Hatie Parmeter, a freelance writer and digital nomad, once had to write seven articles from the passenger seat of a Honda CRV. It wasn’t the ideal office setup, but she got it done because sometimes the freedom to travel and work from anywhere isn't all sitting on a beach with your laptop and a cocktail.
During my own tenure as a digital nomad, I filed stories from the top bunk in a crowded hostel dorm room, did my taxes in the back of a campervan, and sent work emails from a bus in South America. Distractions and discomfort are part of the game.
“Digital nomad” describes someone who travels full-time while working online. It’s a lifestyle that offers enticing freedoms. But it also requires the ability to constantly adapt to new environments and find ways to work in places that aren’t ideal.
In the last few weeks, a lot more people started working remotely. But almost no one is traveling. Unfortunately, this sudden global shift to remote work is tied to the terrifying reality of a global pandemic. People who can are now working from home to reduce potential exposure and the spread of the novel coronavirus. And many of them are discovering that working outside of the office comes with a whole new set of challenges.
So we’re turning to the experts on working through distractions and discomforts. Digital nomads offer sage advice on how to optimize your work day, no matter where you are:
1. Create to-do lists and your own deadlines
Before she was forced to hunker down indefinitely in the UK, Christina Jones was traveling full-time with her horse in tow. She hit the road to prioritize new experiences and trails, and she tries to only work for four hours a day – though that often means a 6- or 7-day work week.
Without the structure of an office and the pressure of your boss sitting nearby, work schedules can become very nebulous, which isn’t always a good thing.
Not everyone has the luxury to work whatever schedule feels right, but Jones says that starting your day with a to-do list and personal time restraints on your tasks will keep you focused and help prevent the typical workday from stretching late into the nights or weekends.
“It's easy to avoid distractions if you know exactly what you have to achieve when you sit in front of your laptop,” says Jones.
2. Find ways to reward yourself
Danielle Boltz, host of the podcast Mudlark, has lived in two different Airstreams and spends significant time working on the road. She runs multiple businesses, including vacation properties and Honeysuckle + Mud, a lifestyle and handmade goods company. While traveling between different properties, she’s also managing endless online tasks and finds that small rewards throughout the day keep her motivated to stay on track.
“I get super inspired scrolling Pinterest midday and getting ideas for future tiny home builds,” she says. “Because I work remotely, I get so motivated by exciting potential projects and new views to wake up to. It makes me work that much harder when I know something exhilarating is just around the corner.”
Boltz recommends carving out some time midday for something you can look forward to.
For Parmeter, that something is a yoga nidra session using the Insight Timer app. “Nidra is also known as yogic sleep,” says Parmeter. “And a 20-minute practice, which you do lying down or sitting up, is equal to several hours of deep sleep. It's the best mid-day nap ever!”
3. Pick a workspace and make it yours
You probably spent time arranging your office desk to feel like your own, hanging pictures or arranging the tools you need to be most productive. Do the same at home. Rather than allowing all of your space to become a workspace, it’s helpful to set up a specific area – and then spend time on making it just right.
Boltz says the aesthetic of her workspace plays a big part in her productivity.
“Keep it simple, intentional, and most importantly (to me) aesthetically pleasing. When my tiny space is a cluttered garbage pit I have zero motivation or clarity. I begin my work days by making sure my space feels open and available for my creativity to spill all over it. And I always keep my favorite candle close-by.”
4. Upgrade your equipment
Mike Swigunski is the founder of GlobalCareer.io, an international job board for remote workers. He emphasizes the importance of the quality of his work equipment, most specifically his computer and noise-canceling headphones.
“Controlling your equipment is essential and having a top-notch laptop and a pair of headphones with a good microphone is very important,” says Swigunski. “The headphones are great for listening to music and make call quality a lot clearer.”
If you’ve been thinking about asking your boss for a computer upgrade, now might be the time. And if noise canceling headphones could increase your productivity (all of the digital nomads we interviewed said they most definitely do) then consider upgrading those, too.
5. Shake out the stress with exercise
Parmeter recommends taking time for brief workouts throughout the day. “I have to move my body to let the stress go,” she says. “I do a lot of five-minute yoga or push-up breaks. I also walk the dogs a couple times a day to get moving and enjoy good weather whenever possible!”
6. Find focus music that works
If the whole family is home right now, distractions are likely at an all-time high.
The right work soundtrack paired with quality headphones can be most helpful in drowning out the household noise. If you live alone, the silence can be distracting, too. So a dependable work soundtrack is a must-have for everyone.
Jones is a big fan of Brain.fm for a work soundtrack that’s specifically designed for productivity. You won’t hear your favorite hits on this music app; the creators made all the soundtracks themselves, using a science-based approach that “elicits strong neural phase locking.” Basically, it helps you focus, and Jones says it’s the best thing for keeping her “in the zone.” (I tried it myself while writing this article and was able to stay on task for longer than I have in weeks.)
Digital nomads love their coffee shops for free wifi and the ambient comfort of other people working and chatting nearby. But since coffee shops are mostly closed right now, try Coffitivity, which recreates the sounds of a bustling cafe.
7. Be honest with your coworkers
These are difficult times for everyone. Even if you create a flawless work-from-home setup and implement all of these tips, productivity can go out the window in periods of heightened stress and anxiety – which is pretty much all the time right now.
While there are no guarantees this will be the case, employers should be receptive and responsive when you’re honest about how work is going.
Jessica Shisler, Co-Founder and COO of The Vanlife App, has been developing a resource for nomads with a completely remote team for years. And she acknowledges that phone and video calls aren’t always sufficient in providing transparency about how everyone is feeling.
“We can’t read nonverbal cues as well in a virtual setting,” says Shisler. “So we encourage honesty and openness to an extreme. We start every meeting with a mental health check-in using green/yellow/red indicators of personal and work capacity.”
If you now manage a remote team, consider implementing additional check-ins, both one-on-one and with everyone. (You can also suggest these to your manger, if you’re not in charge.)
Shissler says having time to communicate with co-workers more casually is important, too. She suggests monthly digital happy hours. “Monthly happy hours are important for non-work connection with colleagues. They allow time for more “water cooler conversations” and can spark more creativity on a team.”
We’re all doing our best under the given circumstances. There are a million ways to make working from home a little more comfortable and a little less stressful, but the most important piece of advice might be to just be kind to yourself and kind to each other while we all work to figure it out.
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