Instagram will have you believe that digital nomads spend their days working from hammocks on beaches and infinity pools. A month shy of her one-year digital nomad anniversary, Elly Earls reports on what it really takes to make this lifestyle work and whether it’s sustainable in the long term.
Just under a year ago, I gave up my apartment, distributed my stuff between various family members’ and friends’ attics, packed my 55-litre Osprey backpack and set off for Gatwick Airport.
It wasn’t the first time I’d waved goodbye to home. My teenage years were spent in Bangkok and the first few years of my employed life as a journalist were in Dubai.
It wasn’t even the first time I’d worked remotely. Since quitting my job as a magazine editor in London seven years ago to go freelance, I’d lived in and worked from Thailand, Bali and, most recently, Ibiza, where the apartment I’d decided to give up had been home for the best part of two years.
It was, however, to be my first foray into being a true ‘digital nomad’. For the next 12 months, I’d have no home base, I’d be travelling quickly between multiple different countries and I’d be taking my work – as a freelance hospitality and travel journalist – with me, hoping against hope that the wi-fi would hold up and I’d be able to stay focused and productive with my desk changing on a monthly, weekly and sometimes even daily basis, all while cramming in as many experiences as possible along the way.
Working from anywhere: the amazing part
Fast forward to a month shy of my one year digital nomad anniversary and I can report that it’s possible, it’s (mostly) amazing, but like any other lifestyle choice, it has its cons.
Let’s start with the amazing part. Over the last 11 months, I’ve worked from a riverside café in northern Laos, the New York Public Library, three different coworking spaces in Bali and a former tea estate manager’s bungalow in Sri Lanka’s beautiful hill country, to name a few.
Sometimes I’ve been writing about the places I’m in for travel magazines but most often I’ve been working for my primarily UK-based trade magazine and corporate clients. One particularly surreal moment was rushing back to my hotel on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, having just come within a few feet of the mighty Komodo dragons that live on its UNESCO-protected neighbour Rinca Island, to fire off an article for a kitchen equipment manufacturer about the Internet of Things and its potential applications for restaurateurs.
I’m fortunate enough to have a career that lends itself to working remotely; when I’m on assignment for a travel mag, I can even call the fun parts of it work. But it’s not just writers and software engineers – another profession often associated with digital nomadism – that are making this lifestyle work.
Becky Wong is an operations manager from London whose other half – a software engineer – introduced her to the possibility of becoming location independent a couple of years ago. After a ten-year career in London, she successfully made the switch and now manages projects, pilot initiatives and internal processes for her clients, which include a charity and a dance school, remotely.
Since going freelance in 2017, she’s spent three-month stints in Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria and Bankso and has also slow travelled around the UK, finding accommodation through a combination of Airbnb and Trusted House Sitters.
“I love absorbing different cultures, seeing different countries and meeting new people – that’s why I was drawn to doing this,” she tells me. “It’s a great feeling to be able to clock off at 5 pm and straight away it’s pens down, and you can go and explore somewhere new. That ability to be able to explore where you are around your work – and move at your own pace – has been the best part of it for me.”
Freedom comes through discipline
Digital nomadism may have a very special set of pros, but along with the freedom to choose your next destination at a moment’s notice, come a similarly unique set of challenges, which don’t tend to feature on the Instagram version of #digitalnomadlife.
What’s the wi-fi going to be like at my remote mountain homestay in Sri Lanka? Will it be good enough for me to sound at least halfway professional during the 10 pm Skype call I have scheduled tonight with the CEO of a global hotel group? And if not, is my 4G data topped up?
For that matter, is my remote mountain homestay even going to exist? A couple of weeks ago I turned up at a property that had been shut down for two months – (Airbnb has now been informed) – just as Wong was dealing with a last-minute house-sitting cancellation. And while we both found an alternative bed for the night, neither of us had particularly productive days.
To keep issues like this to a minimum, most digital nomads I’ve met travel (relatively) slowly. “We always aim to be wherever we’re based for two to three months at a time,” Wong says. “So we can absorb and embrace the place we are but also get some work done!”
And – I’m sorry to stamp all over the stereotype – but no one has ever done anything useful from a hammock on the beach or an infinity pool. When this article is written, I’ll treat myself to a beach day on Sri Lanka’s south coast, but right now I’m sitting in a quiet, air-conditioned coworking space in Colombo, where I’ll be staying until I’m ready to hit send.
For productivity coach Jo Bendle, who spent three years travelling the world as a digital nomad and now bases herself out of Malaga, that distinction between work time and exploring time is crucial to both enjoying and making a success out of this lifestyle.
