How to Work and Travel – 20 Tips For Digital Nomads

how to work and travel

Want to find out how to work and travel …without driving yourself insane? Read on…

Last week marked 4 years since I set off to travel the world.

From then to now – the last four years

Year 1 was a hedonistic year of pure travel indulgence (and you can read about my First Time Around the World here).

Year 2 was the year I decided to see if I could make a go of work and travel as I tried my hand as a freelance writer – you can read about the ups and downs in my article Why Being A Freelance Writer Online May Not be the Dream Job You’d Hoped For).

Year 3 was the year of the melt-down. I tried to work full-time and I tried to travel full-time, and I failed at both. My article Fears, Failures and Why 2013 was My Worst Traveling Year Yet pretty much sums if up.

But what of Year 4? I don’t want to tempt fate but in the past year I finally seem to have found the balance. I’ve fallen back in love with travel. I’m managing my workload and I believe I’ve cracked it – I’ve figured out how to work and travel…without going insane.

In this article I will share with you my tips, tricks and insights (many of which have been borne from failure) on…

How to work and travel…without going insane

A word on work and travel: this article is about working while you are travelling full-time as a digital nomad. This isn’t about part-time blogging from a home base in addition to your day job or living in an apartment for six months in a foreign country. Although not without their difficulties (I wouldn’t want to have a full-time job and run a blog), once you’re up and running, the day-to-day challenges when you have a permanent base are minimal compared to living and working full-time on the road.

1. Set a priority – work or travel and expect progress in the other to be slow

If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this – because travel and work can both be full-time jobs, pick one as you priority and then expect progress in the other to be slower. Much. Much. Slower. One of the biggest roadblocks I faced in my year of the melt-down was trying to work and travel at 100% productivity. For most people that’s close to impossible.

Travelling fast is time and energy consuming. And running a full-time business is the same. In the month of July last year, after six months of pushing treacle uphill I put the brakes on my writing and decided to take some time out. It resulted in an amazing travel experience in Italy. And then, for the remainder of the year (September to December), I slowed down my travel – and my work peaked as a result. Those two experiments taught me that the key to happiness and a proper work and travel balance is found in trying to do one thing well and removing pressure to perform with the other.

I’ve chosen to prioritise work. I still travel but every day my writing and blog comes first. Only then, when my work is complete, do I kick back and have fun. The upshot: I don’t travel as fast (even though I’m constantly on the road).

The alternative is to prioritise travel and when you’re done exploring, turn to your blog. It’s a nice alternative but you have to expect that your income will be lower and you’ll grow your site slower.

Work and travel tips:

  • whichever you prioritise, travelling slower is generally good advice for long-term digital nomads. Staying in one place longer lets you explore more while still having time to work. On average I’ve found that I need a minimum of 5 days to 1 week in a place to achieve my perfect work-travel balance.
  • remember that you’re in this for the long-haul. You won’t see as much as quickly if you slow travel or you won’t write so much if you travel more quickly, but over the years, things should level out.
  • stop comparing your travel success to “pure” travellers i.e. people who are tripping around with world without any other responsibilities. You’re doing something different and your travel will be different as a result.

2. Focus on one kind of writing (if money permits) e.g. blog, freelance or fiction writing

If I were to carve up who I was I’d say I was a blogger first, a traveller second, a freelance writer third… and living with a fiction-novelist inside of me desperately trying to get out.

In the year of my melt-down I was trying to write fiction, earn money from freelance writing and grow my blog in the background…all in addition to travelling full-time. It’s no surprise failure ensued. Freelance writing and blogging might be essential for you as you grown your blog into a paying entity but really try to prioritise one thing as far as you can. With two nearly full-time jobs on your plate (blogging and travelling), do you really want to add extra pressure and, worse, dilute your focus…and success?

