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Life On The Road Philosophy Of Travel Story Of My Life

A Complete Breakdown Of How My Location-Independent Lifestyle Works (After 11 Years On The Road)

I first published this piece in 2016, but it’ll work best as a ‘rolling’ article which I’ll update as, well, life goes on. The latest updates were made in March 2018.

My location-independent journey began before I knew the lifestyle had a name.

It was 2007, I was 23, and I’d set off on a bicycle to explore the world. I possessed nothing more than I could carry, with £3,500 in the bank and 750 Euros in my pocket to see me through to an uncertain future.

Homeless and unemployed, I cycled across 32 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, eventually calling an end to full-time bicycle travel after almost four years on the road. Here’s the short version and the long version of that story. I will never fully understand how the experience shaped me, but I cannot imagine living in its absence.

I never had a plan for afterwards, hoping a vocation would emerge on the road. It did. Travel unearthed a long-buried creativity and I learned to express it in writing, photography and film. I built a blog and resource to empower others to travel by bicycle. I learned the rudiments of digital entrepreneurship and set about (tastefully) making a living from it all. Today I use the income to spend much of my time contributing voluntarily to social movements revolving around the art of travel.

This is how travel, adventure, and location independence became the foundations of my livelihood. It’s a lifestyle that demands the kind of freedom I couldn’t find in ‘normal’ life.

“But what do you actually do?” people ask. I’ve written comprehensively about what I don’t do. This article is my best answer to what I do do. At 8,000 words, it’s a tenth of an average novel, and the longest blog post I’ve ever published.

I’ll describe how, over the years during and since my big bike trip, I’ve honed a purposeful location independent lifestyle with room for both deep creative work and open-hearted adventure.

I’ll do so in enough detail that someone sufficiently interested could borrow or adapt elements of it for themselves.

Some of it might be quite boring. Apologies. Nobody said this lifestyle was all fun and games. (If they did, they lied.)

In any case, feel free to draw from it what you will, with the caveat that it is just how one person is living out this location-independence thing.

Perhaps now would be a good time to put the kettle on.

Ready? Let’s begin.

The Basics

My life over the last decade has followed a pretty regular pattern. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Spend time ruminating on new projects.
  2. Commit to the one that most resonates.
  3. Put heart and soul into making it happen.
  4. Gather memory cues for the events of the process.
  5. Spend time ruminating on possible ways to share the results.
  6. Commit to the one that most resonates.
  7. Put heart and soul into making it happen.
  8. Share the resulting creation(s).
  9. Return to step 1.

This high-level cycle operates on several levels, from a particularly epic blog post that emerges over a few days or weeks, to an ebook that might take several months to complete, to a film that might take five years to shoot, edit and release, to a wilderness trail that’ll take a decade to see to fruition, to projects I don’t even know about yet because I’m still on step 1.

It’s important to note that I’ve derived this pattern in retrospect, rather than having set out to follow it. It could be reduced even further:

  1. Gather materials
  2. Make something

Creativity – that much misunderstood thing – is not a constant stream of output. There has to be raw material to work with. My raw material is what I gather while travelling – memories, diaries, photographs, video and audio recordings. Creativity is about making sense of your raw material, wrestling it into a form that you – and hopefully others – can resonate with. Thus, I have a wrestling match every day. It’s fun.

Exploring the Rio Santa Cruz valley by horseback, December 2014
Exploring the Rio Santa Cruz valley by horseback, December 2014

During the gathering phase, I’m footloose. Things are as flexible as possible. I’m on the move. I’m open to any and all input, accepting everything the world throws at me. It’s sometimes fun, often dull, regularly uncomfortable, and occasionally really, really difficult. It’s adventure. I’ve published many of these stories elsewhere, so won’t recount any of them here.

During the making phase, I need a place to focus. A hideout. No distractions. A routine. As little unexpected as possible. Indeed, the very opposite of adventure. I’ve got my raw material; now it’s time to work it into something – a film, a book, an article, something real. Surrounding that, I have a daily life which probably looks similar to yours.

And what drives the cycle? Hmm. I’ll let you know when I work it out. I think it has something to do with making the world a better place.

Nightlife

We often define where we live as being where we sleep. To say I’ve slept in thousands of different places over the last decade would be no exaggeration. Hundreds of these nights have been spent under the stars in a tent, bivvy bag or hammock, practicing the art of wild camping while hiking, cycling, packrafting, horse trekking, being homeless in a city park, or whatever. It doesn’t take long to realise that the world is your bedroom, as it has been since the dawn of time.

Wild camping in the Jebel Akhdar mountains of Oman, May 2009
Wild camping in the Jebel Akhdar mountains of Oman, May 2009

When not sleeping rough on a journey, I look for places to temporarily set up shop to do my making and living.

So where are these places, and how have I chosen them?

Short term accommodation for travellers

Adventure travel can be an intense experience, so I take regular downtime to process and recoup. In new and unfamiliar locations, and in the short term, I’ve Couchsurfed for anything from a week to a month or more. I find a host who’s happy to have someone stay a little longer than usual, often paying the ‘rent’ in cookery and housework and company. Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Cairo, Dubai, Los Angeles and Esfahan are some of the places I’ve done this.

In more recent times, I’ve used Airbnb (get a free/discounted night with this link) to rent apartments short-term when it’s more beneficial to have complete privacy.

And there are some cities where I’ve found people who’ve set me up with flexible lodgings for minimal rent, just by putting the word out on Facebook, Twitter and my blog. (It’s surprising how effective social media can be for asking for help.)

Then there’s that thing called friends, which you tend to make plenty of when you’re travelling, and who might quite enjoy having guests once in a while. Such hospitality is a two-way exchange, not an accumulation of debts, though paying it forward is a given.

Long-term accommodation for travellers

When it comes to longer stints in one place for big projects, I’ve found it best to avoid traditional rental markets and think more laterally.

One method is to seek out places where renting is low in demand and therefore cheap and informal. This is why Yerevan makes for such a great regular haunt: I’m yet to pay more than £200 a month for a 2-bed downtown apartment – paid monthly to the landlord in cash, not a contract, deposit, reference or guarantor in sight.

There are cities the world over for which this is true and where digital nomads communities have sprung up. NomadList.com is a fantastic place to find them.

