Digital Nomads: Productivity & Working Remotely

On some days, working from home can feel like a luxury. On others—especially when my kids are around, or I can’t stop lingering by the pantry to seek out a snack—it feels impossible. I’m constantly trying to figure out the right balance between having an established office set-up and working remotely.

The concept of being a “digital nomad” is one that a lot of people have embraced in recent years: thanks to the internet, many people’s jobs are no longer bound to an office. Some choose to work from home, others cafés, and others choose to travel the world while working.*

However I, along with many others, sometimes (and I’m being generous here) struggle with staying productive. When you work your own hours, or in your own space, it is up to you to get the work done.

So, how do digital nomads stay productive?

An article in Fast Company some years ago highlighted the benefits of setting up shop at a cafe— a change in environment, for example, or ending the (perhaps loving but nevertheless distracting) co-worker interruptions that comes with anonymity. (Swap “co-worker” for “elementary kid” in my case.)

Not only that, but studies have shown that the hum of a cafe—a certain decibel level of constant noise from conversation and espresso machines—can boost productivity. They found that some noise (around 70 decibels) is better than none. Of course there are apps that will recreate the ambient noise for you, like Noisli, Ambiance, of Coffitivity—from which you can select “morning murmur” at a cafe as your soundtrack. For me, the constant smell of coffee is also a nice productivity perk.

Fun fact: I’ve actually used a coffee shop soundtrack at a coffee shop when the conversation happening next to me was too interesting to tune out on.

Here’s my set-up:  

The right bag. Since you don’t have an already-set-up desk waiting for you at an office (assuming you’re working away from home) having the right bag is essential. A bag with the right amount of pockets and divisions can save you a lot of time while “setting up station” at a café. There is nothing worse than interrupting your workflow to find that one pen at the bottom of your bag. I’m using the Transport Tote above, which is actually fairly pocket-less, but also love the options by MZ Wallace (which I wrote about here—so many pockets) and the Everlane Day Tote. Carhartt bags are really practical for biking, etcetera. 

Laptop. I have a 13″ MacBook, and chose to prioritize portability. 

Wireless mouse and mousepad. Sometimes I look a little crazy when I pull this out, but I’m so much faster (and my wrist feels so much better) if I use a mouse. The important thing is that your setup works for you.

Paper and pen. I’m still an analog notetaker at heart. I love these dotted notebooks (bullet journals) and these fine Muji pens

A planner. See above. I can’t quit them: I feel like getting a new one is like getting a new chance at being organized. Aron just got me this task planner. I’ve heard this one is really nice, too. 

Noise-canceling earbuds. These Bose earbuds are my pick because they’re amazing on an airplane. But they’re great in a cafe, too, and they have a mic for making phone calls. (For which I promise I always step outside.) And since you never know what interesting conversation is waiting around the corner (or at the next table down) they’re always handy to have.

Wallet, keys, sunglasses, and a bottle of water. 

iPhone—that can act as a HotSpot. I’ve been foiled by slow Wifi or 2-hr time limits. If you want to be certain your productivity won’t be shot when someone starts downloading a movie at the table next to you, this can be a backup. (That said, one day when the connection was lagging, I just opened a document offline and started writing and I got so much more done! It removed the temptation to check Instagram.)

I’m curious: Do you work remotely? (It seems like so many offices are going to open cubicle plans these days, how can you not?) What’s your setup when you do? Do you make rules for yourself—like only checking email or social media at certain times or intervals?

And, if you work and travel, how does that work (pun intended)?

*Recently I talked to a 24-year-old recent-college-grad who is self-employed and works remotely in social-media marketing. A digital nomad herself, she spends many weeks per year traveling abroad while keeping up with her work. Here’s her take on it:

“Discipline is something I struggle with, so what worked for me was upping the stakes: Before, I worked for myself remotely part-time and also had a part-time office job. Even if I didn’t finish my own work, at least one pay-check was guaranteed at the end of the month. And then one day, my supervisor told me they would not be extending my contract; I found out later she did it so that I would be forced to show myself my own worth working for myself full time (she knew me well).

In the end, I try very hard to remember my “why.” On days that even getting out of bed seems like a struggle, I ask myself: why are you doing this? The answer tends to be very clear: so I can travel the world. So I can turn 8-hour work shifts into 8-hour flights across the world (while working).

I recommend really figuring out your “why” and having it handy for those harder days.”

How do you stay productive? 

P.S. More on getting organized and a calendar wall.

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