There’s no denying the fact that leading a nomadic lifestyle comes with a high potential for chaos. You’re constantly on the road, waking up in new places, and lugging around all of your belongings in the smallest suitcase or backpack you can manage. It’s understandable to feel a bit overwhelmed just thinking about it.
But people do it, and do it well, so there must be a secret, right? Not quite. It’s as simple as establishing a daily routine. Yes, it sounds boring, and if you’re like me it’s quite difficult to put yourself inside any boundaries. But it doesn’t have to be as boring (or as hard) as it sounds.
You’ve probably heard about Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey’s celebrated morning routine. He’s up at 5am every day for meditation, exercise, and coffee - in that order. He’s in the office at Twitter by 9am, then at Square after lunch. He’s networking or doing more work in the evenings and in bed by 11pm. Every. Single. Day. It sounds intense, but Jack’s credited his focus and sharp mind through the years to this routine, most concretely to meditation and exercise.
Jack’s advantage is that he’s only going between 3 locations, his home and his two offices. So how does one effectively get into a routine on the road? The first step is to define something I call “me time”. This is something that you inject into each day that serves as the anchor - it grounds you, and from there you can plan your entire day around it. It should be the governing construct for your day, and thus for your routine.
For me, it’s exercise. As soon as I get to a new place I make sure to join the local gym. Here in Porto, I’ve decided it makes most sense for me to work out in the mornings, so I pick classes at the gym that work with that schedule. If the classes don’t work, I’ll do yoga or go for a run. While I’m working out, I’ll think about my goals for the day and start to put some basic structure around those.
I noticed a similar trend when I spoke with a few nomadic developers I’ve met here in Porto.
Ken, a developer from Philadelphia, has been working on the road for the last year. Before that he spent time living in Melbourne and Edinburgh, and he doesn’t have any plans to stop traveling at the moment. His trick is to set an alarm each night for 10:00 the next morning, including a note that explains what his goal is for the day. Sometimes the goals are work related, like completing a new feature. But he also sets personal goals, like posting a new drawing each week. From there, he has a general construct for his day that he likes to follow. The reminder is important because it helps him stay focused.
Ellen, a data engineer from Berlin, has a similar strategy. She structures her day around a block of time she sets aside each morning to self-organize. Combined with a general framework for what the day should look like, the time in the morning allows her to apply her goals and to-dos to produce a plan for the day. She also makes sure to separate her workplace from her home or places she goes to have fun, which allows her to be productive during the hours she designates as work time.
Johan, tech lead and co-founder of a startup based in Amsterdam, thinks about it a bit differently. He likes to separate the routine he keeps at his home base from the one he has while on the road, since he doesn’t travel for extended periods of time. But, there are similarities between his routine at home and on the road. He has to start the day with a good breakfast, and then a standup meeting with his team. Starting the day right and maintaining a connection with his colleagues ground him.
As you can see, the “me time” construct isn’t unique. It shows up in the routines of many.
Take Marcus Meurer, an established digital nomad based in Berlin and founder of the DNX conference. He describes his daily routine as “scripted”: breakfast, journaling for 5 minutes, meditation, and exercise. After that he starts working on his “MIT”, or most important task of the day, which he has defined the night before. Marcus credits his success and happiness to that 5 minutes of journaling and the strict focus on accomplishing one task each day.
In addition to setting aside time for yourself and outlining your goals for the day, there are other parts of the daily routine that help establish order in a traveler’s life.
Establish a space for working. This could be a co-working space, a cafe, or even a desk in your room. But creating that real space actually helps create the mental space you need to focus on work when it’s time to start the day and be productive.
Try to wake up at the same time each day. I set my alarm for 8am each day and try to have a workout planned for shortly thereafter. Even if I don’t always wake up at 8, having that plan each day keeps me sane.
Identify your “go-to” spots early on. After I choose my gym and my office/co-working space, I’ll spend a bit of time on Yelp or Google to see where the best grocery stores, cafes, banks, etc. are located nearby. With a bit of trial and error you can usually identify reliable spots on your way to and from your daily routine spots.
Know when to curb your wanderlust. Being on the road is fun, and the chance to explore is likely one of the reasons why you’ve chosen this lifestyle. That being said, I recommend setting aside at least 2-3 nights each week to stay in and not meet friends for drinks or go on a city walk. If you want your time on the road to feel like “normal life”, you’ve got to treat it that way. Sometimes, these nights are my favorite - the opportunity to stay in and have a date with myself!
Make your bed every day. This daily accomplishment is surprisingly satisfying. When you make this a part of your routine it also helps you feel a little more at home.
Get involved in the local scene. Signing up for a weekly dance class, workshop, or meetup group is a great way to not only add more stability to your routine, but also meet people.
Do you think routines are important? What does your “me time” look like? I’d love to hear about it!
Courtney is the Director of Product at Toptal, helping remote freelancers find work from anywhere in the world. She’s worked remotely for most of her career and most recently finished a stint with Hacker Paradise in Porto, Portugal. She’s looking forward to re-establishing her routine at home in SF before inevitably heading back on the road.