Life as a Digital Nomad: The Worst of Both Worlds

I knew before I even left that it wasn’t the right thing to do, really. Looking back, it seems so obvious. But I had to make sure. I had to be absolutely certain, else live a life always wondering what if.

The digital nomad life, eh? Full of promise, excitement, adventure. THE DREAM. I first came upon the idea back in 2011, when I was desperately trying to figure out how to live a life that would allow me to travel as much as I wanted without having to get yet another shitty bar job to save up for it. I’d just returned from backpacking and I was floundering. Well, I was in my mid-20s, so of course I was floundering. That’s what your 20s are for.

Surely there’s a better way, I thought. And I was right: starting your own business that allows you to live and work from anywhere. BAM. That’s what I was going to do. I started freelance writing at the end of 2012, and lived in Edinburgh for four more years after that, growing my business and dealing with various shit life decided to throw at me.

I decided, several years ago, that this was what I wanted – and then I never questioned it again. Except for the part where I did. A lot. About a year ago, I went for a long, slow walk by the sea, stopping every few paces, leaning against a wall and staring out at the water and thinking. I started fantasising about staying and what that meant my life would look like.

I was in a good place at the time. Business was going well. I was feeling great physically, having been eating strict SCD for a few months. I had a desk at a creative co-working office filled with interesting, friendly people. I lived in a lovely flat that suited my needs perfectly.

After that walk, I wrote a journal entry titled: ‘HOLY SHIT. Stay in Edinburgh?’ Then I wrote a two-page list of all the reasons I thought this was a way better idea than going full digital nomad.

And it’s not just that journal entry, either. I went back even further. I also found entries from 2012 and 2014 wondering if this digital nomad thing was really a good idea.

So why the hell did I leave? A few reasons:

  • I didn’t want to regret not doing it, since I’d been thinking about it for so long.
  • BREXIT. Fucking Brexit. If I was going to leave, I should do it now, while I could still travel freely and easily through Europe.
  • I was ready for the next phase of my life. Even if it wasn’t destined to be digital nomading, I needed to get that out of the way before I could move on to whatever it was going to be.

So in October last year, I finally left. I knew it was time. My life was stagnating. I gave notice on my flat, packed my bag, and buggered off to Portugal for a couple of months. I came home for Christmas, and then I cleared off again to Seville.

When I arrived in my Seville apartment, my host asked what time I would be checking out when I left. I had no idea, because I hadn’t booked my next place yet. I sat in my apartment after she’d gone and I realised I had absolutely nowhere idea where to go next… because I didn’t really want to go anywhere. Not like this.

My grandmother died recently (whoa, tangent) which means there’s an inheritance coming my way (unless all those times I didn’t call her back translated to a will-adjustment). Regardless, the question popped into my head: What would I do if I inherited a shitload of money?

Travel, right? The obvious answer is travel. But no. That wasn’t my answer. My answer was that I’d move back to Edinburgh, rent a really nice flat, rejoin my old co-working space, maybe sign up for a BA in Creative Writing and an editing course or two. Buy a car, perhaps. That’s it.

Because here’s the thing: the digital nomad life is supposed to be this heady blend of work and travel. Live wherever you want. Do work you love. All on your own terms. It sounds fantastic. The only problem?

Haha, just kidding. There are TONS of problems. Guys. Guys, guys, guys. The digital nomad life is literally the worst of both worlds. And I’m going to tell you precisely why.

Why Working as a Digital Nomad Sucks

The wrong environment
Here’s the thing about doing good work and growing a business: you need a stable environment. It’s easy enough to maintain a business while you travel, sure. I’ve done that on several multi-week trips. But actively growing it? Jesus Fucking Christ, welcome to Stress City. My few months as a digital nomad were some of my slowest ever, work-wise. I coasted. A lot. And it did not feel good.

You can’t get into a routine easily. If you stay in places longer, it’s easier, I guess. But really, how long can you stay in a place before it just becomes ‘home’, and you’re no longer a digital nomad at all?

The wrong equipment
Working as a digital nomad inevitably means hunching over a laptop for several hours a day. And if you’re staying in new places all the time, there’s no guarantee you’re going to have what you need to do this comfortably.

You can alleviate this to some degree. I travelled with a laptop stand and a separate keyboard and mouse. But what I never had access to (unsurprisingly) was an ergonomic kneeling chair, which for me is just the best type of chair ever, and my ‘desks’ were mostly pokey dining tables with no room to spread a notebook out on. Unfortunately, Airbnb apartments are often stocked with subpar/inadequate equipment. Makes sense, since that’s what I would do too if I was letting strangers stay in my place all the time.

