Digital Nomad Myth Busters: They Don’t Travel All the Time

Jenn Sutherland-Miller

How many times has the late afternoon slump found you scrolling through your Instagram feed, absentmindedly daydreaming about how the other half lives? Checking your calendar and counting weeks to your next vacation. Wondering aloud about how that one digital nomad friend of yours does it. “It’s not the real world,” you tell yourself. “No one really gets to live that life, combining travel and remote work, bopping around to the affordable hotspots on Nomad List’s top ten.” Remote work in your world means two days  working from home. Or, perhaps you’re just beginning to negotiate a partially remote set up. Working in sock feet and flannel pants feels decadent. Working from Chiang Mai feels impossible.

Most people assume you either work in an office full time, traveling only on one to two week holidays, or that you’re a full time digital nomad, working remotely and moving forward all the time. But the truth is something else entirely. What appears to be two extremes, it turns out, is a spectrum in between. Most digital nomads don’t travel all the time. And most remote workers could probably travel more, if they wanted. The digital nomads littering your social media feeds with their #livingmybestllife hashtags have a dirty little secret: They aren’t all in. They just look like they are in the pictures.

Our recent survey of 2,520 self declared digital nomads revealed that the reality for most remote workers is that they are working for companies and they’re staying put most of the time. Only 7% of digital nomads report traveling more than half the time. Forty-four percent travel less than 25% of the time. 

So if you’re working two to three days a week from home, that’s 8 to 12 days a month. If you could roll a few of those together you could work 3 weeks at the office and one straight week per month from home. You’d have as much time to travel as the average digital nomad. Hmmm. Wheels turning yet? 

If you can work a week from home, could you work a week from, say, San Miguel de Allende? Or Mexico City? Let’s not get crazy. Let’s start somewhere close. And affordable. And with great connectivity.

Negotiating Remote Work

If you’ve already got a job that allows some remote work, you’re well on your way to part-time digital nomadism. If you’re working at a company that doesn’t allow remote work, don’t give up. Jessie Beck wrote about How to Petition for More Work On Your Terms at a Traditional 9-5. These remote work policies that we all envy rarely come out of nowhere. Often they are the result of hard won negotiation and productivity focused trail blazing on the part of some comrade that came before us. That person could be you.

Jessie had this to say about her experience negotiating in an unreceptive company:

“Even though my first request for work from home flexibility was met with a new, company-wide policy that read “No work from home days,” I continued to have conversations about why I wanted flexibility, how important it was to me, and — most importantly — how it would impact the company.

Keeping the conversation open allowed my manager to voice his concerns about flex days and helped me to better understand where the resistance was coming from. At the same time, it allowed me to continue to bring in more evidence as to why flex days would be beneficial for my employer. It’s really important to focus on how flexibility will benefit your company, not yourself in these conversations.”

What matters to the company? At the end of the day, your productive output and their bottom line. How will your remote work either make or save the company money?

Guess what? She eventually did get a part-time remote policy in place at her company. Persistence for the win!

But she still has a desk job that requires her to show up most days, so how does she leverage that flexibility to satisfy some of her wanderlust?

“I travel often and negotiated some additional work from home flexibility.

  • I take lots of short day & weekend trips (usually by bike) around the Bay area.
  • I aim to have a couple of international trips per year — and like to try and plan them for at least 10 days at a time.
  • I work from home about 2 days per month and get to have total autonomy over my schedule during that time.”

Shaun McReedy had this to add, from his experience:

“When negotiating travel flexibility with an employer, I recommend simply being transparent with your organization about your desires and demonstrating an effective action plan for getting work done.  I make sure to check in daily with other team members and outline the tasks/deadlines that need to be completed. As long as you can show that you will be accessible and reliable regardless of your geographic location, most employers won’t have an issue with travel plans.  And if you’re concerned about data/wifi accessibility, international data plans are only around $60 a month and pocket wifis are also affordable and easy to obtain. Basically, make yourself available to your employer when they need it and make your daily progress clear to your organization.”

