Digital Nomad sounds so cryptic and technical. But it’s not. It’s a term used a bunch lately, though it’s been around for decades. People have used the term to mean many things, as it really can be many things. Any kind of remote work that makes your location irrelevant could be lumped together as a Digital Nomad. Location irrelevant work does not need to be some kind of programming or even computer-related work at all, though it often gets mis-categorized that way.
Gone are the days of piles of bricks and sticks for many businesses. You don’t need a massive facility or even an office park for so many industries now. Obviously, if you need a warehouse to store your stuff, a place to build your stuff, or whatever: yeah, you will need a set of map coördinates to come to most days if you don’t hire it out.
Finished up an article in this office: a two-story swing in a cafe at 11pm.
This is the information age. Think about the job that you do: if you sit at a desk all day at a computer or on a phone (90% of office jobs…an actual figure I just made up) then you can likely be doing that same job from home or wherever else.
I don’t know more than a few lines of BASIC as far as any kind of programming goes, but I’ve been a Digital Nomad for years. My location was still irrelevant, though I rarely worked outside my dining room office. When I wanted to put on pants, I’d go work somewhere else.
You can use your computer and the internet as a tool that supports your business, or as the business itself, and in far more ways than I’ll cover here. Now we can call anyone anywhere, we can email and send docs instantly, and have thousands of tools to share our work or art with the entire world, not just the neighborhood with a sign in the window, a yellow-pages listing to reach the whole town, and if you had a serious business: an ad in the local paper.
But since another of the most asked question I get, and one of the biggest self-imposed barriers I hear every day is “but I don’t know insert something about how computers, the internet, or other tech-sounding thing works here,” I’ll give a generic overview below.
This won’t teach you how to do literally everything there is to do, but it’s my hope that if you are someone who is intrigued by the thought of going where you want to go without being limited by your work requiring your physical presence at a particular set of GPS coordinates each day, that this will at least start to open your mind to possibilities and how you can apply things to your own life if it is something you want to change.
You don’t have to travel the world, live on a boat, or in an RV. You can stay wherever home is and in your hometown if that’s what works for you. But if you are having trouble understanding what Digital Nomads do and how they do it, this should help.
Computer Hardware Needed to be a Digital Nomad
Last week, I went over some of the tons of largely free Digital Nomad software tools used to run businesses from coffee shops and anywhere else they want. This week, I wanted to give some examples of the physical tools people use to do this location irrelevant work.
I intended to list a bunch of physical tools and gadgets that people use regularly to do work online or on the road, but I realized that just like I used to tell people back when I sold computers in 1989: unless you’re doing something that requires a ton of computing power, almost any modern computer will do anything there is to do today.
I pointed out that even $250 Chromebooks are capable of running several kinds of businesses these days, and in fact some people run several businesses from them at once. They aren’t even proper laptops! They’re basically just a web browser with a keyboard.
With so many services online and “in the cloud” these days, you don’t need massive hard drives, optical drives, and other tech from years past. If you can get on the internet, you can keep most of that stuff online somewhere. So any kind of computer will do unless you are doing heavy graphics-intensive work, video production, or other video-heavy rendering.
The work I do involves words, photos, and some simple graphical stuff when dealing with simple web designs. I have a bottom of the line Samsung laptop I got for about $500 brand new in Bangkok. It struggles to render video, but it does everything else just as well as the latest and greatest will do, if just slightly slower.
I also carry around an older Wacom graphics tablet for photo editing and other graphics work in Photoshop. I don’t draw or make amazing artwork like you can with one of these, but it’s fun and more of a hobby and learning tool for me. If it wasn’t so thin and light, I might ditch it, but it still fits in my carry-on only packing style.
I just got a new set of Photive X-Bass BTX-6 Bluetooth Headphones after dealing with too many failing earbuds that I find annoying to use anyway. Hannah from the travel blog Getting Stamped recommended them and let me try hers before I ordered and had a friend bring them to Thailand this weekend. As my friend Zachary calls them, my “Fuck off Headphones” so people have no doubt I am busy doing something with these things on my head, and I don’t get bothered as much by conversation in coffee shops or coworking spaces.
