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working as a digital nomad

Working at Kruger National Park

Patrick working at Kruger National Park

Plans are fuzzy, fragmented things; we think we have a resilient hold on them but they slip through our fingers like dandelion wisps on a spring day. 

We had a plan when we left the United States in September 2009: travel for one year, return home, and resume our jobs.  Patrick even referred to our trip as a 1-year sabbatical when he told his software development company that he wanted to leave.  I planned to look for jobs in small law firms and pursue writing fiction on the side.  We had a down payment set aside, ready to buy a house upon our return, perhaps in Asheville, our favorite city in the United States.

And, then, we fell in love with the open road.  Two months into our trip we realized that twelve months would not be enough.  So, we began investigating other options.  We asked ourselves two questions: (1) how much do we need to make to keep ourselves sustainable and (2) how do we make this money?  We answered the first question through creating budgets.  The second question was a bit trickier and is the subject of this post on how we work while we travel.  I'll try and break this down as best as I can but please keep in mind that every situation is different, and while we were able to utilize our skills to get jobs, a lot of our work has come about through a combination of good luck and ridiculously hard work.

What We Do: 

  • While we are traveling, Patrick works as a software architecture consultant for the software development company that he worked at full-time before we left.
  • I do a wide variety of writing.  I do some technical and marketing writing for his software development company and I also write freelance for a few magazines.

How We Got Our Jobs:

1.  Leveraging Pre-existing Work Relationships: 

Patrick has been working in bioinformatics (bioinformatics = technology + biology, basically) and cancer research, for almost 14 years now, beginning while we were still wee freshmen in college, so he has a strong relationship with almost every major bioinformatics player in cancer research.  When he decided to make the switch from being a project manager at a university to working for a private company, he was able to make some demands.  His two biggest demands were: (1) working remotely while we were in the United States and (2) a one-year sabbatical where he would be able to consult part-time while we were abroad. 

He had already been working remotely at his previous job, so the first demand was easily accepted, but he negotiated the second carefully, introducing it before any company made an offer.  Even with these two unusual demands, he received several job offers and he chose one at a boutique software consulting company.  When we left to travel, in our first two months abroad, he worked maybe 10 hours in total, but then we realized that we were going to need money.  When he announced to them that he wanted to work more hours part-time, they were thrilled to send work his way.

2.  Leveraging Our Skills: 

As you know, I write.  While I was working as a lawyer, the executives in Patrick's company occasionally sent me documents to review and edit when they didn't want to hire a full-time lawyer or a writer.  I helped them out without charging them because it didn't take much time on my part and I liked these guys very much. 

Those few free hours of work have paid off tenfold because, when they began redesigning their website and needed someone to write new, creative text, they thought of me first.  They have given me a good amount of work in this way, basically having me fill in a gap where they don't necessarily want to hire a full-time person but need someone to write creatively for them.

3.  Finding New Work:  I don't do a ton of freelance writing mainly because it doesn't pay all that well (Matador Network, for example, pays $25 per article) but I occasionally send articles to online magazines to keep that part of my resume active.

4.  Doing Exceptional Work Every Time:  If you remember only one thing from this post, this should be it:

Do exceptional work.

Do exceptional work every single time someone hires you.  Getting the first job is easy ---- it really is ---- but, in order to get repeat work, you need to be better than every single person sitting in the office right next to your boss.  It's so easy for a company executive to walk down the hall and ask so-and-so sitting in the next cubicle to write up an article or a proposal.  The only reason why people send work to Patrick and me even when we are halfway across the globe, on a different timezone, and with dodgy Internet, is because they know that we will produce exceptional work every single time.  Good is not enough; your work must be exceptional. 

Being a Digital Nomad Means . . . .