Another strategy is keep an eye out for unusual opportunities. To get my first book finished, I rented a barn-conversion apartment in deepest Cumbria, which came with a kitchen garden, the run of the farm and its workshops and facilities, was within the stunning Lake District National Park, and had an off-grid yurt in the woods where I got much of my writing done. The rent was £400/month; again, no contract, references, nor guarantors as the landlord was a friend of mine. (I also learned a ton about growing vegetables.)

On another occasion, I was staying with a friend in London to work on a film project when one of her housemates moved out of the 3-bedroom shared house. The rent was very affordable, and I needed to stay in town for a few months, so we agreed that the housemate’s name would stay on the lease and I’d pay the rent to her. The result was an autumn and winter living in Zone One for just a few hundred quid a month – again, no paperwork in sight. I’ve found similar short-term opportunities – unofficial cash-payment sublets – on Gumtree, Couchsurfing groups, Facebook location groups, and other such networks.

The time I did go down the traditional rental route through a letting agency, I got stung. The bureaucracy and fees were onerous, the rent and rates sky-high, and the place itself turned to be a transient non-community where people couldn’t even manage to say hello to each other in the stairwells. By the time I evacuated Bristol, I was practically penniless, and the experience had made me so jaded that I decided to leave the UK altogether.

If I did want to spend time in the UK again, I would certainly look at living in a van or on a boat, or housesitting.

Oh yes – housesitting. There’s the informal type, when you look after the place of someone you know while they’re away (which I’ve done). And there’s the formal type, where you become a ‘professional’ housesitter for a stranger (which I’m yet to try, though it’s in the pipeline).

It’s possible to travel the world like this, living for free in all manner of homes, usually with a dog to walk or a cat to feed, from a weekend to months at a time. Though it’s quite competitive and requires lots of flexibility in terms of taking what’s available, it’s a working solution for location-independent accommodation for plenty of people. Try this book for more on the subject. TrustedHouseSitters.com is currently the biggest formal housesitting network.

In the last year or so, several co-living community projects have sprung up to meet the demand of the many itinerant professionals looking for a family, for want of a better world. Check out Roam, NomadhouseTribewanted and Yes HQ for cutting edge examples of this idea in practice.

A Question Of Stuff

Let’s briefly look at the question of possessions. It’s important, I think, because for many they’re the ultimate ball and chain.

My early travels taught me to appreciate the ideals of minimalism. It happened by default. I resented every unnecessary gram of weight as I ground up the world’s mountain passes on a bicycle. Beyond cycling, I noticed that a general rule of less is more seemed to benefit both the individual and society, creating room for us to live by our wit, rather than by our kit.

When my travels became interspersed with more stable creative periods, I began to ask the same questions of all else I owned. Is there a smaller, lighter, simpler version that would serve the same purpose? Is there one item that would do the job of several? Has this outgrown its usefulness? How long will this last? Am I only hanging onto it for sentimental reasons?

Everything that didn’t pass the test went on eBay or was given away. I still repeat the exercise annually. The result is that – when not ‘adventuring’ – I live my life out of one ultralight carry-on suitcase and a messenger bag.

(I do have a bunch of outdoor and cycling gear – which I won’t be discussing in this piece – but I keep most of it in storage with friends and family, picking it up and dropping it off as necessary. Someone I know keeps a self-storage unit near Heathrow for the same purpose, another clever solution.)

Life Kit-List

Though yawnsome, for the sake of completeness, here’s my current ‘life kit-list’:

Carry-on suitcase

Clothing

  • 2 lightweight T-shirts – lightweight bamboo, great in both heat and cold and odour-resistant as you like
  • Cotton polo shirt – this is about as smart as I get. Smarter events I just avoid
  • Khaki shorts – always with cargo pockets; as good for a day of hiking as going for a meal afterwards
  • Smart-ish jeans – super versatile for any and all social occasions
  • Zip-off trekking trousersgreat all-rounders
  • Midlayer – with full-length front zip and high collar
  • Waterproof jacket – nothing special but very useful
  • 3 pairs boxer shortsbamboo
  • 3 pairs socksbamboo (again)
  • Thermal Buff – for cold nights outside
  • Pair flip-flops – the world’s most versatile footwear
  • Pair light hiking shoes – between these and the flip-flops, 99.9% of situations are covered

Sports gear

Minimal outdoor gear

Other

  • Clear plastic liquids bag
  • Waterproof washbox – toothbrush, nail clippers, foot powder, painkillers and a varying selection of other medical supplies
  • Plastic document wallet
Before
Before
After
After

Packing

Some points on packing. I roll my clothes to save space and put them in a drybag if the case is going in the hold. Minimal camping gear – which I take everywhere – also goes in the carry-on suitcase. (On long layovers, this means I can find a secluded corner and sleep in comfort.)

Liquids are already in a clear ziploc bag at the top of the suitcase by the zipper, ready for security check. This rarely amount to more than a small roll-on deodorant and a tube of toothpaste. I don’t use shampoo, shower gel, or any other cosmetics, and haven’t done for years.

When on the move, passport, emergency credit card and $100 cash goes in an Aquapac pouch (actually a phone case) around my neck; phone and wallet in a pocket.

Messenger bag

  • Laptop (in padded sleeve), charger & international adapters
  • Backup drive & cable (in hard case)
  • Headphones (in hard case)
  • Nook ebook reader (hacked)
  • USB power pack
  • Paper books (currently this)
  • Notebook, 2 pens, pencil and highlighter
  • Camera
  • Lightweight drybag big enough for all of the above

This bag contains my travelling office/writing desk/media studio. As long as I have internet and electricity, I can set up anywhere. With the wi-fi off, I can get a good 6-7 hours writing done with the laptop unplugged. (This can work particularly well when the weather’s good and I’ve got my hammock to hand.)

Alongside the gadgetry goes a lightweight down jacket, earplugs, and a Buff which I’ll use as an eye mask. These, plus the headphones, are key to getting any kind of decent sleep on planes, trains or buses.

I’m yet to encounter an airline that hasn’t considered this bag a ‘personal item’ that’ll go under the seat in front of me, with the carry-on in the overheard compartment. No baggage reclaim queues for me.

20160202-091918-Sydney-0019

Digital dependence – my take

If I followed minimalism to the letter, I’d have my face permanently buried in a smartphone: itinerary, navigation, check-in, entertainment, photos and videos, email, and social media.

