Although the life of digital nomads looks like an ongoing confetti party, this lifestyle comes with gloomy side effects.
From the feeling of loneliness and isolation to the neglect of health and well-being to the panic mode when the wifi strikes - This article highlights 7 challenges of being a digital nomad and how to overcome them.
🌱 Travel health insurance for digital nomads
#1 Lack of stability
The list of reasons why people choose to trade giant wardrobes, daily office commutes, and gloomy northern winters for tiny carry-ons, coworking sessions, and tropical beach days is long.
One common "why" to embark on the nomad journey is freedom, flexibility, and self-control. Let the world be your oyster.
An average, non-nomadic person makes 35,000 decisions per day. How many decisions do we make in one day, when every day is different from yesterday, as we choose to live in steady movement? The paradox of choice kicks in.
The incapacity to make decisions is caused by the overwhelming amount of options. Freedom can be exhausting too.
New destinations bring new choices of where to stay, where to eat, where to work from, where to work out, where to meet people, and so on. And all the freedom, all the choices, and all the options turn into feelings of restlessness and instability.
What can help you to feel more stable?
- Routine: Establish a routine and help your mind to feel more stable. Think about the morning routine, evening routine, work routine, sport and fitness routine, social routine, hobbies, and interests.
- Slow travel: Travel slower and reduce the interval of changing countries. Rethink your travel bucket list and increase the quality of travel rather than the quantity of travel.
- Stay longer: Stay longer in one country or in one region. Avoid frequent continent hopping and give yourself a chance to dive deeper into cultures. Instead of hopping between Mexico and Thailand, find culturally similar regions to reduce "culture shocks".
- Home base: Consider establishing a "home base" you can return to whenever you want. For example, establishing a home base in Mexico is easy in terms of visa as you get usually 180 days on arrival. For nomads looking into Mexico seriously as a home base, it is pretty simple to get temporary residency too.
- Recurring destinations: Without planning the next 12 months ahead, maybe there is this one happy place you love to travel to. I know many people who travel to Chiang Mai every November, and others who travel to Hoi An every year after Tet fest. A few reserved spots in your travel calendar can help feeling more stable, establish new and maintain old friendships, and become an expert in knowing the place.
- Life goals: Define your life goals and set your nomad journey in that direction. Do you wish to have a romantic relationship? Rethink your travel behavior.
Are you looking for a home base? Turn your nomad journey into active location scouting.
- Relationships: Join coworking spaces and help yourself to establish a work routine. A positive side effect of coworking spaces is the social aspect. Well-run coworking spaces function as social hubs, and host meetups, communal meals, and excursions.
😓 #2 Uncertainty & unpredictability
Besides lacking stability in life, many nomads face job uncertainty and business-related unpredictability. Intellectual and knowledge workers are threatened by similar risks as ordinary office workers.
Examples include global pandemics, worldwide layoffs (tech, crypto, and other "white-collar-jobs"), geo-political instability (Russia today, China tomorrow), rising prices due to inflation, economical instability in the home country, or in the country where clients or the employer are operating (Brexit) and so on.
In addition to an unpredictable environment, uncertainty can also be linked to job and work opportunities, career paths, professional growth and development, and the overall lack of knowing where life takes you professionally.
Lastly, uncertainty and unpredictability are caused by unclear visa and residency requirements, inflation and rising prices, and the logistics of travel.
Or can you be sure the pictures of your Airbnb represent reality?
What can help you to cope with uncertainty and unpredictability?
- Savings: Put money aside and save up for rainy days. Having a financial cushion equivalent to 6 to 12 months' salary can help you to feel better equipped when times get rough.
- New skills: Instead of fearing AI to replace you in your job, or letting creativity fade because of job monotony, learn a new skill or transform existing knowledge into expertise. Make yourself more "valuable" (job-wise) by diversifying either broader (horizontal) or deeper (vertical).
- Residencies & second passport: This idea might not work for everyone, but depending on your current status, nationality, family history, and financial situation, consider applying for a residency in another country. Although you might not see yourself living in this country, residencies and second passports present options. Especially in case of emergency.
