Why The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
- Art Anthony
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
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.
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?
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:
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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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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