Call me a Luddite, but I keep to a general rule of minimal screen time. I memorise my itineraries and navigate using common sense. I check in the old fashioned way, ask for a window seat, and get a printed boarding card. I read books. I have a Nokia 100.

I write books and make films; the last thing I need is more screens when I’m not working. The real world’s quite interesting, actually.

On shoot at the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, December 2014
On shoot at the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, December 2014

Tools of the trade

As mentioned, I rely on digital technology for my work. I made do with cheap kit for years, but I recently invested in high-quality, durable tools would allow me to work more efficiently. This investment has paid off in spades.

Laptops and hardware for digital nomadism

At the core of it all is the creative workstation – a screen and a keyboard.

My criteria were difficult to satisfy: I needed something portable and lightweight, with a battery that would last all day without being charged, a screen I could use outdoors, a keyboard comfortable enough to use to type thousands of words a day, enough power and pixels to edit HD video, a solid-state drive with no moving parts, compatibility with the apps I use, and a track record of reliability. A tall order.

After arguing long and hard with the part of me that hates everything Apple has done to the world, I resigned myself to the MacBook Pro 13 Retina being the only machine that ticked all those boxes.

What I hate even more is the fact that it’s the best computer I’ve ever used, let alone owned. Grrr.

(I saved myself a few hundred quid by buying it from the well-hidden ‘refurbished’ section of the website, and in Australia, where they seemed slightly cheaper, like-for-like.)

Backup and media storage for the laptop are served by a 2TB LaCie Rugged external hard drive.

All of this goes in the drybag that lives in the bottom of the backpack if there’s the slightest chance of rain, rivers or waves during my day’s wanderings.

There are a several distinct occasions on which I use headphones: while listening to music (something I do actively, rather than passively, being a total music freak), while filming interviews or other dialogue (when I need to hear exactly what the microphones are picking up), while editing video (when I need to hear what’s been recorded), and while writing (in order to block out background noise).

One pair of ‘cans’ performs wonderfully at all these tasks: the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro. Headphones come and go like hipsters’ hairstyles; these have been plugging away in professional sound environments for years, if not decades. They’re big and expensive, but because there is no compromise in their functionality and durability, I’m happy to cart them about.

If only there was such an industry standard stills and video camera. Audio reproduction has long ago been taken to its physical limits. Motion picture still has a long way to go before it’s indistinguishable from reality, and so the technology continues its upward trajectory more quickly than the photography press can publish reviews.

Right now I’m using a Sony NEX-7 body with a Tamron 18-200mm lens on the front. It’s an unobtrusive yet capable stills camera that does everything I need it to, and the lens is a compromise I’m happy to make for general use.

But as a primary video camera, it falls short. For years I shot on what I could borrow, waiting for the perfect video camera for my style of filmmaking to come along (not a GoPro, not a DSLR).

Last week I took delivery of a Canon XC10. Fingers crossed it’ll be the one.

Disaster planning

With all of my work taking place digitally and usually online, there is always the risk of something going wrong with the technology that supports it.

Being self-employed, there’s nobody to bail me out, and no IT department to call, so data security is something I’ve approached strategically, because my income depends on it, and also because I value my work intrinsically and would rather not lose it.

The worst case scenario (that could actually happen) is that my equipment vanishes – laptop, camera, hard drive – and at the same time, my web server goes up in flames. So my contingency has been designed for that eventuality.

My writing (i.e. my main business asset) goes straight into my Dropbox folder, not my Documents or Desktop. That includes one-off pieces, book projects, and everything in between. As long as I connect frequently, my work will be constantly backed up, and I can access it anywhere, at any time, from any internet-connected device.

Working files and documents for all of my other projects past, present and future live in Google Drive. I’m not a particularly big fan of entrusting all of my data to one private corporation, but ubiquity wins over in the work department, because everyone I tend to work with has a Google account and collaboration is therefore very simple.

Still photos from my camera go straight onto an external hard drive. This happens via Adobe Lightroom, which I use to import, organise and edit photos. With video files, if I’m on a shoot, it’s the same deal, but I tend to use a separate drive per video project because of the size of these files.

Finally, the laptop and external drives are on permanent real-time online backup via Crashplan, so every time I connect to the internet, my most recent work – including photos and video material – is automatically sent to this cloud repository. So if my backpack were to vanish, I’d be able to replace the laptop and the hard drives and restore the entirety of their contents from the cloud.

Running several websites (16 at last count), I pay an annual fee to a web hosting company, Vidahost, for space on one of their servers. Because this is shared hosting in a big datacentre, meaning I don’t have access to the hardware, I’ve set up my own contingency for peace of mind.

This is a bit technical, so feel free to skip over it. I use the Updraft Plus plugin for WordPress – which I use for all my sites – to take daily database and weekly filesystem backups of each site and send them to an Amazon S3 bucket. If the server dies, I’ll have up-to-date copies of the data and files for every website under my control, ready for re-installation on another server. Another plugin – Jetpack – keeps tabs on the health of the websites. If a site goes down, I’ll get an email to let me know.

Every aspect of this system is automated, so there’s nothing to think about from one day to the next. It’s taken time to set this up, but the result is rock solid.

Healthy body, healthy mind

I had a health scare back in 2011, waking up one morning with swollen lymph nodes and almost immediately blacking out. I lost consciousness five times before the ambulance arrived. Nobody could say what I’d been hit by, other than that it was probably a viral infection.

For about six weeks afterwards I was too weak to do anything more than lie in bed and go for the occasional walk. I’ve suffered from tinnitus ever since. It was at its worst in the first year, when the world would start spinning whenever I closed my eyes, along with nightly heart palpitations. The anxiety that came with not understanding what was wrong with me, together with not being able to sleep properly, added up to a pretty depressing chapter of my life.

The worst of the after-effects are now gone – thankfully – and the net effect has been an appreciation not only of the value of the health I had taken for granted, but of how abruptly it can be taken away. Since then, I’ve found myself paying far more attention to:

  1. Maintaining my health through a handful of common-sense practices such as eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, and spending time in nature,
  2. Cultivating an acceptance of mortality, which translates to appreciating good health while it lasts, rather than taking it for granted until it doesn’t.

