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The Secret to Staying Organized at Work (Digital Nomad Edition)

Sarah Ramsey Updated on February 29, 2020

digital nomad

One of the best things about being a digital nomad is independence: you set your own schedule and you define your own workspace.

For example, I’m writing this article in a small cafe in West Virginia, where I’m hanging out for a couple of days with a friend from grad school. Last week I worked for two days from the beach, and next month I’ll spend at least a week in my home state helping out with the History Day Arkansas contest, working from random locations in chunks of time between other activities.

When I started freelancing, I thought I’d establish a routine, but it seems my routine is whatever works best for whichever location I’m currently in.

It’s very different than a normal office schedule. And it’s made even weirder by the fact that most of my friends are still on said office schedule.

How do you stay organized and balanced when it seems like the rest of the world is moving in a 9–5 routine?

Let’s talk strategies, tips, and helpful apps for keeping yourself on track and productive in your life as a freelancer, a work-from-home warrior, or a digital nomad.

Get Out the Map

My last three “real” jobs required a lot of travel. I picked up some strategies for working on the move that are applicable both to digital nomads and to anyone else who is geographically flexible.

Carry your home office with you. I have a backpack that stays stocked with things I need for work on the road: pens, notebook, some kind of granola bar, tea bags or instant coffee, business cards, power cords, other connector cords, more pens — you get the idea. Pop my laptop in and I’m ready to head out the door.

Other things you might include are headphones and a small power strip so you can share the one outlet at the coffee shop instead of waiting for it to free up.

If you’re looking for more suggestions on things you might want to carry with you, Lifehacker has this great series of posts on the bags various people keep with them for everyday work and fun use.

Pick up a map. Yes, I know. Your GPS knows all. Except when it deposits your car in the middle of a Sunday-only pedestrian plaza (true story) or tells you to walk down a sketchy-looking alley.

Having a map with you means you’re not dependent on a battery-depleted phone or poor language skills (natives can point out things on the map, instead of you trying to remember if “nach links” is German for “to the left” or “on the golf course”).

Confirm at least one reliable workspace before you leave. When you’re traveling for fun, it’s easier to just pick up and go and say you’ll figure it out when you get there. But when you need to work on a trip, it is stressful to get where you’re going and only then try to figure out how to meet a critical deadline.

Lock down one location where you can get wifi if you need it and where you know you’ll be comfortable working, and make sure you know exactly where it is and when it’s open.

Personally, I’m fond of TripAdvisor, both their reviews and their forums, for finding good locations, but local blogs and newspapers are a great source of information, too. And don’t discount putting a general call out on Twitter or Facebook for suggestions. You can also check with your hotel or with your AirBnB hosts for recommendations.

Roam (If You Want To)

Goldilocks had it easier trying to find a bowl of porridge than freelancers do finding the just-right remote workspace.

If you like it not-too-quiet, maybe a coffee shop with a great soundtrack is good for you. Unless the soundtrack is too good and you spend your time there trying to identify each song to use as a subheader for your article instead of actually writing. (No idea where that example came from…)

If you love being around people, working by yourself from home (or your temporary home) probably isn’t your ideal workspace.

No matter where you like to work, there are a few common necessities in any workspace: wifi, a comfortable but not too comfortable place to sit, and wifi.

Did I mention wifi? Obviously, if you’re not connected, you’re probably not getting much work done.

Bringing your own is one sure way to make sure you have the connectivity you need. Some wireless companies will be delighted to set you up with a hotspot (for a small monthly fee, of course) but another way — if you have the right data plan and the right phone — is to use your phone as a hotspot.

Given that my work doesn’t require using huge chunks of data, this solution has worked for me, though I primarily use it as a backup solution, like when I’m on the road and need to do a quick task but there’s not a convenient coffee shop around.

Coffee shops are the time-honored locale for digital nomads, but again, finding the right one can be tricky. WorkFrom gives you a map of places in your area, along with details like hours, wifi speeds, and the outlet situation. You can also filter your search by public spaces (like coffee shops) and private places like co-working spaces.

Speaking of co-working spaces, if you’re looking for something a little more permanent, these flexible, fee-based offices can be useful. They usually have common space where you drop in at your preferred time and grab whatever is open. Many of them have private offices and conference rooms you can rent. Find one in your area by using co-working, hacker/maker space, or innovation incubator as your search term, or by using a tool like WorkFrom.

Personally, my favorite “get out of the house” space to work in is the library. Your local public library is quiet, safe, generally accessible, often open through early evening hours, usually equipped with public wifi, and has kick-ass wizards (more commonly called librarians) on staff to help you with all your research and reference questions. A local college or university library may be another option.

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What a Day For a Daydream

It’s so easy to get distracted.

To be fair, distraction isn’t just for digital nomads. Our cubicle compatriots have to deal with that co-worker who always wants to talk (while you’re in the middle of a critical project), music from the person three cubes over who hasn’t heard of headphones, and, of course, the pop-up staff meeting right outside your cube wall.

