Traveling as a remote worker has many challenges. One of the challenges we don’t talk about too often is the difficulty of balancing work time with time spent adventuring and exploring a destination. Finding the middle ground can be challenging for many travelers: too much ruminating on a fear of missing out can result in low-quality work or disappointed bosses/clients; on the other hand, if we spend excess time and energy on work we may waste valuable time to see, explore, and learn about the world and the location we are visiting.
Personally, I tend a bit towards the latter. It’s easy for me to zero in on a project and work relentlessly – even if a pristine beach, national park, or UNESCO site is just outside my door. As a digital nomad and a mental health professional by training, I’ve learned strategies to balance and boundary my work and personal time on the road. The strategies explained below help me to deliver high-quality work at a satisfactory level of production while making sure that I make the most out of my time in a location.
1. Schedule your time
As a career digital nomad, my number one tip for balancing tourist time with work time is scheduling. Without a schedule, I find myself feeling guilty on days spent as a full-time tourist and filled with FOMO on days that I spend in my apartment or Airbnb in front of a keyboard. A schedule allows me to relax into my day – whatever type of day I’m having – knowing that my time is planned in a way that will balance my need for adventure with the requirements of my job.
Using a simple scheduling app or even Google calendar can help provide what mental health professionals call “containment.” Knowing that I have a schedule that I will follow helps contain my anxiety about working too much, working too little, or wondering if I am missing out on adventures.
Pro tip: Be faithful to your schedule. It’s okay to call an audible and make last-minute changes sometimes, but if you consistently violate your own boundaries by ignoring your schedule, then the schedule loses its potency as a tool to help manage your work-life balance.
2. Make sure work has a beginning and an end.
One thing we learned, collectively, during the challenges of 2020 was the value of having a commute (See research journal article: The Mindful Commute). Many individuals found that without the “bookending” of having a physical practice and change in location to begin and end their workday, work-related anxieties began spilling more into personal times. The same can be true for remote workers who are working in destinations far from home, using their living space as their workspace.
One way to prevent work stress from bleeding into time spent enjoying a destination is by creating a beginning and ending practice for your work “shifts” – kind of like a mental commute to and from work.
We don’t really think about it much, but rituals play an important role in modern life. If you think about it, the way you wake up, the food or drink you prepare first thing in the morning, and the way you transition into your workday has rituals that have probably remained fairly consistent throughout your adult life. These rituals actually serve an important psychological function: they perch on the edge of our consciousness and quietly inform our brain that things are okay, everything is normal, and our day is at least somewhat predictable.
When we travel, we often lose these rituals. Some digital nomads may seem to thrive in this lack of predictability, but for most of us, intentionally adding practices that we can use (no matter where we are in the world) to begin and end a workday can help us cope with the demands of international remote work and thrive in both our professional tasks and personal adventures.
3. Create a mission statement.
People tend to be more satisfied when we know that we are achieving a defined goal, for a defined reason. There’s no better way to take advantage of this to craft your own mission statement.
Your mission statement might vary- and that’s ok. Do you work solely for the purpose of being able to travel? Do you do the work you do because you believe it matters and you have something valuable to offer the world through it? Considering these things, how they intersect their personal values, and how we want to align ourselves in the world based on how we understand our work to function in our lives can be helpful.
In recent years, psychologists, social workers, and organizational psychologists have been low-key obsessed with SMART goals. If you’ve worked in corporate culture you may already be familiar with the concept. Smart goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. They help us, and those who supervise us, evaluate how we are progressing towards a goal. Smart goals can help flesh out a mission statement and help us communicate more clearly with bosses and clients about what we’ve accomplished.
Once you have created a mission statement for your travel-based remote work, keep it visible, revisit it, and remind yourself of your mission statement when it comes time to reevaluate your work, travel, or travel remote work lifestyle.
4. Set vocational boundaries.
In modern work culture, it’s common to struggle with vocational boundaries: many jobs require that employees work above and beyond the traditional 9-to-5 hours. Even though this is a common conflict, for remote workers who traveling this conflict can be amplified.
Often, when good, conscientious employees are working as remote workers, they feel pressure to prove to their boss or coworkers that they can be just as productive as anyone else on the team even though they are working while traveling. This can be a set up for managers or coworkers to take advantage of your work ethic to ask you to take on more than you can reasonably handle or than you are paid to do.
The best time to set vocational boundaries is before you set out on your remote work adventure. The second-best time to set vocational boundaries is now. Communicating clearly what you are and are not available for and when you are available for it (see above, re:scheduling, and consider making your work calendar visible to your team) communicates to your bosses and coworkers that when you are working you are fully committed, but your work hours are boundaried in a way that supports you both vocationally and in your travel pursuits.
5. Stay active in communities back home.
While good boundaries and communication with your work team might be somewhat intuitive for many remote workers, this one might not be: seek to stay actively and intentionally engaged in the communities you left behind. Why? Because community and personal relationships are, significant research asserts, one of the bedrocks of physical and mental health. In fact, it’s a major factor in the CDC’s social determinants of health research.
Even if you identify as a loner, checking in via Skype with your Dungeons and Dragons group, talking a friend into video-calling you in to attend a coworker’s wedding, or planning an online happy hour with your hobby club back home can help maintain connections and give you a sense of well-being while you are away.
The longer you’re gone, the harder it will be to stay active in these communities, but relationships take work and the benefits of staying connected are worth the work in the long run.
6. Seek mental health supporting human connection.
Even with social connection through your remote coworkers and virtual connections with your friends and family back home, if the quarantine of 2020/2021 has taught us anything, it’s that in order to thrive, we all need face-to-face connections with other humans.
Personal therapy. Personal therapy is available online in any corner of the world that has a stable internet connection. Therapy can provide a valuable space to process the thoughts and feelings that being away from home can bring up- leaving us more able to enjoy traveling without feeling quite so emotionally and psychologically isolated.
Seek out real connections. For some people, meeting people while traveling is easy due to comfort staying in hostels, a highly social personality, or ease in using dating apps. For introverts, connecting with others while traveling requires more work. Booking small group tours, airbnb experiences, or even just challenging yourself to strike up a conversation with a stranger once a day are all good ways to get the face-to-face connection we need to thrive.
For more information on maintaining mental health during long term travel, check out my article on the topic.
7. Allow play to disrupt your work.
Finally, take time to play. No, not just taking time off to check items off your travel itinerary, but play. Play is spontaneous, enjoyable, and done just for the sake of doing it (rather than task-oriented). Play shows up in many different ways for different people, but research is clear that people who make space to play actually work more effectively and are less likely to burnout than people who don’t experience play regularly.
Play can take on so many different forms that it’s difficult to describe just how to do it- but chances are you have a pretty good sense of the things that bring you intrinsic joy just by doing them.
For me, play while I’m traveling as a remote worker might look like wandering aimlessly through a beautiful city enjoying the sites, sitting in a café and writing in my travel journal, practicing my travel hobbies, or playing a spontaneous game with a fellow traveler.
While remote work has many challenges and often results in burnout or dissatisfaction with the experience, there are things you can do to maintain a healthy work/life balance while traveling as a remote worker. By integrating play into your daily routine, being clear about your boundaries with yourself and others, creating a schedule and sticking to it, intentionally connecting with new acquaintances and communities back home, and deliberately book-ending day, you can significantly increase your chances of having a satisfying, enjoyable experience as a traveling remote worker.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a female, fat, one-bag traveler, and journalling it all on WanderBig.com