It’s funny how it often takes a major life event to make clear what should be obvious, but there we go.

A military regimen of dieting and physical training is not really compatible with the unpredictable routine and ever-changing environment of travel, so I take a relaxed approach to taking these things seriously (if that makes any sense).

Eating well

I don’t wish to dish up dieting advice here. Personally, I feel better when I avoid sugar and easily-digestible starches, limit dairy and other fats, and go instead for modest portions of protein and veg. When I’m exerting myself all day (trekking, cycling, etc), I chuck in as many nuts and dried fruits as I can eat.

There are probably cleverer ways to tackle nutrition. I was recently sent some samples of Ambronite, a superfood protein shake designed, apparently, for people like me. It was indeed handy during my last stint of film touring. (As for the taste, think liquidised muesli.)

Staying active

For exercise, I always carry running gear (shorts, T-shirt, Vibrams) and swimming gear (trunks, cap, goggles) wherever I go. Swimming is something I do mainly in natural water and usually on a whim, attracting strange looks from passers-by.

I add to these two staples of exercise by taking inspiration from my surroundings.

In Sydney (from where this post is being written) I’ve been teaching myself to surf, which mainly seems to involve paddling gingerly towards massive waves and then being pulverised by them.

Heroically catching yet another gnarly wave
Heroically catching yet another gnarly wave in North Curl Curl

In London, I cycle everywhere, easily racking up 100+ miles a week. In Yerevan, I do vast amounts of walking, and I plan to join a bouldering gym next time I’m there.

On the kind of adventures I go in for, of course, the fitness side of things is taken care of by default.

Thinking well

On the topic of mental health, I would like to tip my hat to the reader who commented on a blog post last year in which I’d gone off on a bit of a rant about the amount of work-related stress I was under. The commenter put it simply: “Meditation. Seriously. It’ll change your life.”

At the same time I found out that two good friends had recently qualified as mindfulness meditation teachers and were integrating it into the sustainable business coaching practices they did for a living. Once I became aware of it, it started popping up all over the place.

I’ll confess that I long had a block about meditation. I perceived a social stigma attached to it; ridicule at the idea of their being any value in sitting around doing nothing – nothing! – coupled with a subconscious fear of what we might discover about ourselves if we ventured too deeply into our own heads. I can see in retrospect that this fear prevented me from looking further into it.

Long story short, I took a popular self-study course which came with several recommendations for skeptics of spiritual-religious practices (it contains no such element). While it would be trite to say that it has changed my life, it has certainly changed my relationship with myself for the better, and given me the tools to deal with what I’d previously considered personal failings but were actually things I hadn’t learned how to deal with.

Meditation now seems as essential a daily activity as eating. What’s particularly nice is that it can – with practice – be done anywhere, at any time, often invisibly, and the tools are all in your head.

(If you feel resistance to the word ‘meditation’, substitute ‘spending quality time with yourself’.)

Low-information dieting

I noticed a long time ago that consumption of commercial news media has a negative effect on my mood – which, when you look at what makes the headlines on a daily basis, is hardly surprising.

Because the news tends to consist of freak incidents that exert no actual influence over my life, however, I’ve noticed that if I ignore it altogether and go on a low information diet, the overall net effect is a beneficial one.

This has had a few knock-on effects, demonstrating that an ‘interest in current affairs’ is largely a social expectation (as is ‘having an opinion’), and that a balanced understanding of the major forces at work in the world is better gleaned from reading good books.

The result? More time and energy to work on that ‘making the world a better place’ thing.

Balancing Work & Play

I mentioned earlier that I take my work everywhere. But that doesn’t mean I work constantly – far from it. Where would be the time to absorb my surroundings, grasp unexpected opportunities, and do the things that make me happy? Indeed, freeing up play-time has been a key principle in designing this lifestyle.

The culture I grew up in from casts overwork, stress and exhaustion as the price of success. If you’re not happy enough, rich enough, if you don’t hold enough prestige, it’s because you’re not working hard enough.

Sure, there’s a workaholic in me, cultivated while I still lived within this culture. It occasionally resurfaces when there’s an all-encompassing project on the go – a film edit, for example, or a writing deadline. But I’ve learned to intercept this workaholic before he starts meddling. My work no longer defines me.

The best definition of success I’ve found in all my travels is getting to a place of peace, contentment and acceptance of the way things are, rather than frantically striving for something different and better. That’s not to say the world doesn’t need changing, because it surely does, but it’s easier to change what’s outside when you’re not being guilt-tripped to improve what’s inside.

Strategic approaches to location-independent working

So much for philosophy. A while back I decided to approach the issue of workload strategically, rather than continuing to believe in the myth that if I worked as hard as possible without stopping, eventually all the work would be done and I would finally have some free time.

To do this, I began with the end in mind by clarifying my working priorities:

  • To keep sovereignty of my own time, given that time is modern life’s greatest asset,
  • To prioritise making, rather than managing, when I’m ‘at work’,
  • To work only half-days as a general rule (and have the freedom to break this rule if I needed to),
  • To build a passive income which, if all ‘making’ suddenly stopped, would still provide a satisfactory income (as defined exclusively by me).

Defining and following these guiding principles has worked wonders. It has freed up massive amounts of time I used to waste ineffectually; time I now use to explore, read, write, spend time with others, be spontaneous, and allow the subconscious part of the endless creative process to take place.

At work in Moscow airport, April 2015
Launching an ebook from Moscow airport, April 2015

The value of routine for self-employed creatives

Establishing a daily routine has helped enormously too. Here’s how mine has settled:

5:00am – 9:00am

This is my undisturbed writing time, done before the world wakes up. Breakfast not included.

I’ll drink as many cups of tea (white, no sugar, teabag left in the mug) as necessary. I’ll either write an article I pre-determined last night (using FocusWriter), continue with a bigger project like a book manuscript (using Scrivener), or, if I’ve nothing lined up, just do automatic writing until something interesting emerges.

Banned outright is email, social media, and any kind of admin. I enforce this using the Self Control app. Re-reading and editing is also banned. Three to four hours is usually enough to expend a full tank of words; I stop when I hit a natural milestone (end of article, end of chapter, etc).

Usually, I put my massive headphones on so people know not to disturb me during this time.

