A common question I get asked is some sort of variant on ‘How do you stay disciplined and productive while travelling and working from various locations?’.
I think for the majority of the working world, their tasks are laid out for them. They have a job description or a manager to tell them what to do and I think the majority of those people actually prefer it that way.
Most people won’t become digital nomads because they prefer being told what to do.
For me however, I haven’t historically worked too well in a full-time environment. My days of full-time employment capped off at a mere 5 weeks!
As much as it would be nice to not have to think about what, how and when to carry out my work, I think I definitely work better as my own project manager.
It’s worth noting before we go further however, that not all nomads are freelancers or entrepreneurs. You can still work a full-time job as a digital nomad, in which case you just need to manage timezones and show up to work when you need to be.
For the rest of us, we often operate as our own boss or as my friend Denise puts it, ‘we work for ourselves’.
As a digital nomad freelancer or entrepreneur, we are the business which means that sales, project management and delivery is up to us. This is why we need to have a system in place to manage our tasks, strategically set our own schedule and develop productive habits and practices.
By no means am I the leading authority on freelance productivity but with three different businesses to manage, I naturally had to form some systems around what I do, or else become terribly overwhelmed and achieve nothing.
The following article is my best attempt at sharing with you an insight into the practices I use so that you can build a more productive workflow yourself.
Let’s start right from the moment you wake up.
According to Hal Elrod, Author of the Miracle Morning:
How you wake up each day and your morning routine (or lack thereof) dramatically affects your levels of success in every single area of your life.
While I’m not as religious about mornings as other authors, I definitely think that getting up early and jumping straight into a routine is something that can benefit anyone and I do find it very important for me personally.
Currently, my morning routine includes a batch of small activities that I’d simply forget to do if they weren’t factored into my morning routine. Things like:
- Making my bed
- Washing my face
- Stretching (I have flexibility issues), and
These are habits that I try to maintain daily but if I don’t do them first thing in the morning, they won’t get done. That’s why a morning routine is so important.
Insights into why having a morning routine can be found in my friend Tomas Laurinavicius’ article on the habits of successful people. One of the points he makes in that article is that you’re more likely to develop a new habit on top of an old one because your brain has lots of synaptic connections for that habit to run it on autopilot. This is something he calls ‘Habit Stacking’.
As for the question of why mornings? That’s easy. You simply have less distractions and obligations if you make sure to wake up before any scheduled commitments.
Just make sure to resist technology as long as possible after you wake up as that can derail your mornings real quick!
Common activities that I hear people consciously incorporating into their morning routines are things like:
- Reading & Writing (inc journalling)
- Creating a plan for the day ahead
- Visualisation and affirmation
- Eating or drinking
For yourself, what I’d recommend is putting whatever you want to get done into your mornings that wouldn’t otherwise get done later in the day.
For example, I love to workout after getting through most of my work day and I enjoy reading just before bed but as for stretching and meditation, I don’t trust myself to remember to do that later in the day, so I make sure to get in done in the morning.
After my morning routine, I take out my computer and jump into what I call my ‘Morning Sequence’.
Not to be confused with my morning routine, my Morning Sequence includes the first things I do on the computer each day that I open it.
These are currently:
- Checking email
- Checking social media messages (inc messages I receive through my Facebook page & Instagram account and comments I receive on my YouTube channel)
- Checking my notifications on Facebook and Twitter – seriously! We’ll get into how I do this in just a sec
- Checking job boards for opportunities
You might notice that each of these start with ‘checking’ and it’s this style of task that I like to get out at the beginning of every day.
The most important principle of the Morning Sequence is the idea of batching which I’m pretty sure I learned from Tim Ferriss in his must-read book for digital nomads, The 4 Hour Workweek. In the book, he suggests limiting the time you spend in your inbox to a maximum two periods per day. For my purposes, I’ve extended the idea of batching to include all notifications, messages and work-related postings.
I remember when my YouTube channel first started taking off and I had YouTube app on phone send me notifications as soon as I got a new comment. I would get these messages multiple times a day and I’d be compulsive about checking them. After seeing me getting down at some of the more critical comments, my friend Felipe suggested that I turn off the notifications and check them only once per day. My anxiety levels improved straight away.
As you can see, the idea of batching doesn’t just work for emails but all kinds of messages and notifications. Unless something is urgent, I make sure to turn off notifications and limit my time to checking them all at the one time.
Mini-Tangent: How I do Facebook
Ask me about Facebook and you’ll hear my rant on how the news feed is like the internet version of crack cocaine.
The idea of any of these apps is to get you hooked and keep you on their app for as long as possible and Facebook is the worst as it is unlimited in how it’s able to bring all kinds of content into your feed.
My strong recommendation and something that I practice myself is to eliminate the news feed altogether. I do this using the Chrome extension, News Feed Eradicator and removing the mobile app from my phone.
Then, with the news feed gone, I go into specific Facebook groups that I want to receive updates from and turn on notifications. Simple as that!
This is how my one-per-day practice of ‘checking Facebook’ remains productive as I can’t get distracted by the news feed, I just run through my notifications, check the important ones and when that number reaches zero (usually in less than 5 minutes), I’m off Facebook altogether.
Getting Stuff Done
After the Morning Routine and my Morning Sequence (which – by the way – includes responding to clients and preparing proposals), I begin the ‘actual work’ for the day.
