9-5 is fast becoming an outdated concept and has proven to be counter-productive for many creatives. Freelancers and location-independent designers are seeking for new ways to live, work and travel. The digital nomad movement has been around for some years now but just recently started to get serious traction. As a digital nomad myself I’d like to present my adventurous lifestyle whilst providing you with some tools and further information on getting started with your own adventures.
What is the Digital Nomad Lifestyle?
What if I told you that it would cost just $641 per month to live in exotic Chiang Mai, Thailand. For that you get cafés, incredible food and culture, compared to $4,854 per month in San Francisco or a massive $5,332 per month in New York? According to Nomad List, there are ten cities worldwide where you can live and work comfortably for under $1,000 per month.
Imagine how much you could see and experience, whilst saving up at the same time!
Our generation might just be the luckiest ever, especially if we look at things in relation to opportunities and freedom. I always dreamed about traveling the world, exploring places I’d seen on TV and in magazines while at the same time working hard to become a designer.
Then about half a decade ago it hit; the digital nomad movement began. Through publications like Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week and Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity it became clear that 9-5 was becoming a dated concept for work and that the corporate ladder may not be the best choice for every career.
In the past year I’ve read a lot about digital nomadic adventures from Pieter Levels, Jon Yongfook and Noel Tock, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of traveling and working at the same time, especially since my skill-set and the work I do allow me to do so.
The digital nomad lifestyle is, in essence, a minimal lifestyle based on traveling the world and doing digital work, whether that be writing, designing, programming or anything else that necessitates being online.
Discipline and a sound work routine are the only way to get things done on the road. Moving through different time zones, unknown places and new cultures you will step out of your comfort zone, you will be excited, you will be terrified, sometimes you’ll feel euphoric, sometimes lost and lonely.
Develop Your Morning Routine
For more than six months I’ve been getting up early no matter the time zone. At one stage that meant 6am; now I am rising at 5am, whether in Budapest, Kuala Lumpur or Los Angeles. I exercise five days a week, which helps me recharge my batteries and start each day with a clear head. I’ve started meditating, using guidance from Calm, Omvana and currently Headspace.
However, you don’t have to become the early bird to get stuff done, I don’t believe in the 9-5 routine in all cases; you are different and so am I. Experiment and analyse how you work, identify your peak hours, notice when you feel down. Plan your day to work smarter, not harder. I tend to be more creative and focused in the early morning, this is when I do most of my writing and designing. Emails and social media literally drain my energy so I usually leave those for the afternoon when I don’t feel like doing creative work.
I highly recommend reading some of the My Morning Routine interviews where you will find hundreds of different routines from artists, writers, designers and entrepreneurs.
Where do Digital Nomads Work From?
There are many ways to get the job done. If you use Airbnb, make sure to ask your host about Wifi speed and alternative ways to get online. In many places in the world you simply can go to a coffee shop with free Wifi and work there.
Cafes 4 Nomads is a great tool for finding cafés to work from in Thailand and Australia.
Workfrom lists places to work with an ability to filter results and find a place that is quiet or has food.
Work From Cafe has a huge collection of cafés around the world with short evaluations on service, food, wifi speed etc.
Another very appealing option is co-working spaces. You don’t just get a comfy place with fast internet and coffee supply but amazing like-minded people around you. I personally like Hubud, The SEA and LineupHub.
Copass allows you to work from hundreds of co-working spaces on the planet with one single membership. The freedom to work and connect to awesome folks anywhere.
ShareDesk marketplace provides a platform for mobile professionals to discover and book work and meeting spaces on the go–by the hour, day, or month.
Desk Surfing gives you the freedom to work where you want. And who you want to work with. Desksurfing is co-working at any given place.
Nomads to Follow and Learn From
Digital nomads are the types of people who explore and share their experiences and knowledge in order to help others who aspire to do the same thing. Their goal is simple; to inspire people to pursue something more than just an average lifestyle.
I can’t benefit from digital nomads as “mentors” as they are spread out all across the world, but by reading and studying their work I am able to learn, conceptualise my own journey and expect the unknown from people who have been there. Digital nomads are eager to help if you ask.
