It’s a lifestyle many long-term travelers dream about: Combining a nomadic existence with paid writing gigs.
While the group of full-time travel freelancers may not be large, it is a growing one. Without a home base or fixed schedule, your biggest struggle is to find a balance between traveling and working.
You search for a way to silence that voice in our head, the one that nags, “Shouldn’t you be sitting behind your laptop?” when you’re exploring a beautiful town.
The same one that may argue “Shouldn’t you be visiting that historic site right now instead of sitting behind a laptop?”
After 10 years of working in a freelance duo while continuously on the road, my partner Coen Wubbels and I still haven’t found the perfect setup. Flexibility with regard to when and where we work turns out to be inherent in our unscheduled, nomadic lifestyle.
However, we have learned a couple of tricks that have silenced that nagging voice that tells us to work more, even if it’s only temporary. Over the years we have tried different systems, and I guess we will continue to do so as circumstances change.
Let me share some of those ideas with you.
1. Work the first few hours in the morning
When you commit to working in the morning, that time behind the computer becomes a routine that follows breakfast (or, if you’re an early riser, is followed by breakfast). No need to feel guilty the rest of the day — you’ve done your work.
The biggest advantage is having a rhythm in what otherwise may already be a far-from-organized way of living.
For me, this has worked especially well when I’m working on a bigger project, one that needs time in between writing sessions for reflection. I find it easy to pick up the story again the next morning.
On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention this same rhythm can easily be broken. Work is put off until the next day, and the next, and before you know it you have a backlog. It can take quite an effort to get back into that rhythm again.
2. Pick one or more fixed days per week to work
For no particular reason, we scheduled every Sunday and Monday as our working days for a while.
For Coen this system works great, because when he sets himself behind that laptop to process all his photos, he wants to keep going until he is finished.
However, as with the first idea above, it doesn’t always work. There are many reasons for this schedule to fall through as well. For example, you get an invitation from a local to join the family BBQ. Why are you traveling? To, among other reasons, meet local people! And off you go, enjoying that steak instead of writing a story.
3. Pick offline and online days
With the second method we initially made the mistake of finding WiFi on Sunday. Before we knew it, the day was spent on catching up on email, Facebook and what have you. It didn’t give us a feeling of having accomplished much.
Hence we tweaked this strategy: Sunday would be an offline day, preferably outdoors, rather than at a restaurant or hotel, away from socializing opportunities in real life as well as digitally. We’d prepare everything that needed to be sent or researched the next day. Monday would be an online day.
When we stick to this schedule it works very well and we are incredibly productive, while having more than enough time to travel as well.
4. Give yourself time to socialize online
From one extreme we went to the other: Initially we were so focused on getting our work done on Monday, that we’d go weeks without socializing digitally, not catching up enough with friends and family.
Note that while WiFi may be available pretty much everywhere in the United States and South America, where we have traveled for the last several years, this availability is far from common.
As a result, we added extra online time to our schedule so that after checking off our to-do lists, we had time for everything else we wanted to do online.
5. Let go of wanting to see or do it all
No matter how long your visa permits you to stay, you generally can’t see and do everything anyway.
Either for reasons of limited time, or simply because there is so much to see and do, it becomes overwhelming. You need periods of rest.
At times we combine a time-out from traveling, and work for a longer period of time. We lived on a ranch in Argentina for four months. Later, we rented an apartment in Surinam for almost a year.
For shorter periods of time we may hit the beach or a beautiful rough campsite for a week or two.
6. Be selective in whom you work for
Some magazines may pay very well but are a hassle to work with. Payments don’t always come through, and requests for edits (and more edits, and more edits) can wear you down.
There are a number of reasons why corresponding with an editor may take more of your time than the actual work. This, obviously, can be a nuisance but it is even more aggravating when you have a lifestyle where you don’t have daily access to WiFi.
Just like editors want to work with reliable contributors, we like working with reliable editors. Even if the pay isn’t as high as the magazine’s competitor, we choose the reliable editor who is easy to work with.
It saves time, energy, and frustration.
7. Be reliable
We have a number of magazines we contribute to regularly. For some we don’t even have to pitch; these magazines follow our journey through a monthly feature or column.
At other outlets, we know that when we pitch, our story ideas are (almost) always accepted; the editors know what they will get. It saves us, and them, a lot of correspondence and thus time — time we can spend exploring our beautiful world.
While the above-mentioned schedules have changed as we go, we have established one firm schedule for regular contributions to particular magazines: round the 15th of each month we find WiFi that is good enough to send batches of large-sized photos to different print magazines.
Outside the western world it can be a headache to find such a place, but since we limit this to once a month, we generally succeed. The editors know that around the 15th they will receive our work.
What system has worked best for you? I love to hear your tips in the comment section below.