8 Practical Steps to Becoming a Digital Nomad
I travel a lot.
I mean a LOT. I’m constantly on the move! In my travels, whether in the United States or abroad, I meet people who ask me in amazement, “WOW! How can I do what you do?” They want to know how I can afford to travel all the time.
It’s only May and just this year I’ve already been to Arizona twice, Hawaii for 10 days, Virginia to see my parents for 4 days, Panama for 10 days, and I’m currently writing this from an airplane after spending 21 days in Peru. I’ve got a one way ticket to Europe at the end of the month and then I’m planning on circumnavigating the globe stopping at places along the way to see friends and places I’ve always wanted to visit.
I don’t say all this to brag, but to let you know that it IS possible to live a life of perpetual travel without draining your savings or retirement accounts!
Here, I present a high level overview of how I’ve been able to make this lifestyle work for me. Every step requires setting goals, hard work, and determination. It is a formula that I stumbled upon and am now sharing in the hopes that others who aspire to live a similar lifestyle can try to achieve it.
If I can do it, you can too!
Lets start with some assumptions about you, the reader and aspiring digital nomad.
1. You must have a solid work ethic.
If you’re the kind of person who wakes up ready to take on the day… kick some proverbial ass and take some proverbial names… you are going to be great at this lifestyle. Rarely do I meet another vandweller or perpetual traveler who isn’t totally in love with being alive, pursuing their passions, and discovering new things.
Laziness will never get you anywhere. That includes around the world.
This lifestyle takes work to maintain. You must have the ability to solve problems on the fly and always make sure you are working towards a goal.
2. You must have the ability to regulate your own schedule.
Some people call this “being a self-starter”. I call it “living with intention”. Being intentional about everything in life creates a lot of motivation and focus. When you live with intention you can pick when to work and when to play. When to get shit done and when to procrastinate. Yeah, you heard that right… I procrastinate a lot. But when I do, I understand that I’m making an intentional choice to put things off till tomorrow and have a firm grasp on how it will affect my goals and ambitions in life.
3. You must be good at communicating with others.
If you’re going to work from the road you’ve got to be able to communicate with others effectively. I’m constantly communicating with clients, coworkers, friends, and family. I make use of all the communication methods available to me both synchronous and asynchronous. It also helps to be a likable person and to understand what type of communication is most appropriate for the method and other party you’re communicating with.
Being good at communication on the road often involves dealing with multiple time zones. Sometimes I’m in Europe and my client wants a meeting time that is convenient for them. Convenient Pacific Time sometimes translates to inconvenient Central European Time. Perpetual travel can involve taking meetings at 11pm or even into the wee hours of the morning. I’ve had my share of 5am meetings too.
My clients always know what time zone I’m in and are generally accommodating to make sure I don’t have to stay up terribly late to talk to them.
4. You must be creative and observant.
Part of becoming an independent perpetual traveler is trying to generate passive streams of income. Getting paid for an idea or for work you’ve done in the past with a “long tail” of income is every entrepeneur’s dream. It’s why we build things that we hope will be valuable enough to some subset of humanity that they will be willing to pay us for it.
Being an observer of the world, the human condition, and the frustrations of others is critical to developing these business ideas. The goal is to put in a lot of work up front, setting up automated systems and processes so that you can (mostly) walk away and still make money and focus on other ideas. The goal is to make these systems so that they require very little work to maintain. For more on this idea, check out the excelent book by Tim Ferriss, The 4 Hour Work Week.
Have you ever had an idea you thought was brilliant at the time and then promptly forgot about it? Me too. That’s why I now write down EVERYTHING I think of in a notebook (well, an electronic notebook). All of my business ideas and random thoughts go in this digital notebook. It syncs between my phone and my laptop so I can jot things down wherever I am. Looking back on them later I realize that 99% are complete rubbish, but that’s ok. It’s that 1% I’m looking for to take to the next step.
I also use this notebook to write down interesting & inspiring quotes, names films people recommend to me, gift ideas for my girlfriend, hiking spots… EVERYTHING. Organize it. Categorize it. Chart ideas over time.
OK, so now I bet you’re thinking, “ENOUGH! Just tell me the steps you promised!”
So with no further ado, I present my totally non-scientific, might not work for you, no guarantees method for how I travel the world perpetually.
Step 1: Get some experience in your chosen field.
This phase of my career lasted almost 15 years and is by far the longest part of the process. Learning the skills to be able to charge a reasonable rate from the road takes time and patience. Use this valuable time to gain the trust of your clients that you can be effective and productive while not in a traditional office.