Part Time Digital Nomads on How it Works

Ask 100 digital nomads how it works and you’ll get a hundred different answers. The beauty of the arrangement is the flexibility. Some people use it to travel, others use it to build stationary lives in more than one place. Still others leverage that freedom to care for family or feed other passions. We asked a number of part time digital nomads what worked for them, and this was what we learned:

Keir on being fully remote but grounded, with a young family:

“I have worked for  Canadian commerce company Shopify for almost 6.5 years. For all of that time, I have been based out of the UK and have travelled frequently to Canada to spend time with the team. Work has also taken me to Europe, North America, and Australia for events that we have participated in.

When based in the UK, I utilise a co-working space and work UK hours. I’ve always done this since I started, despite the time zone difference, and for the most part is has worked well. One consequence is that I tend to spend most of my afternoons in various Google Hangouts but am pretty strict on finishing by 6pm in order to get home. Most formal team meetings are recorded so it’s always possible to catch up post-event.

Being remote from the team has worked well but is increasingly challenging as the company has grown to over 4,000 people.  In addition to Hangouts, we use Slack and, of course, email which is now mainly used for external communication.

Nothing beats getting together with the team, which is why I would definitely advocate for regular trips, often without a set agenda, to the office (assuming your company is mainly office based) every few months.

Technically I can, and do, work from anywhere so it’s been liberating not to be tied to a home base in order to work. I’m often asked if I have an office and my usual response is “have laptop will work.” As long as I have a decent internet connection and a pair of headphones I’m generally good to go.

My travel schedule is dictated by two things — getting regular face time with colleagues based in Canada and our events program. Generally, I tend to travel most during March – June and September – November. Last year I took 39 flights (a lot by some standards, not a lot by others) which mostly consisted of Europe, North America, and Australasia. This year will be similar with a couple of new stops including Singapore which I’ll visit for the first time.

Having a young family means that I try and keep trips as short as possible and as a result have become quite adept at taking red-eyes and sleeping on planes. On average I probably spend 90, give or take, days a year “on the road”.”

Aviva on the ease of her commute & spending most of the year in Austin:

I work for Automattic, and we’re a totally distributed company – we don’t have offices anywhere (except for two small co-working spaces in Portland, Maine, USA and Cape Town, South Africa). I’m always working remotely, even when I’m in my home town, and so is everyone else.

Because of that, I don’t have to change much about how I work, wherever I am. I have separate profile in Chrome for my work self, and going to work or leaving work is as simple as opening or closing a browser window.

My home base is both Austin, TX and Berlin, Germany – I’ve been splitting my time between those two places for the past year or so. I also travel on top of that.

In the past 12-months, I’ve spent 30 weeks in Austin, 11 in Berlin, and the rest traveling all around the world, including Canada, Romania, Malta, Ukraine, Iceland, the Netherlands and around the US.”

Sabina on digging deep in more than one place:

We make this work by buying property in places that we enjoy living and that are drastically different from each other. This approach delivers a varied lifestyle in each place. We live in a small town in Oregon that is cultured, intellectual, artistic and everything is 3 minutes away. The children have school, activities and friends they love. In Canada, our base is in a ski resort, so the focus is on hiking in the summer and skiing every day in the winter. In Bali, we enjoy the tropics, beach and our pool. Each place is distinctly different.

How do we split our time? 6-7 months of the year is spent in Oregon, 1-2 months in Canada, 1-2 months in Bali (depending on the year) and 1 month of new travel to places we have not been. Ideally, we’d spend more time in Canada and Bali, however, the children enjoy their school immensely, so, for this chapter of life, Oregon gets the most time.

One of the benefits of returning to each place is the various communities we have in each place. It’s an incredible gift to be able to connect with them each time.