  • Being responsive and accessible:  We can live without air-conditioning or en-suite bathrooms, but WiFi is essential.  We stay only in places with WiFi or, in countries where WiFi is difficult to access, we get data plans to give us access to the Internet.  We check our e-mail multiple times every day to ensure that we are as responsive as we can be.  When we know we won't have access, we send e-mails and set our out-of-office replies.
  • Being tech-savvy:  I mean this in a number of ways.  First, you need to have independent means of communicating with your boss(es), which usually means lugging around a laptop or netbook.  Patrick and I both carry expensive laptops with super-fast processors, several back-up hard drives, and we have invested in an amazing online backup methodology.  Even stil, our computers have taken a serious beating over the last year and a half (read more on the electronics death toll of a digital nomad at Almost Fearless).  Second, you need to be able to troubleshoot lousy WiFi connections.  On more than one occasion, Patrick has helped hostel owners fix their Internet modems because the hostel owner hadn't set it up properly.  Third, you need to know how to use the variety of technological communication tools: at the bare minimum, you need to be familiar with Skype and e-mail.
  • Being self-motivated:  We create our own schedules which means that, if we don't get our work done, nobody is going to be looking over our shoulder.  And, we normally work without much interaction with our boss(es) because they are on a different time zone than us.
  • Being flexible:  Some weeks, we don't have much outside work, while other weeks, we may have 20-30 hours of work.  We keep our schedules flexible and open-ended so that we can build in work time if we need.
  • Being realistic about your work/travel schedule:  This was perhaps the hardest part of learning how to manage our work schedule.  In the beginning, we were killing ourselves, putting in long days sightseeing and then long days doing work.  We quickly realized that we need to say "no," either limiting the number of destinations we see or limiting the amount of work we take.  We are getting better at balancing our work and travel by refusing work, if need be, or slowing down and staying at certain destinations.  
  • Being realistic about your salary:  I make about 1/8th of what I used to make and Patrick makes maybe a 1/4 of what he used to make when we were working full-time.  Of course, nobody wants to hire us at our full-time salary because we aren't working full-time anymore.  We understand that and have been flexible with our salaries, offering our services at somewhat reduced rates.  To us, having the flexibility in our schedules and locations is worth the lower pay.
  • Working even when you are in the most amazing locations:  The picture at the top is of Patrick working at Kruger National Park.  We drove through the game park during the day but, as soon as we returned to the campsites, which often had amazing viewpoints overlooking watering holes where the animals came to drink, we pulled out our computers and typed away. 
  • Working even when everyone else is on vacation:  I can't even tell you how many times people say to us, "You should put your computer away.  You're on holiday."  I just smile at them because it's too much of a bother to explain that we are NEVER on vacation.  I laughed when I read this post from Spencer Spellman about eating dinner with his notebook, laptop, and beer, because we do that sort of thing all the time.  On a weekly (or so) basis, Patrick and I have "business meetings" over lunch or dinner where we discuss work prospects and tasks.
  • Working long (and strange) hours:  We normally sightsee and visit a city in the mornings, come back to our hotel around 3:00, and work until dinner at 8:00.  If we haven't gotten enough work done, we come back after dinner and work some more.  In addition to our paid work, we both work on this blog and are involved in time-consuming personal projects (for me: fiction writing, for Patrick: web application development).  Every one to two weeks, we take a "work day" where we spend the whole day hanging out and working.  We generally like to take our work days in gorgeous locations with awesome views because it's always more fun to work with a view of the beach than staring at a concrete wall.  On an average week, I'd say that we work about 20-30 hours but those are intense hours of work with minimal time spent goofing off on the Internet.
  • Being exceptional:  I know that I just said this above but I'm going to say it again just for good measure.  Do exceptional work every single time someone hires you.
  • Being grateful:  We work part-time, travel part-time, and are living a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life that we ever did before.  We did not plan that this would be our life but we are grateful every day that the universe has shown us this path, even on those days when we are typing on our computers rather than searching for elephants.

Read more from travelers who work:

* Working as a Digital Nomad is a post in the RTW Travel Planning in Retrospect Project, a weekly community project that seeks to gather insights and advice on round-the-world travel planning from those who have been in the metaphorical trenches.  Stay tuned because, on Tuesday, some very fabulous travel bloggers will join in the discussion and reveal how they work while they travel.  And, if you are a current or recently returned RTW traveler, we would love to hear your thoughts so get in touch with me if you would like to be featured via the comments or at theroadforks [at] gmail [dot] com.