9:00am – 10:30am

Breakfast is the reward – usually something small unless I’ve got an active day coming up – followed by a half-hour of meditation. This helps break out of the previous creative flow, reset my mind, and quell the presence of the various jobs and tasks I’ve inevitably accumulated towards the end of writing and over breakfast.

Then I’ll either make coffee, or head out to a local coffee shop, library, co-working space, etc. This is about establishing that the creative time is over and that what follows will be something altogether different.

10:30am – 1pm

This is ‘management/email/admin’ time. Most fundamentally, I’ll ask myself if there’s really anything that desperately needs doing today. I’ve found that 3 days a week on admin, give or take, is enough to keep things ticking over at a speed that suits me.

Spending more time here – particularly on email – really just engenders more work, because emails nowadays are used for task delegation, and for each one you send, you’ll get another one back. (Imagine that – only checking your email 3 times a week! Yes, it’s luxury.)

Before anything else, I take a few moments to look at my project management apps, Trello (big projects) and Todoist (random chores), and identify the one project that’s most in need of progress. Then I’ll work on the next steps for the project I’ve chosen, which usually entails writing and sending emails, doing research, or planning a future phase of the project in detail.

Next is checking and responding to emails. This goes in priority order, and is always approached in an inbox zero fashion, otherwise my life would end up looking like this.

First is my personal email account – people close to me (i.e. who have my personal email address) are always top of the pile for a response.

Next is my ‘professional’ email which I give to anyone I’m working with. Then comes the email I get through my websites and their contact forms.

Finally I check in with my virtual assistant, Diane, who handles the admin that come with selling digital products; usually angry emails from people who’ve bought an ebook or film and can’t find the download link (hint: it’s in the Spam folder). She does a much better job at this than me, being both emotionally detached and far more organised.

Then it’s social media time. I’ll edit, add photos to, and schedule any new blog articles that are stacked up in the writing folder. I’ll moderate and respond to blog comments. I’ll check Twitter and Facebook – once – for anything that needs responding to. Finally, I’ll go through various feeds looking for content that’s relevant and useful and schedule them to be shared.

After 1:00pm

And that – usually – is the end of my working day, and the afternoon is clear for that thing called living.

What to do with so much time? Yesterday I found a cave high up in the cliffs by the sea, in which I read three chapters of A Clash Of Kings (no shame) and watched the people below get soaked by freak waves. Today I’m going to sort out the food for a barbecue, listen to the latest Essential Mix, and hopefully get a surf or swim in before the evening. Tomorrow – well, I have no idea. And isn’t that the whole damn point?

I am no totalitarian and these timings often vary widely, but the general rule is that I make the most of undisturbed early mornings, prioritise creativity, and try to wrap everything else up before lunch.

Other software

For completeness, there are a few more apps I use on a regular basis, including a handful of web-based ones:

  • Thunderbird is an old-school email client, like Outlook (remember that?). Great when you’ve got multiple email accounts on the go and you need to keep them separated, and you want to be able to compose emails offline.
  • Evernote is a digital note-taking app that I use to collect and organise research for projects – think of it as a notebook that can store any kind of media, including webpage clippings, which keeps its own online backup.
  • Tweetdeck is an organised, customisable interface for managing Twitter accounts and Facebook pages – particularly good if you need to focus during social media time.
  • FB Purity is a Chrome plugin that selectively disables bits of Facebook. I use it to block adverts, trending news, and also the entire News Feed (i.e. the main bit). Because I use Facebook for Pages and direct messages alone, this allows me to avoid the image-crafting that would otherwise get shoved in my face, and better practice that low information diet.
  • f.lux is a slightly eccentric widget that adjusts the colour and brightness of your computer screen to match the sun, preventing your body’s sleep cycle from being confused by bright white light after sunset.
  • Adobe CC is a collection of apps for digital creatives, including Photoshop & Illustrator (graphics) and Premiere (video editing). Depending on the project, I’ll occasionally subscribe to the suite or just to a couple of its apps, which remain the best in the business.

Finances

In case you’re interested, here’s a few bits on how the money side of things works.

The first thing you should know is that I’m as minimal about money as everything else. I’m not going to reveal the secret to building a six-figure online business in just 12 months. In fact, my and my wife’s combined pre-tax income last year was significantly less than the UK living wage for one person when calculated as an annual salary (~£16,000 at the time of writing).

In other words, I can only show you how to be rich in other ways than cash.

Change your mindset

My first piece of advice is to reduce your dependence on money. The less you spend, the less you need to earn, thus the more free time not earning you will have.

(Note: this is not advice to allow your income to drop below what you need for the bare essentials. There’s little room to manoeuvre when you’re living hand to mouth.)

Habit and attitude change are the first steps. Examine every penny you spend for a month; set targets for reduction; rinse and repeat. Add to that a strategy for when you’re confronted with an unavoidable extravagance (i.e. have a slush fund and don’t sweat), and you’re most of the way there.

The art is in doing so without making your life a misery. Read the beginners’ articles by Mr Money Mustache for more on this.

Work smart

The next is to optimising work to support your desired lifestyle. Going digital is taken for granted. So is self-employment, a.k.a. freelancing, or microbusiness ownership.

It takes a real push to make that initial switch to self-employment. After that, tweak and optimise to minimise working time and maximise freedom time – freedom being the prime motivator for going location-independent and self-employed.

The way I see it, there are two ways to effectively do this:

  1. If you sell your time for cash, begin with the end in mind. You need two figures for this: your desired income for a given period, and the number of billable hours you want to work during that same period. Someone who wants £2,500 a month to live on, and wants to work 20 hours a week (15 billable + 5 unbillable), should be charging £40/hour. If you can’t charge that much, specialise more or find better customers.
  2. If you create things, focus on making something really useful. This often comes down to solving a problem. Look at what people ask you for help with. Figure out an appropriate format for the solution, package it in a way that ensures it can solve the problem repeatedly (here’s why ebooks are so popular), and you have the beginnings of a useful and sustainable enterprise.

It might not be particularly fun in the early stages. My ebook on equipment for cycle touring was easily the most boring ‘creative’ project I’ve ever worked on. But it serves an identifiable and valuable need. Before writing it, I’d already written countless articles and answered endless questions on this one niche topic. Putting all that knowledge into a really comprehensive problem-solver of a product created the foundation of my income, freeing up my time to have fun working on cool things that generate no income whatsoever.

