2017 has been a beautiful year for me so far regarding travel. In January, I got on a flight to Bangkok, for my first ever South East Asian adventure. I’ve spent a month gallivanting around Thailand, a little over three weeks exploring and falling in head over heels love with Laos, 2 weeks in Vietnam, a little bit in Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat, a few days enjoying Kuala Lumpur and a whole month on and around beautiful Bali. My ambitions were super high: of course, I’m going to see all the interesting things and find my own adventures – most of the 3,5 months I travelled alone – but I wanted to get so much work done. I wanted to write a whole marketing strategy book. I wanted to connect with startup hubs wherever possible. I wanted to volunteer maybe, run a few workshops here and there. Yeah, sounds realistic, I know.*
The mind-bending heat and humidity, as well as the excitement of a completely new culture, put plans on the back burner pretty quickly.
After a rather stressful year, all I could think of was beach afternoons and waterfalls, dragon fruit mojitos and naps in hammocks. Three weeks in and not a word written – but feeling fairly rested – I realised travel and work don’t mesh as well as the myriad of digital nomad blogs would have you believe. I needed to seriously think through how can I achieve the most important things on my list. I realised spontaneity will have to suffer a little and plans will have to be made.
By the end of the trip, I had 23 000 words, dozens of illustrated diary pages. and a boatload of fantastic memories. Here is how to explore the world, and get shit done as well.
I’d consider this good practice for travelling without wanting to create as well. You won’t be able to see and do everything – the world is simply too big and wonderful – so know what you really care about, or you’ll end up burned out and exhausted.
Similarly, pick the work projects that are seriously important to you. Maybe it is the most meaningful, maybe it is the thing that will have the longest term effect or maybe it’s something you’ve never found the time for and always wanted to do. There is no right or wrong answer here, the reasons are so personal but making a conscientious choice is important.
In my case, the book had a clear priority: it is personally very meaningful to me to complete and will have the most permanent influence in my life beyond the sabbatical year. I was definitely there to experience, see and connect but travel and planning had to mould around my writing and volunteering I sadly had to let go of.
When you get busy with a meaningful project it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the travel itself. To stay productive and still experience things, travelling slowly is the answer. If I could start over again, I may have chosen a completely different tactic, picking cities as a base for a month at a time. But even if you wouldn’t want to be quite so extreme, not rushing from place to place and moving every day saves you strength as well as money and grants important grounding. Staying longer offers a deeper insight into the location you are staying at and allows time to explore when you are done with your weekly goals.
Perhaps this sounds like a hard bargain to make, but it boils down to a whole lot of self-awareness and a bit of planning.
Choose locations and experiences mindfully. Know what are the things you get really enthusiastic about and be okay with turning down the rest. Choose an area to explore instead of a whole country. Build in buffer days and occasionally stay somewhere there is not a whole lot of stuff to do but still ticking some of your boxes for an adventure.
I had some of my most productive days in Lao villages and in a seaside hostel in Hoi An. The unbelievable scenery inspired and relaxed me. Dipping into the South China Sea every afternoon or hanging out with the local kids was still as far as my London normal as it could be. I wasn’t doing something thrilling every day per se, but in every fibre of my body, I truly felt that I’m travelling.
Learn to say no
That said, there will be distractions. Roommates inviting you for drinks, hikes, beaches every day. Some of them will think you are downright ridiculous with your laptop and dreams.** There will be massive FOMO. Hell, part of the real joy while travelling is being able to jump on opportunities and hang out with fun people. But you made up your mind about your project. You actually enjoy working on it. You know that on the long run completing it will give you more profound contentment. Learn to be okay with turning down lovely new friends for a few hours and get on with your own business.
There will inevitably be occasions where you’ll wish you’d joined that kayak trip instead of holing up in a cafe, but truthfully, it will become easier as you progress. Hopefully you are working on something you enjoy or find meaningful. Seeing it come together and a sense of achievement will provide the strength to put up going to the beach just a little bit longer.
Whatever your project, plan it out in advance
…or better yet, work on an established idea or business. Starting a completely new project from the ground up is extremely hard between hunting for accommodation, figuring out timetables, dealing with cultural differences and constantly making decisions. Travelling – as in backpacking, making your own itinerary, especially alone – while beautiful and fulfilling, is also exhausting. The energy you need to conceptualise, set up the project and make big decisions may not be available.
The best thing you can do for the sake of your project is to kick it off while you are still at home. If you plan to actually work on the road and make money, I’d suggest to only set sail after you’ve nailed a few clients or set up your website and figured out the basic workings of your company, so what remains is mostly operative.
If the need to make money is not that pressing, you’ll still immensely benefit from making a project plan complete with timing and think through how can you best combine it with the travels.
Consider which times of the day are you at your most productive. Think about how you like to travel. Do you need every spot booked in advance or do you prefer to be able to be spontaneous? Do you love the research or just want someone to suggest a spot and be done with it? Will you need working wifi? Reasonable comfortable chairs at a cafe? With a basic awareness of your habits and baseline productivity, you can zone in on locations that will be better suited and what kind of rhythm will be comfortable for moving between places.
What worked best for me was to set a weekly word count goal – it was the first draft, so it didn’t have to be perfect. Weekly***, because it gave me the flexibility to alter plans a bit if the circumstances changed – like a 2-day hiking trip up to a Laos nature reserve sleeping in a treehouse or the occasional food poisoning. I always considered the daily amount needed, but some days the bare minimum will happen only and in others, much, much more than that.
I planned my itinerary two weeks ahead, simply because I’m aware that making travel decisions depletes my energies significantly but procrastinating those decisions leaves me with an annoying nagging voice in the back of my head. Too much stress for having the time of my life. However, if I do it in one big chunk every two weeks, I free up my focus for bigger and better things. It is also flexible enough to follow recommendations or accommodate my mood and changing interests.
Do a little every day
Work, especially when it comes to creative or very independent pursuits, is a daily practice to me. You won’t have genius output every day. I have thrown out entire chapters written on those days. Sometimes all I could muster was a couple of rambling handwritten pages, looking for structure and ideas. What is important however that you keep doing it. First of all, so much of achieving results is about practice and showing up. Secondly, it is incredibly easy to fall out of the rhythm you’ve finally found, whether you are trying to stick to early morning hours or afternoon ones, to keep every other day working or the half of every week. I should know, I’ve barely put a word to page in the final month on Bali, after meeting up with family and friends and planning to relax my schedule for only a week.
Doing a little every day, even if it’s a slightly different creative muscle, even on the bad days, will help you practice. You’ll feel accomplished and hence more motivated simply because you stuck to what you wanted to do. You’ll build stamina and discipline, and without those, crossing the finish line would be nearly impossible.
See you on the road somewhere!
*The funny thing? I’m not a rookie traveller or remote worker and I still thought I’ll be able to do all this and not go mad.
** One of my favourite comments must have been an “Oh, so you are one of those people who enjoy what they do?” delivered in such a clearly condescending way I almost felt ashamed about it for a second.
***Slightly unrelated, but I found weekly budgeting the best for the same reasons. You don’t go crazy and spend all your money then panic. You can still spend a little more on a more expensive, but worthwhile experience that would be harder to justify with daily spending limits. Importantly, this is also how I saved money for this trip.