It seems like every time I go browsing on the internet these days (and let’s be honest, that’s like every day…multiple times a day), the term “digital nomad” is everywhere. What was once a moniker that incited puzzled looks is now becoming a new type of American dream for the younger generation: ditch the 9-to-5 and head out on the road, while working and making money online in between adventures. This is the perception of the digital nomad lifestyle. I know it all too well, because that’s what I did over two years ago.
But the digital nomad world has been a bit overly fantasized in my opinion — becoming attached to false visions of lounging at glitzy hotel pools, sipping piña coladas while responding to a few incoming emails before taking off for a day of exploring. I won’t lie and say that scenario has never happened to me, but if truth be told, things in the digital nomad world can often look strikingly different. And if you’re someone with goals of achieving this lifestyle, then I think you deserve to know the realities before choosing to dive in head first.
Would I ever trade this life? No, never. But if you’re considering it for yourself, here are a few things you need to know before buying into the digital nomad lifestyle.
1. Get Ready to Completely Redefine the Word “Vacation”
Starting off on your adventure as a digital nomad will be nothing like your life back home — the life in which you most likely worked for someone else, were assigned tasks by a superior and had allotted days per year to enjoy time off.
The biggest hurdle at the beginning of this new lifestyle will be learning how to not treat your new existence as one big vacation. Yes, it will feel like vacation as traveling and being away from home is how you’ve defined this term in your old life, but instead you’ll now have to juggle your fun, travel time with time spent building your business during the day when other temptations are ever-present. This literally requires a completely new mental shift and one that takes some time adapting to.
2. You’ll Have to Be More Motivated Than Ever Before
Say goodbye to the days of someone holding you accountable for your to-do list and sending follow-up emails. If you’re working remotely for a company then at least you’ll have more outer accountability in place, but for many digital nomads building their own business, the only person counting on them is themselves. This means that each day, you’ll have to make an even more concerted effort to put in the hours and stay productive in a situation where your environment is constantly shifting.
3. If You Move Too Fast, You’ll Crash and Burn
The most successful digital nomads, I’ve found, are the ones that embrace slow travel. In other words, they use one city or destination around the world as their base for about a minimum of three months (or much longer) before moving onto the next place. Why? Let me count the ways…
For starters, you need time to acclimate to a new destination — to find where you’ll complete your work on a daily basis (coffee shop hopping can get exhausting), where you’ll sleep, and what neighborhoods you’ll spend time in. Essentially getting into some kind of routine.
Staying in a place longer also allows you to focus more on work because it releases the pressure of feeling like you need to be out exploring with the minimal amount of time you’ve allotted yourself in the destination. If you end up trying to hop from place to place too quickly you’ll find that you’re either missing out on so much or never getting anywhere in your career, and let’s be honest — neither of those options are appealing, am I right?
Which leads me to my next point…
4. Your Normal Routines Will Be Turned Upside Down
Yes, staying in one place for longer can help with this, but there’s something about the digital nomad life that makes you feel a bit like you’re in a constant state of disorientation. Each time you show up in a new place, you’re met with the same questions. Where is the best place to live? Where will I go grocery shopping? Where will I go to the gym? How do I get around? How do I meet new people? It can be a bit overwhelming.
The truth is, there’s not really a one-size-fits-all solution. You just kind of have to get used to figuring it out along the way. One thing that I’ve found helpful is tapping into expat Facebook groups in your destination to help get some basic questions answered and plug yourself into a community right off the bat. Local co-working spaces are also a great resource for asking questions and meeting likeminded people.
There are some new companies popping up that aim to solve some of these challenges by housing digital nomads in their living/co-working communities and plugging them into local culture with their already acquired resources and connections. One such company is called ROAM, and is definitely worth a look. However, I’ve found many of these options to be quite costly for the beginner nomad and I also believe it removes a bit of the beauty of figuring it out for yourself and building that confidence along the way.
5. You’ll Have to Lower Your Standard of Living…at First
Remember, living the digital nomad life is not the same as traveling the world off of a trust fund or some mystical pot of gold. If you’re still working for a company that’s paying you a hefty salary to work remote, that’s awesome! You’ve basically won the jackpot. But the reality is that many beginner digital nomads are trying to build their own businesses, which means every penny counts.
Back in 2016 when I was just getting started, I was often staying in hostels or tiny shoebox hotels/airbnbs with basic amenities in places like Indonesia and Vietnam where the dollar goes extremely far. On very rare occasions, I would treat myself (usually free with points haha) to a Hyatt or a “luxury” hotel for $99 a night, but those times were few and far between.
So my point is, while there’s nothing better than exploring a new country or destination, it’s likely that you won’t really be doing it in style…at first. You might have to put in some time living with the very basics before you can upgrade to that 5 star hotel room or villa.
6. ‘No’ Will Need to Be Your New Favorite Word
If you want to achieve the above stated 5-star hotel life, then you’re going to have to work for it. That means clocking hundreds and even thousands of hours in front of your laptop in a place where distractions run rampant. You think you have FOMO at home? Now imagine all the fear-of-missing-out moments you’d have on a beautiful island like Bali or in Buenos Aires.
