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Paris and a Mouse

Laptop at an outdoor cafe with an NA beer.

Paris and a Mouse

Lessons Learned In Becoming A Digital Nomad

On November 27, 2023, we hit our one-year mark of being digital nomads. While that time went by very quickly, we learned a ton of lessons along the way. The first one being that this is not for everyone. 
We’re in a sweet spot where our children are grown, but none of them have had babies yet. And we’re not taking care of aging parents, giving us even more flexibility. We also have jobs that allow us to work wherever we are. When we did our trial run earlier this year, we worked hard to assure Clay’s boss and my clients that we would be almost as accessible in Europe as we are in the States. That worked, and we have their buy-in to spend much of our time working from our new flat in Portugal moving forward.

Here are some of the things we learned, along with some mistakes you might be able to avoid if you’re considering doing something similar. 

Paris Doesn’t Suck 

When you begin the process of completely reinventing your life, it’s not the best idea to start in one of the busiest and most frenetic cities in the world. Paris is absolutely gorgeous and there are ten million things to do at all times of day and night. We definitely tried to do them — while dealing with a 9-hour time difference, lingering colds and working full-time. After a week in the City of Lights, we had eaten a ton of cheese, explored the city through the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, visited five museums, seen the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, and Clay even took a Cordon Bleu cooking class. All of that was wonderful, and we agreed that neither one of us liked Paris very much. Weird, right? Everyone loves Paris.

Jackie and Clay stare their computers, trying to figure out their rhythm.
Smaller cities are much easier to navigate, especially when you’re trying to figure out your new lifestyle.

Now that some time has passed, we’ve realized we hadn’t given the city a proper chance. We were trying to do too much at the same time we were trying to settle into a brand new lifestyle. 

We moved on to Lyon from Paris, which is where we should have started. It’s a smaller city, with plenty of museums and even better food, but it’s not nearly as busy as Paris. And we never felt like we were taking our lives in our hands when crossing the street. It was in Lyon, that we were able to figure out our new schedules, with time for work, play and work again, all while taking care of our clients. 

Takeaway: Don’t visit the big cities until you know what you’re doing. And we’ll try Paris again now that we have some experience with this. 

Jackie and Clay on a boat
By working in the mornings and evenings, we were able to explore new cities during the day.

How Time Works

Managing an 8- to 10-hour time difference was probably one of our biggest challenges. After several weeks, we finally landed on a schedule where we would work in the mornings, explore our new city for a few hours in the middle of the day, then come back and start having meetings around 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening when our clients and associates were starting their days. 

Once we’d finally fine-tuned this schedule, however, we came back to the U.S. and realized the value of having all day to get things done before our clients came online. 

Takeaway: Figure out what works best with your clients and your body clock, and schedule accordingly. Don’t try to do everything at the same time. Seems obvious, yeah?

Technology is Your Friend 

For most digital nomads, Wi-Fi is a requirement, and when there are two of you doing Zoom calls and sending files, it needs to be pretty fast. We didn’t think that all the way through when we started booking Airbnbs, which meant working in coffee shops in many of the cities we visited and actually having to move to a different location in Venice when we couldn’t get the Wi-Fi to work at all. That was after Clay spent an evening freezing outside a nearby cafe and nursing an NA beer to justify using their Wi-Fi. 

Takeaway: Confirm the Wi-Fi capabilities with your host. Don’t just trust what the listing says. 

Choose Your Accommodations Wisely

Exterior patio with tables, chairs, umbrella and brown rug
Sometimes your workstation is outside,
which was lovely in September. in Reno.

We wrote a whole article on how to choose an Airbnb, but for our needs, there were some key points. Besides the above-mentioned Wi-Fi, we need a place to set up our computers and workstations. In most of the places we’ve stayed, that has been the kitchen table, which not every place has. Said kitchen table should also be close to an electrical outlet to avoid trippage (especially important when one of you is a klutz), so this is something else we now know to look for. 

Takeaway: Understand exactly what you need when you’re choosing where you’re going to stay. And if the listing isn’t clear, reach out to the host, explain your situation, and ask them. 

Travel Days

Though we have moved to a new place approximately 30 times in the last year, every single one of them has come with a certain level of stress. This has been especially true on flight days, as trains are easy and cars (in the U.S.) even easier, mostly because we’ve had more control of our schedules. Taking our time packing means less confusion on the other end, and this can be tough when you’re also answering emails and phone calls. 

Also, make sure you understand the 24-hour timetable so you don’t get to the train station thinking you’re early and then finding out you’ve already missed it.

If you’re doing this with another person, remember that you’re on the same team, and arguing doesn’t solve anything. 

Takeaway: Try to travel on the weekends or another day when you have less work stuff happening. 

Settle in Fast

After much experience, we’ve gotten very good at settling into each new home quickly. One of us puts the clothes away while the other sets up our workstations, and we’re usually ready to get started again within an hour of arriving at a new place. Not having unopened boxes around or having to get our socks out of suitcases also helps us feel a little more tethered. We agreed early on that we would call every new place we live “home.” So instead of saying, “Are you ready to go back to the Airbnb?” we say, “Are you ready to go home?” 

We also try to replicate our “at-home” habits. We went months before realizing we hadn’t turned on a TV (and I like TV!) or spent the day in our pajamas. We were exploring like we were on vacation all the time, which can be exhausting. Doubly so when you’re also working full-time. 

Takeaway: Put your things away in each new location you live in. 

Jackie and Jill standing on a golf course.
We also try to build in visits to friends and family whenever we can. It was great catching up with my sister and brother-in-law in Oregon.

Stay Connected to your People 

When we’re in Reno, we try to have Family Dinner at least a few times a month, in addition to seeing our kids and other family members one-on-one. We’re also committed to spending regular time with our friends. So when we’re traveling, we build in FaceTime calls and dinner dates on Zoom. 

Takeaway: Relationships matter, and they require attention. 

You’re Not in Control

View of a cosmopolitan street from a window
Our apartment in Istanbul was across from a hospital and a main thoroughfare. Fun times.

Well, you are, but only to a point, as there is so much that can change quickly, like flight schedules or cancelled tours. You’re also going to have minor annoyances when you end up in a place with low water pressure, scratchy too-small towels or 24-7 traffic noise.

This is probably my biggest travel lesson overall: you have to be adaptable and able to adjust to your circumstances. The secondary lesson on this one — you’re more resilient than you think. 

Takeaway: Learning to roll with new circumstances will help you in almost every area of your life. 

About That Mouse 

I am very comfortable working on a laptop on the couch or wherever I happen to be. But that’s different when working on a laptop all the time. When we started this adventure and Clay brought a mouse, I’ll admit I was a little judgey, as I’m a pro with a touch pad.

After six months without a mouse or a wireless keyboard, my shoulders were doing the judging.

I have a mouse now, but I’m still feeling the pain of having my joints crunched over a small keyboard with only one small monitor.  

Jackie and Clay doing a selfie against a Porto wall
We’re looking forward to setting up our offices in Portugal and occasionally leaving our computers at home.

Takeaway: Invest in your technology and ergonomics, or you’ll be spending that money on chiropractors and massage therapists.

The Biggest Takeaway

One thing we still haven’t figured out how to do is take time off. From the outside, I’m guessing it looks like we’re always on vacation, but both of us have probably worked harder this year than in the past. That’s certainly by choice, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.

Just because you can work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should.

Now we’re trying to figure out how to go somewhere without our computers. Check back with us in March to see if we’ve succeeded.

Jackie Shelton, APR, is a strategic communications veteran who, after 30 years still has a hard time focusing on one particular aspect, so she has stopped trying.

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