I first published this piece in 2016 as an evergreen article which I’ll update as, well, life goes on. The latest updates were made in March 2022.
My location-independent journey as a digital nomad began before it had a name.
It was 2007, I was 23, and I’d set off on a bicycle to explore the world. I sold everything I couldn’t carry, and with £3,500 in the bank and 750 Euros in my pocket I set forth towards an uncertain future. For context, the iPhone was yet to be invented, free public WiFi was unheard of, and Instagram didn’t exist.
Homeless and unemployed, I cycled across 32 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. I counted myself as a full-time bicycle traveller for the best part of four years. 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 life without it.
I didn’t have 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, film, and, eventually, the art of designing travel experiences for others. I started a blog to inspire and empower more able-bodied people to travel by bicycle, especially as impressionable young adults. I learned the rudiments of digital entrepreneurship, mostly from this book, and set about (tastefully) making a living from it all.
It’s taken a long time to build these foundations, but the result is that today I live a frugal but meaningful life of freedom. This is fuelled by the passive income generated by a small micro-patronage platform, a catalogue of books and films, and a vast library of free blog content which I occasionally monetise. I spend the gift of time contributing voluntarily to social movements revolving around the art of travel, most recently the Transcaucasian Trail.
This is how adventure, creativity, and location independence became the basic principles of my livelihood.
“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 one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever published.
I’ll describe how, over the years since I hit the road in 2007, 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.
My life over the last 15 years has followed a pretty regular pattern. Here’s what it looks like:
- Spend time ruminating on new projects.
- Commit to the one that most resonates.
- Put heart, soul and skill into making it happen.
- Document the process non-intrusively.
- Spend time ruminating on how to share the results.
- Commit to the one that most resonates.
- Put heart, soul and skill into making it happen.
- Set free what has been created.
- Return to step 1.
This process operates at many levels, from a single 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 long-distance international hiking trail that’ll take decades 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, although it now comes in very useful.
It could be reduced even further:
- Gather raw material
- Make something with it
This is the basic recipe for creativity; a much misunderstood thing. Creativity is not a constant stream of output. There has to be raw material to reshape into something new. My raw material is what I gather while travelling – tangible stuff like diaries, photographs, video and audio recordings, and GPS data, as well as intangibles such as memories, impressions, and ideas. Creativity is about making sense of your raw material, wrestling it into a form that you – and, ideally, others – can resonate with. Thus I have a wrestling match every day.
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.
We often define where we live as being where we sleep. And there is often an assumption about the location-independent lifestyle must involve this location changing frequently.
Indeed, to say I’ve slept in thousands of different places as a result of my wanderings 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. I’m currently experimenting with sleeping in the back of a go-anwhere 4×4. It doesn’t take long to realise that the world is your bedroom, as it has been since the dawn of time.
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, Nomadhouse, Tribewanted 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.)
Though yawnsome, for the sake of completeness, here’s my current ‘life kit-list’:
- 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 trousers – great all-rounders
- Midlayer – with full-length front zip and high collar
- Waterproof jacket – nothing special but very useful
- 3 pairs boxer shorts – bamboo
- 3 pairs socks – bamboo (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
- Multisport sunglasses
- Running shorts & shirt
- Pair Vibram FiveFingers Treksport
- Swimming trunks
- Swimming hat
- Swimming goggles
Minimal outdoor gear
- Alpkit Pipedream 250 down sleeping bag
- Exped SynMat Hyperlite M mat (with patch kit)
- Exped AirPillow UL
- MSR Hubba 1-berth tent (green fly) or Hennessy Deep Jungle Hammock
- Petzl MYO headtorch
- Selection of ultralight SealLine drybags
- Clear plastic liquids bag
- Waterproof washbox – toothbrush, nail clippers, foot powder, painkillers and a varying selection of other medical supplies
- Plastic document wallet
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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Maintaining my health through a handful of common-sense practices such as eating a balanced diet, taking regular exercise, and spending time in nature,
- 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).
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.)
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.
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.
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’.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.