Work and travel tips:

  • if you can, try and have a buffer of one-year of savings to support you while you launch your blog. Either use a one-year of travel time to establish your blog or keep hold of that well-paying day job while you start your blog part-time.
  • if you have to write for freelance clients as well as write your blog…as well as travel, it is possible (I did it for a fair while) but you just need to accept that things are going to be tough (little sleep) for a while. I prioritised i) freelance writing ii) blogging iii) travelling. In fact, I stopped still in France for three months to generate a good freelance income that I later used for more travel.

3. Plan, Do, Review

Ok, I’m slipping back into a bit of corporate speak here but there is definitely something to the “Plan, Do, Review” approach to a project like blogging. How does it work in practice?…

Work and travel tips:

  • PLAN: At the beginning of the year (or when you decide to launch your blog), draw up a business plan – it doesn’t need to be worthy of wall street, but set out your priorities for the year – a 1 page plan is better than none.

If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to running a successful (i.e. income generating) travel blog, you might want to check out this by Nomadic Matt, Superstar Blog Course.

  • DO: break down your big goals into smaller tasks that you can complete. If you can’t complete a task, it’s not small enough.
  • REVIEW (Monthly) – put a reminder in your calendar/diary to review your plan monthly and check whether you’re on target.
  • REVIEW (Quarterly) – seriously review your plan each. quarter – are you on track, do you want to re-prioritise, are there any changes you can make?

4. Set a publication schedule and stick to it

If you’re your own boss, it’s tempting to go easy on yourself…and never get anything done. The solution is to set yourself hard deadlines and pretend that they are for a client (who is going to fire your ass if you don’t perform). It took me a fair while to get into this groove but I now post twice per week almost without exception.

Set a publication schedule and try to stick to it.

Work and travel tips:

  • buy a notebook or start a spreadsheet, whichever works for you, and schedule/plan out the topics and titles of a whole month of posts in advance.
  • if that seems too daunting, set a theme or two for each month to help you decide what you will write about.
  • if you’re blogging chronologically, scheduling becomes all the more important to keep up to date with your posts. Use your constant change of location to spur you on.

5. Get into a routine e.g social media in the morning writing in the afternoon

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you probably had a work routine – check emails, check phone messages and deal with fire-fighting issues in the morning then take a run at some project work in the afternoon. The same applies when you work from the road. Try to get into a routine and work will be easier to kick-start each day.

I start my day with 30 minutes of social media followed by emails then writing. Later in the day I focus on website work with a final bit of writing in the evening.

Work and travel tips:

  • in the early days, try writing a list of things that you will do each day with a time attached to them to get you into a routine.
  • all of that said, don’t be a slave to your routine. If you’re supposed to be doing photo editing but your writing genius turns up for the day, go with the flow.

6. Stay organised with a to-do list

how to work and travel

Photo by: puuikibeach.

One of the best things that keeps me on the straight and narrow is to-do lists. It’s temping to post an article and think that you’re done for the day but if you follow a well crafted to-do list, not only will it stop you wasting time (on the likes of social media) by telling you what you need to do next, you’ll absolutely get more done in less time freeing up more hours for travel fun.

Work and travel tips:

  • at the end of the week create a to-do list for the following week and work from it daily.
  • allot time to each task and stay on schedule with a website like e.gg.timer.com.
  • if your list keeps getting longer and longer, consider having a “power hour” – I will tackle 6 tasks for 10 minutes only. I probably won’t complete them but I’ll get them out of stuck-mode.
  • beware: don’t let writing a to-do list become a job in itself. I’ve written to-do lists on napkins and train tickets – it’s about substance, not form!

7. Learn the art of self-discipline

I’m still desperately working on this but without a big, bad-ass, scary boss threatening to fire you if you step a foot wrong, it can be hard to muster up enough self-discipline when you work for yourself. Of course, no work means no money but travel can be an immensely tempting distraction.

Work and travel tips:

8. Learn to be rude

Particularly if you’re staying in social places, it’s easy to waste a morning chatting to people about their travels, your travels, politics, where to visit next, the best food in town, toilet troubles, the best parties each night…and of course, most of these tales are accompanied with pictures or YouTube videos of cats playing jenga.