For the best introduction to self-employment I know of, read $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau, which was a real game-changer for me. Also check out his blog, The Art Of Non-Conformity, and his Unconventional Guides series for some great industry-specific freelancing manuals.

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Travel hacking to save money on transport costs

The final step is to look at the big one-off costs and whittle them down. Accommodation is one of the big ones, and I covered it in detail earlier. The other – obviously when a lot of travel is involved – is the cost of transport. This is where travel hacking comes in.

People have written books on the topic, but it boils down to signing up for frequent flyer programmes, finding ways to get free bonus miles (usually through credit card signups), then strategically redeeming them for free or discounted flights. Here’s a good primer. Here’s a big list of resources.

As an example, I’ve just booked a London-Yerevan flight next month for a total of £67: a quick Easyjet hop from Luton to Paris Charles de Gaulle (£35), followed by an Air France flight direct to Yerevan (£32 taxes plus 10,000 Flying Blue points on a promotional redemption). The regular ticket price for this routing would be £337 – in other words, the hack represents an 80% discount. Not bad.

It takes a while to get your head round what’s possible. Head For Points is the best UK-based resource I know of for this. (In the USA, the scene is much more saturated.)

If you’re left having to book flights with the ‘traditional’ method of cash, it often pays to learn and use the ITA Matrix (the professional software used by many travel agents and flight search engines) to find the best fares, before looking them up again in bookable searches on Kayak, Skyscanner and the like.

It also pays to understand how much of an airfare is comprised of airport taxes – particularly for long haul flights. For example, in the UK, which I often pass through because of family, friends and work, airport taxes are exorbitant – currently £71 per economy traveller just to leave the UK on a long-haul flight.

It costs far less than £71 to get to Dublin, Belfast, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin or Oslo on a budget airline, then fly long haul from one of these airports instead. (Short-haul, it can be cheaper to travel around the UK by flying via Europe than to get on the train.)

Sign up for a cashback site (try TopCashBack in the UK) to get a small cashback percentage on your purchases via whichever booking site you end up using – and, for that matter, on purchases from most of the well-known online retailers. Once accumulated, transfer your balance as points to your frequent flyer account. Hey presto; more miles, more cheap or free flights.

You could get even more creative if you’ve got the nouse. I know several adventurers who go on all-expenses-paid ocean cruises as guest speakers, using the gigs for free long-haul travel. You’d never hear of me doing such a thing, of course. (Well, you might have, but there was a non-disclosure clause in the contract.)

Or – hey, what an idea! – you could travel by bicycle!

If, having honed these dark arts, you end up with more money than you need while simultaneously living your dream lifestyle on the road – well, lucky you. Perhaps look at philanthropy as your next move. There’s a national hiking route project that’s currently looking for funding…

Money: the practicalities

People fret needlessly about managing finances on the road. It’s basically the same as doing it at home. When was the last time you actually visited a bank branch in person?

MoneySavingExpert.com’s travel money guide should be your starting point for ensuring you don’t get screwed over by your bank for overseas spending.

Personally, I have a GBP current account with Metro Bank, who don’t charge for EU cash withdrawals (ideal if, like me, you spend plenty of time in Europe) and are among the best value for cash withdrawals elsewhere. The drawings from my business go into this account, and I take decent-sized chunks of local currency from ATMs to cover my expenses.

I use an American Express credit card for big purchases, which often works out cheaper for foreign currency transactions. Which card provider depends on which I’ve most recently signed up with to get the free miles. As well as that, there’s a second credit card hidden somewhere for emergencies (so far I haven’t used it). Holding at least two out of the three major cards (Amex, Visa, Mastercard) is a good move.

Everything is managed via online banking. Security is now extremely stringent; as long as you take the usual precautions, there’s no difference which side of the planet you’re logging in from. I have an active UK SIM card to receive the SMS security codes that many financial institutions use to verify activity.

I don’t get paper statements. For things that need real addresses (not P.O. boxes), I use my parents’ house in the UK. (I rarely get hold of any of the post, and it’s never mattered.)

My business accounting is all managed from a web-based app called Xero. It has far more features than I’d never need or hope to understand, but the important thing is that it makes my business entirely paper free, plugs into my business bank account and Paypal accounts, and visualises what’s going on so my poor mathematically-illiterate brain can understand it.

I set aside one day a month for accounting. When it comes to my annual tax return, I load up a single screen in Xero and have all the numbers I need to plug into the form in order to inform the UK government that I have, once again, failed to make sufficient profit to pay income tax. Oops.

Other bureaucracy

Certain documents are too valuable to lose. There are others it often helps to have access to.

So I keep scans of my birth certificate, passports, driving license & paper counterpart, CBT certificate, and criminal records bureau certificate, as well as a document containing the details of my bank accounts, HMRC login details, and other such things (no passwords, mind you). There’s a copy of each in my email archives, Google Drive, and Evernote.

I keep several passport photos in my wallet for visa applications and the like, and carry my driving license as a form of ID.

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Truth and myth in location independence

The more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve come to value the long-term connections I’ve made. These connections have formed a geographically disparate community of fellow adventure travellers and creative people who have become friends.

Obviously there is a natural limit to the size of such a community and the depth of the connections it contains. Regularly renewing them is therefore a big travel priority. The result is that there are a handful of places I keep coming back to – primarily Yerevan and Bristol, and to a lesser extent London, Sydney and Tehran. I feel strangely at home in these cities, even though I was born and grew up somewhere else entirely.

This is different to the image of full-time travel or location independence you sometimes get (particularly when you’re being sold something); an endless parade of sunshine and sightseeing interspersed with cool co-working spaces and beachfront dwellings; a new country every week.

It’s nice if there’s some of this, but taken on its own, it’s just another version of the alluring instant self-gratification which ultimately leaves us feeling so empty.

Many location-independent digital nomads would cite loneliness and a lack of like-minded people in their lives as one of their biggest concerns. Coffee shops have coffee, but are frequently busy, noisy, and impractical for long working hours. Co-working spaces seem to fill up primarily with app developers and startup founders, which isn’t everyone’s scene by a long stretch. Making meaningful connections comes more easily to some than others. There are doubtless people who travel indefinitely but never make any lasting connections at all.

