My story & learnings from being a digital nomad for three years
It’s been three years to the day today that I left my job and went self-employed and location-independent. And while three years of being a digital nomad isn’t even special in my circle of friends, I’d like to share some of my learnings and thoughts around being a digital nomad.
My not-so-brief back story
In spring of 2012, I had just completed my Computer Science degree abroad and moved back to Germany with my then-boyfriend. I started my first (and only) real adult job as a software developer for a large but young e-commerce company in Berlin. The first few months were great — we were settling back into life in Berlin, enjoyed the summer, I was learning heaps at my new job and making a good salary that allowed me to pursue my music making/production hobby and even travel a bit on the weekends and vacation days.
But about a year into this, I realized that I wasn’t really growing anymore, as a person or intellectually. And I accepted it as part of being a grown up. Like you can’t possibly keep growing and learning for all of your life, at least not at the rate of early adulthood and university (of course now I call that bs, and that learning and growing are a huge part of my “why”).
Without fully realizing it, I got more and more dissatisfied with my life. Somewhere along the way I stumbled upon zenhabits.net, The 4-Hour Workweek, and the blogs of Conni Biesalski and Feli Hargarten (founder of DNX). I loved the idea of location-independent work right away, but didn’t believe it was possible, let alone in Europe.
I had planned to save some money and quit my job with some financial runway somewhen in 2014. No business idea, no real push to do it. I don’t think I would’ve ever done it, had my boyfriend not broken up with me (after a 5+-year relationship). The breakup, which left me heartbroken and devastated, led to me taking 5 months off my job and go travel — Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand. I had an incredible time, overcame lots of fears (including driving!), decided to embrace life instead of being afraid — but still wasn’t able to start a business or have a more concrete idea of where to start. I had however taken a mini remote job with a WordPress support company — the first step was taken.
So I went back to my job, with the intention of rebuilding my savings and quitting soon. Finally in March 2015, on the very last day to hand in my notice for that quarter, I asked for a 1-on-1 with my team lead. If they could do anything to make me stay? Well, let me work location-independently, as I had asked several times. But no, that wasn’t an option.
So I quit. Forward to the 1st of July, the first day after my employment. Still, no business idea. Something to do with WordPress websites. Emergency freelancing in the back of my mind. About 12000€ in savings. Apartment lease cancelled (back then I had an amazing 2-room apartment in central Berlin for 500€ bills included — I should not have cancelled that!).
So in order not to go crazy at home with the overwhelm of unknowingness, I hopped on a plane to Scotland and cycled around the highlands and islands for two weeks. I had never done any long-distance cycling before, and what they call “hilly” turned out to be quite challenging for Northern German me. But it was an amazing experience that helped me leave some fears and limitations behind, and left me stoked for my new life. I also had my first website client — who never paid her invoice.
Over the next few months, I took some WordPress freelance clients and started my own productized WordPress support service. I struggled immensely growing and marketing it, but the work we did for our clients was well received and people usually stuck around. In early 2016, I hired my first team member Niko. I interviewed and hired him from Hubud in Bali, he was based in Hamburg, Germany. How cool that felt at the time!
He ended up having a kid about a year later, and working remotely for my little business helped him and his new family spend their maternity leave abroad.
I also took a major freelance project for a client I just couldn’t say no to at the time. It ended up making me a lot of money and seriously level up as a software developer (outside of WordPress) — but it was also a new kind of golden cage. I could not be offline for longer than a few days — emergencies had to be fixed. One time I almost couldn’t board my flight to internet-less Cuba because of an emergency situation that — of course — happened while I was waiting at the boarding gate in Mexico. It’s not like I hadn’t tried to hire help — but I never really got anywhere with it and I struggle with it to this day.
Fast forward to October 2017. I had just attended my first DCBKK, and I was sure now that I had to either fundamentally change my WordPress business to be happy with it, or sell it. I ended up selling it to my first team member Niko at the end of the year, and we signed the contract just between New Year’s in Australia (where I was at the time) and New Year’s in Germany. It was done! No, it wasn’t a big exit at all, but it was a graceful way of letting go of that business and knowing our long-term clients in good hands. I haven’t looked back for one second.
