For many people, becoming a digital nomad is a dream come true.
Whether you found yourself a remote job, built an online store, got the perfect freelance gig… Somehow your income doesn’t depend on your physical location anymore; you are location independent and can start nomad life!
The world is your oyster. You can go on a permanent vacation and live anywhere you want! Right?
The location independent lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular. And many people who have pursued this dream started a life of permanent travel. They became a digital nomad, chasing the 4 hr work week dream, working on a beach in Bali, connected through their trusty laptop.
But, sooner or later comes the moment most digital nomads ask themselves “And now what?”.
After you have had your dose of world travel and figured out that working on a viable business from a beach isn’t as easy, nor always as much fun, as you once thought, you start to realize you want more out of life.
You find out that with all the freedom also comes a lot of uncertainty and unexpected emotional issues.
For the past ten years, I have been living that ‘dream’ of not working a 9 to 5 job and having the freedom to try different versions of the nomad lifestyle.
And during these years I met a lot of digital nomads in different stages of their lives.
As a business coach I enjoy helping digital nomads create the lifestyle and business that fits them.
In this article, I want to address some of the emotional challenges that come with the digital nomad lifestyle. And, most importantly, what to do about it.
If you have been a digital nomad for a while you probably recognize most of these challenges. And if you are new to digital nomad life or still thinking about whether this lifestyle is for you, these challenges and practical solutions will give you some useful things to look out for.
7 Emotional Challenges of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
1. Growing Apart From Friends
One of the most sobering aspects of switching to the digital nomad lifestyle is learning that people that were part of your circle of friends before, turn out not really to be friends.
You realize quickly that a lot of them are just people you spent a lot of time with because of convenience. They might have been colleagues, business contacts or “friends” who lived conveniently close.
You start to recognize that when it takes effort to meet you, these “convenience friends” fail to take the initiative to meet up or at least stay in touch. That doesn’t mean they are bad people, just that your assumption that you had 10-15 “friends” was wrong.
Of course with video chat you can still talk to friends and family but it is a poor substitute for really hanging out. Sometimes just being around the people you care about and sharing experiences is more satisfying than the talking.
This is especially difficult for men since they are not necessarily all that talkative and video chat feels forced.
You might quickly learn that you only have two or so “real friends”. And it takes work to maintain those friendships.
2. Being Alone in a Crowd of Cool People
Living this digital nomad lifestyle you will meet all kinds of interesting people. Fellow travelers like you, who also seem to be living “the dream” and who “get” you.
As great as they are, the problem is that with everyone moving all the time, it is actually quite challenging to find someone you get to know well enough to have a meaningful relationship with.
On the road, all too often conversations with fellow travelers devolve into bragging contests about where you have been, what you have seen, and where you are going next.
“I generally feel motivated to make new friends when I first arrive somewhere. But after a while I just miss having my friends from home around who I know truly care about me and will still be in my life many years from now.” – quote from a long term digital nomad
Loneliness is becoming a global problem in modern life with serious mental and even physical consequences.
Making friends is a process that takes a while. For people with a “normal” life it kind of happened automatically in high school, at university, or at sports clubs, because there you are forced to spend large amounts of time together.
As a digital nomad, there are much fewer opportunities to do so.
One of the big disappointments of long term travel is meeting people you really like but who you never get to spend enough time with to really build a friendship.
3. Work-Life Balance
It is often said that an entrepreneur is willing to work 80 hour weeks in order to avoid working 40 hour weeks for someone else.
If you do have that all-consuming project in your life, as a digital nomad it can be very difficult to separate work from life.
Because there often isn’t enough of a routine and no physical separation between your personal space and your workplace, you can work almost anywhere, anytime.
Add to that the fact that digital nomads often find themselves in different time zones from their clients, and any type of normal work schedule is gone.
If you’ve been a digital nomad for a while you probably know this feeling: you are in an absolutely fantastic location, but you can’t really enjoy it because you are constantly thinking about work.
Nothing takes the fun out of traveling as much as that pesky work ethic… The feeling that you should be working instead of frolicking around under this gorgeous waterfall on some tropical island. After all, you told everyone you were gonna make it as a digital nomad, right?