These distractions happen in offices too but eventually those chats reach a natural conclusion as everyone ultimately has work to do. That’s not the case in hostels and hotels where most other people are on holiday.

In this scenario there is no other option but to be a bit rude and excuse yourself.

Work and travel tips:

  • apologise and say that you have to work – be blunt and act on it.
  • put your headphones in as an “I’m working” signal, even if you don’t have music playing – people are much less likely to interrupt you if you’ve got buds in your ears.

9. Measure yourself by efficiency not time online

The internet is a HUGE time sucker and even through social media and being on Facebook and Twitter is absolutely part of your travel blogging job, it’s tempting to stray from essential social media to disappearing down the rabbit hole of too many hours online.

The aim of the game is to work efficiently so that you can spend your spare time in a hammock or exploring, not pretending that you’re working just because you’re chatting to other bloggers on Twitter or Facebook (GUILTY).

Work and Travel Tips:

  • install a program like RescueTime on your laptop to measure time worked versus efficient time worked – I love this tool and it has taught me that I can be just as efficient working 35 hours as I am if I’m online 60 hours a week.
  • schedule your social media in advance with a tool like Hootsuite to maximise efficiency and minimise the number of times you go online

10. Learn to write anywhere any time

“I would write more but I just can’t concentrate when I’m [insert location / time of day excuse].”

Sure, most people work better at a desk when there is no background noise or other distractions but the reality is that as a digital nomad you’re not going to have many occasions where the environment for writing is just write.

So, you have two choices – keep putting things off until you do find the perfect confluence of work circumstances (that’s probably going to be about once a week and your progress will be as slow), or adapt.

It’s going to take hard work and discipline but if you really want to make a go of the work and travel lifestyle, you’re going to have to get through it. I’ve worked on a crowded train sat on my upended bag in the corridor next to the train toilet. I’ve worked in a packed bar on a Friday night in Milan during happy hour. It’s a hard skill but a vital skill to learn if you want to work and travel.

Work and travel tips:

  • use your headphones to block out noise and as a signal to yourself that you’re getting into work mode.
  • learn to stop caring what people think – it doesn’t matter if you’re in a bar, at a major sight or on a crowded bus – deadlines must be met (this amazing article might help with your perspective on this).

start with low concentration tasks e.g. editing an article or organising photos and build from there.

How to work and travel

11. Find an “office” system that works and keep it all together

Motivation can be a key issue when you have the distraction of travel constantly at your side so it will really pay off if you eliminate as many barriers to work as you can. And not being able to hit the (working) ground running is one of those barriers.

I used to have my laptop, notebooks and pens spread across different bags and would waste time every morning getting my “office” together.

Now, I keep everything in one bag, which I call my office..although never in front of thieves – to them, I call it my dirty laundry bag…but I digress. When I wake up I pull out my office bag and I can be set up and running in minutes.

Work and travel tips:

  • I’d recommend having the following in one handy bag: laptop, chargers, camera, notebook, pen, plug converter and mi-fi.
  • you might be interested to read about the 10 travel gadgets I wouldn’t travel without.
  • over the years I’ve learned to pack an extra foldable backpack that I can pull out for day trips to save me having to decant everything from my office bag every time I want to use my daypack. It may seem like an extra item to take but it has saved me countless time faffing around. You can find details about the rucksack in article on the The Art of Packing Light.

12. Make sure you always have the holy trinity in your accommodation: wi-fi, power and a/c

Chefs need a kitchen, builders need hammers and digital nomads need wi-fi, a source of electricity and, if you’re anything like me in a hot country where your brain can’t focus above 25 degrees, a source of a/c.