So now, I’m actually at a similar point as I was three years ago — about to start a new business. And the resistance around starting the second business is not much better than the first. But I have had a bunch of learnings, and I’m much more comfortable with the global lifestyle. And I have an incredible community and close and just-as-crazy friends who support me.
I can’t believe it’s only been three years! It seems like an eternity, taking into account all the learnings and memories, places, and people met along the way. But it also feels like I haven’t really accomplished anything meaningful yet.
So, by topic, let me share some of my learnings.
What I’ve learned
The homebase question
The question of whether to have a homebase (i.e. apartment lease) somewhere or not has been especially tough for me.
After about a year on the road, I found myself a new apartment in Berlin, with the intention of having it as a base to return to. The one place in the world where I can store my stuff, have a piano, and have everything set up in a way that’s ideal to me. I ended up spending 4 or so months there, which I thought wasn’t worth the cost and hassle of subletting it. So I gave that up again after only a year.
But a few months later of course, the feeling of unsettledness, restlessness, came back. And I thought getting a place would heal that. Well, no.
For me, it’s a restless feeling either way, and now it’s just a question of which one I choose for any particular time in my life (which shit sandwich as Mark Manson puts it).
And I’ve also learned that choosing a city as a homebase based only on rational criteria doesn’t really work for me. I could be convinced to live in many places, but I want a good reason to choose a particular one.
During those three years, I’ve lived and worked in: Málaga, Scotland, Lisbon, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, Marrakech, Berlin, Koh Lanta, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Western Australia, London, Brighton, Copenhagen, Boston, New York, Seattle, Portland, Northern California, Playa del Carmen, Cuba, Jericoacoara, Mallorca, Tel Aviv, Paris, Austin/Texas, British Columbia, Tallinn, Koh Phangan, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Tbilisi, Northern Germany.
Now I’m based near Lisbon, Portugal (but for how long?).
At first, I chose locations mostly out of interest — the traveler’s kind of interest. Marrakech for example is a fantastic travel destination — but horrible to get actual work done.
Recently, I’ve tried to go more with the flow. Where are cool events and conferences? Where is a strong entrepreneur community at the moment?
I also differentiate more consciously between places to visit for a few days and places to “live” for a month or more. Places to visit are mostly out of curiosity or for events. For places to “live” I have some criteria:
- Good working conditions: good wifi, general infrastructure
- Climate, weather, season, air quality
- “Safe” and relatively “easy” in terms of being part of everyday life
- (relatively) hassle-free visa situation
- Affordable, good quality mid-term accommodation available
- Scene of other nomads, online entrepreneurs, DCers around
Getting around a new country/place
I used to be well prepared but now don’t really plan my arrival much anymore. I don’t make a list of things to see or experience, don’t buy a guidebook. I rather let myself experience a new place without too many expectations. This also gives me the headspace to remain present in the current place rather than already obsessing over the next one.
I still love the first few hours in a country I’ve never been to — when everything looks so new and subtly different and the eyes or not yet used to it. I try to cherish that, take time and space, and let myself be inspired. I still love the new supermarket experience or figuring out how transportation works.
Minimal preparation for a new place:
- Check visa, arrival, and customs rules (I use www.auswaertiges-amt.de — there’s equivalents for other nationalities of course)
- Language essentials (rarely do that anymore to be honest)
- Best way to get to my accommodation from the airport (usually treat myself to an Uber to have a smooth arrival)
- Currency conversion to know how much to withdraw
- Best prepaid mobile/internet providers
- Driving rules (only if I plan to drive from the airport)
Community & Connection
The first two years were really tough for me. Not so much financially, but socially. Like clockwork four weeks after arriving at a new place, I would get this restless, nagging feeling. And usually I’d just move on. It took me two years to figure out and admit to myself that that feeling was loneliness. That I was lonely. Independent, proudly-introvert me? No way!