The ability to focus, whether you prefer music, podcasts, or some kind of subliminal noise is important if you are easily distracted by the hustle and flow of your surroundings. Depending on what kind of work I’m doing, I change it up: Writing, I can’t have talking in my ears, so I listen to video game soundtracks or something mindless to drown out ambient noise. When editing photos or similar, I can bounce around to Die Antwoord and get edits done just fine.
As far as physical “work” electronics, these are all I use or need. Sure, I have a tablet/phone that acts as a remote tool and book reader, but that’s more for getting around in a new place (maps and apps), and a communication tool for friends and others when not at the computer. I don’t even use it for many phone calls, as I use Skype or Google Voice on the computer for most client calls.
I use the hell out of paper notebooks though. So much of my thought process happens better on paper when I’m struggling to get ideas and concepts organized. I end up scanning them into Evernote or just shredding them when they’re full, but pen to paper helps me get organized into something I can turn into an article, a client’s sales copy, or a blog post.
I like Moleskine notebooks, like so many others. They really are good quality compared to some of the cheaper imitations I’ve also tried.
I found a different company I do like over here called Zequenz notebooks which I am trying out now. The paper quality is scrumptious, and it seems pretty durable as I thrash it about in my bag and on tables around town. I’ve only just started filling it up with brain spew, so we’ll see how it holds up in the next few months. And they do have them on Amazon, as I just checked.
Digital Nomad Special Needs Tools
Since there are all kind of jobs out there, you may need special tools.
Podcasters and voice artists are going to want a better microphone and maybe even some sort of small or even portable sound studio. I’ve seen everything from a USB mic and a pop filter to all kinds of sound boxes and portable tools to keep the quality high for voiceovers and echoing.
Obviously photographers and videographers are going to need more than a laptop and a mobile phone, and there is no shortage of gadgets and kit you can use for those fields, depending on your level of involvement.
I’ve seen day traders with six monitors at a time, but they tend to be more stationary with that kind of setup, or buy and re-sell them in towns they stay in for a few months at a time.
Like I said earlier, the physical tools you need to work from anywhere becomes largely a matter of preference and portability (if that’s even a need for you), with a bit of special tasks thrown in for those who need them.
Point is you can adjust your equipment needs to location irrelevant work if that’s a priority for you. If you want to have an office: have one! You want to have a warehouse art gallery/studio/school space: have one! Want to have a car dealership? Nothing wrong with that. Just different tools.
Of course this won’t take into account laws with regards to people’s nationalities and such. But where there’s a will, there’s an angry family fighting over it. (I may have that saying wrong…)
Types of Digital Nomad Work
What this post really evolved into was what working remotely or online really means.
There are really three general areas that I see, regardless of the type of work. They all fall into one of these three, with few exceptions.
You can work remotely, but must be logged in to the system during certain times, or at very least be available to deal with issues during certain times.
Whether you have to log into a company’s internal server, be in the system to help customers online or by phone, or otherwise be there, this type is most like a standard 9 to 5 job, and one that many people transition to most easily.
If you can work from home, you can work from Starbucks. If you can work from Starbucks, you can work from Starbucks in Thailand.
As technology has improved, prices have dropped. Remote work used to be expensive to do because long-distance phone calls were expensive, and so was internet connectivity at home. Now that you can sit in any McDonald’s and use their internet for free, that barrier no longer exists.
Now that most people have internet at home, long distance calling is included in any phone plan, and the tools for calling free or near free to anywhere in the world are everywhere, all those barriers have fallen away.
It’s not total freedom and can be a pain in the ass when you need to be on someone else’s schedule and requires the most time on the internet as well as the best connection possible. This limits you somewhat to the anchor of staying in nicer (more expensive) places with better wi-fi if you travel. It also means some entire countries with sketchy internet may be off limits for you.
If you need to be available for customer service calls in the U.S. daylight hours, you’ll need reliable internet and need to be able to speak in a quiet, private place while you work in the middle of the night.
This kind of thing requires the most consideration and has the most limitation.
The next level you can try for is doing work when hours become irrelevant as well as your location.
You can work whenever you like. There may be a ton of work ahead of you, particularly if you’re building something new and developing a platform of some sort. But you can essentially work whenever you like. So long as you can access the internet, you can do your work on your websites, for your clients, or whatever it is you need to work on.