02/24/2011 17:05
Great tips for wannabe digital nomads! Even though I have a stable home and life in San Francisco, I saw so much of my job and travel patterns in you guys above. I don't know how you do it full time, though: I always feel so wiped sightseeing all day, then coming back to my room to work all night and file stories. I actually look forward to coming back from a trip because I'm always in need of a break of that non-stop go, go, go split between seeing the sites and working remotely.
Camels & Chocolate's recent blog post: 10 Most Memorable Travel Moments
02/25/2011 10:39
Kristin, It can be exhausting and time management is, without a doubt, the hardest part of being a digital nomad. We try very hard not to overextend ourselves but, sometimes, we have to either refuse work or stay at another place longer. Traveling slowly helps a lot.
02/24/2011 19:47
thanks for this one... in less than a month ill be moving out of the city to star life as a digital nomad an it scares the hell out of me... you've provided a lot of resources to starters like me
02/25/2011 11:09
Flip - Congrats on the big move to digital nomading! Let us know if we can help you at all with the transition.
02/24/2011 21:57
I couldn't have agreed more with all the points you've made! John and I started our company while on the road and even after getting back to the States we've kept the same philosophy, which has allowed us to pick a new city to move to and set up "base camp". Great article!! "Do Exceptional Work EVERYTIME" is a mantra all of us small and location independent workers need to have.
Aly's recent blog post: Mardi Graphic!
02/25/2011 11:03
Aly, Thanks! Especially in the design field, I would think that word of mouth is so important so if you don't produce exceptional work, people won't refer you to their friends, etc. Congratulations on the move to New Orleans!
02/24/2011 22:20
This is excellent. I've been doing the digital nomad thing for 6 months now and love it. The hardest thing is a schedule. I have some time-sensitive things, so it can be difficult to maintain a schedule, but I make it work. You really hit the nail on the head about doing exceptional work. A couple years ago I had a job and one of our biz's partnerships was with someone who just hired me to do some contract work at a different company he's now at. Those are the kind of relationships you want to not only form, but keep.
Spencer Spellman's recent blog post: Travel Photo of the Day-February 24, 2011
02/25/2011 11:06
Spencer, you're right. Maintaining a schedule is one of the hardest parts and 1 1/2 years later, we'll still working out how to schedule in work and fun every day.
02/24/2011 22:38
Totally agree with leveraging the network you already know. It's such an integral piece of the puzzle and directly relates to the "do exceptional work" point.
Time management is also a big one. I find myself getting easily distracted reading other blog posts, etc. In fact, I should get back at it... ;-)
02/25/2011 11:07
Cam, yes, leveraging your existing network is critical! I think so many people forget that they can get work from people they have previously worked for. Not burning bridges is a great way to keep getting work.
02/25/2011 01:30
Excellent ideas - especially the one of utilizing your preexisting network!
I've been trying to work out a way to be able to stay abroad for longer periods of time, so picking your brain is worth gold to me!
Dizzie's recent blog post: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate
02/25/2011 11:08
Thanks Dizzie! Let us know if we can answer any other questions and I think Tuesday's post will be another useful one for you because other travelers are going to post about how they worked while on the road.
02/27/2011 02:38
Time management is definitely going to be a big one for me. When I'm in front of the computer, I am always working. I can't even believe I used to be a gamer because it doesn't even cross my mind anymore. I have filled the void with work.

Now I need to know how to turn it off.
Erica's recent blog post: Travel Photography San Francisco
02/28/2011 09:52
Erica - If you're always working when you're in front of the computer, you're way better than most of us because I always get distracted reading random stuff!
02/27/2011 10:55
As cheesy as my comment is going to sound, I honestly found it absolutely true across the board. Especially 'do exceptional work' - if you're good at what you do and work harder than everyone else, you've become something rare for clients. Typically that means they'll work with you for your services.
02/28/2011 09:55
Anil, not cheesy at all, especially when you're patting me on the back! I think that's exactly right - people will want to work with you because you work harder than everyone else.
03/01/2011 00:49
Brilliant article!

I'm a Graphic Designer based in Sydney Australia... for the moment! In 3 weeks I'm heading to the UK to live & travel.

I just started a travel blog & got my online portfolio up and running, I saved money for this trip by doing extra freelance work on top of my full time design job and i'm hoping to be able to make more of a living out of freelance designing whilst traveling - just to create that extra travel independence whilst continuing to do what I love!

