destination for longer than six weeks at a time.

It’s certainly possible–and probably a good idea–to coincide moving on to your next destination with the wrapping up of a project or contract, but that isn’t so easy if you happen to have clients on retainer or are a full-time employee somewhere.

In the grand scheme of things, six weeks is not a very long time.

If you find yourself falling in love with a place, you can always stay longer, even if some nomads might consider that cheating. But you have a problem if your visa or visa waiver is expiring. Then you have no choice but to move on.

In a piece for Web Work Travel, Johannes Volker writes, “When we [digital nomads] really need to get work done we do our best to stay as far away from tourists as possible so that we can focus. In fact, productivity as a digital nomad can be quite a challenge.”

Some people are capable of working anywhere. Like being able to sleep on busy trains–something that will never cease to amaze me–this is a very specific skill that you either have or you don’t.

It may even be that one of your primary drivers for becoming a digital nomad is to get better at being able to adjust to new environments and working outside of your comfort zone.

People say practice makes perfect, but you should be aware that working from somewhere very hectic WILL take it out of you if it’s not in your nature to do so.

Some People Thrive On Routine (And That Doesn’t Make Them Boring)

Far from being something that can only lead to boredom, a routine can be a good thing. Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, says that there’s no way he could achieve everything he needs to on a daily basis without being “very disciplined and very practiced.”

And he’s not the only successful entrepreneur who swears by routine. While some individuals crave uncertainty, change, and reinvention, others don’t. Neither one is right or wrong; it’s just a matter of personal taste.

I’ve always been of the mindset that, with a few exceptions, you’re probably already doing what’s best for you. For example, it’s possible for someone to hate their job but stick with it because they don’t like the instability that comes with freelancing.

As long as that dislike/fear outweighs the apathy they have for their 9-to-5 job, then that person is probably where they’re supposed to be… although they might want to make a smaller change and consider looking for a full-time role elsewhere if they’re truly unhappy.

Individuals who are compelled to become digital nomads simply because their career path allows them to do so, rather than because it’s something they want to do, risk being very dissatisfied until they find a way to establish a sense of routine.

Digital nomads certainly can settle into a routine, and it might happen quicker than you think, but it’s still much harder than doing so in a home office or traditional co-working space.

Sometimes Nomadism Is Better For Creativity Than Actually Getting Things Done

digital nomad 5

A study in 2015 found that 30% of workers in the UK were more productive when working remotely. On the face of it, this seems to be a great recommendation for digital nomadism. However, this study has two issues:

  1. Working remotely could just mean working from home, not a beach in the south of France. The former generally has fewer distractions and interruptions than a traditional office. The latter has many more.
  2. What exactly does “productivity” mean anyway?

In the context of this study, the increased productivity refers to the respondents’ belief that they got more things done.

Ignoring the fact that this seems to have been measured by the workers themselves, which is subject to all sorts of confirmation bias, there’s also the problem that “getting things done” isn’t necessarily a good measure of productivity.

It seems that digital nomadism is best suited to those in a creative discipline. A change of scenery often brings a fresh perspective, and there’s no denying that this can be a huge asset to artists, designers, developers, and writers who are feeling blocked.

Those in, say, a support role–where solutions to problems may be more linear–might want to ask themselves whether improved creativity is worth the sacrifice of adjusting to a different time zone, interruptions like patchy coverage/cellphone reception, and an unfamiliar working environment.

Try Being A Nomad Before You Buy

I’ve been freelancing for several years now, including stints in London, Amsterdam, and Ireland. But I’ve always ended up back in Blighty looking out at gray and dismal views very much like the ones I mentioned at the start of this post.

For me, digital nomadism isn’t a lifestyle that would work in the long term. When I visit somewhere new, I like to throw myself headfirst into what’s going on. Sitting at a laptop for more than a couple of hours at a time means I can’t do that in the way I want to.

Sutton Fells writes that “most people think of remote work as 100%, all or nothing. But the reality we see is that’s it’s not [sic].” The same is true for being a digital nomad.

No matter what the pros might say, you don’t have to sell all your belongings and fly 3,000 miles to dip your toes into the nomadic pool.

You don’t have to sell your belongings & fly 3,000 miles to dip your toes into the nomadic pool.Click To Tweet

Taking your laptop on a short break to a city two hours away doesn’t make you less of a nomad than spending 15 hours on three connecting flights and a rickety bus journey.

It takes different strokes to move the world. Maybe being a digital nomad IS the perfect lifestyle for you, in which case it’s doubtful that any of what’s written above will deter you anyway.

But, if you’re feeling guilty for not taking advantage of the digital nomad lifestyle, remember this: just because you’re a freelancer, or your company offers remote working, doesn’t mean that you have to uproot your life if you don’t want to.

