Ask any freelancer and they can recall the moment when they knew they could turn their side hustle into their full-time gig. For most, it was when they reached a certain pay grade, when they landed a big client or when they became so fed up with the 9-to-6 life, they couldn’t stand another day of office work. Mine was a tad more dreamy, written in the form of an invitation to join a remote work program that allowed me to see the world while building my career. Once I had the opportunity in my inbox, I knew there was no way I’d turn it down, prompting me to take that professional leap of faith and quit my former full-time employment.
Over the course of 15 months, I have lived in more than 14 international cities, lived in 12 countries and visited 31 destinations— and counting. If you take a look at my Instagram, you will see me sipping plenty of cocktails, going on safaris, sightseeing around European landmarks and reviewing some of the most luxurious hotels on the planet. It seems pretty peachy and well, as my generation would put it, #blessed — and in actuality, it is. But what I don’t post too often is what I’m doing right now: sitting in a bathrobe, overlooking the streets of London, working a 10-hour day to meet deadlines, be in contact with clients in other time zones and pitch endless story ideas to maintain my income.
Hi, I’m Lindsay and I’m a travel journalist. And I’m part of a new breed of workers who are redefining what it means to be successful, calling ourselves digital nomads. Or location-independent. Or folks who have figured out a way to support ourselves without signing a lease or remaining stationary.
Considering in the United States there has never been a higher rate of freelancers, why wouldn’t those who have the ability to work remotely take their gigs international? In addition to the obvious benefits of experiencing the fascinating culture of the world — from watching a Japanese J-pop performance to enjoying gin-and-tonic sundowners in Kruger National Park in South Africa — there are also tax breaks to be found in spending the majority of your time out of the country.
Though I traveled with the leader in the remote work industry, Remote Year, there are plenty of others who offer a similar set-up to employed professionals or freelancers, including B-Digital Nomad, Digital Outposts, Hacker Paradise, Project Gateway and others. Ranging in one month to one-year programs, digital nomads have found increased productivity, a heightened level of creativity and a newfound sense of self by adventuring the globe and building their skills.
Curious about how others have experienced the process of “going remote,” I surveyed 37 digital nomads, both males and females, ranging from ages 21 to 69, and currently spread about four continents. Here’s what they had to say:
Do you make more money — or less?
From the time I was an overeager 5-year-old, learning to put pen to paper, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I know I’m lucky to have this innate sense of purpose, and even more privileged to have two parents who supported my whimsical dreams of becoming a journalist. They never found them to be outlandish or impossible, but encouraged my talents. Even so, I would be lying if I wasn’t worried about losing money while traveling, especially since freelance work is often unpredictable.
What I found was actually the opposite: I brought in more money when I could dedicate 100 percent of my time to building clients, sending story ideas and growing my network. Especially as a travel wordsmith specifically, the ability to write to my editors and let them know where I was currently located made it easier to land location-specific assignments.
I happen to be among a small pool, according to my sample, that increased their take-home pay while traveling. Of those I surveyed, five reported a more substantial income, while 15 said they sometimes brought in additional funds, and another 16 stated they made the same, or less. The important factor to keep in mind is cost of living.
While rent in New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco and other major American metros have sky-high rents and expenses, living in Prague is affordable. The same with Belgrade. Chiang Mai. Bali. And an endless list of international destinations. This means making less is manageable, and yet saving more, is a reality for many digital nomads.
Are digital nomads more productive?
No matter where a freelancer calls home, one undeniable requirement is the ability to self-motivate. Since often times, there is no manager enforcing deadlines or setting requirements for new business, everything from invoicing to project management falls to the freelancer to complete. There’s an argument against remote work that because there are so many stimuli to be found on the scattered corners of the planet, staying focused and productive is impossible.