- Side hustle: If you feel worried about job or industry dependencies, think about starting a side hustle you can turn into a future business. Are you a hobby photographer? Think about if this hobby could turn into a long-term, slowly growing additional income stream.
😰 #3 Infrastructure issues
Do you know this situation? You just arrived at your new accommodation last night, the wifi worked, at least well enough to scroll social media, but the client call at 9 am this morning is not going through.
Your explanations could include earthquakes, power cuts,s or fires next door.
And when you don't struggle with lousy wifi, what about the noise level? Karaoke-singing neighbors, next-door bars, street festivals, crying toddlers, heavy honking traffic, and the blasting TV upstairs weren't considered when you booked this shiny place online.
Not to mention the smell from the restaurant downstairs that cripples through the bathroom vent.
Let's be honest, how many times did the pictures online not match the place in real life? My ratio is pretty high and I would consider myself an experienced traveler.
What can help to avoid infrastructure issues?
- Wifi speed test: Before committing to a place, ask your host to send you a real-time wifi speed test. Once you arrived at your new place, do a wifi speed test yourself. The wifi speed test should show at least 10 Mbps download speed if one person wants to join a video call.
- Local sim card: How many times did a local sim card save my weekly team call? Many times. Imagine traveling as a couple, you have different sleep cycles, and one of you works for European hours while traveling in Colombia. The early bird let the partner sleep in and work early hours in the common areas. But the promised "high-speed-internet" in those areas turns out to be non-existent. In this scenario, having your own hotspot through a local sim card can save your morning.
- Coworking space: Prepare a plan B when having internet issues in your accommodation. Research coworking spaces in walking distance or easy access, and ask beforehand if they offer day or week passes, and if they have availability.
- Google Maps: Use Google Maps, online reviews, and social profiles of your accommodation to find out the noise level of your accommodation. Do you find a bar on Google Maps, that is close to your accommodation's address? Contact the host before and ask directly about the noise level. As hosts and professional businesses don't want to earn your complaint or your bad reviews, many tell you openly about traffic noise, neighbors, and next-door businesses.
- Noise gadgets: From headphones to ear plugs, to white noise-producing fans and air conditioning - Get creative with a list of must-haves when noise bothers your sleep.
- Authorized reseller: If you tend to panic when hardware dies, make sure to scoop out the next authorized reseller that can revive your laptop and other technical equipment. This is especially useful to do when traveling in areas, such as Pacific islands and other remote countries (finding an Apple reseller in Fiji, Myanmar, and Peru wasn't fun).
😣 #4 Work-life imbalance
Tim Ferris wrote the ideal playbook: With a four-hour work week reaching to ultimate freedom, and work-life balance.
The dilemma for nomads is the fading border between work and life. First, you wanted to break out of the hamster wheel, the system, the high-rise buildings of gloomy northern cities, the office life - you name it.
Then you wanted to schedule your work around your private life, or at least blur the lines between life and work to increase your work-life balance.
The downside of blurry work-life borders is the high risk of low discipline in maintaining a balance between the two.
How many nomads do you know who travel too much, and work too little? And how many nomads have you met working too many hours and missing out on all the travel fun?
Too much focus on "life" can lead to very little income, whereas too much focus on work can cause stress. Many nomads feel stressed from deadlines, job uncertainty, work-related pressure, advancing technology, or potential layoffs.
Self-employed nomads might fear losing clients or finding not enough clients or well-paying clients.
Others are worried about non-extended contracts, failed investor rounds, or rising competition. Work-related stress can cause burnout, as well as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Burnout experts, for example, suggest burnout patients should change the environment by breaking out of the work routine, changing or quitting the job, and spending time in a different non-work-related setting.
But what if you already live in constant change?
What can help to improve your work-life balance?
- Planning: Although you want to keep it flexible when to start and end your workday, it helps when structuring projects, tasks, and to-dos in advance. Tools that help include your calendar, to-do list apps, and other planning tools.
