One of the biggest stumbling blocks I hit when I first took the leap into working on the road was maintaining productivity levels. In theory, I could work from anywhere in the world. In practice, the sudden increase in distractions led to a productivity drop.
The problem was that as soon as I arrived in a new destination – especially a tourist/holiday-maker type spot – I went straight into “vacation mode.” As you well know if you’ve tried this stuff in the real world, going into “vacation mode” is not healthy for your income.
If you want to maintain your location independent income for any length of time, you need to make sure you keep doing the “working” part of “working and travelling.”
So how do you get things done when you’re surrounded by a million distractions? Obviously, if you go live in an exotic locale only to spend 10 hours a day on your laptop, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. That’s not the goal.
The goal is productivity balance – enough focus to produce the quality and quantity of work you want, while giving yourself enough time, freedom and income to enjoy wherever you happen to be.
Here are my five biggest productivity tips from my real-world experiences doing online work while on the road.
1 – Get More Done by Planning Accommodation and Work Spaces Wisely
This is by far the biggest factor that creates increased productivity for me. If I don’t have a quiet, reliable workspace, I’m toast – the work will not be getting done. It’s tempting to only book cheap hostel dorms to save cash, especially if you’re not earning a lot online yet or you’re simply used to doing the budget backpacker thing. This is a mistake.
You’re often much better off booking a private room (or sharing with other nomads, if possible) as the extra work time and increased productivity will more than make up for the extra expense.
If you’re like me, the social environment is a big part of the reason you travel and it’s too easy to get pulled along to the next party every night, telling yourself you’ll deal with that to-do list tomorrow. And then tomorrow. And then tomorrow.
For this reason, I recommend anyone trying to maintain an income on the road, learn to adapt their travel style. Like it or not, you’re not a zero-responsibility backpacker anymore – as long as you have clients or customers, you need to make sure you’re setting aside the time to serve them properly.
That’s why I tend to alternate between…
2 – Focus Blocks and Travel Time
Your ability to apply this method to your travel style will depend on your business somewhat. In particular, if you have things set up so that you’re constantly having to respond to emergencies and stay tied to email all day, you will have trouble dividing up your time like this.
In that case, you need to focus on implementing better systems to remove yourself from the day to day management of the business more. A virtual assistant can be very useful in this respect. But let’s assume you have fairly good control over when you do the work you need to do.
Personally, I prefer not to try to treat each day the way a “normal worker” would – ie work during the day, then have the evening left over to “go do stuff.” When I’m travelling, I want my travel time – exploring a particular location – to be 100% travel time. Travel should be travel, and work should be work.
Depending on your budget level, and whether you’re travelling solo or with other remote workers, you may want to alternate between private rooms and hostel dorms.
- 3-day focus session with a private room – no distractions, intense focus on work, more expensive nightly rate but bigger productivity output, THEN
- 3 days in a dorm – socializing, exploring your location, fully experiencing where you are and what you’re doing, spending less money on the days you’re not productive
Of course, this all depends on the trip – if you’re staying in one spot for a long time in a monthly rental, you won’t need to chop and change like this. It’s a fundamentally different experience from doing a crawl around multiple countries.
Generally speaking, the slower you move the easier it is to maintain solid habits for working on the road and keep your productivity output the same or similar to what it would be “at home.”
3 – Working on the Road Requires Discipline
You can have the best plan in the world, but it will probably go out the window. A big part of the excitement of travel, for me, is the spontaneity and unpredictability of daily life.
I like to be able to wake up and book an unplanned train or plane ticket. The more planned a trip is, the less fun it becomes. That means there’s a great deal of discipline that comes into play with maintaining your productivity on the road. This is not a path for the lazy and weak-willed.
If you’ve ever worked from home, you know how difficult it can be to self-motivate. (If you haven’t worked from home, just think about any time you had homework at school that you really, really didn’t want to do.)
Imagine that feeling – except you’re on a beach in Thailand, and everyone else at your accommodation is getting ready to go out and party at the bars and clubs. How good is your discipline going to be then? Again, this is where focus blocks come in handy.
Remove yourself from all distractions for a week or a few days and smash out as much work as possible. The more you set up your environment to favour getting work done (when you need to), the less discipline is required.
4 – Doing Work You Enjoy
Of course, all of this becomes a lot harder if you don’t actually enjoy your work. If you hate what you do, those $5 massages on the beach are going to win out as a procrastination option every time.
Often what you’ll find is that working on the road makes it clear to you which clients and projects you like the best, and which ones you have to struggle through.
Subtle though it may seem, this can help identify a problem in your business – that you aren’t getting enough leads or work options, and therefore you’re having to “take what you can get” rather than choosing what you really want to work on. This is actually an excellent 80/20 filter.
It will let you see which types of clients or customers you should focus on acquiring in order to not only earn more, but to ensure the bigger proportion of the time you spend working on the road is actually enjoyable. Likewise, you’ll very quickly begin to see which clients are more trouble than they’re worth.
Personally, I tend to scale down on the number of clients I deal with when I’m working on the road because my goal is not to maximize income – it’s to pay my way as I travel while dealing with the minimum amount of hassle and drama necessary.
You’ll also get a much clearer distinction of which tasks within your role or business you enjoy doing, and which you’d much rather someone else be doing. Are you wasting time on low-value tasks you hate which you should be outsourcing? You may find taking the time to outsource them properly turns out to be an easy way to increase productivity.
5 – Solo Vs Team Environment
The last consideration is whether you work best shut in a room by yourself with no distractions, or alongside others – especially other remote workers and nomad types. There’s a lot of hype around co-working spaces.
Personally, I am not a big fan of these, purely because I find it hard to concentrate and do my best work unless I’m completely alone. I find it hard to “go deep” on any project while there are people around, so I end up flitting between distractions and surface-level work that requires little concentration. It’s not productive.
Don’t feel like you have to use coffee shops or coworking spaces. I much prefer a private workspace area at my accommodation where I can be alone and concentrate.
The other option is to seek out a co-living arrangement with other remote workers or nomads – I have not tried this personally but I can see it being a very positive environment, as long as the others involved really are serious about their work. There are plenty of people out there who would like to claim the title “digital nomad,” even when they don’t make any money online and fund their travels from a credit card. If you’re going to get into a co-living situation, make sure the others involved are the real deal and will not simply become more distractions.
Nomad Girl has a great guide to the various digital nomad visas and programs available.