My point is that the idea of full-time travel – on the move all the time – is as much a carrot that lifestyle-design gurus and travel bloggers dangle in front of the desk-bound masses as a rewarding thing to actually be doing.

Though overused, I appreciate more the phrase ‘location independent’ because it doesn’t assume anything other than the crucial freedom to change where you happen to be if it suits you, and for your life’s work to continue unaffected.

Within that framework, the adventures, road trips, and other forms of travel can co-exist – alongside your own personal variants of home, meaningful work, and community.

Well done if you’re still reading – this article has been a truly epic one! I hope it’s been useful, or at least interesting. I’d like to invite others living location-independent lives to comment if anything here resonates, or simply to connect. I’d also welcome any questions, which I shall do my best to answer.

Beyond the comments, I hope this piece is useful to anyone looking to transition to location independent living. Do check out the various links in the article; I wouldn’t include them if they hadn’t contributed in a significant way to my own journey.

55 replies on “A Complete Breakdown Of How My Location-Independent Lifestyle Works (After 11 Years On The Road)”

Another excellent no-nonsense and insightful piece – thanks Tom.

Your work is a real inspiration, albeit a somewhat distracting one!

I think this outstanding paragraph represents an important nuance that is sadly often missed by many (possibly by the stealthly infiltration of consumerism into both travel and self improvement):

“The best definition of success I’ve found in all my travels is getting to a place of peace, contentment and acceptance of the way things are, rather than frantically striving for something different and better. That’s not to say the world doesn’t need changing, because it surely does, but it’s easier to change what’s outside when you’re not being guilt-tripped to improve what’s inside”.

Keep up the good work! I will try your work schedule this week – not sure about those 5am starts though…

Jon

Love this! I was in corporate life – and just took 6 months to travel and reset myself. Now I am figuring out what is next. I have ideas – but not sure how to make it happen. These resources I definitely took note. Thank you!

There is so much great information in this post that I have bookmarked it so that my wife and I can consult it while planning our year. Thanks for writing such a long, in depth post. I think it will be incredibly helpful for myself and many others!

Awesome post Tom. Just discovered you through Chris Guillebeau. Would love to have you on my new podcast that interviews creatives around the world. Email me if interested and I can have my VA follow up. Once again great post.

An amazing read Tom. Have to confess that I came to your blog for the first time today, following an Fb link, and then couldn’t leave without reading it all till down here! Thanks 🙂

Two months into Self-Unemployment myself and starting to feel a teeeensy bit aggravated by my own lack of Divine Purpose…I feel fully invigorated after reading this amazing instruction manual for an ideal life. Are you open to the idea of taking on an intern?? Joking. NotJoking.

Thank you! I’d love to have the option of downloading this post as an ebook. It is already pinned to my “travel advice” folder. I love that I can implement a lot of this now so I’ll have less to think about when I travel.

Your perspective meshes well with my world-view, and most of your advice easily fits my own business and goals as an artist and writer.

I especially enjoyed the section on managing the business and financial aspect of a location independent life. It’s easy to over-complicate these ideas, since I have very little experience in putting them into practice. Seeing how you’ve done it helps me to notice where I’ve been wasting my time with misplaced worry, and you’ve solved many of the valid concerns.

I have been home-free for 2,5 years now and love the feeling. Not fully location-independent as I travel to whete my clients are (mostly Sydney, Auckland and Paris) I will eventually settle a bit for personal reasons, but will use this time to make my revenue even more location-independent. The freedom of movement and organising my time as suit best my own rhythm was well worth leaving my well-paying corporate job. It was risky, but the rewards are huge.

One tip to add to your travelling kit maybe: clothes compression bags! They easily reduce volume by 40%, they are waterproof as well. I travel with more weight than you do because of business attire, 4 seasons in a bag (and also because I appreciate a bit of comfort, I am not on a holiday where I don’t really care), but living with 23 kg has turned me into a minimalist in many regards. Same thought process than you: is it useful, can it be replaced by an item fulfilljng many purposes, am I hanging on to it for sentimental purposes, and I now go for quality over quantity. And I still don’t use at least 25% of what I drag around. I consider it my ‘mental comfort zone’, reducing any regrets or upset in a trying moment 🙂

I also use Slack to work with others around the world, integrates really well with Trello, etc.

I also appreciate the fact that you point out that it is not the glamour a lot of people think it is (encouraged by blogs and articles), there is a lot of downtime and uncomfortable time. But the rewards, for me a life lived more intensely, is so much worth it!!
Maybe I’ll see you in Sydney, currently somewhere in the sky on my way to Auckland 🙂

I have yet to fully commit to living a life such as yours, but I commend you for being able to choose your manner of living. This post is as instructive as you are inspirational.

For a long time now I have been threatening to up sticks and leave, but caution has always kept me captive. Even now, living as a workaway helper in a house belonging to a couple who were strangers to me last week, I am clinging to certain luxuries that add perceived ‘value’ to our lives. I am writing this post on a laptop, came to this house in a car that is mine, and have more belongings with me than I could feasibly carry in a rucksack.

I guess you could say that I am easing myself into a more itinerant lifestyle, but perhaps it is better to make a leap of faith, rather than slip from one state into another in a less than mindful way? Whilst I was working in Meribel I had issues with this laptop in so much that it refused to connect to the WiFi network for the duration of the winter season. My phone wasn’t much better behaved and whenever I needed to access the internet I would traipse down to the Office de Tourisme in order to conduct my online admin. The sheer effort and expense that this entailed meant that I quickly lost my dependence upon the internet. I was much happier for it.

Great article. There are too many things that I agree with to mention, so let me take out the one thing I don’t =) “Time is the most valuable asset” – I believe for a few years now people (incl. myself) have been focusing too much on time – it’s not time that we value, it is “focus / attention”. I think the distinction is quite impactful: E.g. we can’t expand time, but we may learn to expand our attention span, cognitive presence or what it may be.

Ah ye, now that I started: I love bamboo, have a shirt… the problem with bamboo, to my knowledge, is that the fabric production requires chemicals toxic to the environment. I am not a 100% sure of the supply chains of bamboo fabric, but I thought to have heard that the main source is ONE factory in China, which may or may not have a diligent environmental process in place. Yes, it’s growing fast, yes it is resilient and low-maintenance, it’s just that at this point it is not yet as environmental friendly as often portrayed (also by that website that was referenced). Hemp is more environmental friendly (fibers come directly from the plant, no need to create them in a chemical process), but does not have the silky properties of bamboo, feels more like linen. Well, I hope there will be 100% sustainable bamboo fabric in the future soon – it just feels so damn good =)

cheers, best of luck!