Without that golden rule of "Do Exceptional Work EVERYTIME" I don't think I would be in this position of starting my design trip in the first place.

Ps: great article, do you mind if i make a mention and link back to your blog on mine?
creative nomad's recent blog post: Why Travel??
03/01/2011 08:55
Thanks Creative Nomad! Of course, feel free to link to this on your own site. And, congratulations on your trip!
03/02/2011 09:27
This is an excellent post! We can totally relate to your travel & work lifestyle, ours is very similar. We were both lucky enough to get work from our former employers in Europe, and although we work a lot of hours and sometimes at ridiculous times (because of the time difference to Europe) but being able to live this lifestyle is totally worth it!! The hardest thing is staying motivated, especially when everyone around you is having a great time.
03/02/2011 10:17
Dani, Oh yes, we know about those ridiculous hours! The worst was when we were in New Zealand which had a 17 hour time difference with the United States. Patrick has done several conference calls at 11:00 or 12:00 at night!
03/04/2011 06:11
12:00 at night is not so bad, comparing with teleconference at 4-5 in the morning :)
Vi@Travel New zealand's recent blog post: What’s on in Sydney in March, 2011
03/04/2011 11:49
That's very true Vi! 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. is the worst.
03/07/2011 17:43
Thanks for the article and great round-up of resources at the end. Hubby and I have been traveling for 19 months now (our savings are dwindling) and trying to figure out how we can sustain this. Problem with our situation is that neither of us WANTS to do anything resembling our past careers (all business related). Need to find a way to start fresh with a new angle, and make money at it! Will figure it out...posts like this help keep us motivated to do so. Cheers!
Dalene - Hecktic Travels's recent blog post: A Lesson From My Mom
03/09/2011 15:58
Thanks Dalene! It is tough finding something to do but it's also fun branching out into new careers. Good luck with your search and I hope you're able to find something that works for you - there's a lot of options out there for digital nomads!
03/24/2011 20:34
"Working when everyone else is on vacation"

I've just adopted your technique in the last few weeks. Was getting sick of explaining the whole situation to everyone, it took so long each time that it was interrupting my work! Now I just smile and say "yeah, I probably should" and keep working. :)
Matt | ExpertVagabond's recent blog post: Daily Travel Photo: Flying Monkey
05/18/2011 11:26
Matt, I think that's exactly right! You just have to smile and let them think what they want.
Akila's recent blog post: on fear
07/20/2011 23:20
Great post, for me the hardest thing is to work in a hostel when everyone around me is enjoying themselves. It's hard to stay motivated that way.
07/24/2011 07:09
Thank you for the great tips and the reflexion it brings. Thanks as well for all the links!
02/27/2012 08:33
We are going on our RTW this summer and the more I read the more i realize that we can do this!! Thank you for your great tips and your budget article as well!! Happy travels!!
03/11/2012 17:11
You absolutely can do this! It's really scary before you leave but once you get out onto the open road, you'll look back at all those silly things that worried you pre-trip and laugh! It happened to all of us out on the road now. :)
Akila's recent blog post: spain: the low-down
03/02/2012 09:28
I find the digital balance quite difficult when travelling. I have had 2 laptops stolen on my travels so it can be quite tiring (and expensive!)

Good to know that perserverance is key here and glad you are making it work!

