I spent over a year in South-East Asia, living the location independent, digital nomad lifestyle.
So how does being a digital nomad live up to the hype?
Living The Digital Nomad Lifestyle
First of all, let’s debunk one myth straight off.
All these images you see of people sitting on the beach under palm trees or by the swimming pool with their laptop.
You can’t work productively with your laptop on the beach. The sun’s too strong, you can’t see the screen properly, sand gets everywhere. Plus you could have problems plugging your laptop into the power supply when the battery starts to run out.
Apart from all that, it’s just too goddamn hot on the beach.
Working By The Pool
Working by the swimming pool brings similar problems to working on the beach. Maybe no sand, but still too hot for me and the sun’s too strong. Even if the wi-fi is ok, you might be a problem finding somewhere to plug your laptop into the mains supply.
Working in Coffee Shops
It’s true some people are ok with working in coffee shops. But I can’t do serious business work in a coffee shop or fast food joint. Even if the wifi does happen to be free.
Nor do I enjoy schlepping my laptop to these places and then back again just for a couple of hours. The battery life of my laptop is about 2 hours (I don’t have an Air Mac) and I can’t always be sure I can plug it in.
Plus I dislike typing on a small laptop keyboard or using those finger touch pads instead of a mouse. So I’d have to take my keyboard and mouse with me. Plus my USB hub.
So my laptop and the gear that comes with it is bulky.
Also I can’t really concentrate for long in such places. Too many distractions, people watching and so on.
These locations are ok for checking your mail, updating your Facebook status or doing some light web surfing, or for drafting notes and plans. But for anything else – forget it.
Getting Work Done As a Digital Nomad
As I said, I can’t work in what you might call “leisure locations”.
On the whole, doing serious work with a laptop in a coffee shop is a myth. It ain’t going to happen. At least not for me. So don’t kid yourself.
For me, I used to work in much the same way as I did back home. I set my laptop up in my apartment.
There’s another point. When you go traveling, when you’re “mobile”, you have plenty of potential distractions. You have to remain accountable to yourself. I still set myself monthly and weekly goals, as well as daily tasks.
You still have to focus your mind on your work, your projects and your goals, and not get too distracted by exciting new location.
Some people go to co-working centres in places like Bangkok to work. I checked one out and I think the idea is good and I like the concept.
But I was wary of using them. I heard stories about police and immigration officials making sudden sweeps of them to catch expats who were working in Thailand without having work permits or business visas. Neither of which in Thailand are easy to obtain by the way.
I’ve since heard that the Thai authorities have ruled that foreigners working online on businesses based outside of Thailand, where there are no clients, customers or sales in Thailand are legitimately permitted to work on their businesses in this way.
However, policy and rulings on immigration and visa issues are forever subject to extreme volatility in Thailand. What was decided one month can be changed the next. You never know for sure where you are with this. But that’s another story.
Location Independent Communication
This is a relatively easy one.
Email, Skype and VOIP make things easy. I had snail mail redirected or else scanned and sent on to me by email. I have a virtual office in London. My accountant and other services are in London. My London telephone number redirected via voip to my mobile in Asia.
My clients and contacts are mostly easily reachable via these channels.
All of this worked well for the most part. The only real problem was the time zone difference. But I set my VOIP number to voicemail when I wasn’t available to answer the phone. So it was no big deal in practice.
Keeping Fit When You’re A Digital Nomad
This is something you have to work on.
On the one hand, the diet is better in Asia. Less diary-based food, more fish, vegetables and rice. But the delicious food, plus the low cost of eating out means you have to be careful not to over indulge.
Also keep off the alcohol. Even though I don’t booze, I’m not a bar person, beer and rice is a fattening combination. And go easy on ice-cold soft drinks. Keep consumption of colas and the like down and opt for mineral or filtered water whenever you can.
Heat and humidity is a major issue. You can’t expect to keep to heavy jogging or cycling schedules or intensive outdoor sports like you used to.
You’d be mad to try running on the streets in South East Asia because of the traffic and state of the pavements and obstacles everywhere – stalls, pavement kitchens, traffic, sleeping stray dogs etc.
But you can run in public parks, which is what I did. The other thing you can do is join an indoor gym. They’re a good way to keep yourself fit in spite of the tropical climate.
Digital Nomads Enjoy Having Fewer Chores
One other thing occurred to me. As eating out in SE Asia is so cheap, you don’t spend time going to supermarkets to buy food, then having to prepare it and cook it at home. You save on the time overhead that you used to have.
Plus things like your apartment being fully serviced means cleaning and maintenance is taken care of, all done for you and included in the rent.
Living As A Digital Nomad is Cheaper in SE Asia
You can afford a better lifestyle in South East Asia than you can in Europe or North America. Which is also a definite plus.
So that’s my take on the digital nomad lifestyle as I found it.
Are you a digital nomad? Have you gone “location independent”?
If so, how does the above match with your own experiences? I’d be interested to know how you find working location independently!