A “Digital Nomad” Experiment

I am continuing what has been a periodic experiment living as a digital nomad. Everything I need for several weeks is in a carry-on size bag. I stay in an AirBNB which had a kitchen that lets me prepare meals. Past trips have been to Portland, Charlotte, and Denver. This time I will be primarily in northern California. Over a serval month period of time our home was going to be seriously under utilized due to a vacation, a work trip, most of the family on an extended trip to Taipei to visit family, and spending time in Santa Rosa to work on a property. This seemed like a perfect time to let someone use our home which would save us some money and provide an opportunity for me to further experiment with a digital nomad life. Over a four month period of time I would stay in seven placed not counting our vacation. The following is what I have learned about a digital nomad life.

There is a “moving” tax

We have refined / optimizing our home and life to support our activities. The utensils we use are easily accessible in the kitchen.  Extra supplies are ready to go and near where they are needed. We know the most efficient path to destinations, where to acquire everything needed, what parks have easy access / adequate parking, safe bicycling routes, etc. Daily friction has been minimized.

  • Each physical move costs 4+ hours in addition to travel time. Between packing, loading items into the car, figuring out the new place, and unpacking.  Emotionally, it seems like it takes 2 days to adjust to a new physical location, and maybe a week before everything is starting to be optimized in the new place.
  • High quality Internet service is critical. I have been spoiled by AT&T Fiber. When Internet service has been flaky (thanks Comcast) it really disrupts productivity and produces significant stress which spill into all of life.
  • Each geographical location change requires several weeks to adjust on the basics. During the first couple of weeks normal “life maintenance” activities like getting groceries, exercising outdoors, etc take significantly more energy than when doing these activities in a location that is well known. For example,  groceries shopping requires you finding a store has the products you are looking for (some of which might not be available in any of the stores) and then you need to figure out the stores layout. What is a 10 minute frictionless trip to a “home groceries store” could be a 30 minute exercise of frustration which results in only part of a shopping list filled.  After the first few weeks the most common activities will proceed smoothly, but there will continue to be friction each time you try to do something that you haven’t tried in the new location.

I know people who move daily or weekly. That wouldn’t work for me. I would want to spend at least two month in a location which provides time to get through the learning curve and to have time to enjoy a location.

“Work” Takes A Large Amount of “Emotional Energy”

Working remotely takes a lot of energy. When combined with the emotional energy of being in a new place I have little left over. It’s much easier to learn an new location if you don’t have to attend to remote work. So:

  • During the work week I don’t have time to “enjoy” a new location.  The energy required by work and dealing with the daily life consume all my emotional energy. It’s hard to motivate myself to enjoy eating out because it is too tempting to eat unhealthy “comfort” food.
  • During weekends, it can be fun to explore, but I found I have less energy than when on a pure vacation. I need some “downtime” to recharge from the work week. When on a vacation I can enjoy a “go-go” agenda.

Workspace matters

For much of my professional life, I have done a fair bit of work using a laptop which was actually sitting on my lap. I could sit in our living room or anywhere that had a comfortable chair or couch.  I have come to realized that when I was doing that work,  I was typically doing focused work. Real-time collaboration was typically not required. When I needed close collaboration I would go into “the office”.

In the world of remote work I have found that my laptop screen does not have enough real-estate. I need at least a second high resolution screen which can hold “my work” which the laptop screen is used for video conferencing. At home I use a 27 inch 4K display mounted right above my laptop which works quite well.

When traveling I initially tried using an iPad Air via Sidecar as my second monitor, but that didn’t work so well. First, I want more real estate. Second, I found that the connection to the iPad was unstable and I had to reset it several times each day.  I switched to using a portable 14” 4K display which is tethered to my my laptop via a USB-C cable. I have found it’s connect is stable and it’s lighter and more transportable than an iPad. Displaying at full resolution makes the characters too small for my poor eyes, so I need to scale the display. I don’t have a way to mount it above my screen, so it sits to the side. When I look at it – for example when taking notes during a meeting, I am looking away from the camera on my laptop which can mis-communicate that I am not paying attention. I also miss the real-estate my 27″ 4K monitor provides. If I was flying between locations I would make do, but since I am driving I was about to retrieve the folding desk I use at home and my 27″ monitor which fit in our car’s trunk for transport. The desk is small enough I can set up just about anywhere. This allows my workspace to be just like home wherever I am.

When working remotely in a space that doesn’t have walls and doors I find myself distracted and not able to focus fully on the people in the virtual meeting. Using earbuds/headphones can lessen this need, but I find myself very self conscience in these situations which impacts my ability to focus, be present, and focus on the people I am meeting with.  I learned of the article “The invisibility cloak illusion: People (incorrectly) believe they observe others more than others observe them” from a Hidden Brain podcast which reinforced my concerns of doing private things in public spaces. My solution now is to only book locations which proves me with a work space that gives me walls and a door between me and other people.