What really changed my life and outlook on this was going to the events of the Dynamite Circle, an online community for location-independent and online entrepreneurs. Especially coming to Lisbon in September 2017, attending DCx and a coliving project, opened my mind and heart again. For the first time in a long time, I felt seen and understood, and even considered the possibility of romance again. The rest of 2017 turned into a phase of making a few friendships and connections that now mean the world to me.
And at the same time, these friendships are not location-bound either. We don’t necessarily see each other every week or even talk very often. But I know they’re there and they have my back, and understand and see me for who I am. I can share my struggles and insecurities with them, and they point out thought patterns that aren’t helpful anymore (since they’re not stuck in the same situation). And even though we each have our own paths and flows to follow, we virtually accompany each other on our journeys.
Part of me still thinks it’s wrong to choose location solely based on the people, and I don’t always do that of course. But I’ve been allowing myself to do it once in a while and it’s turned out great more than once.
Becoming a global citizen
Here in Portugal I often get asked “what’s your country?”. I find that a really weird question and don’t really know what to say. Yes, I am from Germany, but what is my country? I have at least four countries (and none left in the World Cup ;) )!
At first, my main motivation to optimize my bank accounts and other admin fun was to cut fees, administrate everything online, and have backups in case of losses. In the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about the concept of sovereignty/flag theory, and try to slowly but steadily implement what I’ve learned in my life, both for the small and the big things:
- Open bank accounts in other countries — surprisingly many banks allow you to open an account on a tourist visa
- Keep an eye out for easy-to-get long-term visas/residency/citizenship — I’ve applied for Australian permanent residence, asked in my family if we have international roots, and even thought about marrying a Brazilian just to exchange passports. As long as our current system still looks safe and stable, these ideas sound silly. But it could all change tomorrow (see Brexit), and there is no “too early” for sovereignty.
- Diversify clients and business across countries
- Diversify savings and cash across countries, currencies, banks, and political systems
- Diversify investments
- Buy expensive equipment where it’s cheapest (the answer is usually Malaysia or Australia)
- Have mailing addresses in different countries (e.g. with services such as dropscan.de or clevvermail.com)
- Get global, full health insurance (I use Foyer Global Health)
- Cyber security and backup strategies
This list could go on and on of course — and I’m certainly not the sovereignty expert here. But just having this mindset, unbound by the borders of the country you happen to be born in, has already made a difference to me.
Taxes & Incorporation
Closely related to the above points is the topic of international incorporation and corporate and personal taxation.
Personally, I started as a sole trader in Germany, which is an easy and cheap way to get started with your own business. About two years later, I moved all of my business activities into an Estonian company through e-residency. I wrote about this in detail here.
I am still super happy with this setup, even though I know there are ways to pay even less taxes.
After not having been a resident of anywhere for almost a year now, i.e. not paying income tax, I’m now in the process of becoming a tax resident of Portugal and using the NHR scheme which gives certain types and sources of income a 0% tax rate for 10 years.
After researching other options including Panama, Georgia, and Bulgaria, I’ve come to the conclusion that this topic is likely to need revision every few years. It’s an ongoing process of optimization, adapting to your own changed needs, and also an ongoing competition between governments.
Planning vs. following the flow
How often have I regretted having booked flights or accommodation too early? It’s still an ongoing learning process for me, but I’d like to share a couple of observations:
- You can’t possibly know what you’ll want in two or more months from now. If you think you do, it’s quite probably just a reflection of what you want right now, based on who you are in this moment.
- Apart from some early-bird deals, flights and accommodation usually doesn’t get much more expensive closer to the date. And sunk costs for unused flights are usually much higher.
- There’s a certain magic to just going with the flow — going to the next place with a new friend, following a sudden spark of curiosity for a certain place or experience, leaving the option open to just go back home when you feel like it.
- Figuring out what you really want is sometimes hard, but essential. Figuring out how to make it happen best and all the practicalities around it comes afterwards. And there’s always a way.
Productivity and deep work are now somewhat my superpowers, but it hasn’t always been like that.
