Here’s a universal truth: No matter where in the world you work, deadlines still exist. But here’s another truth I learned firsthand when I backpacked my way around the world, filing assignments from Costa Rica, Bosnia, and Ireland, among other places. No matter how stressed out you are, there’s something about being untethered in the world that reminds you life is so much bigger than your email inbox.
I’m not the only person who’s developed that realization. The explosion of technology in the past 10 years, combined with the rise of the gig economy, the expansion and ease of solo entrepreneurship, and the realization that remote workers do actually, well, work has meant that more and more people have found themselves living a location-independent lifestyle — basically they have no permanent address. Armed with a laptop and a plane ticket, digital nomads say they’ve never been happier — and are quick to correct some misconceptions about their day-to-day reality.
First of all, while those ‘grammable sunsets, waterfalls, and café con leches may look like a perma-vacation, location-independent people say that they are working — just from a different place (and time zone) than you. “One thing I learned pretty early on is that it’s really hard to travel and be productive,” notes Erica Blair, a 30-year-old marketing consultant who currently calls Chiang Mai, Thailand, home and has been location independent for the last eight years. “I need to stay somewhere at least three months and set up a routine. Otherwise, with traveling, it’s just too hard to both enjoy a trip and grow my business.”
Donteacia Seymore, 38, a startup coach currently based in Mexico, agrees. “My mom sees my pictures and thinks I’m at the beach all day. But what she doesn’t realize is that I’m working just as hard, if not harder, than I would have been at home.” For Seymore, that means being a stickler about scheduling. “I became location independent last year, when I traveled through Europe for seven months. I brought my laptop, and I was constantly on calls or doing work. I was burned out, and as I hurried through Budapest, I realized: I hadn’t seen anything.” That realization made her take out a spreadsheet and begin planning. “I decided to make Tuesdays and Thursdays meeting days, with all of my phone calls and Zoom or Skype sessions scheduled then. And I made the decision that Wednesdays were for exploring.” Now, Seymore says that scheduling lets her have the best of both worlds. “One of the best things about working somewhere else in the world is that the time difference can work in your favor. When I was in Thailand, I could work through the day, knowing it was the middle of the night in the United States, and I wouldn’t be interrupted.”
Lindsay Tigar, 30, a freelance writer currently traveling the world as part of Remote Year, an organization that creates itineraries, provides coworking spaces, and arranges accommodation and transportation for remote workers, agrees that juggling time zones can be an advantage — as long as you’re committed to stay on top of your own schedule and be your own (deadline-driven) boss. “For me, I’m always surrounded by activities I want to take advantage of: Surfing lessons in Lisbon, beer tastings in Prague, the chance to visit the Sahara desert. But I still have to get work done. Right now, I’m in Europe, so I’ll explore in the morning and work until nine or so. I also truly try to stick to four-day workweeks whenever possible, which, yes, means saying no to drinks in the evening. But for me, it’s 100% worth it.”
While it may seem like most people who work remotely are doing so because they’re freelancers, entrepreneurs, or otherwise work for themselves, that’s not entirely true. As businesses become more global, more and more workers find themselves living out of their suitcases, and finding that having a full-time job — and no fixed address — is the best of both worlds. Cassie Hesse, 28, beverage director for hospitality firm Ellis Adams Group, jets around the world providing training and developing menus for clients, including Marriott International, and considers herself location independent. “The best part of not having a ‘home’ is that anywhere can be home. If I have a few days between jobs, I’ll think about where friends and family are, and then just book my ticket to and from there,” says Hesse. In addition, she loves that her work days are truly never the same. “There are always new people, a new environment, and new places to explore. That’s what keeps it exciting.”
That said, even the most jetset digital nomads sometimes miss the creature comforts of having all their stuff — and their mail — in one place. Brooke Lovell, who is helping to create guest houses for location-independent entrepreneurs in Kathmandu, says that having a point person back home is crucial. “Moms are life-savers for the location independent! Or at least someone who can perform mom-like duties. After all, someone has got to watch the mail for scary stuff from the IRS, or when you have some technical problem with your bank and can't get any money out. It would be so much harder for me to be living abroad or on the road without her.”
And while “international villages” full of digital nomads are popping up around the world, Blair says that one of the best parts of living abroad is interacting with local culture. “There are expat scenes all over the world, but taking the extra step and getting to know a culture, trying local restaurants, and even living in a neighborhood that’s popular with the locals enhances the experience,” says Blair.
Bottom line: It’s a big world out there. Pack your laptop and get exploring — and don’t forget to look up from that Skype call and say hi to the people who surround you.
Being extraordinary is about living a life of purpose. The Unconventionals is our celebration of extraordinary women who know there is no right way to follow your dreams, and are creating their own roadmap for success. These women recognize that progress comes from the urge to stir up the conventional in order to change the world.