When I was just travelling and casually blogging, my focus was on finding the funkiest place to stay and spending days in remote locations didn’t stress me out. Now, my travel decisions are more heavily focused on finding the Holy Trinity of wi-fi, power and a/c than the best view or off-the-grid spot. As a digital nomad you need to be on-the-grid most of the time and you need to advance plan for any time you’ll spend offline.

Work and travel tips:

  • check reviews – people regularly write about a hostel’s or hotel’s wi-fi speed.
  • if you’re in a hostel, try to take a dorm bed next to the plugs so you can work in the quiet of your room
  • email your accommodation to ask for a room close to the router – most places will accommodate your request if they can.
  • if all else fails, buy a local sim and carry a mi-fi device for those urgent deadlines.

13. Get over your addiction to a/c

If you read my blog often you’ll know I’m a mess of contradictions. So, having just said that finding a/c will probably be a huge factor in your travels, the quicker you can acclimatise to the heat and humidity and unhook your dependence from the cool air, the more you’ll open up a greater list of locations you can work from (outside cafes in Thailand, hotel rooms that only have a slow turning fan for example) and the more you’ll get things done.

Work and travel tips:

  • gradually reduce your time in a/c.
  • expect to go slower for the first few weeks as you acclimatise to the heat.
  • wear loose, comfortable clothes when you work – you don’t want to be distracted by the fact that you can’t breathe in your tight denim shorts.
  • carry a sarong or scarf with you – I’ve learned from too many hours sat in faux-leather chairs in humidity that a sarong can be invaluable if you don’t want to spend your work hours slipping around on your own pool of seat sweat (sorry for the visual!).

14. Accept that some minor, mundane things will take huge chunks out of your day

Constantly being in unfamiliar places, you’re simply going to have to accept that many small tasks that would take no more than minutes at home are going to take you a lot longer. From finding a decent place to have breakfast to spending a half day searching for contact lens solution in Vietnam (true story…and still I didn’t find any), it can be beyond frustrating wasting valuable travel or work time dealing with mundane tasks. However, that’s the reality of life on the move and its something you simply have to accept (unless you want to drive yourself insane with irritation).

Work and travel tips:

  • work some “mundane task” time into each day to deal with this essential but inconvenient chores.
  • try to hit deadlines one day in advance so you don’t get stressed when something else comes up that you have to deal with (this is good practice in all working life but even more vital when your lifestyle throws up more anticipated challenges than mainstream life).
  • if you see something you know you’re going to need in a week’s time (soap, shampoo, sun lotion), buy it when you spot it.

15. Budget for coffee shops

how to work and travel

There is work and there is efficient work and the two can have very different results. I’ve found over the years that by taking myself out of the hostel common room or hotel lobby and into a coffee shop, I can get twice the work done in half the time. Sure, sitting in coffee shops, particularly the likes of Starbucks – the place where coffee beans go to die – is not my idea of dream travel, and handing over several dollars a day for coffee and snacks is a frustrating cost in my travel budget, but it helps me get stuff done. In half the time it would take me to get the same amount of stuff done on crappy wi-fi or with distractions. And, by being more work efficient, I can free up time for more fun activities.

Work and travel tips:

  • just accept the cost – anything you spend in a coffee shop spend is still going to be cheaper than renting an office.
  • minimise your time inside with a good, focused to-do list and a time limit to how long you’ll spend in the cafe.
  • if you’re spending a lot of time in coffee shops, consider getting some virtual office space with a company like Regus – I had this for a year and found it really helpful, particularly in big cities like Manila.

16. Plan ahead for travel days and fun nights

There’s no point spending all of your time working – there needs to be time for travel and fun too, otherwise you may as well be back in your home town. You just have to plan ahead for travel days and fun nights.

Keep to your schedule for posting, make sure you have your to-do list done and, if you’re being really good, get a day ahead of yourself with your work so that you can spend the day/night entirely switched off from your work and enjoy your leisure time guilt-free.