As a developer, I basically learn things for a living, and that is often hard and frustrating (although also incredibly rewarding when you’ve finally managed to build something out of nothing). I have learned to embrace the discomfort of hard tasks, and love a good technical challenge. I know that deep work is necessary to build good software, and I set up my work day and environment accordingly:
- I mostly work from home/my accommodation
- Trello to organize each of my projects, communicate with clients, and organize my personal and overall todos
- Great noise cancelling headphones for working on planes, in cafés, coworking spaces
- Brain.fm for increased focus or just to “get into the zone”
- iPhone “Do Not Disturb” mode — I usually have it activated all day
- Intermittent fasting and bulletproof coffee (coffee with added butter and collagen)
- Don’t overcomplicate (e.g. project planning), plan and work in manageable sprints, e.g. per location or 2–4 week intervals
- Occasionally set an accountability challenge with a friend or even all of your Facebook friends
- Alternate strategies for different types of projects — maybe your project needs large chunks of deep work, maybe it needs smaller amounts of continuous effort.
- Use a small set of tools and stick to them — there will always be a new tool to try out, but it ultimately doesn’t really matter.
- Understand if you’re a maker or manager, and whether your most important work and superpower is deep or shallow work (book).
Keeping up healthy habits
I have no problem keeping up my productivity when I travel, but sticking to healthy routines and regimes has been very hard for me at times. Here’s what ended up working for me:
- Choose a very restrictive diet: Paradoxically, a restrictive diet makes it easier to stay healthy. Eating just a bit of everything and hoping it turns out balanced just won’t work, at least not for me as an abstainer.
I had been vegan since 2012 or so, but recently switched to an almost vegan version of the Bulletproof & Head Strong diet. Still, simplicity is important and I want my diet to work anywhere and while traveling.
- Intermittent fasting — gives me more focus, less thinking about food, less complicated mornings, more clarity and productivity in the morning.
I love the ideal of working out an hour a day with something fun such as Muay Thai or surfing — but essentially I need something simple, quick, and independent of equipment and weather. That at least is the routine/core. So for me that’s currently a combination of Freeletics and HIIT workouts such as with the 7-minute workout app, and the occasional Vinyasa yoga class.
- Time in nature, earthing, swimming in natural waters: this really makes a difference to me and I notice a feeling of restlessness and increased irritability if I don’t do it for more than a week or so
- Daily Five Minute Journal — I’ve been doing this for almost 2.5 years now, almost every day, and it has changed my life and how I perceive it. I’m more reflected, happier, more aware, and, as an added benefit, have a better record of my life. I use the app Grid Diary for it.
After traveling carry-on only for quite a while, I went back to bringing a checked bag. And I travel with some random luxuries/non-essentials to make my life more comfortable anywhere:
- A proper kitchen knife (I cannot stand blunt knives) and two light-weight cutting boards
- Bluetooth speakers
- Yoga mat
- French press
- Acupressure mat
- Some supplements such as collagen & spirulina
I’m considering to start traveling with my 27-inch monitor next. Only half kidding here.
Location-independent life and running my own business has ultimately brought me what I desire most in life: growth, learning, and challenge. Most of the learnings come organically in this kind of life, and I’ve worked with a life/business coach for about a year as well as attended a bunch of seminars and conferences. But there’s one thing that really stood out for me:
Note how this is not a productivity tool for me, but rather for personal development.
It’s like someone switched on the colors and sharpness in my emotions and awareness, after decades of black and white blur. It’s been an incredible growth process. Since I started microdosing on a 3-day schedule, I’ve had a number of personal breakthroughs of long-standing issues, successfully changed my diet, am more aware of my surroundings, my body and thoughts, feel more myself and more aligned with my values.
I’m not giving it all the credit, there’s other factors involved too, but I doubt that the progress would’ve been this fast and intense without it.
Disclaimer: Depending on the substance used, this is illegal in most countries. Don’t be stupid ;). There are legal ways to do it though.
How about you?
Wow, this turned out much longer than I thought. I hope you found some value and inspiration in here. What are some of your learnings of the location-independent life?