What do you think of the digital nomad lifestyle? Is it something you aspire for? Or would you prefer to stay put?

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About Art Anthony

Art is a freelance copywriter/content marketer based in the UK. He’s worked with both startups and large corporations on topics ranging from fitness to tech and business issues.

14 comments

  1. Great article. I’ve lived outside of my home country (US) for almost 5 years now. That said, I was completely stationary living in Mexico for four of those years. I have only recently begun to travel around and I very quickly came to this same realization that I needed to have some sense of stability and routine to truly be happy. Rather than “not spend more than 6 weeks in one place”, I’m trying to spend AT LEAST 3-6 months at a time in the cities I visit so that I can not only have my routine but truly experience life as it is in each of these countries.

    1. Hey Hanna,

      I think that sounds like a nice balance – you’re getting the best of both worlds, with prolonged exposure to a culture but the option to bail if things start feeling stale!

      Thanks for reading 🙂
      A

  2. Loved it this article
    For my part I live the life of nomads see it in an interesting way
    Whether traveling to the desert, sea or otherwise
    Really interesting

  3. LOVE this post — this is a topic that’s long overdue for a closer look.

    I know many, many freelancers who are digital nomads, and here’s what I observe:

    Many are living in Cambodia and the like because they can’t figure out how to earn a U.S. living. They’re living abroad because they HAVE to, to stay afloat financially. It’s not a carefree nomadic lifestyle, but one driven by financial desperation. They hate being an employee, and they have to leave the country to be self-supporting with their online biz. And — also folks, it costs money to move multiple times a year! To rent new places, board a plane, buy clothes for the new climate. Nobody talks about how much money that all costs.

    And then yes, they take shots of their day at the beach and food-porn shots and make it look glamorous. I’m not sure how glamorous it is when you need emergency dental work or suddenly have a sick relative back home…and can’t afford to address those needs.

    Beyond the veneer of idealizing thrown over what in many cases turns out to be abject poverty, I worry that being rootless and on the move has grave consequences for our society as well. When you’re only anywhere for 6 weeks, what’s your commitment to building that society? Ending hate or injustice in that place? Keeping the environment clean? I fear that there is nowhere you’re personally invested — and the planet has never needed us to be politically and socially engaged more than now.

    My favorites are the ones who are digital nomads…WITH their young kids. These children get to grow up being from…nowhere. They have no longtime friends. No place of worship. No community they will grow up feeling at home in. It’s one thing for folks who grew up somewhere to take to the road…but denying your kids a stable childhood because ‘mommy likes to travel’ to me is the epitome of selfishness.

    Yes, travel is broadening. Totally do it, and bring the kids. But know the downside of traveling perpetually.

    Remember the rule that the more ideal the FB photos and blog posts, the more likely that couple is to get a divorce soon. (Right?) Remember, many of these folks’ business success depends on selling YOU that they’re a remote-work success. It’s a sales angle — not necessarily a reality.

    Thanks for bringing this topic out for a serious discussion!

    1. Hey Carol,

      Thanks for this great comment! It almost deserves to be a blog post of its own 😉

      A lot of your points stand on their own, but I will really quickly address the one about not being able to afford a great standard of living in a western country because I think that’s a really important point.

      Being from the UK, I don’t understand the nuances of the American healthcare system but I certainly get the impression that I would either struggle to afford health insurance or would end up forgoing it entirely. I wonder how much of a factor that is for a lot of US freelancers and nomads!

      Another thing your comment hints at is the fact that, for a lot of nomads, “success” is a sales angle – they blog about how awesome particular tools and services are for nomads because they want to cash in on those affiliate schemes. Not a bad thing necessarily, but I do feel like it contributes to nomadism being viewed through rose coloured specs. That’s the main reason I wanted to open that site of things up for debate with this post.

      Thanks again for your comment; there’s some really great stuff in there and, if you aren’t already, you should be writing more on this! Would love to work on something about it with you if you like 🙂

    2. Carol,

      Good points here! I believe the hype around being a digital nomad and “living the digital nomad lifestyle” did more harm than good. People start off with unreal expectations. They pay for these ridiculous “How to be a digital nomad” courses, sell everything, hit the road just to burn themselves. It’s all true. This lifestyle is certainly not for everyone, as you said, it takes it tolls. There is always a price to pay!

      Everybody needs to count the costs before head jumping into something. Being a nomad is no different.
      We have met nomads, who were complaining about the heat, the culture, the people, the food, the time-zone, the bugs, the traffic, missing their family and friends … (the list could go on forever).