You may have deadlines, but you aren’t punching a time clock anymore. You can work late and sleep in, or get up early and bust out work when you’re fresh and feeling most creative. You can take the afternoons off, or get everything done by four and enjoy the evening. Whatever works best for you.
Trust the Admiral.
More Digital Nomads stay in this category when they really don’t need to. So this is kind of a middle ground where a bunch of people stay longer than required. A lot of excess wasting time happens here in unnecessary places doing unnecessary busywork that isn’t really work.
What I mean by this is that this is the area where many of us first break away from “having a job” and start freelancing or building sites and businesses on our own. We don’t need to report to anyone necessarily, but there is always a ton of things to do. The big catch is that part above where we think so long as we have internet access, we can work.
This can hold you back considerably. And I see it a lot.
There are businesses that require being online that aren’t like the previous category of logged in to the server or available during “work hours” like a job, but there are a lot fewer of them than many Digital Nomads think.
Sure, you may have conference calls, need to research online for articles or to solve a problem of some sort. You may have to troubleshoot something on a live website, or handle customer issues. But if you aren’t careful, you can find yourself doing a lot of nonsense that isn’t really working at all, but a distraction.
Consumption sites where you just read other people’s stuff instead of making your own can eat up your life if you’re not careful. Working on your own is not for everyone, and especially when you’re new, if you aren’t used to having the freedom to do whatever you want, you can easily do whatever you want. That won’t get the work done.
There are a bunch of sites and tools that can be used to leverage your business and get your message to more people (customers) in easy and free-ish ways. I didn’t even get into these in my software tools post since each platform can be a whole usage book in itself.
Yes, you can use Facebook for your business and to get customers and sales. But you can also use it for mindless FOMO nonsense that isn’t paying the bills and is in no danger of doing so. Sure, scroll through and see what your friends around the world are up to, but do it when you aren’t supposed to be busting your ass to build your thing. Or a client’s thing.
Don’t be like the average office drone pretending to work for 8 hours a day and only doing about 3 hours of work. This is your business now. And your business means your life. Act accordingly.
Twitter is a great tool to get things done and find new clients. Search it up and answer questions in your field. Help people, be of use. But don’t spend your entire work day twatting back and forth with people thinking it’s a networking tool when you’re only avoiding actual work.
Doing Real Work
The next category of work is fantastic once you find it because you realize you don’t fall under that false dichotomy of internet worker who needs to be on the internet all day. You don’t in most cases.
This article is being written (the 2nd time now) on the screen. I wrote it the first time in my notebook, and fully 95% of this unnecessarily massive post was written without the internet. I just use the tools I have with me all the time, and I don’t need to worry about being tethered to the internet. I could be anywhere typing this, so long as the laptop has power. And I’m not connected as I type this.
My first draft of this post.
I’ll only log into the web when I need to get it shared online. I’ll finish my draft as best I can, before logging in to put it online in WordPress and doing all the final layout things I need to do like uploading the photos and such.
This is one of the many reasons I use Scrivener as a writing tool instead of just typing into WordPress over the internet: I don’t need the added excuse of no internet to be able to work. I can work any time. I can be somewhere with craptastic dial-up speed internet, and spend minutes to cut and paste text that I may have spent days writing.
Photos and video are going to need a decent-ish connection, but even in Southeast Asia, the internet is usually at least up and running (or at least jogging).
This is only one example. Many kind of artists or creatives can do almost all of their work offline. You don’t need the internet to do most kinds of work, even various forms of client work. You can do large swaths of web design, programming of various kinds, any writing or editing, and all kind of content creation while not connected to the internet at all. No social media and YouTube videos to distract you from doing your work.
Obviously there are many exceptions and examples. I am putting together a series of interviews with people all doing the same thing, but all done differently. I’ll have the first part out this month, and you’ll have even more examples of people breaking down the barriers to lives they want in ways you can’t even imagine.
Use the internet to share your work. Communicate on your time. To sell your art or thing, whatever it is. Don’t let the internet use you or distract you with it’s myriad shiny things. This is where you start to realize being a Digital Nomad doesn’t need to be very digital at all.