Why Travelling as a Digital Nomad Sucks

You don’t go out and do stuff every day and that feels weird
When I travel, I like to spend my days out and about, doing stuff. You know, like most tourists do. It feels exceptionally weird to be visiting a new place and to stay inside hunched over your laptop for eight hours. I spent so much of my time in Lisbon sitting at my cramped little table. Many days, I didn’t even venture outside.

If I stayed in and worked, I felt bad for not going out and exploring. If I went out and explored, I felt bad for not cracking on with my work. Lose/lose. I’m sure some people can balance this better than me, or at least cope with the weirdness of it all, but I’m such an all-or-nothing, this-or-that person that I was strongly doing one thing while completely ignoring the other – pretty much all the time. I get obsessed with the thing I am focused on, which means I find it incredibly difficult to focus on more than one ‘big thing’ at a time. And, well, working and travelling are both pretty big things.

Staying in places for too long
As a digital nomad, it makes sense to stay in places for at least a month at a time. Airbnbs are cheaper that way, and it gives you chance to get settled and do your work while still giving you time to explore. But, but, but… I don’t know. Something about it just didn’t sit right with me. I get used to places quickly, and for me getting used to a place signifies one of two things: you should either move on or settle down there FOREVER. (You got the part where I said I’m an all-or-nothing sort of person, yeah?)

Why Living as a Digital Nomad Sucks

I was about to say ‘why life as a digital nomad sucks’, but god, that felt even more privileged and ridiculous. How can having the freedom to live and work anywhere really suck?

Well, it’s not the freedom that sucks, obviously. The freedom is fucking excellent. But using that freedom to live this way is just plain dumb. Along with the shitty work and travel you get done living like this, there’s so much other bullshit involved. These things aren’t exclusive to digital nomading, really – just to long-term travel – but nevertheless, that is part of the digital nomad lifestyle, so I’m including it here. Things like:

The loneliness
I didn’t actually feel lonely during my time as a digital nomad, but that’s only because a) I wasn’t doing it for that long, and b) I knew people in the places I went. I’m 100% certain I would’ve felt that emptiness if I’d done it for any length of time, because I’ve experienced it before while backpacking (and that was when I was often surrounded by people – something you often aren’t as a digital nomad, which must only make it worse).

If you’re at all extroverted like me, you need regular, meaningful interactions with people you care about. In fact, I’m pretty sure introverts need that too. It’s just a people thing – and something that can be hard to get on the road.

Yes, you can attend digital nomad meet-ups. You can seek out other people to hang out with on the road. Maybe even become part of a transient little community while you travel. But it’s not the same, is it? You don’t get the same sense of community because, well, it’s transient.

And unless you embark on this lifestyle with your significant other, good luck having a real relationship. Meeting somebody else is already hard enough. But to do it when you’re constantly moving around? Fuck me. Or not, I guess, as the case probably is.

The uncertainty and stress
I’m used to the uncertainty and stress that comes with travel. It’s the same feeling you get while backpacking, though better in some ways (you can take longer between places) and worse in others (you need to make sure you find a place with good internet).

Airbnb, many digital nomads’ choice of accommodation (including mine) adds another layer of uncertainty and stress, because you just don’t know until you get there whether the reviews are accurate, whether this is a place you’ll be able to do your work, whether your host will even be there to let you in.

As I said: stress. A core value of mine is to live as stress-free a life as possible. I just want to do satisfying work, have fun with people I like, and generally enjoy my days. There’s this romantic fantasy of the digital nomad life being wonderfully care-free and floaty and oh-so-relaxing (yet somehow exciting at the same time, I don’t know). But it is just that: a romantic fantasy. Becoming a digital nomad does not mean you will automatically stop worrying about how to make money, where you’re going to sleep that night or if you’ll need to forage for food tomorrow. It’s not all hammocks and cocktails and laughter. It is still real life.

The Great Storage Problem
I don’t believe anyone who says they’re travelling with literally all their possessions. Most of them, sure. But don’t you try to pretend you don’t have a stash of paperwork stored away at your parents’ place. A couple of sentimental mementos it doesn’t make sense to travel with. The winter clothes and footwear you don’t need while hopping around summer-kissed countries.

I don’t have many possessions. I’ve lived a pretty minimalist lifestyle since I moved to Edinburgh – because I always knew I’d need to store my shit eventually (I was always planning to try this digital nomad thing, after all). I rarely bought anything of high quality, because I knew I’d be leaving it behind eventually. And yet I still have stuff. Stuff I would never take travelling with me, digital nomadically or otherwise. And it has to go somewhere.

But it’s not just storage, is it? It’s things like your mail. Where do you get your post sent to if you don’t have an address? How do you register for the doctor’s or the dentist’s?