But on the road, or without the set boundaries of a work day, it really takes discipline and a few tricks to handle distraction.

Sometimes, you need to get into the right frame of mind to bang out 1500 words before lunch. My inspiration comes from actress Tatiana Maslany, who in any given episode of Orphan Black plays around six different characters (in total, I think she’s been 11 distinct characters). She makes playlists for each of the clones she plays, listening to them as she’s getting into each different character.

The idea is to find a way to connect yourself to the work you need to do. When you’re working in an office, you get that mindset by going to work at the same time, sitting down at the same desk, having a morning staff meeting. When you’re on a flexible schedule with no set “desk,” you need to find another way to make that connection.

It doesn’t have to be music. You could go for a short walk, or have a set task that you do every day first thing. Create a routine activity that helps click on the part of your brain that says, “Let’s get down to business.”

It should go without saying that staying off Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, panda cam, YouTube, and the literally thousands of other time-dilating black holes online is best for your work. Maybe you are able to stay off the internet completely while working, but chances are that as a digital nomad you’re going to need to be connected to do your thing.

That makes it harder, but not impossible. There are apps like Freedom and Cold Turkey that block whatever online distractions you set, and you can customize the times you want those sites blocked.

If your challenge is more in-person distractions rather than the online versions, unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that yet. It’s up to you to know what level of distraction you can manage, and do your best to avoid working situations that cross that boundary.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

While fewer 9–5 jobs are actually 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. anymore (raise your hand if you’ve sent or answered work email past 10 p.m., or while brushing your teeth in the morning), chances are being a digital nomad or freelancer means you’re working odd hours.

Shared calendars are your friend. Whether it’s a Google calendar you share with a team, or a tool like Schedule Once or Calendly, it’s easier to book meetings, interviews, and keep track of your own time when you only have one calendar and everything is on it.

One of my favorite tools for finding meeting times for a geographically-scattered team is the World Clock Meeting Planner. (I’ll be honest and note that’s it’s also one of my favorite distractions.) Just plug in the date of the meeting and the various locations, and World Clock will highlight the times that work for everyone in green.

A quick note on time. There are a lot of people who will tell you that you must make a schedule and stick to it. I’m not one of them. If you need to stick to a schedule, if that works best for you, fantastic. Do it.

But if you’d rather roll with the day and just get stuff done, do that. Be productive in the best way you know to be productive.

Sometimes you’re going to have to suck it up and get some work done, whether or not the creativity and/or productivity gods are with you. That’s no different than being in an office.

If you’re feeling particularly unmoored because of odd hours, especially if you’re part of a team, you might create a “staff meeting.” Have everyone check in on your shared communications channel at the same time for a short conversation.

If you’re working mostly by yourself, you might find a co-working space where you can interact with others who are also on a flexible schedule.

Under Pressure

One of the best things about being a freelancer or digital nomad is that you will probably get to work with a lot of different people. Though sometimes, that translates to working for a lot of people.

You’re your own boss, technically, but you may have multiple projects for different clients. Each of your projects has its own requirements, milestones, and timeline. And then you may have personal projects to do, in addition to your client commitments.

If you’re just starting out, you might think you can keep track of everything in your head. If you’re Radar O’Reilly (let’s hear it for M*A*S*H marathons), you probably can, but most of us need an array of organizational tools to stay on top of things.

There are several great options out there: tools like Trello and Basecamp help you manage projects, teams, and to-do lists. Slack helps you keep up with teams, communicate, and share information.

To track your time, check out tools like TopTracker, Toggl, and RescueTime. The one for you will depend on how many projects you need to track, what kind of reports you use, and if you’re working on your own or with a team.

Tracking your time is important for more than client billing. If you’re also working on personal projects, or personal business projects, it’s helpful to lay everything out and see how much time you’re spending on each activity.

One useful trick for getting specific tasks done on deadline is to block time out on your calendar for doing them. Google will remind you that it’s time to start on your next article or finish researching a pitch. If it’s scheduled, it’s like a meeting with yourself. You’ll be more likely to spend that hour working on that particular project if you’ve committed yourself to it in writing.

Here’s the thing. Online tools and apps are wonderful. If you’re a digital nomad, you’re probably super connected anyway and these are just a couple more arrows in your quiver. But there is nothing wrong with going low tech.

If keeping a written to-do list works for you (I save snail mail envelopes to make to-do lists on), that’s great. If a paper calendar functions as your brain, go for it. If lists on whiteboards are your thing, you be you.

For example, I’m in the process of figuring out how to measure my personal productivity on work projects. I had been going back at the end of every week and doing the math for the time spent on each project, until I realized it would be so much easier to just write down the time as I completed each one. It’s probably not the final system I’ll use (I’m still learning, too) but it’s easier than what I was doing.

Sometimes baby steps are okay. And if something doesn’t work, try something else. It’s going to take some time to figure out your perfect system.