Community

I value community. Regularly moving locations can make forming and maintaining community very challenging, though some people are using their nomad experience to build community. They do this buy staying in shared housing which is filled with other digital nomads. When they “click” with someone, they together select their next destination. Over time small clusters of people become a roaming band.

AirBNB Expectations / Experiences

People have different standards. This can be obvious when reading AirBNB reviews. Some people talk about how nice a place is and how well it was cleaned, while others complain about the same location. While the conditions might be different I believe this is more of a reflection of people’s expectations. Some people are expecting the same sort of care found in high end hotels where every surface has been scrubbed by professional cleaners. Other people’s standards would be more typical of someone’s personal home. For example, most people would clean surfaces like counters, sinks, floors, etc on a regular basis, but generally don’t completely unload their cabinets each time they are cleaning their home.

When people are staying in your place, everything that has ever been an issue for you, even if it happens only once every six months will happen to your guest within the first few days. It’s likely a few new things will happen that have never occurred in the past or you never noticed.

People don’t read “manuals” or long documents. If you want to impose rules or restrictions it’s best to have something that convenes that “just in time”. For example, one place I stayed in put a small dowel which stopped a closet door from opening. This let me know that space was for their private items. The space didn’t need to be secured. I was going to respect their space. There were a few spaces in the same place that didn’t have this treatment which I mistook to be available to me until I later read the manual.

What I am  Using

I am using my typical “travel” list with the “dressy” extras added which fits in a 30L daypack same as in the past. Since I am primarily driving rather than flying I have decided to bring some additional items. I am bringing both my personal and work laptops (Apple MacBook Pros). For the first part of the trip I will have a 25L daypack filled with various documents and office supplies to prepare my tax return. I am bring some exercise equipment discussed beyond. Finally, I am bringing some family gear to make live more convenient which is a bit later in this post.

Fitness

I decided to bring some fitness equipment to avoid having to find a gym. I am back to doing a slightly modified “simple 6” workout and my bicycles. Items carried include:

  • Withing Body Weight Scale: Isn’t letting me change it’s WiFi network. My solution was rename my iPhone to be the same as our home network, set the password to be the same as home, and turn on hotspot compatibility mode. This allows the scale to update via my phone’s Hotspot.
  • kettlebell
  • door-jam pull-up bar
  • bicycle
  • helmet
  • cycling shoes
  • Pump
  • chain lube
  • charger for di2
  • oLight magnetic battery charger for lights and power meter peddles
  • BD Alpine Light for protection while cycling in cooler weather

Transporting these items is a slight hassle. I would prefer heavier weights, but they won’t fit in the Mini Cooper. If I was going to be a digital nomad “full time” I would either need to development a body weight only workout plan or join a gym near wherever I was staying. For my last stay I joined a gym to get heavier weights, a rowing machine, and a pull up bar because my door jam bar didn’t fit where I was staying.

To complicate matters, I didn’t initially have a bicycle rack and the Mini didn’t have room for my bicycle and everything else. When switching locations I would drive the Mini (filled with everything but my bike) to the new location.  I would then jog back to the first location and ride my bike to the new location.  Friends have observed that when traveling further distances  I should either get a bike rack, or investigate renting a bike, bringing just a helmet and shoes. I ended up getting a bike rack.

Kitchen, Food

I am cooking most of my meals rather than eating out. I have only booked locations which had a functional kitchen. I am bringing a number of kitchen items which are often absent in the places I have stayed:

  • Kitchen Scale
  • SodaStreamer + 1L water bottle (to avoid purchasing bottled soda water)
  • Panasonic Insulated 3L Water Boiler (because many places don’t have an electric kettle or boiler)
  • Sharp Chef Knife (because most places have dull, crappy knives)
  • Small Totoro Travel Container (holds roasted almonds)

I am transporting whatever food hasn’t been consumed and a few staples in a folding cooler and a large re-usable shopping bag. Stables I am carrying:

  • Favorite teas
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • Cajun Spice
  • Curry
  • Olive Oil
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Sliced Raw Almond (which I roast as needed) 
  • Mustard
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Lemon Juice

Since many things are up in the air, I figured I might as well experiment with my diet. I am taking a DEXA scan at each transition so I can see how eating patterns are impacting my body composition. I will do a post later with what I have learned.

Sleep

I initially left my ChiliPad behind. Since I am by myself right now I can drop the temperature of the room I am sleeping in without making Jackie uncomfortable. I hoped this would let me sleep as well as I do with the ChilliPad. No such luck. I am finding that without the ChilliPad I wake up each time I transition from REM to deep / delta wave sleep and am less rested at the end of the night. This has confirmed to me that the ChilliPad is really been useful. Furthermore, my resting heart rate has been higher during this time. The second half on this journal I am bring the ChiliPad and find I am sleeping better.

1 Comment

  1. Very good blog. I think we are all torn by two sides. On the one side, we are going stir crazy working from home and would love the change of scenery. On the other hand, home is so convenient as you have pointed out. At home, I have 3 monitors to do my work, and I find that even with 3 monitors, it is not quite enough so I cannot imagine working from another location without that. 🙁

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