I was in South Carolina. It was 34 degrees outside, which is the hottest I’ve ever been (I’m from Scotland, I’m not used to heat). The sun was shining and there was a glittering pool outside my window, and a giant golden sandy beach stretching for miles just across the road.
I was in Brussels. It was 20 degrees outside and on the way to the hotel I’d walked past several cafes that I wanted to try out. I was there for under 48 hours and I wanted to explore. I’d heard good things about the chocolate shops and the architecture.
I was in Dublin. It was neither 34 nor 20 degrees outside, but it was sunny and I knew there was a good whiskey place up the road. I also knew from prior experience that the Old Library at Trinity College is one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen, and I wanted to go back.
But I had to work. So I did. How?
The life of a digital nomad is a fun one. Jetting around the world, flying from country to country, lets you experience a lot of the best bits of life. You get to learn about different cultures, try out lots of
wines cuisines, and wander around in nature or architectural beauty, whichever suits your tastes.
But it’s challenging too, and not just because of the jetlag and the homesickness and the constant upheaval.
It’s challenging because sometimes you don’t have long in a place, and you really really want to explore, but you do have a job after all, and it requires your attention.
I’ve only been a frequent traveller for a couple of years, but I’ve managed to develop a few tricks that help me to work better when I’m abroad.
1. Make your room as close to home as possible
When I’m in London, I work from my home office. It’s in my living room. It’s tidy and set up so that I have everything I need close to hand.
I only ever travel with a carry-on, so I don’t pack a huge amount of stuff. But things that always come with me include my computer, whichever notebook I’m currently making my work notes in, a plastic file with a to-do list and any supporting paperwork, any forensic equipment I might need, some pens, and my bank’s card reader thing so I can pay freelancers if I have to.
When I arrive in a hotel, once I’ve jumped on the bed to test its floofiness and had a shower to wash off the air miles, I unpack.
I do this even if I’m only going to be there for a single night, because it helps me to feel like I’m setting up a work-home away from home.
Generally my hotel rooms have desks. I’ve only stayed in one that didn’t, and even that one had a bedside cabinet which sufficed once I’d relegated the lamp and telephone to the floor.
I set up my hotel room desks to be as close to my home desk as possible. The computer in the middle, the paperwork to the right, a glass of water to the left, the notebook to one side along with the card machine and pens in case I need them.
It sounds – and probably is – a little obsessive, but it serves the purpose of making my brain go “Oh. A desk. We’re at work. OK.”
2. Close the curtains
There is nothing less conducive to work than sitting by a window looking at all the beautiful things outside that you’re not enjoying.
So, don’t look at them.
If I have a period of intense work to get through, I close the curtains in my hotel room and turn the lights on.
It means I can’t really switch off and daydream about the beautiful scenery, because let’s be real here, hotel rooms all look the same.
If the room does have any exciting distractions – like the jacuzzi bath in my Dublin hotel, or the freezer full of ice in my boiling American destination – then I make sure I position myself so that I can’t see them. Out of sight, out of mind.
Incidentally, this is also something I do at home. My desk chair faces my desk (obviously), but it also has its back to the sofa so that I can’t see the relaxation area of the living room while I’m working. I find that my brain is quite suggestible, and if I’m trying to concentrate it’ll sometimes be noticing things out the corner of my eyes, going “Oh but scar, we could just move to the sofa and work from there, we wouldn’t be any less productive…” and then all of a sudden I’m binge-watching OITNB and drinking wine, and shit where’s the work gone?
3. Trick yourself
Brains are quite stupid, really.
It’s possible to convince yourself of almost anything if you try hard enough.
Sometimes my brain and I argue when we first arrive in a place.
Brain: “I want to go and see the chocolate shops! I want to visit the Old Library!”
Me: “Well, you can’t do that until you’ve helped me finish work.”
Brain: “But by the time we’ve finished work the shops will be shut / library won’t be open / sun will have gone down!”
At this point you have two choices if you’re not going to give in to your bastard brain’s demands.
1. Tell it that the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll finish, so you’d better get down to work STAT.
2. Convince it that you can do something even better later on. In Edinburgh, for example, I didn’t explore the city during the day, but I did convince my brain that the whisky bars would be the best thing to do while I was there. And they were, and I also discovered a great restaurant and a late-night storytelling session in a bookshop, which I never would have found if I’d gone out in the afternoon and tired myself out.
4. Try working from somewhere outside
This never works for me, but a lot of people seem to enjoy working from cafes and things. I’m not a fan – I can do it if I absolutely have to, but I find the presence of other humans irritating and I don’t work well while I’m there.
However, if you’re one of those people who can concentrate in that sort of environment, and you’re desperate to get outside, then by all means do it.
Find a coffee place that has wifi and charging points for your electonic devices, order a large whatever-the-local-thing-is, and settle down for a few hours of working in a new destination.
5. If all else fails, give in
I know, I know. This is a post about not giving in.
But sometimes you gotta be realistic.
I was in Myrtle Beach for a couple of weeks. It was beautiful every day. There was no way I was going to miss out on all the sunshine.
So, I forced myself to work for the first day or so, and then I switched my schedule around and worked in the evenings/nights for the next few days so I could go to the beach, sit on the pier, and take a boat trip down the Waccamaw river.
If I’d done that to begin with, though, I don’t think I’d have worked effectively. I had to get myself used to thinking of my motel room as a workspace by making it as close to home as possible and keeping my schedule as aligned as possible, and then once I’d got that down I went to explore.
How do you make yourself work while you’re away? Do you have any tips for other travelling freelancers?