We Used to Be Friends

Becoming a digital nomad is a little like going to college in a town far away from where all your friends went. It’s different experiences on a different timeline in a different setting.

If you’re in the same town, you’re probably on a different schedule from most of the people you regularly interact with. Sure, getting away for lunch might be a lot easier. But there’s a good chance that when happy hour rolls around, you may just be getting an assignment from your colleague three time zones behind you.

If you’re in a different town, you may not know a lot of people yet, either as work colleagues or friends.

And while it’s pretty easy these days to keep in touch virtually with people, you may have to work a little harder to maintain rich relationships with the people that give you balance in your life.

Of course, there’s always calling, texting, and emailing. Facebook, or other social media sites, are especially good at keeping all your friends and family up to date at once.

Here are a few other ideas: Set up a group Skype or Facetime with all your friends. Do it over dinner, if the times work, so you can all eat “together.”

Set yourself a reminder to send an email or text to a friend once a day (or twice a week, or whatever works for you).

Build a Facebook group or even create your own Slack channel for everyone to keep a running conversation going. For example, I have a bunch of friends that gets together every month to cook (and we have an epic holiday cookie swap). With several of us now living outside the area, I set up a Facebook group so that we could a) coordinate future gatherings when we’re in the same place, and b) talk food and swap cooking stories and recipes.

It’s a different way to stay in touch with my friends, but no less important or meaningful. You can try to work all the time, but you need those core relationships to stay balanced.

You might also have the opportunity to have friends travel with you on part of your digital nomad journey. Combining vacation and work is great, but you’ll need to have some boundaries for the time you devote to each activity.

Set expectations for everyone. Don’t overpromise on activities when you know you need to reserve a chunk of time for work. Don’t try to wait until everyone has gone to bed (or get up before everyone else) to get all your work done. That sets you up for working two full-time gigs — vacation and work — and that’s not restful or productive.

Being a digital nomad is partly about having the freedom to see the world, meet new people, and have the sorts of experiences you might not be able to have as a desk jockey. So don’t forget to take advantage of that.

Get involved in your local community for however long you’re there. Find your coffee shop or bakery or pizza joint. Be a local. Talk to people. (Unless you’re a strong introvert, in which case find an awesome local perch from which to watch people while you make up stories about them in your head.)

My Favorite Mistake

A running theme in this article has been: you be you.

Do things that make sense and work for you. Not everything is going to work perfectly, and you’re probably going to do a few things you’ll facepalm over (hello, buying a gym membership the week before going out of town for two back-to-back trips).

But here are a few common mistakes digital nomads make, so you can avoid making them.

You can’t turn around on the internet without finding someone who has the perfect way to plan your schedule or advice on what kinds of projects you should be doing.

And if one of those ways works for you, fantastic. But don’t prioritize your schedule and activities based on what someone tells you to do. Plan to do what is important to you, on a schedule that works for you.

For example, I’ve read before that you should always spend your first hour strategizing or focusing on big projects. I get why that could be good.

But that’s not how my brain works. I’m really good at the tactical, clear-it-out-and-get-it-done stuff like responding to emails. I email like a boss the first hour at work, and then I have all day to get big strategic things done while, among other things, I’m waiting on responses.

Figure out what works for you and do that.

Another potentially expensive mistake is getting a membership at a co-working space and then not using it. Or spending a lot of time there, but instead of working, you’re just talking to people or checking out the awesome locally-roasted coffee.

Co-working spaces can be a great place to build a local network, but they’re also there for, you know, working. (Kind of like that gym membership.)

Being able to go anywhere and work is a beautiful thing… until your MacBook goes wonky and you can’t find a replacement or place to get it repaired or your hotspot that provides internet even in the remotest corners of the world suddenly doesn’t.

Not having the right, working equipment for your work at the time you need it means downtime, costly replacements, and probably a crap ton of frustration.

Sure you can probably bootstrap everything you need to work, but you might also be creating opportunity for mayhem down the road.

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What a Way to Make a Living

Working from home, being a digital nomad, or freelancing are great ways to be part of the work world. The freedom, flexibility, and possibilities make it a desirable way to work.

A few things to remember as you head off into the wild world:

  • Turn your office into a go bag
  • Find the right tools to make your work easier and more productive, and don’t be afraid to change them if they’re not working
  • Figure out the right place and the right environment for you to get work done
  • Keep up with your friends and family — they keep you balanced and grounded, which keeps you creative and productive

Being unmoored from a set office or schedule doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be organized and connected.

Finding your best way to stay on track and productive is key to being a success outside of the 9–5.

Photo credit: twinsterphoto

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  • Josh says:

    Doing what we want to do instead of what we have to do is more worthwhile. Life is too short and if we don’t enjoy it, then it’s all vanity. There are several way to find a living and if we do what we really want to do and make it a living, then our lives will surely be happy.

    Being a digital nomad is some kind of living with no boundaries. Hence you can do want you want wherever you want without someone telling you to do what they want.

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