Work and travel tips:

  • try to get into a habit of less impulse more planned fun – try to book ahead your week interspersing your work and fun/travel days as evenly as possible.
  • don’t forget that travel days where you’re moving from one place to another can take up an entire day even if you’re not moving far – check-in, check-out, eating and showering after you’ve been sweating with your backpack on can easily evaporate a whole day…and any work motivation that goes with it.

17. Get used to missing out

All work and no play can make you a dull traveller but equally, and more realistically, you are just going to have to get used to missing out. A. Lot. The chances are, especially as you transition from traveller to digital nomad, that you’ll be constantly surrounded by other travellers who have no other commitments beyond fun and exploration, and you’re really going to miss that lifestyle. It can be incredibly frustrated watching other people head to the beach/see some cool ruins when you have to work all day. But remind yourself this: when all those people go home in a week, a month or more, you’ll still be doing what you love doing. Days chained to your laptop is part of the trade-off for that ongoing travel lifestyle and the sooner you accept that, the easier it will be.

Work and travel tips:

  • write down the activities you want to do in each place, schedule time for them and try not to veer too much off your plan.
  • console your inner FOMO (fear of missing out) by knowing that most of the travellers around you reach the end of their trip. You won’t and overtime you’ll end up seeing much more than those other travellers combined.
  • develop a network of online bloggers and digital nomads to help you get some work perspective as you travel – chances are they will be sat in a different yet equally interesting location also in front of their laptop working. (If you ever feel like you need some support, drop me a line on Facebook).

18. Don’t plague yourself with guilt

One of the main reasons year 3 was my year of the melt-down is because I spent most of my time feeling guilty. When I was in coffee shops working I was kicking myself for not being outside and exploring (“you’re in the final frontier of the Philippines and you’re sat in this coffee shop – what’s the point”). And when I was outside exploring, I was plagued with guilt for all of the work that I had to do (“you have four posts ideas whirling around your head, broken links that need solving and tourists boards to pitch to yet you’ve treated yourself to a mid-week snorkelling trip – you don’t deserve it”).

Kick the guilt. It honestly does nothing beyond take you on a one-way ticket to insanity!

Work and travel tips:

  • as I’ve already mentioned, plan your free time ahead and work around it.
  • give yourself a guilt break. If you’re not balancing things well, don’t kick yourself. Brainstorm a plan for finding a better balance. Unless you were born with digital nomad blood in your veins, you’re going to have a lot of failed attempts at the work and travel balance before you get it right.

19. Take a holiday at least once a year

I work seven days a week and you’ll find that most digital nomads, travel bloggers and entrepreneurs will tell you a similar tale. Of course, I enjoy my work so doing it seven days a week isn’t a chore (in my world the word “Work” is synonymous with “eating chocolate”) but it’s important for creativity and mental and physical health to take a break every now and again.

Until this year, I hadn’t taken a holiday for four years. When I went to Cuba it was the first time I’d switched off for a long time and damn did it feel good. And not only that, while I sat in a rocking chair sipping rum on a porch in La Boca, I came up with some good ideas for when I got back to the world of wi-fi.

Work and travel tips:

  • start planning about 6 weeks in advance for your break – you’re probably a one-man band (or a couple who are taking a break together) so you’ll have to schedule posts in advance posts for while you’re away. By doing a bit extra each day for a few weeks you can complete switch off.
  • ask around and see if you can get other bloggers to guest post on your website to fill your time away.

20. Accept that there will be low motivation days

I try to write every day but there are absolutely days (at least a couple per week) when my motivation is low, my writer’s block is high and I just can’t get into the work groove. This happens in mainstream office life too. The only difference is that in the cubicle world you still get paid. Try not to kick yourself too much for these low motivation days – you can work around them…

Work and travel tips:

  • the upside of having so many different things to do (social media, images, writing, accounts, PR, SEO) is that if you’re not motivated to do one thing (write), you can still do something else (edit your photos).
  • swap around your work and travel days so that you chill out on the low motivation days and work when you’re most geared up.
  • take a break and don’t feel guilty – your motivation will return, most likely the second you stop trying to force it.
  • keep a monthly record of your successes and milestones, no matter how small, and if motivation is missing for an extended period, read over your document for a feel-good motivational push.