For me, I used wine happy hours by the Lisbon harbor at sunset, a weekend trip to Dubrovnik, a ceviche class in Peru and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences to drive my output. If I didn’t meet a deadline, I had to stay up late and work. If I did finish everything on my to-do list, I could be free to have the experiences I craved. According to my survey results, 17 of the 37 felt more productive on the go, while 16 reported they were sometimes better focused, while only four said they were less effective with their time.
For one female program developer, currently located in Thailand, who has been remote for more than a year and a half, being location-independent meant she only needed her laptop and internet to complete her work. Not only did she explain she cut down on her commuting time, but being around other wanderlust busy-body professionals keeps her on task. “My overall productivity has increased as well as my overall happiness and well-being. There are many other digital nomads, and a network of people whose skills match mine and who I can retain to get help. There are fewer barriers to entry and no ladders of approval for things I need to get done,” she adds.
Another nomad — a male, currently in Dallas, Texas who has been traveling for 14 months — says a beneficial aspect of working away from the office is avoiding drop-ins that disrupt your flow. He works in finance and accounting, and being able to avoid hallway conversations or long-winded meetings that delay tangible working hours has made him a stronger professional. “As a nomad, yes, you’re available by phone, email, whatever, but people only reach out if they really need you. So you get to focus on value-added work more often,” he shared.
Are digital nomads more creative?
A big part of my gig is inspiration. Every writer sources their sense of wonder and vision from various sources, and for me, living for weeks at a time in a nation that vastly contrasts my own provided an endless flow of ideas. No matter if it was volunteering to build homes in Colombia or bathing elephants in Thailand, these experiences touched my heart, made me a better, more empathetic human, and resulted in bylines I treasure. Though not every country made me more creative, overall, traveling itself is fodder enough.
I’m in good company, since more than half feel the same as digital nomads. Ten said they were “sometimes” or “most of the time” more enlightened, and only four said they were less ingenious.
For one female marketing professional who has had the digital nomad lifestyle for half a year, her ever-changing scenery was life-altering. “The world around you has such an impact on your world view, and knowing how to communicate and interest people is an important skill for marketing. So understanding the differences of our target markets having lived in those countries gives me insight I had not had previously,” she shared.
Others found the ability to work wherever, wearing whatever, as an effective way to drive results. As one South Africa-based female web developer, who has been traveling for 14 months, explained, “There is nothing that inspires me more than working when I’m most comfortable, and most of the time that is when I’m on a comfy couch staring out at a beautiful view. Being in a cubicle at work in uncomfortable work clothes stifles my creativity and ultimately makes me less productive.”
Is it worth it?
In a few weeks, I’ll finally settle into one place for a period of time as I determine my next move. Though I intend to remain a freelancer indefinitely, traveling non-stop isn’t the lifestyle I’d like to have in the long-term. As a travel writer, I still plan to be abroad up to three months a year, but I crave the routine and the stability of a home base. Will I still consider myself a digital nomad? Likely not, but I will still be a remote worker, who can earn money while sitting pretty on my couch, at a coffee shop or at a desk at one of the countless workspaces popping up on every corner these days.
Of the 37 questioned, 22 wanted to continue a remote working gig. A handful, like me, wanted to pursue the digital nomad tango part-time, and another few felt like they finished their journey. Even so? All 37 respondents would recommend professionals giving the lifestyle a try.
As one marketing professional living in Portugal currently explained, it’s all about understanding if the fit is right for your habits, goals and pursuits. “Know yourself. You really have to have discipline and willpower. Creating your own schedule isn’t for everyone. Some people need the office and motivation from a work environment to get things done. You have to have the ambition to still hit deadlines even though a beautiful beach may be calling your name just outside your window.”
Regardless if you stick with it forever, or experience it for a bit, freelancers agree testing the waters is better than staying safe in the harbor. One female France-based translator who has been remote for four years put it best, explaining, “Just do it! Otherwise you might overthink it, find plenty of seemingly good reasons not to take the jump, let your fears rule. And you might never do it or let a lot of time go by before you actually claim your freedom.”