Even after four nights in Tokyo, the jet lag still felt like a haze, clogging my thoughts. Or, perhaps, it could have been the copious amounts of ramen and saki I sampled throughout the dazzling, neon and foreign streets. Whatever the case, Japan’s capital city was as wonderfully weird as a destination could get, but being equally mesmerized and exhausted didn’t serve me well to hop on the right train to the airport to catch a flight to Kyoto.
As my friends and I glanced around the eerily quiet metro cart, we instantly knew something was awry: no one had suitcases. There was no airplane symbol amongst the Japanese ones we couldn’t read. With the help of incredibly fast high-speed Internet and Google translate, we realized we took the super-long local train instead of the express service, and there was a chance we might miss our flight.
As digital nomads, we were used to travel mishaps, so we did what we do best when put in a situation we had little control over: pull out our laptops and get some work done. During that 1.5 hour ride, I managed to crank through my emails, write an article and make a to-do list for the next week. We somehow managed to make our scheduled departure time by sprinting to the gate, but once we boarded, I was at ease: my work for the day was finished.
The mentality toward traditional work and success is gradually shifting, and admittedly, it’s a mindset I’ve had to teach myself, too. Though I worked in the 9-6 (or 7) office setting for a decade before venturing out as my own boss, now, I can’t imagine returning to a cubicle with set hours again. The thing is, once you master a few strategies and develop your own definition of a routine, remote work feels much more accessible.
If you’ve always wanted to take your gig on the road or try your chops at the sole proprietor life, consider adopting these secrets for staying productive, focused — and of course, adventurous:
Figure out your energy levels
For the past month, I’ve been ‘resort hopping’ through various regions of Mexico, reviewing properties with two friends. Is it a pretty luxury, incredible experience? Absolutely. Is it difficult finding a common bedtime, working block and agreed-upon meal reservations? Also, absolutely. If you believe in chronotypes (I do!), you might know if you’re more of a wolf, a dolphin, a lion or a bear. The concept is everyone has various hours when they feel the most zoned-in on a task, with killer energy levels and free-flowing creativity. I tend to be a dolphin who struggles with sleep, but prefers an 8 a.m. wake-up routine. I’m at my best between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., but my friends are different. One is a wolf and one is a lion, making our schedules all over the place. Whatever is your personal prime time, maximize it and do your best to prevent any distractions from your other pals in the chronotype animal kingdom.
Use music to drown out the world
Here’s the deal: working with a coconut smoothie by your laptop, overlooking a pretty blue pool in Thailand is as wonderful as it sounds. But what you don’t hear is the chatter and laughter of fellow location-dependent workers swirling around you. As someone who writes for a living, other people’s words can disrupt my process, making it difficult to return to a sentence if I lose my train of thought. When I first moved abroad and set up shop at workspaces around the globe, I quickly realized I needed to come up with a way to keep my attention centered. It’s simple enough, but Bose noise-canceling headphones are an investment worth making. Sometimes when I have them on, I won’t even notice if a pal is shouting my name from across a room, they’re so great at — as their name suggests — omitting audible disturbances. Depending on my mood, I’ll either wear ’em without any music playing, or tune in to some of my favorite heads-down playlists on Spotify, including ‘Deep Focus’, ‘Productive Morning’ and ‘Lofi Hip Hop Beats.’ These keep me on task and prevent me from typing out whatever I hear around me.
Give yourself a day off
Ask any traveler and ‘checking off a country’ on your wanderlust travel means something different for everyone. While some say you have to spend a few days, others give a long layover the stamp of approval (literally). For me, I have to get a feel for the destination — which includes some sort of cultural immersion. Even though I took a day trip from Split, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia, because I went on a guided tour, I felt connected to the history and the vibe of the region. Because I write many articles and manage a few content clients, it’s easy to work around the clock, no matter what time zone I’m currently flirting with. But to keep myself fulfilled and focused, time off is essential to explore, clear my stress and better understand my current GPS location. Sometimes I take off a Friday, other times a Tuesday — it all depends on the assignments — but if I can help it, a four-day week keeps me structured and fruitful.
I haven’t been back stateside since July of 2017, and I won’t return in a permanent way until November. Before I took that one-way flight though, I was an avid exerciser: boxing, boot-camping and TRX-ing five days a week. Traveling makes staying physically fit difficult, especially with access to inexpensive, flavorful and dynamic dishes in every country. Even though I did gorge myself on empanadas in Buenos Aires, down plenty of beer in Prague and eat all of the ceviche I could find in Peru, I’m my best self when I’m active and healthy. Small adjustments are easier than big ones, especially if you’re on the road for months at a time: skipping bread or declining the third glass of wine. Waking up a bit early to get in a run, or making a ‘gym’ out of a park when you don’t have one. Though it wasn’t as rigorous as my ‘old life’ — any sort of movement helps motivate me and keep me on task.
Take advantage of travel days
When you’re commuting from one spot to another, there are plenty of ways to fill your time. You can scope out the airport lounge and enjoy the copious amounts of free booze. You can read. You can watch movies or talk with your travel buddy for the whole flight (bus, train or car ride). But when it comes to any sort of transportation between two places, I use the time wisely by working. Much like that infamous metro stint in Tokyo, when I’m trapped in a place for an extended period of time, I’m able to get through more projects than I would if I was stationary. I’ve filed articles from every corner of the globe, wherever I could find WiFi, and whenever I had an hour to spare. Once you get into a habit of capitalizing on the uninterrupted space because a normal way to pass the time.
Give yourself a break. Or lots of them
If I miss a deadline? I’m the only one to blame. If an invoice is past-due and I haven’t followed up? It’s on me. If I decide to skip out on a day of work because I had one-too-many pisco sours the evening before? That means I’ll have to work a 14-hour day tomorrow. The difficulty for much of remote work is holding yourself accountable. Though it’s important to set boundaries for yourself, as well as working hours, when you’re away from the office (and a boss), it’s also helpful to give yourself breaks. Whether it’s five minutes to send a message to a friend at home or scroll through Facebook, a breather can refresh your spirit. I often will change locations to switch up the scenery or go on a walk for a mid-afternoon coffee or juice to rediscover my groove. And if I’m working into the night? I’ll pause for dinner — but skip the wine.
Make any place an office — and build habits
Over the past year, I’ve become a master at creating a workspace anywhere. Right now, I’m sitting from a deck in Mayakoba, Mexico, attempting to get a tan while writing. But I’ve worked from cafes in Lisbon, from parks in CDMX, from couches in a hostel in Medellin — you name it. For me, being comfortable is important, and isn’t always easy when I’m constantly migrating. When I first arrive at a new place, I try my best to feel at home — whether that’s putting on a sweatshirt, sitting cross-legged or drinking coffee out of a mug I travel with, all to build normalcy. Even if ‘routine’ is a bit different these days, having habits keep me focused. My mornings always start with email, my afternoons are for writing, and my pre-bedtime routine is filtering through any ‘urgent’ messages before bed. It’s a lot like working in an office … but ya know, not.