There’s an epic beach a 10 minute walk away, or a museum you’ve been dying to check out. You’re meeting new people every day that will be headed out to this bar or on that excursion. But learning how to say ‘no’ more (not to everything, but to many things), is the only way you’ll be able to live this lifestyle for longer, or else you’ll find the days going by without any work ever being accomplished (and ahem, your bank account dwindling). Sacrifices are part of the deal, but in my opinion the freedom is so worth it.
7. Community — And Choosing the Right One — is Crucial
When starting out with the digital nomad lifestyle, it’s essential to seek out other likeminded people that are doing the same thing, whether that be online or in the destination you’re visiting. If you end up constantly befriending vacationers or transient travelers moving more frequently than you, it can be that much more difficult to stay motivated and to find friends that ‘get you.’
You’ll also have a much harder time building lasting connections and will struggle with managing your time when the people you’re surrounding yourself with don’t have the same long term goals as you (ie. they want to be out exploring all day while what you really need to do is sit in front of a laptop and build that dream of yours). Finding the right people who can motivate, support and inspire you will make all the difference.
8. You’ll Probably Feel Like Friends Back Home Have Forgotten About You
Something interesting happens when you’re no longer within a 10 mile radius of your friends: they stop calling you. Or at least not as often. Even though I was perfectly still reachable through Whatsapp and every social media platform out there during my year of constant travel, I found that my incoming communications were cut down by about 80% (if not more).
Because of this, it’s easy to start feeling lonely or imagine that your friends back home have forgotten you exist. It will take a lot of extra effort to keep up those relationships because people are naturally drawn to staying in constant communication with people in closer proximity to them.
Don’t worry, the ones that really care will stay in your life and be there with open arms when you return. As a rule of thumb, I try not to measure my friendships by how often I speak to someone because some of my closest friends in the world are ones I speak to on the phone maybe once every couple of months, yet I’ve been friends with them for over 20 years.
9. Prepare to be Met With a Lot of Daily Frustrations
The reality of traveling is that things aren’t always perfect — in fact, they never are. Sometimes you have to have the patience of a saint, whether you’re dealing with shoddy wi-fi, sub-par customer service, impossible language barriers, or worse — missed flights, foreign scams, stolen goods and the like.
Furthermore, you often can’t find things in other countries that seem very commonplace at home– ahem, iced coffee (or even toilet paper in some places). If you’re a creature of habit and have lived a cushy, modern existence your whole life, jumping into this lifestyle is going to give you a big, fat reality check — in a good way!
Getting really honest with yourself about how you’ll deal with these situations will help you better understand if this lifestyle is right for you. Personally, I think that if you might be someone who struggles with the above, then all the more reason to take off and challenge yourself! You’ll develop skills that will serve you for the rest of your life. Skills like having more patience, the ability to cultivate calm in times of stress, and more compassion of cultures and customs other than your own.
10. Returning Home Will Never Be the Same
What’s your long-term plan? Do you imagine hitting the road for one year? Two? Five? Indefinitely? No matter how long you’re traveling for, eventually you’ll be faced with the reality of returning home, whether that’s just for a quick visit with family and friends or to completely re-integrate back into your old life.
People tend to not discuss this part of traveling as much, but the returning can almost spark a post-travel depression for some. You feel like you’ve just taken in a lifetime of experiences only to find that everything at home is just as you’ve left it. Maybe people have changed jobs, moved apartments, gotten married or had babies, but they haven’t opened the curtain to a world beyond what they’ve ever known. They haven’t experienced the feeling of freedom and infinite possibility that a life on the road can ignite. And you have. That doesn’t make you better than anyone else, but it sure can feel isolating when you’re thrown back into a world of routine and normalcy.
I don’t have all the answers when it comes to avoiding this, but it helps to find your tribe both at home and away. Seek out the people that get it — the ones with big dreams and big hearts — that will support you and listen to you when you don’t have the answers yourself. And then when you feel like it’s time to take off again into the unknown, you’ll have people cheering you on.
So What do you think — is the digital nomad lifestyle for you?
Let me get one thing straight. This post isn’t meant to discourage you from pursuing your digital nomad dreams. But I think it’s important to be real with people about what they’re getting themselves into. Whether you’re prepping for a life-changing shift to the digital nomad world or are already in it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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Wow I love this post SO much!! My husband and I just moved to Bali about 6 months ago from NYC and I couldn’t agree with you more! Such an amazing lifestyle that I wouldn’t trade, but not exactly what it appears to be and definitely so much more work than we imagined, haha! Thanks for sharing girl!!
Love that you’re living the digital nomad life in Bali — one of the first places I visited on my initial RTW trip! Will be going back soon xx
This is SUCH a good post Michelle! It crazy how many of these things you don’t think about when you’re getting started. There are definitely a lot of sacrifices you have to make, but getting to experience new places and meet new people is a major bonus!
Thanks for reading Sam! I think all of the challenges are worth it in the long run, but it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into, right? Happy travels xx