- Spontaneity & fun: Every day should have some time available for spontaneous meetups, shared meals, nature walks or just anything fun you would like to do. Join a digital nomad meetup you found on meetup.com or Facebook or explore the food scene in the neighborhood.
- Health: From fitness to yoga, pilates, or running, joining a CrossFit gym, or simply going on a hike or a long walk improves your physical health already. Avoid escalators and elevators, watch your food and sleep habits, and make time to be in nature.
- Mental well-being: Practice journaling, meditation, or start a gratitude journal and other mindfulness practices. Monitor your time spent in a day, and balance free time and work. Schedule free time, book a holiday or a retreat, and invest in personal growth and self-development. Be kind to yourself and start a self-care routine.
- Relationships: Maybe you are in a different time zone than most of your family and friends, try to make time to regularly check in with people. This helps you to maintain relationships and prevents you from feeling isolated.
- Money: Either you have a fixed salary or irregular income through freelance work, make a financial plan that includes areas of saving and investing. If you haven't saved up a financial cushion yet for rainy days, today is a good day to start acting. And because saving money for emergencies alone feels demotivating, start to put money aside for investment purposes. This can also be saving up for personal growth and investing in yourself.
🥺 #5 Loneliness & isolation
Margarita and Gin Tonic on the beach, facing the sunset. Once this photo of you made it on your Instagram feed, your friends back home think you are on a never-ending vacation.
While your family, pictures you making a living by selling shells, healing stones, and palo santo.
You instead find yourself five days a week sitting in a freezing coworking space, juggling your project through three different time zones.
It can feel lonely when there is nobody around who understands us.
Traveling solo can feel lonely too. Traveling in a couple's bubble can feel lonely at times, especially when one partner is a social butterfly while the other one prefers to stay in. Introverts might have a hard time making new friends, while extroverts might have a hard time maintaining friendships.
Sometimes we are in the dilemma of traveling to a specific country but we can not find a travel buddy or persuade a friend to join.
We need to decide whether to travel alone but discover a new country or follow our nomadic friends to the same three nomad hotspots.
Traveling alone through Latin America while all your nomad friends are in Europe and South Eastasia can cause FOMO. Traveling constantly in groups can lead to social fatigue.
What can help you to feel less lonely and isolated?
- Peers: Your peers are other digital nomads or traveling remote workers. Make sure you meet people who sit in the same boat, and go through similar travel- and work-related challenges. You find your peers in coworking and coliving spaces, at digital nomad meetups, and at other nomad events. Peers can be travel buddies or work-related friends.
- Cheerleaders: Your cheerleaders are people who believe in you and cheer you up along your journey. This can be any person you know, from a family member to a life-long friend, as long as they believe in you and help you to push through in hard times. Cheerleaders don't necessarily need to work in the same field, work at all, or live a nomadic life. They are people who simply want you to succeed in your nomad journey.
- Life-long friends: From friends you met in school to former colleagues, it helps to maintain life-long friendships. Old friends help us to feel grounded, they remind us of past life chapters, of a different version of ourselves. They keep us down-to-earth, and open-minded not just in looking forward but also in looking back. Just because our school friend is settled with the house and kids don't mean we grew apart entirely.
- New friends: While cheerleaders and life-long friends depend a little bit more on your past, there is always the chance to meet new people and make new friends. Maybe you have a hobby or an interest, for example, dancing, reading, cooking, or hiking. You could join a dance class, or a book club, attend a cooking school, or seek out local hiking groups.
- Mentors: Your mentor is the person who shares their experiences, skills, and knowledge with you. Usually, a mentor-mentee relationship is designed as a long-term, development-driven, and holistic approach in an informal setup. A mentor can be an expert in a field you want to improve, from business-related to personal-related areas. A mentor can be your role model who guides you to your goals.