      My question is: today, when all the info is available about nearly everything on this wonderful invention, called the Internet, why on the Earth didn’t you do your research? You don’t have to go to Thailand to test it out if it is possible to work on the beach or how convenient it is to live from a backpack, hop places and work on the go.

      “they take shots of their day at the beach and food-porn shots and make it look glamorous.”

      We lived in South East Asia for four years. If you compare my feed with my friend’s feed, it seems like I have the most boring life on the face of the earth, especially compared to their “glamorous” lifestyle. I believe it is not just the “nomads,” it is us, people in general who like to show a photoshopped picture of our lives to the crowd. Being “Facebook happy” is the new disease only few escape.

      ” I’m not sure how glamorous it is when you need emergency dental work or suddenly have a sick relative back home…and can’t afford to address those needs.”

      In my personal experience, dental care in Thailand and Indonesia (been to the dentist only in these two countries) is way cheaper. I was blown off by the standard of services at both of these places. There are a lot of things that makes you stay unpleasant – emergency dental work is certainly not one of them :). Plus: having a good insurance always helps!

      “Sick relative back at home? Someone died in the family?”

      Both happened to us.

      It is certainly a mistake to fly to the other side of the globe and leave a close, helpless relative behind. We have a large family with all its pros and cons. One of the pros is the safety net it provides: you are never left behind. Lucky us: there are always plenty of people who take care of emergency situations. We were not happy about what happened, but at least we had an assurance that everything is going to be fine. Again, count your costs!

      “I worry that being rootless and on the move has grave consequences for our society as well. When you’re only anywhere for six weeks, what’s your commitment to building that society? Ending hate or injustice in that place? Keeping the environment clean? I fear that there is nowhere you’re personally invested — and the planet has never needed us to be politically and socially engaged more than now.”

      If I could count how many times I heard the “being rootless” argument, it would probably reach millions :). I believe by getting to know different cultures, trying to step in their shoes and see the world through their eyes is the first step for making a difference. Hate comes from the lack of knowledge and can be fought only by building bridges, not walls. We hate something because it is alien to us, we don’t understand it, or we think we are superior and in a position to bring a change. To spread culture. To change something for better.

      I remember visiting a nomad village in Morocco a few years before. An activist group decided to help them to raise the standards of living. As a first step, they were connected to electricity.

      Wow! No more darkness, the age of light has finally approached this little community! The activists were happy, the villagers were happy, the newspapers were full of the great achievements and closing the gap between the nomads and the more privileged ones. The problems started when the first electricity bill was due. The villagers had no money; they were bartering their goods with other nomads. Just like their grand-grand-grand-grandfathers. In the first wave, they sold their goats. However, they needed to sell more of the stock they were able to naturally reproduce. They were suddenly bound to one place, because, as you all well now it, being a nomad is socially irresponsible and anyways, you can’t take the electrical wires with you.

      Second wave: almost all the goats are gone, pastures are overused, and there is a general shortage. Solution? Someone needs to go to find a job in the city. With no connections, education, work experience these guys ended up in the slums of Casablanca. The more nomad tribes were blessed by electricity and other glorious inventions as a result of movements aiming to end injustice and chasing other “noble” principles, the more the slums of Casablanca grew.

      Moral of the story: get to know the people, listen to them. Live with them. Understand them. Nobody ever solved anything by clinging to their roots. Staying six weeks at one place wouldn’t change a lot on a short term, but if the only gain is, that it broadens the thinking of today’s youth, it is well worth it.

      “My favorites are the ones who are digital nomads…WITH their young kids. These children get to grow up being from…nowhere.”

      Those are my favorites too! We are one of them! These children do not grow up being from… nowhere. My kids have a probably deeper respect for their roots than their counterparts. They value their history, their heroes, their language more, than their peers who take everything for granted.

      One thing ALL the nomads (and their critics) need to understand: being a nomad is not the goal, it is a journey. I completely agree with you that dragging your kids from country to country just because mommy wants to travel is pure craziness. Most of the long-time nomads we met had a valid reason to be on the road: we started to travel because the rigid school system couldn’t handle my autistic child and their “solution” for her social behavior was using brute force (I am not kidding!).

      The biggest bullies were the teachers, not the kids. We needed a valid reason to get out of the system, and having a remote work seemed to be good enough to convince the authorities. Traveling with kids is expensive and tiring beyond imagination. Believe me, most of the families have a valid reason to go. We are all going through hardship for the sake of our children, not because mommy got mad and wanted to join the new hype.

      “They have no longtime friends. No place of worship.”

      We made our best friends on the road. We meet with them regularly. We go on “vacations” together. I don’t see any problem with that.

