The joys of being a digital nomad aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be.
Just as many people post pictures on Facebook that try and project an ideal life (no one really stops to take photos during horrible arguments, despairing money moments, or bedridden existential crises, do they?), so too do we often hold an ideal image of what working life outside of the nine-to-five will look like.
This isn’t helped by the numerous articles, podcasts, and blogs extolling the virtues of ‘freedom,’ promising you can ‘work whenever you want, wherever you want,’ and painting images of lounging on the beaches in Cambodia, with the occasional break to pen a scintillating blogpost in a trendy bar.
Ok, this might be the reality for some. But for many of us ‘free’ folks, being a digital nomad will at times have looked more like one of these scenarios:
Now don’t get me wrong: there absolutely are pros as well, and I’m not just having a moan. But it is important to be realistic, not just idealistic.
The main stress of digital nomadism, in my experience, comes from trying to juggle travel logistics and challenges with freelance logistics and challenges. Some people seem to be able to do this, no sweat. But for others, our personalities and working preferences simply don’t suit the instability of a nomadic working life.
Well, I have a solution. I give you… the Digital Home-ad!
Yep, that’s right – it’s pretty much the same as the nomad version (roaming around, making money online, work wherever, whenever)… except… you stay at home.
I know, I’m a genius.
Now I’m a bit biased here because this is the system I’ve found works for me. It’s not going to work for everyone, and that’s fine.
But maybe you’re reading this and feeling stressed out because you just can’t work in airports. Or you’re sick of not being able to cook and grow stuff. Or you would like some stable relationships, or have had enough shiny experiences and would like more relaxed downtime. Or maybe you’re attracted to digital nomad freedom, but don’t actually want to be… well… nomadic. If so, read on.
Like our friends the nomads, digital home-ads enjoy being able to work whenever, wherever they want to (deadlines permitting). However, the ‘wherever’ is more likely to indicate a chilled-out circuit between home, a local café or workspace where you’re known by name and a familiar face, and perhaps a relaxed outdoor location (I have a favorite picnic table under some trees at the local beach).
Right now, for example, I’m sitting on my favorite couch out on the deck under the palm trees at at my favorite local store (ok, it’s the only local store). Anne, who works on Fridays, just made me a coffee exactly how I like it, a couple of friends have walked by and given me some fruit and a library book they thought I’d like, and the postie called out hello and gave me a parcel (new book!).
This is not a boast: I just can’t handle a very complicated life, so I need to keep it pretty local and simple. And yet I’m still an explorer: researching and writing about vegan takeaways in Australia, the meaningfulness of work, and what the sacred looks like in the modern world.
As digital home-ads, our work is still based online, and we may juggle several professional balls, but from a stable base of familiarity and routine.
We’re not wanna-be nomads; we’ve travelled, we’ve explored, and we’re very content to enjoy a more settled existence. We may choose to stay put for a whole range of reasons — perhaps we have children, are working on a place-based project, want to be near those we love, or simply can’t be assed traveling around. We may be doing internal exploration — of our mind, subconscious, and energy — rather than external. We may, in fact, be rather contented.
However, I don’t want to try and sell a lifestyle that definitely won’t suit everyone. So in the interests of honesty, let me run through a few pros and cons, so you, dear reader, can get a feel for whether this might suit you.
Note: Some of these pros and cons are specific to home-adism, while some are benefits of digital freelancing in general.
1) Wake up in the morning when your body wants to. There’s no fixed time you have to be at work/the airport/your next AirbNb stop, so you are free to discover and follow your natural rhythms. Maybe you operate best with an afternoon nap, or waking up at 5 a.m. How can you work this out while doing the nine-to-five? Or while constantly changing time zones and routine?
2) You don’t have to lug a giant bag/backpack around. You can have an actual home, filled with actual stuff, where you can cook actual food and grow actual plants. It’s called nesting or putting down roots, and for some people it’s key to our happiness. The good news is, it doesn’t have to come with the crazy commitments of a regular job.
3) You can find a work schedule that works for you, doing certain activities at the time of day when your brain is best suited to them. Perhaps you write best at 10 p.m. Or send killer emails at two in the morning (I recommend caution here!). Or who knows, maybe you work best between nine and five… but outside, lying on a trampoline, with a beer!
4) Want to take off on a sudden adventure with friends to an unknown beach, visit your sister, attend a funeral, do a week-long silent retreat, or stay in bed all day cos it’s raining? No problem. And then you can go home again, to a hot bath and some time alone.
5) You can forge real relationships with people who you know you’ll be around for some time. Having a home means you can get to know each other beyond the flippant veneer of most encounters.
6) You’re able to live in impoverished areas, rural locations, or off-the-map places without depending on a severely limited supply of local jobs. You can bring money into a local economy from all over the world, while participating in a community and helping it thrive. You can enjoy the satisfaction of a life that’s about more than just looking after number one.
7) You can sit on the couch in your underwear eating chips every once in a while, and still be at work. I mean, you could try this in your local coffee shop, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
8) You’re not stuck in a physical place where you’re constantly being assessed, monitored, performance-reviewed, observed, graded, or bullied into signing a birthday card for someone who you only vaguely knew existed. No one is going to pressure you into coming bowling for Nadine’s farewell (who?). You’re not going to feel twistings of guilt and paranoia as you illicitly check your phone/emails/facebook on company time. There’s no boss-person fulfilling some sick power dream/making unreasonable requests of you/pitting you against your fellow workers. That part of us that learned how to try and please parents, then school teachers, and then colleagues by trying to be different than how we are can relax and start to become obsolete.