4. The Stress of the Lack of Routine
The blessing and curse of nomad life, moving to a new place regularly, is that everything is new.
The constant moving between places means you are constantly at a higher level of alertness and you need to be more vigilant. There is a lack of routine in your life and more unpredictability.
But don’t get me wrong, this is what most people are looking for when going for the location independent life and it is one of the great perks of being a digital nomad.
At the same time however, it also means that everything takes a little more effort. Just navigating daily life is a mental challenge. Something as simple as hunting down a reliable Wifi signal can take away hours from your working day!
And if you are just traveling, this is all part of the fun. But if you are trying to get a business going while traveling or you have to keep your clients or employer happy, this can get very frustrating. And it reduces the time you have to actually get work done.
I know, it seems whiny to complain about stress as a digital nomad. After all, to the outside world you seem to be living the dream! What could be more relaxing than a permanent vacation?
But as much as you might once have wanted to move away from routine, there are good sides to routine. Routine helps you to navigate day-to-day life without any mental effort and allows you to focus on being productive.
Another challenge of the location independent lifestyle is not having a physical work environment.
It sounds cool to take your laptop to a coffee shop to get some work done, and you might enjoy it a lot. But if, like me, you have seen the inside of dozens of coffee shops all over the world, you have probably also reached the stage where you will have to admit it isn’t always the most efficient way to get your work done.
It can be difficult to focus when the cafe gets crowded, the internet can suddenly stop working, the cafe might close while your work was finally flowing… And don’t get me started on bad chairs and backaches!
Having a physical workspace where you sit down to work is an important sub-conscious trigger to get your brain to focus.
Dynamic environments such as hostels, coffee shops, and beach bars are very distracting and make it difficult to get into the proper mindset to get stuff done.
Just having a quiet place to work with stable Wifi, a desk and chair that don’t wreck your back and something as simple as a second screen can make your working hours so much more productive.
This is one of the main reasons why coworking spaces have become so popular in recent years.
6. Lack of Purpose
Making money is not much of a satisfactory purpose in life.
You will find many digital nomads in places like Bali, Chiang Mai or Playa del Carmen who make an (online) income that would never be enough to sustain themselves back home. But, they have changed their way of living, cut out many things that made their old lives expensive, and moved to a cheaper part of the world.
And it is that simple: if your income is larger than your expenses, you can keep it up indefinitely.
This is a huge lesson for most people; the realization that you don’t actually need all that much money if you prioritize certain things in life over others. Cutting down on expenses is a great exercise in life.
But, sooner or later, just barely covering your expenses to survive is not enough anymore. And with that “barely-getting-by-income” comes a lot of uncertainty. Internet income is fickle, trends change, business models are made obsolete in a matter of months.
As humans, a big part of what drives us is having something to aim for. A project or cause that is bigger than ourselves in order to feel useful and valuable and stay motivated.
We want some kind of legacy. This can be a book, a family, an organization, a religion, a business… Something that makes an impact in the world.
Permanent travel in itself, as appealing as it is at first, is also not that great of a purpose. After a while, it can become a routine and a grind as much as office life was, only with nicer scenery and more isolation.
I have seen this happen to many digital nomads. And this is when they start asking themselves “And now what?”
7. The Stress of Not Enough Stress
At the other end of the spectrum, for the few that achieve the dream of making enough passive income, a completely different challenge is that suddenly they don’t have anything to stress about anymore!
When people talk about stress, the usual worry is having too much of it. But, not having enough stress is as much of a problem as having too much stress!
Stress helps our body to alter its physical state, to feel more alert and motivated. You need something important to stress about in life.
If you don’t have an important thing to worry about and can’t do anything constructive to work on this, you lose perspective.
You risk becoming lethargic and too relaxed which dulls the mind and can easily allow addictive behaviors to set in.
Constant partying, gaming, watching Netflix, or checking your social media is not a recipe for a happy life.
They can eat up so much of your time that you really start to lead another version of zombie office life. The only difference is that instead of spending eight hours a day at a desk with some pointless job, you find yourself on the couch of your (beautiful) house in Bali, watching pointless videos or social media for hours on end.
How Do You Deal With These Challenges of Digital Nomad Life?
“Living a nomadic life can be tough. Those glamorous moments we share on social media is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything that’s underneath is the reality.