Shaun on the value of the cloud for collaboration & slow travel goals:

I work for an on-demand video production company called as a Producer and Account Manager.  We have a central HQ in Berkeley but most of the team is distributed (and we have the ability to work in Berkeley if needed).  I choose to work from home and occasionally at the office. I am originally from Hawaii, and love to travel, so I enjoy having the ability to work from anywhere.  FirstCut has a cloud application for our project management, so I am able to oversee our entire video production process while on the road. My team also has daily strategy calls to discuss pipeline and active projects.  And we love Slack.

My home base is San Francisco, but my ongoing goal is to spend half the year on the road.  I am a big fan of slow travel so I relish the opportunity to live abroad for extended periods of time.”

Katie on setting travel goals:

“I work for a fully distributed company. We are all remote employees. I know that as long as I have a strong WiFi signal and can still work in a time-zone that matches up with US time-zone, I can login from anywhere.

I make a “1-10 travel to do” list every year. It changes often, the 1, becomes the 4 and the ten becomes the 1. But, I also book whenever I see a good flight deal. Having flexibility with dates is key to getting cheaper flights. I didn’t know I was going to Ecuador in March, but in February a deal popped up I couldn’t resist. (Skyscanner) This year I’ve already been to Ecuador, The Galápagos Islands, Mexico, Spain, France, London, and will be spending October in Italy and Malta Island. I enjoy spending 3-4 weeks in a location to get a real feel of the community, then head back home to Springfield, IL to decompress, do laundry and book my next flight!”

Anne on balance:

“I’ve been to more than 50 countries — many of them while holding a full-time job — by prioritizing travel. I have a love for all things travel. I also have a love for nesting. I do NOT believe the two have to be mutually exclusive.”

But knowing it works for other people and having some kind of framework for how you might make the transition towards more travel for yourself are two different things aren’t they?

Which brings us to the next question: How could this work for you and what advice to people living it have to share?

Advice from the Part-Time Nomads

Here’s what the folks we asked had to say:

Alexa, who splits her time between Austin and other cities around the USA says this:

“I see the majority of clients in-person while in Austin and then see the majority of clients virtually via Google Hangouts during the summers, as well as virtually managing a team of consultants who are scattered around the country.”

Kate travels summer to summer!  

“The plan going forward is to spend Oct – May in NZ and then the rest of the year travelling (working online & pet sitting whilst I do so).”

Kristen has a warning though, she reminds us that:

“Being a digital nomad isn’t for everyone… my point is that working remotely and/or on a freelance basis means you constantly have a fire under your bum.” 

And she’s right about that. Both that it’s not for everyone, and that it takes effort and discipline to maintain productivity without someone looking over your shoulder. This is one of the places where part-time remote workers, who still have the structure and accountability of a corporate office behind them, might actually be at an advantage in the digital nomad game.

Keir shares his schedule and routine:

“Being contactable during some core set hours is one thing I would definitely recommend. I try and ensure that I am open for calls between 8am-12pm EST and consequently find that I tend to get “work” done in the mornings UK time and more people and project work in my afternoons when Canada wakes up. This sets an expectation for colleagues of when they can get in touch or book a meeting. I tend not to answer email or Slack out of hours unless it’s urgent and this has mostly worked well.

Working “on the road” is definitely different than working from your home base.  The one big tip I would recommend is to build a routine when away — especially if you return to the same locations frequently. For example, in Toronto, I use the same hotel, walk the same way to the office, pick up a coffee from the same shop, and have a number of restaurants and bars that I know and like nearby. It adds a sense of familiarity that helps you feel like you are home from home.”

Aviva shares her bullet points on keeping it sustainable:

Be Mindful of Timezones

“I keep a different routine when in UTC+ timezones so others on my team don’t have to make too much of a change. In Austin, I tend to wake up early to jump on 8 a.m calls, and then I stop working at around 6 p.m. or so. In Berlin, I wake up later, take more time with my partner and for my hobbies in the morning, and then stay at work until 8 or 9 p.m., so I can be available for my coworkers during their workday.”