So, they are my tips for how to work and travel…without going insane. Do you have any other tips to share? How you tried any of these and had any success? Let me know in the comments below.

If you found this article helpful, you may also like to read:

So, You Want to Start a Travel Blog? 10 things I Wish I’d Known

Top 10 Tips on How to Be A Better Blogger – From the Experts

The 10 Travel Gadgets I Wouldn’t Travel Without

The Art of Packing Light

Do you have any other tips to share? How you tried any of these and had any success? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Main photo by: Thomas8047.

Photos by: Mike Licht.

Article written by

Jo Fitzsimons is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 60 countries. www.indianajo.com is the place where she shares destination details, travel itineraries, planning and booking tips and trip tales. Her aim: to help you plan your travel adventure on your terms and to your budget.

15 Responses

  1. 15 Best WordPress Plugins for Blogs
    15 Best WordPress Plugins for Blogs at |

    […] 20 Tips for How to Work and Travel Without Going Insane (Part 1) […]

  2. Scotty Elliott
    Scotty Elliott at | | Reply

    I still can’t believe I could make money from writing about something I enjoy doing or from writing anything on the internet for that matter. Unlike most people my age (53), I’m pretty tech savvy but when someone tells me theirs money to be made from anything involving the internet= Are you a Nigerian princess? 🙂 I’ll be following all the links & tips you’ve given, thanks again Jo, I’m due for a “sea change” & good luck with your future travels. 🙂

  3. 20 Tips for How to Work and Travel …without going insane (Part 2) | Indiana Jo
    20 Tips for How to Work and Travel …without going insane (Part 2) | Indiana Jo at |

    […] This is part 2. You may want to read part 1 first. […]

  4. Franca
    Franca at | | Reply

    Thank you so much Jo for putting this together, it’s very helpful and in some ways it puts order to my messy mental idea of working and travelling. I need it 😉

  5. Scott @ VacationCounts
    Scott @ VacationCounts at | | Reply

    Great advice for those that want to be self-employed and live and travel in different countries. Most of us do not want to wait until retirement to start traveling. Prioritizing work versus travel is key.

    Another way of approaching work+travel is to replicate your work-life-vacation balance but in a new country. What I mean is to travel to a foreign country and rent a place to stay (for a year if you are legally allowed to be resident that long). During your one-year abroad, work and take vacations as you would back home. Work during the week and take off on weekend breaks. Celebrate the national holidays. Give yourself 5 or 6 weeks of vacation days each year (or whatever is financially feasible) and only travel during those periods. This plan can make it easier to get freelance work done and not have to juggle working and traveling at the same time.

    Happy Traveling…
    -Scott, VacationCounts – Take More Vacation Time Off

  6. Sam
    Sam at | | Reply

    Wow, this must have taken ages to put together! But I’m so glad you did – super helpful. For me, it’s the concentration thing that gets me most. I’m very sensitive to noise, and trying to write when people around me are speaking English is almost impossible. If they’re speaking another language it’s fine! I found that article on taming your mammoth really worthwhile reading too, by the way. Definitely advice to live by!

  7. Stefan Arestis
    Stefan Arestis at | | Reply

    And to think you used to be a lawyer 4 years ago! Really impressed and look up to you. We are slowly learning the importance of what we call admin days – turning into weeks in some cases.

  8. Corinne
    Corinne at | | Reply

    Jo, I think these tips work for blogging…anyway you do it!

  9. Andrew Cowen
    Andrew Cowen at | | Reply

    Such wisdom…thought provoking, professional and inspiring.

    i believe travel has really helped you find your true self…if you ever pass Rotterdam would love to see you again.

  10. jessie
    jessie at | | Reply

    uhh nice tipps! something i needed right now!

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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