- Coaches: If you want to improve performance in a certain area, it might help to hire a coach. The coach-coachee relationship is designed as a short-term, performance-driven, and narrow approach in a structured setting. While the agenda in mentorship is created by the mentee, the coaching agenda is created by the coach and the coachee. The outcome of coaching is specific and measurable. Coaches help you to reach a certain goal in the near future.
🤒 #6 Neglecting mental wellbeing & physical health
With all the travel- and work-related stress, pressure, and uncertainty, it is easy to neglect your mental and physical health.
Especially when renting short-term, we often feel no need to prepare meals ourselves but rather eat out or get meal deliveries. And when transportation feels so cheap, calling an Uber becomes a no-brainer.
And why set up a routine when constant change shatters the plans?
What can help when neglecting your health?
- Awareness: The first step is to be aware of the fact that you neglect certain areas in your life. Then you can plan out how you can improve them.
- Action: Create a plan for what you can do today to improve your physical health. Think about your posture when sitting for long hours, your sleep, food, and fitness habits.
- Habit tracker: If you struggle with discipline, consider starting a habit tracker that allows you to monitor your daily activities. Habit trackers can help you to start a new habit or quit an old habit.
- Holidays: Although your life might look like a never-ending vacation, we both know that this is not the truth. If anticipation helps you, schedule a holiday, a friend or family visit, a cruise, or any other event you look forward to. Make sure you plan annual holidays, block internet-free time during the day, and maybe a laptop-free weekend.
- Self-care: Many people tend to work, although when feeling sick. If you feel unwell, or sick, you have a migraine or an upset stomach, fever, or chills, ensure to take care of yourself and take time off to recover. If employers or clients do not understand a sick day, rethink your job relationships.
😵💫 #7 Travel planning overload
In times of rising prices of accommodation, flight tickets, and a general increase in the cost of living, travel planning feels less fun than it used to feel.
Can you relate to my experiences? Although I planned to travel from Mexico to Panama, when I checked available flights, my heart sank as ticket prices for a 3-hour flight was as expensive as an around-the-world ticket back in 2012.
As I haven't booked any accommodation in Panama yet, I celebrate my flexibility and detour via Colombia.
Arrived in Medellin, I realized that the shiny, bright, and modern apartment with a city view turned out to be a tiny and funky-smelling first-floor studio overlooking a petrol station and a neighborhood dodgy bar.
Additionally, although I try to live a minimalistic life, when I wasn't feeling great for a few days a while ago, I decided to treat myself to a spa day which ended in an additional shopping trip. Now I am traveling with too much stuff and my carry-on becomes checked-in luggage.
What can help with travel planning overload?
- Packing: On my first world trip I carried around a sleeping bag, hiking boots, a 1 kg first aid kit, a foldable umbrella, and rain gear. That was in 2015 and when I think about it now, I feel like a fool as I never used the first-aid kit or the hiking boots. Today, I pack a little and allow myself to replace an old or stained piece with a new one (ok, didn't work on my last self-care day, but you get the idea).
- Military approach: Pack your bag as the army does. Store every item always exactly in the same place. Your passport, your cables, your swimwear, your medication, and everything else should have a dedicated place in your bag. Imagine an emergency situation and you need to tell someone else where to find your documents. Or think about a stressful airport or immigration situation where you need to find something quick without panicking.
- Outsourcing: If travel planning takes up too much of your time, consider hiring a virtual assistant who helps you to research accommodation, visa requirements, and flights.
- Block time: If outsourcing doesn't fit into your budget, think about slow travel, staying longer in one place, blocking time for travel planning tasks, and creating a checklist with to-dos each time you change destinations. If you can't think of the next destination that combines great weather, kitesurfing spots, and a vibrant digital nomad community, read the article below for inspiration around Asia.
Life as a digital nomad looks like fun, adventure, and excitement. Many Instagram feeds give the false impression that we constantly attend to cocktail parties, rooftop pool sunset potlucks, yoga retreats, and crypto meetups.
The weather is always nice, and we make new friends on a weekly base.
And if this is your nomad life: good on you. If this isn't your situation, and you experience the above-mentioned feelings, be assured you are not alone.