The 3 hardest things about working anywhere, anytime

The 3 hardest things about working anywhere, anytime

True location independence sounds impossible to a lot of people. Surprisingly, however, the stuff most people think is hard can be easy, and the stuff people think will be easy is hard.

For many, it might be easier than you think to find work as a location independent professional. A lot of people can do more or less what they’re already doing, but on a freelance or consulting basis. You can also leverage peripheral skills (such as writing or web development) and make a career out of it. Another option (if your company isn’t thrilled with telecommuting) is to look for another company that is thrilled. Also: Because you’re location-independent, you no longer have to consider only those companies in your own country.

Finding the money to go digital nomad might prove easier than you think as well. Depending on where you go, it can be cheaper to live than it is in your current city or country. In other words, the lifestyle comes with additional potential costs, as well as potential savings.

And finding Internet connectivity has become much easier, and is getting easier still every day. I’ve found cheap or free Wi-Fi in remote jungle towns in Guatemala, on Japanese “bullet” trains and even at European sidewalk cafes.

If you’re thinking about traveling while working — especially traveling abroad — here are the three hardest things about it:

1. Attention.

We live in an attention economy. The ability to sit down and concentrate uninterrupted is especially vital for just about any work done remotely. Controlling attention is hard enough at home and at work. It can be even harder abroad.

This is especially true if you’re traveling with spouse and offspring. They may feel they’re on vacation, and want you to participate. Actual travel time can be full of interruptions. It’s fine for small tasks, like e-mail and catching up on calls. But for long sessions of concentration, you’re going to need peace and quiet.

One reason this can be challenging is that oftentimes bandwidth is metered. While living in Greece last year, I did most of my work in a local coffee chain called the Flo-Cafe. Wi-Fi was free, but the network tossed you off about once per hour. Wait staff interrupted me every half hour or so, and the whole establishment was noisy and full of cigarette smoke. The best place to work during the whole trip was on long ferry rides between Greek islands.

Sometimes you’ll stay with family and friends while traveling around. Every time I do that, I think I’m going to be able to excuse myself from socializing and go off and find plenty of time to get my work done. It just doesn’t work, in my experience. When planning trips, separate spending time with loved ones with work time — just like you do when you’re at home.

The solution to maximizing your ability to control your attention is to be obsessed about it when planning your travel.

Rather than moving constantly, as you might on a vacation, try to stay in each location for at least a week at a time. Always look for quiet locations without distractions or interruptions. You might imagine working in coffee houses and on the beach. But I’ve found that bedrooms, libraries and public spaces at hotels (lobbies, etc.) are generally best for serious work.

2. Electricity.

Powering up abroad isn’t a problem because of incompatible outlets. You can buy converter kits that work great. The problem is often getting access to an outlet at all. Many airports deliberately hide or lock outlets. (Others — Seoul, Korea’s, main airport is the best I’ve seen — go out of their way to make outlets available.) Although American business hotels usually have plenty of outlets, foreign, low-key accommodations often conspicuously lack them.

Many countries around the world lack reliable electricity. Once I was on deadline on the Honduran island of Roatan when electricity went out for the entire island (word on the beach was that somebody forgot to buy diesel for the generators). I had some juice in my laptop, and even in my phone, which I could use as a modem. But the islands servers and routers were all down. I’m not sure if my editor believed me.

On another trip, my wife and I rented a room with kitchenette on the Greek island of Mykonos. However, in order to plug in my laptop, I had to unplug the mini-fridge. I could work or eat, but not both.

The solution is to give yourself a buffer before deadlines, and don’t skimp on laptop and cell phone battery options. Expect to find yourself suddenly without options to charge your gear. It happens.

3. Making people understand what you’re doing.

The location independent lifestyle is counterintuitive to just about everyone. Even though you’re having the time of your life, everyone feels sorry for you.

When my wife and I downsized our house to free up funds for travel, friends and family just thought we were down on our luck, a victim of the recession.

When we work for hours in coffee houses, at beachside restaurants and on hotel room balconies, people look at us like we’re workaholics who can’t unplug. Europeans, many of whom get six weeks of vacation in the summer, think we’re completely insane. You can try to explain that you’re not a workaholic on vacation; you’re a digital nomad at work. But it’s no use. People won’t understand.

The location independent lifestyle is wonderful, but it’s not always easy. The most important thing is to plan realistically, and realize that the hardest parts seem the easiest until you’re out there. But if you can figure out how to get plenty of uninterrupted time and electricity — who cares if anyone understands? You can make a living wherever you want to be.

by Mike Elgan

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