When I left for Mexico in January 2016, the phrase ‘digital nomad’ didn’t really cross my mind. My mind was kind of preoccupied thinking about tacos and palm trees and sun soaked adventures in tiny desert towns where a sombrero-wearing local would take us to his brother’s tequila factory and then let us sleep it off under the giant saguaro in his garden (never happened, disappointingly). But there were A LOT of tacos, so that’s something.
I had vague ideas about picking up some work here and there, when my travel funds started to run low – nothing major, just a couple of design projects to tide me over along the way. 18 months down the line, and evidently that’s not quite what happened – I worked on a couple of projects, started to get a few referrals, set up my Etsy shop – and before I had time to say ‘get the really big wine glasses out, we’re in for a bumpy ride’, I found myself running an online business from the road.
Over the course of the past year as a digital nomad living and working out of my back pack, I have learned a few things about being location independent. For example, I have learned that you need a shockingly small amount of actual stuff to run a functioning business. I have also learned that possession of that knowledge doesn’t stop me from carting a load of stuff around with me that I don’t need, but at least I’ve tried to identify that in this post so that you can learn from my mistakes. I’m nice like that.
This is the stuff where if I don’t have it, nothing’s getting done. One of my worst fears in life is legitimately losing my Macbook, because she is the hub and soul and filing cabinet and accounts department and design studio and marketing machine of my business. Yes she’s a she. Obviously. Second to the Macbook is my iPhone, as I use apps to manage my banking, payments, currency exchange, timezone management, form scanning, document transfer… the list goes on. I’ll probably do a follow up post on all the online services / apps I use to run this thing, because there are A LOT.
Then my basic art materials – every single project I work on starts with my sketchbook and pencils because I’m old school. I also love my drawing tablet for digitising lettering and illustrations. My headphones, because I absolutely cannot work in silence but also cannot work with distracting noises around me (my fiancee says I’m high maintenence, I have no idea why), so these are essentials as I can just plug in to Spotify and lose myself in the zone.
My DSLR, just generally as a creative tool and because I find it stimulates my productivity and idea generation to document the world as I explore it. I actually think this is more essential as part of my traveling kit than when I’m at home.
Power adaptors, plug extentions, and external hard drive – may sound boring and basic but TRUST ME you need to make sure you can plug in and back up absolutely anywhere. And finally, I always have a few of my business cards with me to take advantage of chance meetings with exotic strangers. You never know where a travelling friendship might lead.
These are all things that I am currently carrying with me, but you could get along just fine without them. I do love having a few extra art supplies – a small watercolour palette, paint brushes, brush pens and coloured fine liners means that I can create a wider range of illustrations and graphics than I could with only digital tools. A spare camera memory card and USB memory pen are good to have, I’ve used the memory pen a couple of times to get things printed, and I like to have a small diary planner so that I can plan my week in actual ink rather than spreadsheets. I’m not much of a spreadsheet girl.
Ok, I don’t need to travel around with ten magazines weighing down my bag, even if they are really pretty ‘visual inspiration’. Also, one sketchbook at a time is absolutely fine, the same goes for notebooks (this has been a hard learning curve). And finally, a desk! You’d really be surprised at the number of different places that can become your nomadic office with a little bit of imagination.
Which leads me to –
This is an important one. Just because you don’t have a physical office space doesn’t mean that where you work isn’t important. Sure, there may be days when (if you’re like me) you end up working from a train carriage, hostel dorm bed or on the roof of a nearby building (seriously), but on the days where you’re a little more stationary and fully in work mode, choosing wisely can help you to maximise those days and get more done. Here’s my top tips for finding the perfect temporary workspace:
Maybe your brain is stimulated by the energy of bustle and chatter – head to a trendy coffee shop and choose a comfy seat. If you prefer a bit of peace and quiet then libraries and art gallery cafes are usually a good bet, or just outside in an open space if you don’t need to be heavily online. Think about placing yourself in an environment that will inspire you – personally I find that being in a space that is well designed and full of light and air provokes much better creative work than an outdated place with tiny windows.
I’ve actually found this harder in New Zealand than in SE Asia, surprisingly. To get in a really good nomadic work day, you need somewhere that has free wifi, lots of accessible plug points, an open attitude to people who want to hang around and work all day, and an all day breakfast menu (ok, maybe that last one is more of a nice-to-have for some people, but for me bacon is a non-negotiable.)
I find that unless I have one big project that I’m going to work on solidly that day, I really have to plan well to maximise my time. I usually block out my day in 1 hour chunks, and assign a specific task to each time chunk (this is also a really good way of mixing up your day to make sure you stay motivated and on task – no time for Pinterest procrastination when you only have an hour to complete a task). Use your planner to be smart about your time – if you know there’s a limit on your wifi usage, schedule an hour online in the morning to check e-mails and an hour at the end of the day to deliver proofs, send responses, chase things up or clear out your inbox. The rest of the time you can dedicate to nailing your offline to-do list, and voila! Maximised nomadic work day.