And sometimes we are just so tired of it that we start to doubt our choices and this lifestyle. And that is fine too. You can stop, settle for a while and then see what happens.” – a quote from a digital nomad that really resonated with me
If you are new to the digital nomad lifestyle some of the things listed above might sound farfetched. “Why would I spend the day watching Netflix while I am on a beautiful island?” But if you have been a digital nomad for a while, you probably recognize most of this.
And you then probably understand why digital nomads at some point ask themselves “And now what?”.
Some digital nomads decide to go home, others decide to create a home base and travel from there (which is what I did in Valencia), and some continue to travel and find a way to make it fulfilling.
A location independent life is one of the ultimate luxuries: the freedom to design a life that is optimized for you.
But, good things are not going to happen automatically in your life. You have to find out what you want this optimized life to look like. And then you have to actively design it, so that it works for you.
In fact, if you allow it, even a location independent life can become a grind just as the dreaded office job you worked so hard to escape.
The default path of constant hedonism might look appealing at first but in the medium term, most people find it to be a waste of time.
If you don’t take control, if you don’t think about what you want your digital nomad life to be like, it probably never will be half as good as it could be.
My Tips For Creating A Digital Nomad Life That Works For You
1. First of All: Slow Down!
It is not because you can travel all the time that you HAVE to.
Of course, there is a big world out there to discover, but you don’t have to see it all within the first year!
Living out of a suitcase (or a backpack), changing location all the time takes up a lot of your energy. Energy that you probably need to make your location independent career or business work.
And apart from that, it is not a great way to experience new cities or destinations. In between work you won’t have much time to really get to know a place if you are only there for a few days or weeks. So, slow down and enjoy your new, temporary home!
Many successful digital nomads have pinpointed a number of bases they come back to. They tend to spend 3-6 months in a place where they find a social network, good places to work from and anything else that they need to feel grounded and productive.
2. Do Things on Purpose
When you want to travel, travel. When you need to work, work.
When you need social interaction and friends, make time and invest in (re)building relationships.
What I often see with digital nomads is that because they now have this freedom, they also feel the pressure to do it all. Wanting to do everything at the same time turns everything into a mediocre experience.
By blocking off time for trips and work projects, you will be able to better separate life and work. This will help you focus.
Yes, that means making a *gasp* schedule and setting yourself deadlines. But, the secret here is to make a schedule of the day you want, not the day you think you should have.
3. Do Things WITH Purpose
Escaping the grind is a great goal at first, but after a while, it is not enough to just run away from something. You will also need to define what you are running towards.
You need a worthwhile goal in life; something big enough to matter.
Vagabonding around the world for a while is definitely worth doing but for 99% of people, it’s not enough as a long term goal.
You need to redesign a new normal for yourself and build a new life that gives you the necessary social connections, purpose, and sense of belonging while avoiding the sense of getting trapped in a grind.
Constant travel is not the only option as a digital nomad. In fact, very few people can make it work in combination with running a successful remote business or having a successful location independent career.
Everything in life is a tradeoff. Running away from an office job doesn’t mean you don’t have to compromise anymore. It just means that you are forced to make different compromises.
If you have a clear purpose in mind, it is a lot easier to choose your tradeoffs.
4. Define Your Own Location Independent Life
The problem with an off the beaten track lifestyle that becomes popular, is that all of a sudden it becomes a beaten track.
The digital nomad stereotype is now well established. Unfortunately, living out a stereotype is rarely satisfying.
If you want to create the type of location independent lifestyle that works for you, you will have to work to define your own life formula. And that is not an easy process!
Location independence is a great tool to redefine your life on your terms. Just don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow a certain formula!
Different Digital Nomad Lifestyles For Different People
Yes, creating a location independent lifestyle that works for you comes with challenges. And some digital nomads will decide that nomad life is not for them.
But it definitely can be an incredible lifestyle and I hope my tips will help you to create the version that fits you!
Other Interesting Articles About the Digital Nomad Lifestyle:
- A Digital Nomad’s Guide to Bali, Indonesia
- Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, for Digital Nomads
- A Digital Nomad’s Guide to Medellin, Colombia
- Why Spain is a Great Destination for Digital Nomads
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