What Is The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Like? 7 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Traveling And Working Remotely
Just over a year ago, I decide not to renew the lease on my New York City apartment with literally no plan as to where I'd go when it expired two months later. All I knew was that I was going to be a digital nomad: someone who travels nonstop while working remotely. My knowledge of this lifestyle came just from online forums and a few conversations with other nomads. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I trusted that I'd figure it out. That was part of the adventure, after all.
Since then, I've worked from 20 different cities (or 25 if you count airport layovers). There's much more variety in my life, and I'm no longer plagued by the frustrating sense of wanderlust and FOMO I used to feel in New York. I've gotten a few work opportunities abroad, though I've probably missed out on others back home. I've come to accept that you'll always miss out on something because you can't be everywhere, and that's OK — because the one thing I don't want to miss out on is travel.
Here are a few things I've learned over the course of my year as a digital nomad that might've been helpful to know from the get-go.
1. Becoming A Nomad Won't Fix Your Problems
I hear from a lot of people who think they'll be able to solve various problems in their lives once they become nomads. They think it'll give them the motivation to switch to freelancing or the confidence to date or the freedom to distance themselves from their families. But leaving behind your apartment doesn't mean leaving behind the problems you faced there.
For example, I thought the opportunity to explore different places might help curb my workaholism. Turns out you can be a workaholic anywhere in the world! That's why I say that if you're considering being a nomad, the ability to live that lifestyle should be enough of a reward in of itself. You'll still have to pursue all your other goals separately.
2. You Need To Get Less Attached To Making The "Right" Choices
Travel planning is stressful to a lot of people because there's so much pressure on all the different decisions you can make. It feels like a few arbitrary choices could make the difference between meeting the love of your love in a breathtaking setting and stumbling through run-down streets with food poisoning.
To be a nomad, you need to get out of this mentality. You need to accept that you're not always going to make the optimal decision, and that doesn't really matter, because how good a trip you have depends mainly on your attitude.
Eventually, deciding whether you'll go to the U.S. or stay in Europe for two months becomes as routine as deciding what to have for breakfast. You might make the wrong choice, and it might even significantly impact your life, but that's OK because it's inevitable. And you don't even know it's the "wrong choice" because you don't know how the alternatives would've panned out. If you embrace the situation you ended up in as if you intended it, it may turn out just as well as the scenario you would've preferred.
3. You Also Need To Detach From Your Possessions
We're often taught growing up to be protective of our possessions whether we need them or not. We hoard old toys, clothes, and furniture because selling them seems impossible or like too much effort, and giving them away or throwing them out feels wasteful. Being a nomad forces you to confront the fact that this hoarding impulse is pretty useless. If you want to be totally mobile, you'll probably have to give stuff up for little to no money, and that's OK.
I initially put my furniture and some things in storage because I couldn't sell it all, but paying every month just for it to lie there ending up costing me more money than if I'd just donated it. Eventually, I gave it away to cut my losses. I should've done this sooner. Even if you think you might come back, replacing your stuff at that point may actually cost less than storing it. And having it in storage ends up tying you to a place, so if you want to be truly untethered, get rid of it.
4. Couch Surfing Gets Exhausting
Some people are better couch surfers than others, but for me at least, I can't fully relax until I have a space of my own. After a while, constant vigilance regarding how you're affecting someone else's space and schedules wears you out. If you really want to, you can find somewhere to stay every night for free (via Couchsurfing.com) or single-digit prices (via hostels). But you get what you pay for.
Being in a constant cycle of sleep deprivation will probably cost you money in the long-run because working gets nearly impossible. So, if you're like me, it helps to splurge on Airbnbs and hotels as much as you can. It also helps to have a home base to crash in, like a friend's apartment or your family's house, when you need more security.
5. It's Not Always Going To Be Exciting
Many of us have this idea that simply by getting on a plane to another country, we're embarking on an action-packed adventure. I certainly bought into this. When I first left the U.S. for Germany, I pictured myself spending my evenings in beer gardens, my nights in techno clubs, and my days talking to strangers in quaint cafes.
The reality was more like spending days and evenings working and struggling to talk to anyone, let alone strangers, because of the language barrier. And sure, a few clubs and beer gardens. But leaving your home country won't suddenly make you a social butterfly, and you won't be spontaneously stumbling upon inspiring people and magical sights every day.
Life in other parts of the world will probably be pretty similar to life where you are unless you behave differently. And having an adventure won't be much easier than it is in your home city. You can find one for sure, but it won't just find you.
6. You Will Screw Up — And That's OK
No matter how carefully you plan, some things are going to fall through the cracks. You might end up unable to work when you need to because of a delayed flight or wifi outage. You might end up buying the wrong train tickets because of a language barrier. Or, you might end up late for a meeting because you got lost. Whatever it is, something will probably go wrong more than once.
And when this happens to you, you'll learn something encouraging: People are pretty understanding. A lot of people have the itch to travel themselves and are inspired by what nomads are doing. If they understand your situation, they'll likely get why you're doing it despite the occasional mishap.
Being a digital nomad teaches you to be honest instead of trying to make excuses. And in that process, you learn honesty is actually a much more effective way to connect with people.
7. People May Have Trouble Understanding, But Mostly, They're Just Intrigued
I was very scared when I first became a nomad that people would judge me. And I was right about one thing: People don't really get it. But as I've explained my lifestyle to people, I've realized they're not judgmental as much as they are curious. "But what do you do with your stuff?", for example, isn't a thinly veiled way of saying "that's impractical." They're genuinely curious what solutions nomads come up with for problems like this, since this lifestyle is so new and so intriguing.
I used to try to stay on the DL about being a nomad because I was sick of explaining it to people. But then I realized that if I explain it confidently, people will actually be impressed.
Hopefully, if you're considering becoming a digital nomad, you now have a better idea of what to expect than I did. But if you're on the fence about the decision, I'd say to go for it. Your mind will probably find a thousand ways to make it seem complicated, but with a little bit of planning, it's surprisingly doable.