Obviously, the answer is your parents’ place. Again. And I don’t know about you, but I feel weird about relying on my mum’s place. I’m 31, for fuck’s sake. I’m an independent adult and I left home at 19, barely going back since. I moved to Edinburgh when I was 25 and have been doing shit my own way since then. It’s brilliant to be able to rely on my mum, but that doesn’t mean I actually want to do it.

As an independent-spirited person, as I assume most wannabe digital nomads are, relying on somebody else is just… hmm. Not a nice feeling.

Being in control
I am generally a pretty chilled-out person. I can make do in most situations. But at the same time, I’m also a control freak. Well, in the sense that I like things to be done a certain way because they are clearly the best way to be done. I like to maximise efficiency. Oh god, I’m not a total fucking douchebag though, I swear.

I just mean, like, I, you know… I put mugs in the cupboard nearest the kettle. I get plates that are all the same size and shape so I can easily stack them on top of each other without wrestling the one I really want out from beneath some other shitty one. You know, stuff like that. Normal stuff. I just try to make my life simple and stress-free, you know? It annoys me when things are inefficient because I’m like WHY IS THAT LIKE THAT? WHO THOUGHT THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA?

So yeah, anyway, if you like things to be done a certain way, maybe digital nomadism isn’t right for you. Because…

Subpar equipment for everything, all the time
This just gets tiresome. Yes, you can learn to ‘make do’. But eventually you just want to cook a healthy meal with decent kitchen utensils, eat it off nice plates, throw ’em in the dishwasher, and then relax into your comfortable sofa and watch Netflix on your giant HD TV. Nothing will be ‘your own way’ or to your own high standards when you live as a digital nomad, unless you’re rich and can afford luxurious apartments all the time. In which case WHY DON’T YOU HAVE YOUR OWN NICE APARTMENT TO RETURN TO SINCE YOU CAN OBVIOUSLY AFFORD IT???

Yeah, exactly.

Your health
Ah, here we go. Why didn’t I get to this sooner? Your health: basically the most important thing you have. And it all goes to shit when you travel constantly, doesn’t it? Why yes, yes it does. Either you’re eating out all the time – which is rather extravagant for the waistline, shall we say – or your apartment’s equipped with the most basic, shitty kitchen you’ve ever seen and you end up living on bread, frankfurters, Haribo and Doritos. NOT GOOD. Especially not when you’ve got a bowel disease like me. Sigh.

And exercise, how about that? I walk a lot when I travel. And that’s awesome. But it doesn’t really do much for my back, which is what suffers the most from my laptop lifestyle. Yoga and running? Technically possible, but unlikely. Everyone knows a stable environment is important for building good habits. It’s way too easy to slip out of doing any exercise at all, even if you do have the necessary equipment with you.

Hobbies other than travel
It’s difficult to get involved in hobbies that aren’t travel-related when you live like this. I adore playing netball, for instance. I was on a team in Edinburgh (until I fucked up my knee, but that’s another story). No way I could join a team and play netball every week while living as a digital nomad.

And what about hobbies that require specialist equipment? Anything craft-related. Most sports. Gardening. Cooking. Video games. Sure, you can kinda probably do some of these things as a digital nomad. But I expect most people don’t. And even if they do, they’re probably based in one location for an extended period.

The Main Reason to Become a Digital Nomad

I kind of get the impression that most digital nomads don’t take the work side of things seriously. It’s just a way to be able to travel more to them. Which is fine, of course. But when you do care about the work – when the work is more important than the travel (which it is to me) – it just doesn’t make sense.

Plus, when you live somewhere cheap (like Chiang Mai), you don’t need to make that much money. You don’t need to do great work and rake in lots of cash. But that just sounds like a good way to get trapped in Chiang Mai to me.

Here’s what I think: most people who live as digital nomads do so because it’s a cheap, effective way to travel a lot. I firmly believe that everyone, given enough money, would choose to have a base, filled with their own good shit, from which they could take off on adventures whenever they felt like it.

So the only reason to live as a digital nomad is because you desperately want to travel RIGHT NOW and being a digital nomad is the only way you can afford it. The vicious circle here, if you haven’t already spotted it, is that it’s much harder to be able to make good money as a digital nomad. You’re always compromising – usually on your work. Because if you don’t compromise on your work so you can get out there and actually see a bit of this world you’re travelling around, what’s the point?

What’s the point indeed.

So yeah, in case you didn’t figure this out yet: I’m back in Edinburgh now. I intend to find a nice apartment to live in, to work hard, and to save money – and then travel without having to worry about work. (I think it’s called going on vacation or something.)