      Place of worship? I don’t believe you should force your beliefs on your kids. I will show them the alternatives, and they can choose the one that suits them the best (or decide to stay away from religion) when they are old enough. We are very liberal. I don’t believe in forcing down God on anyone’s throat, especially not when they didn’t develop their critical thinking muscle. And what is the best way to give them alternatives: show them all! 🙂

      “No community they will grow up feeling at home in. It’s one thing for folks who grew up somewhere to take to the road…but denying your kids a stable childhood because ‘mommy likes to travel’ to me is the epitome of selfishness.”

      Our community of nomad/expat families is stronger than any community I was ever member of. The best thing about traveling: we have friends everywhere. Going out with friends in Singapore is just as natural for my kids, as having a sleepover in Bali or going to the movies in Gran Canaria. Of course, there are places we all prefer above others. Again, our aim is not to travel forever; we use the nomad lifestyle to find a place where our kids can flourish.

      Granting a “stable childhood” is a great point you made. I grant my kids a stable childhood and background by being always there for them. We spend time together. Hours, and I am not talking about watching TV, but playing, laughing, having fun together. I give them a stable background by having a great relationship with my husband and caring for them. Stability means a lot more than staying in the same suburb for 20+ years. It means having mommy and daddy there for you. In the same house. No quarreling. No cheating. Knowing when you come home, there are there for you – both of them. This is what stable means for me.

      For me “epitome selfishness” would mean putting my kid into a school where physical abuse and bullying is OK and not choosing the “hard way” just because I don’t want to leave my cushy house and friends I have som much fun with.

      “Remember the rule that the more ideal the FB photos and blog posts, the more likely that couple is to get a divorce soon. (Right?)”

      No, you are not right :). I know my husband for 24 years, we are married for 13. We started as best friends in elementary school, and we are still together. We started to travel 10+ years ago. Two kids, countless adventures, and hardships later we still stand together. Most of my friends are divorced by now, the majority of them never left the country. I wouldn’t draw a correlation here.

      “Remember, many of these folks’ business success depends on selling YOU that they’re a remote-work success. It’s a sales angle — not necessarily a reality.”

      Unfortunately, the nomads who don’t want to sell you an “Instant ticket to paradise” or teach you “How to become a nomad and make a six-figure salary in a month” don’t have the urge to push their success to the face of the Internet crowd. It doesn’t necessarily mean of course that everybody who claims to be a nomad and shows a happy face to the world is a liar. Growing a healthy critical thinking muscle is a key to guard yourself against all the “charismatic charlatans.”

      1. Marianna, I’m married…35 years.

        I’ll have to agree to disagree on the idea that having a set of religious beliefs that you raise your children with is a negative. We’re certainly not forcing them down our kids’ throats, but having a spiritual path you follow as a family — lot of study data on how positive that is for kids’ outcomes.

        As I said, I’m much in favor of travel, and learning about other cultures…just not perpetually. You learned how help may hurt rural people…but what have you DONE that’s truly helpful? Where are you invested in making the world a better place? That’s my concern.

  4. Right now being a digital nomad would not work for me because of my family. However, once my kids are adults, it may be something I consider. I wouldn’t sell all my belongings or anything like that, but it would be nice to live in another country for a while.

    1. Hey DeAnna,

      Thanks for the comment! I’d be inclined to agree that digital nomadism is much tougher (though not impossible) with young kids, depending on their temperament anyway, so I think that’s a pretty selfless approach you’re adopting.

      Just make sure, if living in another country really is on your bucket list, that you don’t become complacent and shelve the idea once those kids of yours are grown ;D

      A

  5. Hey Anthony,

    For some nomads, it is about working remotely, not so much about perpetual travel. Being location independent can mean basing yourself from one place – could be the city where you have lived or worked from, or travelling the world and working.
    Digital nomads are in many ways different from traditional wandering people. While nomadic tribes never spend much time in one place, this doesn’t necessarily have to be true for digital nomads. Eventually, thanks for sharing your thought with us.

    With best regards,

    Amar kumar

    1. Hey Amar,

      Absolutely see where you’re coming from, and I think my post is aimed at more at nomads/wannabe nomads who feel that they HAVE to be perpetually travelling in order to “do it properly” rather than folks who simply relish the idea of being location independent.

      Cheers,
      A

  6. Thank you, Diane! There’s no denying that, in a lot of cases, remote really does look awesome. And, for lots of people, it can be. What I’m really getting at with this article is that there’s no “one size fits all” for optimum working; it depends heavily on what people want out of life, work etc. If you can get some work done in Starbucks, then I say go for it!

  7. Wow! Love this article. 🙂 It’s so insightful. I know someone who does make remote look awesome. And all I can think is, I’d like to go to Starbucks, that’s remote, right?

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