“When I first started out as a digital nomad, I didn’t have any structure and there was never really a clear time of I’m working or I’m playing, which meant that neither of them felt good,” she says. “It’s easy to forget that freedom actually comes through discipline and it’s important to make the distinction between the hours you’re working and showing up as a business owner and the hours when you’re free to be living the lifestyle.”
Meeting people on the road
When I started out on this journey, I thought the biggest challenge I’d face would be loneliness. Freelancing is a solitary business anyway; imagine compounding that with moving to a new place and having to make new friends every few weeks.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the first would-be digital nomad to think so. When Jenny Lachs hit the road three and half years ago and landed on Thailand’s idyllic Koh Phangan, only to find that there was practically no one there who had a remote idea what she was doing, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Her online community – Digital Nomad Girls (DNG) – is now about to hit 20,000 members, she’s in the planning phases of her fourth DNG retreat and she makes a full-time income from what initially started out as a way to make some girlfriends.
“What I provide for my members is community, accountability and consistency,” she says. “You have this family of people to go back to and you don’t have to go out and meet new people all the time. Because it’s fun, yes, but it’s also really exhausting!”
Through the DNG Facebook group and the paid ‘Inner Circle’, I’ve connected with fellow digital nomads everywhere from Bali to New York, one of whom – a journalist too – I’m now travelling with through Sri Lanka. Jenny’s ‘virtual coworking sessions’ have also boosted my productivity on many an uninspired day, while Wong attributes part of making the leap to location independence to groups like DNG.
“Before I discovered DNG and other similar communities, I didn’t actually know people could live like this!” she says.
Coworking and Co-living
Another great way to meet like-minded people on the road is by checking into a co-living space, like Sun and Co in Javea, Spain, where I spent a week and a half right at the beginning of the year. For me, they’ve got the balance just right between creating a space where their guests can be productive and encouraging them to socialise and learn from each other.
Co-founder Jon Hormaetxe says: “Our guests are definitely looking for the people, either because they’re travelling and want to make meaningful connections with people like them or because they haven’t tried this lifestyle before and want to meet other people who are doing this. It’s a really good way to start – you can learn from mistakes others have made in the past and figure out how to make the most out of your experience.”
And then, of course, there are the thousands of coworking spaces that have popped up all over the world over the last few years and which I’ve sampled in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, New York, Bali and Colombo.
With the number of global coworking space members set to reach 3.8 million in 2020, it’s crazy to think that just five and half years ago Steve Munroe, who co-founded the first one in Bali – Hubud – in 2013 didn’t even know what a digital nomad was. “I remember the first time a guy rocked up with a backpack and said ‘I’m a digital nomad; I’m looking for a coworking space’. It kind of caught me off guard and I said ‘OK let’s sit down and you can tell me what that means!’” he laughs.
Since then, Hubud has had 8,500 members from over 80 countries and at any one time has about 200 people actively using the space. “For every single person who goes away, [this lifestyle] becomes a bit more accessible and a bit less scary,” says Munroe, who also runs the Coworking Alliance of Asia Pacific, which hosted its fifth ‘Coworking Unconference’ in Goa in February.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it will continue to grow and become more common – there are just too many forces at play.”
What will the digital nomads do next?
For Lachs, it’s going to be exciting to see – now digital nomadism has become slightly more mainstream – how things develop in the next five to ten years. When I Skyped with her in February, she was just wrapping up a stint in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and was about to decide where to head next. But she doesn’t see herself full-time travelling for too much longer.
And she’s not alone. “From talking to more and more digital nomads, it’s not necessarily sustainable for the majority of people to live this life long term,” she says. “But there are certain aspects of it we’ll always want – the fundamental values of it – the freedom, the flexibility, the independence. I think minimalism, community and wanting a more communal way of living also ties in with it.
“It’s going to be so interesting to see what happens over the next ten years – what are the digital nomads going to do once they ‘settle down’?”
For my part, I have a month left of my allotted digital nomad-ing year, but I’m not sure I’m ready to stop quite yet. Yes, travelling and working a full-time schedule is exhausting, and yes, I’ll admit it, I’m craving a base. But this has also been the most action-packed, life-changing year I’ve ever had and that freedom, as Munroe puts it, really is ‘intoxicating’.
As Lachs and I wrap up our Skype chat, we briefly discuss the possibility of setting up a tiny house collective for retired digital nomads in Bristol. We’re only half joking.
Maybe I’ll just do one more month in Bali first.