Set a Routine That Works Anywhere

“I found that with all the travel, chaos and change, I needed to establish a routine for myself. Wherever I am, I try to find a coffee shop to work from. Even if they’re different coffee shops, the routine of going somewhere, getting coffee and sitting down at my laptop keeps me grounded. I know I’ll need to be on calls, so I need stable internet, ideally away from other people. I also tend to have a consistent hobby that follows me everywhere – it used to be yoga, now it’s reading.”

Traveling on Weekends, Not Weekdays 

“Traveling – meaning being in airports and in the air – on weekends minimizes the amount of time that I’m unavailable to others, and lets me land in a place and get settled before I dive deeply into work. If I have to take a weekday flight, I try to make it very early or very late, so I’m still around for the majority of the workday.”

Staying With People Who Have Stable Routines

“When I’m not at my home bases, I’m usually visiting friends, and I find it much easier to work consistently if I’m staying with people who have 9-to-5 jobs. They get up and go in the morning, and it prompts me to do the same. I’ve stayed with friends who have non-traditional jobs or are on vacation, but it’s harder to coordinate, and I tend to feel guilty about needing to be on calls and working for a meaningful chunk of the day when that’s not what they’re doing.”

Listening to My Body and Being Kind to It

“It’s hard to get to work the day after an international flight. It’s hard to switch my sleep schedule once per month. It’s physically difficult to be on a plane for 8+ hours at least once per month. I try to pay close attention and notice when it’s too much. Since I’m pushing my body to handle long flights and constantly changing schedules, I want to balance that with gentleness when I can.”

Doing Ordinary Things and Taking Lots of Pictures

“I feel two opposing tensions with traveling so much – one, because I work almost wherever I am, it can feel like all I’m doing is working, like I’m not investing in friends much; two, because I’m often in unusual places, I feel pressure to ‘take advantage of it,’ and that can be exhausting. To work with both of those things, I try to enjoy the ordinary things I do with friends in unusual places and take pictures.”

Shaun shares his tips for productivity:

“When traveling and working remotely, it is really important to create a productive space for yourself.  As someone who enjoys hostels for their social aspect, for example, they are not typically well suited for getting things done.  Sticking to an efficient and achievable schedule is also highly important. There are many exciting distractions available when traveling to somewhere new, and that can make it hard to stay productive.  However, I like to indulge in exploring new restaurants, beaches, and cultures as “earned” rewards for completing hard work.”

Katie encourages flexibility:

“I would say be flexible, be open and take full advantage of your unique position. You’re unchained to a desk and the world is so big. If you have ‘itchy heels’ don’t feel like you have to wait for someone to go with you. I only travel solo and each trip I learn so much more about my travel style, what motivates me, favorite coffee (Costa Rican wins) where the WiFi signal is strong, which countries I could see myself living in (you’re remote, options are endless!), all whilst enjoying a new experience and going places that a few years back, were only a dream. ” 

Sabina shares the tools her remote team uses:

“Remote work has its challenges. My team is all remote, which means that we are spread amongst 7 different time zones and 5 countries. Coordinating a team meeting requires someone to be up really early or really late (usually me). 

Luckily, we have great software and applications that make working remotely and managing businesses easier.

The tools we use everyday are:

  • Slack for daily conversations and questions
  • Asana for project assignments and project management
  • Zoom for weekly team meetings
  • Gmail for email
  • Google Drive for organized access to shared assets

These tools are all powerful and FREE!”

The Take Home Message

The reality of the digital nomad experience, for most people, is somewhat different from the marketed image of full time travel in exotic locales. It turns out that most digital nomads are part timers. And, actually, that might be the sweet spot. There’s a lot to be said for stationary life, deep community.

Add to that just enough freedom to organize a week or two a month of your work life according to your personal preferences including, perhaps, a little more travel than you’re doing now, and it turns out that life on your terms actually is within reach for many people who assumed it wasn’t.


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