Interesting about bamboo fabric production. I believe BAM products are made in Turkey (previously Syria but no longer for obvious reasons), not China. I’ll drop the main man a line to find out more.

Thanks for that Tom, I really enjoyed reading it. Lots of practical stuff but also lots of thought provoking ideas too. My wife and I plan to retire to a narrow boat one day and although it couldn’t be more different to your lifestyle on the surface an awful lot of what you write about in this article would apply. You have also prompted me to go back to meditation, thank you.

Thanks for some great advice!
The XC10 looks an incredible bit of kit and I look forward to seeing the results. The convergance of pro video and stills at a realistic price draws ever nearer. I hope you get great results from the footage and it pays for itself many times over.
Good luck and take care.

Hi Tom,
Once again you have me mesmerised. It started with reading your cycle touring blogs, and now a year later my partner and I have been on the road in Asia for four months, learning a hell of a lot on the way but with a great base from your information.
This again has given me more food for thought, and different ideas about lifestyle and what it means, and how we can employ parts into the life we are living. It does seem more simple on the road, compared to those 12-hour days I used to work. Jealous that you’re in Australia, I love travelling, but for me there’s also no place like home 😉
Thank you

Fantastic article! I wish I had the discipline to start work at 5am!! Would be so nice to have half a day’s work done by the time my colleagues arrived at 10. What time do you go to bed?

Ps – Enjoyed watching Last Explorers very much. Looked like it must have been a much tougher project than Karun though…

Thanks for sharing. I’m trying to figure out how I could do it with two children and not being comfortable in teaching/home-schooling.

Open for suggestions if anyone has any. ☺

Tom, as ever, erudite and simply brilliant. Your posts keep arriving at the most serendipity moments. Thank you for pointing me towards Mr Money Mustache – I hadn’t come across him before but totally resonates with where I am and what I’m doing.

Thanks Tom, love that you are happy to share what has taken an age to learn, so appreciative of your inspiration and knowledge, so that i inturn don’t have to stumble quite so often. I laughed at the ‘self control app’ no way, yet there it was! Enjoy the peace xx

Tom, thank you for this very useful and informative piece. I will definitely be bookmaking it for future reference as well as checking out many of the links you included. I have been traveling for years, but I’m now in the process of starting and growing my website to hopefully lead a ‘location independent’ lifestyle. I graduated from Harvard a year ago and I just knew the ‘traditional’ paths were not for me; I had to set out on my own and figure out a different way of doing things. It is nice to know there are others out there walking this path as well! Now to figure out how to finance it :)Thanks so much for your tips along the way.

Hey Tom, read the entire article, long but addictive, loved how you broke them into sections. 🙂

I just left my consulting career after almost 5 years with money that can lasts me few months. I am gonna give this a shot and let’s see if i make it. 🙂

First time reading any of your work, Tom – and what a place to start. Been doin’ the location independent thing for a while now and I always find myself getting caught up in the work and the money – working more than I ever used to and worrying about money just like I always did.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s okay to take the afternoon off, every day even, if I’ve achieved all I needed to in the morning. I too often forget, finding mostly “busy work” excuses to work until the evening and then another day is shot.

Cheers.

Great article, a welcome change from a lot of hyperbole you see around.
Just one thing (no shampoo etc), is this a life hack for extra seating space?

Great BS-free article, Tom. I explore wilderness rivers around the globe (www.remoteriverman.com) and pay for these – and other – journeys through location-independent freelance copywriting (www.thejetsettingcopywriter.com). So far, so good, but I agree that the drawbacks of the digital nomad lifestyle are often glossed over by the lifestyle ‘gurus’. For example, when I was in Cordoba, Argentina for 5 weeks this year, I had so much work on that I hardly saw any of the surrounding area. Made more money from writing than I paid for the entire trip, though…

Very interesting and I always admired your writing style, the way you use written language.
One thing makes me very confused: you say practically not w word about your marriage, about your wife, how meeting her and life together changed you and your life…!?
Let me be blunt,Tom: whatever reason for this grave silence about so important part of life in your writing…something is seriously wrong and I don’t mean wrong with your relation. What I mean is that you were personal and honest in your writing, for years and that honesty is one of reasons why I respect and enjoy reading your work. Now I have no idea what to think anymore…

Hi Adam,

Thanks for your comment. As you will know, I wrote an entire book about how I met my wife and how it changed me and my life, because I thought there were important messages there. Since then I’ve chosen not to bring it into my writing about other topics unless it is specifically relevant, which it usually isn’t. Perhaps another article about how marriage affects location independent living would be interesting? What do you think?

Cheers,
Tom

Somehow I did not know about Janapar book, I thought it was a movie only. To be honest, I failed to follow your blogs, websites, articles etc. I think you are no longer interested in technical aspects of cyclotouring or (perhaps) touring and outdoor in general…technical aspects are not, I think, what drives you, what motivates you to do what you do Tom. (By technical aspects I mean “touring bike”, “equipment”, even “how to stay warm in low temperatures” etc. It is your nature, your cultural, emotional, psychological, philosophical background that drives you to choose and follow your lifestyle. And I am still struggling to understand how you managed to separate marriage life from these activities of yours… even if you say instantly “I have not separated my marriage from my lifestyle-I have only decided not to write about marriage in my writing…”- well, I am struggling here.
Everything you do Tom, since you got your degree, was driven by your emotional life, by what you have in your hart and I guess you are tearing yourself into pieces by not writing about this part/aspect of your emotional world…

“Perhaps another article about how marriage affects location independent living would be interesting? What do you think?”-Definitely ! Take a deep breath Tom, talk to your wife and…write ! 😉

Writers often write as a way of working through conflicting ideas and figuring out what matters to them. So while I appreciate your concern for my emotional wellbeing, I’d encourage you to consider the possibility that I’ve simply grown up a bit and no longer feel the need to write about my private life (or, indeed, about myself in general). In other words, nothing is wrong; I’ve just found other things to do 🙂

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