Keep it up

Duncan
03/11/2012 14:44
Yikes, Duncan! Two laptops stolen while traveling - I hope you had good travel insurance. We've been very fortunate that we haven't had any gear stolen but that's always a big concern when carrying expensive electronics around.
Akila's recent blog post: spain: the low-down
04/24/2012 08:43
Merrill
Saw these tips from a food blogger I follow (almost as much as I live vicariously through you!): http://www.kalynskitchen.com/2012/04/kalyns-kitchen-celebrates-seven-years.html and it made me think of all the work you all put into your blog too.
04/27/2012 11:16
Merrill, thanks so much for this link! I LOVE Kalyn's site. She's one of the first food bloggers I ever started reading and she's a super nice person besides. :)
06/06/2012 11:16
Again, thank you thank you... this proves there are no short cuts... produce great stuff and people will want to read it!
07/07/2012 22:32
I think the biggest obstacle that most people face is being motivated and staying focused. It is all too easy to lose focus, especially when you are working online, with so many time wasting websites at your fingertips.
Lawrence Michaels's recent blog post: Phuket Beaches Guide
07/08/2012 04:27
Lawrence, that's absolutely true. Staying focused and motivated is essential to being self-employed no matter what you do.
07/13/2012 18:57
Thanks for this wonderfully informative and inspiring post. Steve and I are just starting on this digital nomad lifestyle. The thing we're struggling with most at the moment is the travel/work balance. We seem to work ridiculously long hours, but at least it's because we choose to, which makes a difference. We really want our projects to work out and hope that the hard work we're putting in now will eventually pay off. Fingers crossed...
07/17/2012 15:13
Victoria, Unfortunately, I think that's the hardest part of digital nomading. We're still struggling with this issue and we've been doing this for 3 years now! The best advice I can offer is just to do the best you can and don't beat yourself up over all the things that you aren't able to do because it's impossible to accomplish everything.
07/17/2012 15:13
Victoria, Unfortunately, I think that's the hardest part of digital nomading. We're still struggling with this issue and we've been doing this for 3 years now! The best advice I can offer is just to do the best you can and don't beat yourself up over all the things that you aren't able to do because it's impossible to accomplish everything.
08/28/2012 16:14
Great tips! Leveraging your pre-existing connections is important for any business endeavour. It sounds like things really worked out well for you two.

I agree with Kristin. I really don't know how you do it. I thought I could be a full time traveler, working from the road, but now I thoroughly enjoy coming home. This way I get to enjoy my trips and catch up on work when I get home. :)
11/25/2012 15:23
What a good way to share your experience. Very interesting and enlightening. Thanks for the share
12/01/2012 12:17
Great article. Adding all of those other jobs to the mix of traveling must make the experience even that much more rewarding.
02/09/2013 13:52
I hope to one day be a digital nomad. Right now though it's not in the cards. Until then, I will let all your great advice just sink in. :)
02/25/2013 14:47
Dave, thanks! And, keep at it. It's definitely possible.
02/13/2013 02:04
That was inspiring! Doing exceptional work is a helpful attitude. Provided the tips you have shared I'm also thinking to go digital nomad too.
02/25/2013 14:48
Richard, it's a lot of work but definitely worth the pay off.
02/16/2013 11:58
Really inspiring post thank you. We have been nomads for 12 months and 'digital nomads' for a week (we launched our blog a week ago, yay!). One day we would like to create a 'digital career' but for now we are happy to enjoy traveling the world and blog because we love to blog. People like you really inspire us to become better bloggers so one day when the time is right, we can make it our new career! Thanks again!
02/25/2013 15:32
Thanks Nicole! And congratulations on the new digital nomadism. It's a wonderful way of life. :)
11/04/2013 05:04
Always interested in reading how people combine work and travel. I'm not a digital nomad, but I aim to become my own boss someday in the not too distant future.
Also like the roundup of other interesting articles!
12/04/2013 08:15
Thanks Sofie!
11/22/2013 16:38
By reading your post I have conclude that you are living your dream by travelling but also make a conscious decision to compromise in certain aspect of you day to day lives.
12/06/2013 07:53
It's great to see how many people are interested in the digital nomad lifestyle. I've had a digital job for a while now but only go semi-nomadic, spending about six months away each year. I do need time at home to catch up and get projects over the line etc. I find it a LOT harder to do it on the road. Great tips!
12/18/2013 11:44
Go Click Travel, absolutely. That's actually what we're starting to lean towards now --- a part nomadic, part stable lifestyle because, otherwise, we're not able to do everything we need to get done!
03/01/2014 13:26
I guess, I can sort of classify myself as a digital nomad, right now, but fairly soon, I hope to be a fully fledged one. For me, I'm able to draw motivation from myself, something I feel is integral to being able to work independently. Anyway, interesting posts.
03/15/2014 17:11
Being self motivated for me would be the hardest one. I am so easily distracted, you're both such an inspiration!
03/16/2014 00:12
I always love reading how people make being a digital nomad work as that is my goal!! Thanks for this inspiring article :)
03/16/2014 23:07
You have reached the goal and I am in hot pursuit, Congrats

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