Sounds wonderful, huh? But before we all get too excited, here’s the flipside…
1) No schedule unless you make one. Yes, we can wake up whenever we want. But if we’ve had a lifetime of regulating ourselves based on the schedules and demands of others, the chances are our ability to do this for ourselves will be dormant or impaired. We may be so overworked and burnt out from our time in the workforce that we just want to sleep for a year. Or we may be unused to overcoming short-term gratification (snuggling back under the duvet!) with longer-term satisfaction (getting paid and being able to eat, yay!).
2) You can have an actual home — which you may fill with a whole lot of unnecessary hoarded crap and need to clean and pay for.
3) Working whenever can slide very easily into working all the time. Especially if you have internet at your house (I don’t, and it’s more logistically challenging sometimes, but it means when I’m off, I’m OFF). If we haven’t addressed things in ourselves like fear of disappointing people, or finding out what we really value, then having no fixed working hours can easily become unrestrained workaholism.
4) Want to take off on a sudden adventure with friends to an unknown beach, visit your sister, attend a funeral, do a week-long silent retreat, or stay in bed all day cos it’s raining? No problem. Except unless you try and cram in work at the same time, you won’t get paid. Yep, no more holiday pay, sick pay, paid travel, conferences, or upskilling. You need to make sure your rates reflect this, and that you have the discipline to say no to stuff, and the motivation to actually want to work, or you’ll constantly be wracked with FOMO.
5) You can forge real relationships with people… which can take time and focus away from your work projects, especially if there’s any dysfunction there. You’re home, so you can’t run away!
6) You’re able to put down your home-ad roots anywhere… so you’ll have to work out what you actually want. When we’re constantly traveling, we can keep pretending that the next place will be “it” — satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment. Something feeling not quite right? Time to move on. And yet it’s happening in the next place, too… Staying put brings up all the uncomfortable feelings we run away from, and forces a person to take responsibility for their life, rather than just shuffling the conditions around.
7) Even when you’re sitting on the couch in your underwear eating chips, you can still be at work. See number three, above.
8) No assessments or crazy boss-person: great! However, most of us have unwittingly become dependent on external motivators in order to get shit done. Take them away, and we may feel lost, lazy, unmotivated, and/or disorganised. Or we may become our own boss, and then rebel against ourselves, internalising our issues with authority. If we’re traveling, we may temporarily be able to stay motivated by the need to fund our adventures. But can we stick with self-motivation for the long haul?
And don’t forget that crazy bosses may well just be replaced with (multiple) crazy clients — just as frustrating, but with the added stress of them being able to arbitrarily decide whether they pay you or not.
And here are perhaps the two biggest downsides of being a digital home-ad, which all too often go unmentioned in our dreams of freedom:
9) You may end up needing to do some seriously unfulfilling/soul-crushing/boring online work while you get yourself established. Is this worth it to you? Are you clear on why you’re doing it, and where it’s going? Is your life meaningful enough to deal with doing meaningless work?
10) Very little legal/political support. Let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there who want to make money for themselves by exploiting others to whatever degree they can get away with. This age-old power imbalance is why many people have dedicated their lives to achieving laws that regulate minimum wage, working conditions, solid contracts, sick pay, and more. We need to be aware that by stepping into a working realm of so-called ‘freedom,’ we’re also stepping away from hundreds of years of hard work and sacrifice to achieve justice and protection for workers. Which leads me to the broader societal trend, which is that…
11) It’s a brave new digital world. There’s much that could be said about this that’s beyond my scope here, but basically the wild world of internet freelancing can potentially erase all labor laws in one fell swoop. That’s a big deal, beyond our choices as individuals, and one whose full implications have perhaps not yet been felt or studied. The UK and Australian Governments have both commissioned reports into the implications of the “gig economy” for worker’s rights, and other governments and thinkers are trying to keep up with the shift.
All I can say is that for me, right now, it’s worth it to not have to show up to someone’s workplace, on someone else’s schedule, with people I may or may not have anything in common with, for way more hours than is humanly necessary.
Yes, I value predictability, fairness, and safety for all. But I’ve found that I value my independence of time, location, body, voice, and mind even more. The working lifestyle that suits us best will depend on what we value above anything else, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept being mistreated.
However you choose to work, educate yourself on fair rates, charge what you’re worth, always make sure you have a solid contract in place, and consider joining a guild or collective for professional support. Do your research, and be careful out there!
Being a digital home-ad is by no means an idyllic rainbow work-world of unlimited holidays and endless freedom. It entails a serious amount of self-motivation, a perhaps drastic lowering of standards in terms of what kind of work you’re willing to take on, the tenacity to insist on your own value, and the ability to feel contented without constant stimulation and change.
It’s not easy to retrain our brains after they have been socialised into fitting into other people’s schedules, following instructions, and being motivated by external threats or rewards. On the plus side, if we’re up for it, we have a chance to explore and ultimately regain our own authority, which has positive repercussions well beyond the world of work.
I’ve deliberately been as honest as possible here about some of the potential difficulties of digital home-ad life. The goal is not to put anyone off a lifestyle that I overall find freaking awesome, but rather to make sure that if you’re considering a working life less ordinary, you go into it with open eyes. If we’re really attracted to something, we’re willing to take it warts and all, pros and cons, freedoms and constraints.
If you value independence, have sources of meaning in your life beyond work and travel, and long to put down roots and build community, then becoming a digital home-ad may be for you. Good luck!
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.