Below is a list of people I recommend you start following, reading their blog posts and interacting with in order to learn more about their lifestyles. Entrepreneurs, writers, bloggers, designers, programmers, photographers; there are many different people to follow and be inspired by.
Jon Yongfook is a stylish entrepreneur running Beatrix, an app for social content discovery and scheduling. You’ll love his 1 Year as a Digital Nomad - How to Build a Business by the Beach article with numbers, costs and experience running a startup from by the sea.
Pieter Levels is a serial entrepreneur, launching 12 startups in 12 months having launched Nomad List, #nomads and many more things related to his digital nomadic lifestyle. He writes about startups, lifestyle and traveling.
Kavi Guppta is a nomadic writer and journalist working with Forbes and currently residing in Perth, Australia. Kavi shares interesting stories and photos from travels with his wife.
Noel Tock is an entrepreneur, designer and programmer who has been vagabonding all around the world–speaking, working and building businesses.
Tomas Jasovsky is a designer who travels the world with his girlfriend and blogs a lot about their experiences.
Marina Janeiko is a UX designer and co-founder of the What’s It Like startup. She actively shares traveling and business tips, writes about and interviews digital nomads on the Nomad List blog.
Alex Mathers is a nomadic illustrator, designer and writer. Alex shares a lot of valuable advice on running your own business and writes great books for creatives.
Pete Rojwongsuriya is designer, entrepreneur and photographer. He’s founder of Travelistly and Bucketlistly; startups which bring you travel and life inspiration. Pete shares amazing photos from his journeys as well as informative blog posts.
James Seymour-Lock is a nomadic designer and co-founder of Simple as Milk design agency. He blogs about his experiences, workflow and travel adventures whilst sharing amazing photos.
“Work smarter, not harder” is a mindset most digital nomads need to adopt in order to have more time to explore and enjoy traveling. To do this identify the 20% of your work that produces 80% of outcome and stick to that (you can’t do everything, after all).
Rise early, do some productive work and go out to the beach, try out hiking, surfing, sightseeing, come back and do the rest of what you’ve planned for the day.
There are many cafes with the kind of cozy environment that will inspire you and get your creative juices flowing. Move around and work in blocks is a method presented by Buffer, suggesting you perform one set of tasks in one cafe then move around and do the rest elsewhere.
While being a digital nomad you’ll face many challenges inherent to being in remote places and different time zones. Communication is key to a successful nomad’s career. Designers and stakeholders alike have to think about leveraging technology to get as smooth and clear communication as possible with clients or colleagues.
Nomads I know (and from personal experience) mostly use Skype and Google Hangouts for team/client chats, Basecamp for client communication, Slack and HipChat for internal communication.
Big files can become a nightmare when you go to places with slow internet, however, you should always think of backing up your documents and ways of sharing them. Dropbox and Google Drive are great services for sharing resources (depending on the clients) and make sure you read Pieter Levels’ advice on backing up your data in How I Went From 100 To 0 Things (Or How I Was Robbed of All My Stuff)
Planning & Time Management
As I’ve already mentioned discipline and routine are the keys to success when living as a traveling designer. Make sure you spend some time every day to plan your month, week and day work. Trello has proven to be a great tool for many digital nomads I’ve met during my travels. For time tracking, nomads recommend Toggl, RescueTime and TeamWeek for to keep schedules ticking over.
Now let’s take a look at some design tools that designers use on the road. Many designers still stick to old school Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to get the job done but alternatives like Sketch are getting serious attention nowadays, especially for UI and mobile design.
Paper and pencil are holding on strong when it comes to wireframing, though tools like UXPin and OmniGraffle are the top choices among digital wire-framing tools.
You’ll also find nomadic designers use InVision and Marvel for creating interactive prototypes and gathering feedback.
As a digital nomad being on the road you’re already fortunate to experience new cultures, see amazing places and meet interesting people. Besides that you can always head to Dribbble, Behance or DeviantArt for design inspiration. For more websites check Top 10 Websites for Visual Inspiration.