More and more companies are allowing “work from home” and might be agreeable to “work from a hostel in Bali”. You won’t know unless you ask. Keep in mind that companies will rarely allow junior employees this freedom. Take baby steps towards this goal.
Sorry, millenials with little to no job experience… we’re playing a long game here.
Rarely do I meet an “Instagram Brand Ambassador” making enough money to survive perpetually on the road.
Step 2: Eliminate as many expenses as you can.
I did something radical 4 years ago and sold almost everything I owned. I walked away from a great apartment in a great part of town to live a nomadic life in a van. This eliminated over $1,500 a month in bills like rent, electricity, water, and trash pickup. That’s $18,000 a year I can spend on gas to get around the United States, for plane tickets, hostels, train tickets, rental cars, and ferries abroad. Yes, living in a van comes with some tradeoffs, but what’s the use in a $1,500/month apartment if you’re never going to be there?
I realize that this is a step not many people will be willing to take. You can do some simple things to reduce the amount of monthly income you need to survive… start by canceling subscriptions to things you rarely use and for god sake cut that cable television cord already!
Step 3: Figure out how much money you want to make and how much you want to work.
Let’s pick $80,000 out of the air. Adjust this up or down depending on realistic expectations of your skills and chosen career path.
I like working about 20 hours a week. I tried working 40 hours a week (and sometimes 50!) but it wasn’t sustainable for me and only lasted about 3 months before I reached my breaking point. Everyone needs a break here and there, even when working 1/2 time so lets also account for 4 weeks of complete vacation a year.
That’s 960 hours of work a year.
Doing some simple math means that to make $80,000 in 960 hours you need to charge $83.3/hour. Let’s round it up to $85.
Step 4: Find client(s) willing to pay you that amount or more.
Now some of you will say, “that’s completely unrealistic!” But I can tell you from experience that it is not. If you produce high quality work and posses all the attributes I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are clients out there that will pay $85/hr (or more) for software consulting.
This is where the hard work you did in step 1 really pays off.
Adjust your hourly rate according to your skills, industry, experience, and income expectations.
Step 5: Work half time, enjoy life, and travel.
The hardest part of this step for me has been deciding, “where do I want to go next?!”
Step 6: Work on generating passive income streams.
Start developing some of those business ideas. You’ve been writing down everything in your notebook, right? Here we start to try out the 1% of ideas that are good to see if they will work and be able to provide us with passive income.
Yes, this idea development will take time away from client consulting so to compensate for this you have to either raise your hourly rate, work a bit more, or accept that you won’t make your target income for a short period of time. Hopefully you’ll make that money back later in residuals and long-tail income.
For full time employees, they generally call these “pet projects”, “side projects”, or “mooonlighting”. If you have a full time employer, make sure that your contract says that you own the ideas and work you do on your own computer and on your own time. You don’t want to develop the next hit idea only to find out your former employer is claiming they own it later down the road.
You’re probably thinking I’m going to tell you about a bunch of business ideas, huh? Well I’m not. That’s your job. I told you I’d reveal the process, not the secret sauce! Plus: ideas I might be good at implementing might not be what you’re good at. Take the time to figure out what you think people need and would be willing to pay you for.
Step 7: Do this for a few years
Remember that proverb about not having all your eggs in one basket?
Idea by idea, you should have a nice portfolio of income generating businesses. Some will take off and some won’t. But it’ll even out in the end and the sum of many small income streams will hopefully add up to a big number.
Step 8: The 4 hour work week.
Admittedly, I’m not here yet, but this is the ultimate goal. You’ve now got enough passive income to do a 4 hour work week to keep it all rolling. Work more than 4 hours a week to develop more passive income if you want.
Hopefully by now one of those business ideas has taken off and is generating a bunch of revenue now. Maybe take time to work on that some more and make it better. But most of all, enjoy life, travel, spend time with friends and family, do the things you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time or money to do. Volunteer at a charity you believe in or use your massive success to invest in others with your money and time.
So that’s it.
I’m currently on step 7. I’ve got a few passive income streams (some of which have done very well) but I’m working on new ideas all the time with the goal of getting to step 8. At some point, I’ll start cycling back and forth between steps 7 and 8 to achieve the lifestyle I want along with the income I want.
This is what I’ve done to live a perpetual live of travel and adventure. I’ve been a full time nomad for four years and have no plans to go back to a “traditional” way of life. I hope some of these ideas work for you!
Thanks to reddit user weakdan who, in contacting me about a simple comment I made in /r/digitalnomad, spurred the creation of this post.
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