When I started out as a “Digital Nomad”, this meant only two things, finding work and doing work. My ‘digital nomad workflow’ was a lot simpler back then as I usually only had one or two clients at a time. Plus, this blog and the YouTube channel wasn’t as much of a thing back then and so, I just did it when I had free time.
During 2017 (and maybe even before), I started using an amazing free tool called Trello to list out my content ideas and move them from filming, to editing and then completion. This board became especially important when I decided to work on Chris the Freelancer full-time during Q4 of that year.
After 2017 had ended and I finished writing ‘The Digital Nomad’s Guide to the World’, I returned to client work and found myself overwhelmed by work from various directions.
It was time to extend my use of Trello to now be the dashboard for all my projects. Here’s a little look at what my new board, ‘Current Clients & Projects’ looks like:
Just a little Trello terminology:
- ‘Current Projects / Clients’ is the Board you’re currently looking at,
- ‘Personal Projects’, ‘ToDo Right Now’, etc are what’s called a List, and
- Each individual list item (blurred in the image) is called a Card.
Let’s start from the most important list and work our list now.
ToDo Right Now
These are project or tasks that are ready to go right now. Most of the time this is related to client work but if it’s a particularly important task/project for my own personal projects, I include it here too.
These are projects or tasks that are also ready to go but are related to my own personal projects (including Chris the Freelancer). Currently, I only consider my freelance businesses to be my businesses and so, creating content for Chris the Freelancer and my other self-titled brand hold a lower priority.
To Check / Follow-Up On
This board is for tasks and projects that require more communication with a third party (usually a client) before the ‘actual work’ can be completed. If the ‘ToDo Right Now’ list is running low or the project to follow-up on is particularly important then, I’ll start to dig into this list and follow-up with people
Pending (Coming Soon)
These are projects that are coming soon but do not require any current action. It’s more for awareness of what’s to come in the pipeline.
To be honest, there are 5 more lists but they are minor in importance
Errands: Basically for anything admin-like that’s not creating content or delivering on a client job.
Leads: A place to list possible businesses leads to follow-up with
Invoices: A place to keep track of invoices sent or in progress but not paid.
Future Projects: Ideas for later. Maybe some of these cards will make their way into the first four lists
Shelved: Cards that have been shelved and probably should just be deleted.
The great thing about Trello is that cards can easily move between lists. So if a personal project becomes priority, I can move it into ‘ToDo right now’ or if a client gets back to me and is ready to go, I can move their card from ‘Coming Soon’ to ‘ToDo right now’ as well.
I can also assign due dates to cards, add a checklist and use coloured labels to further communicate priority.
Finally, when a task or project is complete, I simply click Archive and it disappears from the board.
Setting My Own Schedule
As I mentioned in the introduction, part of being a digital nomad freelancer or entrepreneur is setting your own schedule and for me, I like to keep to a standard nine-to-five, Monday to Friday type schedule.
Funny, right? Many people take up this lifestyle to get as far away from the nine-to-five but for me it works. It’s aligned with my clients who usually work office hours and just in general, it’s easier when you schedule fits in with other people.
To be fair though, now that I’ve started to work almost exclusively with Australian clients and given that I’ve only travelled between Australia and Asia this year, I’ve been able to stay close to the same timezone as my clients.
This hasn’t always been the case, especially when I was travelling Europe and North America last year. During that time, I tried to keep my nine-to-five type schedule but it did affect business as I like to switch off during the evenings (which could be mornings or afternoons in Australia).
You can of course work on whatever schedule you like depending on the level of real-time client/customer communication that your business requires.
Discipline and Motivation
As for the question of keeping disciplined and motivated, I’ve never really had an issue.
When you work for yourself, you go broke if you don’t keep on top of your business. Isn’t that motivation enough?
I think what people might be getting at with that question though is how to stay focused on work when you arrive in new and exciting destinations.
I guess it depends on your motivation for travel to begin with. If you just want to travel to see world then maybe you should just save up and travel. Honestly, I think that saving for long-term travel is a good approach for most people.
For me personally, it wasn’t until I became excited about the work side of things that I got excited about long-term travel. Even when I was on vacation in 2013 pre-nomad, I was still researching and experimenting with some creative ideas.
So, my motivation doesn’t just come from travel but also creation. It wasn’t until I revisited Chiang Mai this year that I realised how much my motivation for creating videos was the driving force behind all the travels.
It might sound a little harsh but my advice would be this: if you’re not excited enough by the idea of a digital nomad lifestyle to remain disciplined and work hard at it, then maybe you should re-consider doing it at all.
As I said earlier, I’m definitely no productivity guru but I have figured out some processes that work for me.
Apart from the fact that I should probably invest in a proper freelance management tool like Wave, Bonsai and AND CO, I’m pretty happy with system I have right now and I’m sure it will evolve like it has done up until this point.
If you’d like to learn more about productivity as a digital nomad, I’d definitely recommend following my friend Tomas Laurinavicius. He’s a blogger and writer who’s all about that topic and does it much better justice then me.
Finally, to end this article I like to hear your thoughts on workflow and productivity as a digital nomad freelancer or entrepreneur. What systems, tools or habits do you use to stay productive? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time,