Music is a great source of inspiration too. Most nomads use Spotify for music, together with noise cancelling headphones or MA600i earbuds. Here are a couple of my favourite Spotify playlists for getting into the zone:
- Coding and crushing it by Noel Tock
- Coding by Philip Arthur Moore
A huge headache when traveling the world is money and financial management. Before leaving you must take care of all your financial dependencies like debt, loans, insurance and other taxes. Make sure you tell your banks that you will be traveling–suddenly realising your bank cards have been blocked just because you’re in a different country is no laughing matter.
Most of the digital nomads I’ve encountered, including myself, are freelancers–in other words, self-employed. Make sure to look up your country’s self-employment terms to find out about national insurance contributions, taxes and tax return deadlines to avoid debt and penalties. For UK readers check GOV.UK, USA readers check USA.GOV and Australians check Australian Taxation Office.
Depending on the amount of time you reside in one place you may want to consider starting your business abroad. Doing so can mean you enjoy lower taxes and improved benefits. Personally, my business is UK-based, but here are 7 countries that are better for your business than UK according to the Telegraph.
Always separate tax money from your personal income, ideally in a separate bank account. This way you'll be safe when the tax return time comes and, trust me, it will save you a lot of stress.
Safety first. Traveling is fun but sometimes things go wrong; trying out that exotic meal or drinking dirty water can get you into big trouble. Travel insurance is a must if you want peace of mind and to have that safety net whenever your health is at risk.
For insurance there are many different options you can choose from. If you happen to be traveling within the bounds of one continent it is probably cheaper to get an insurance from one of your local insurance companies. I've used Gjensidige, if... and some other small Lithuanian insurance companies, but there are travel insurance plans specifically designed for digital nomads, for example with World Nomads.
Tracking your income and expenses is crucial when running your own freelance business. While traveling it may get even more complex as you will have ever changing currencies and unexpected charges from your banks. Make sure you plan out your budget every week, or at least a month, and review your finances to avoid stress later. Below are some great tools to get started, some of these provide personal and business finance tracking and multi-currency support so you'll be in a good company.
Nomads I know use Xero, Mint, Wally, Expensify or spreadsheet templates for Google Docs.
Another time consuming (but very important) thing in running your business on the road is invoicing. Keeping track of and organizing your invoices monthly will make you feel relieved once time for tax returns comes round. Organized bookkeeping takes time, but you can hire an accountant to help you with that. I'd recommend checking Bench.
For free and paid invoicing software check the following services that many freelancers and entrepreneurs use, including Xero, Wave accounting, FreshBooks, Paypal and Invoiceto.me.
Now let’s take a look at all the extra things that you’ll want to take on the road including books, cameras, equipment and more.
You will have a lot of time to read while traveling, including bus trips, long flights or simply unproductive days. For these situations I recommend you read or listen to podcasts. For reading on your laptop, tablet or mobile phone check out Pocket, Instapaper or ReadKit.
The following are recommended books to learn more about digital nomad lifestyle:
- Digital Nomad - How to Travel the World and Work as a Freelancer
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
- Remote: Office Not Required
- Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
What about a traveling bag, suitcase or backpack? That’s a topic for an entirely new article, but here are some crucial accessories from traveling designers I’ve met.
- NomadKey, your key sized cable.
- For bags and backpacks check Samsonite, Minaal and Tumi bags.
- Make sure you get a World Travel Adapter, it will save you plenty of money and stress when traveling.
- For taking pictures many nomads rely on their phones or GoPro cameras.
We’ve covered a lot, but I can’t share everything in one article, there’s just so much to talk about! You may still have questions on packing, finding accommodation and cheap flights, finances and insurance. For these and other matters check out the following articles or feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @tomaslau.
- Beyond the Code by Noel Tock
- Lessons I learned on the road as a Digital Nomad by Noel Tock
- My minimalist digital nomad backpack by James Seymour-Lock
- Four Years Of Remote Working by David Pomfret
- Sidetracked Magazine stories of adventure travel, journeys and expeditions
- Work and Travel, Anywhere by Tomas Laurinavicius
I look forward to hearing your nomadic experiences in the comments!