My name is Carlo Cretaro, the owner of Next Step Who Knows, a blog focusing on world travel, lifestyle design, and location independence. Together with my girlfriend Florence I’ve been traveling for the last several years to over 40 countries.
After receiving some mentorship from my friend and fellow Irishman Johnny Ward, I dove headfirst into online business. It took a lot of work to get set up, and I had to grind out a lot of freelance writing for pennies a pop at first, but eventually the location-independent dream became a reality for us.
It’s quite easy to get the impression that working from a laptop while traveling is full of lazy days swinging from a hammock on a beach in Thailand, and/or sipping cocktails while you wait for your flight to a new destination.
The harsh reality is that working from the road brings a myriad of headaches that can derail your work schedule without a moments notice.
Yes, there are plenty of lazy days in the sun, but working and traveling brings a lot of problems when it comes to staying productive and focused.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve learned many hard lessons managing my own businesses from a laptop. Some of these lessons have cost me thousands in the way of losing valuable clients.
The main cause of these mistakes on my behalf was productivity – or LACK of it I should say. The lack of consistency in location can easily make it extremely difficult to focus.
Nowadays, I’ve a firm grasp on my business and even when I travel to ‘off-the-beaten-path’ locations, I’m still able to manage my business because I’ve got a system in place. Once you’ve established some rules and a system, you can achieve the work-life balance that so many of us dream about.
And I’ve found ways to squeeze more productivity in during downtime. When you consider that Scott Turow became a best-selling author during the daily train commute to his law firm – as this article points out, you realize the power of one extra hour of productivity per day.
Based on my experiences, the following are six techniques that you can implement into your life to ensure that you stay productive with work while you travel.
1. Have a Rough Schedule
While you won’t have a traditional schedule so to speak, it’s vital that you implement one nonetheless. Routine and consistency is really the first key to getting things done.
When you wake up – decide how many hours you plan to work and stick to it. Flick in timely breaks as well to make sure you keep the brain fresh. Danny’s book provides a great overview of the circadian rhythm, and how to align your workflow to your states of peak alertness for maximum productivity.
(Hint: peaks in body temperature occur at 10:00am and 6:00pm in a normal circadian rhythm.)
Building in periods of rest and renewal at dips in your circadian rhythm is important. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is trying to push myself to pack too much work into one day. Burning yourself out does nothing for staying productive.
Take a break, pat a monkey on the head, visit a temple, and have some fun!
Sometimes I used to find myself working long into the night with no finish time set. Now what I do is just unplug the laptop and when the battery goes dead then so does my brain. Setting a deadline this way also provides a boost to motivate you to work faster.
Just be sure you give yourself enough time to save your work!
(This technique isn’t going to work for those of you that have MacBook’s with a 9-hour battery life!)
2. Create a To-Do List
This could well be the single most important productivity hack for me personally. If you don’t utilize a To-Do list – then why not?
A to-do list can be as simple as a sheet of paper in front of you that outlines the important things that you need to get completed.
I use a combination of a Google Doc and Trello so that I can collaborate with my girlfriend and VA’s.
It makes life so much easier having a visual representation of the important things that are on your plate. Also, ticking items off a list reinforces the fact that you’re making progress throughout the day.
There are a ton of to-do list apps out there, but you just need something as simple as a sheet of paper in front of you. We need to be reminded constantly of what we need to get done for the day, because during working hours it’s so easy to let the mind wander or waste time doing unimportant things online. Writing stuff down is a big part of the game.
3. The Virtual Office
The mobile office isn’t always going to be comfortable and exotic while on the road.
Far from it actually.
This will be especially true if you’re doing a fair amount of traveling as sometimes you’d just end up working from the edge of a bed.
I can’t tell you how many times this has been the case for me here in South America over the past 5 months.
The key is to try and get a room that has a table and chair at least. Lying on a bed with the laptop tucked under the chin for any prolonged period of time is a sure fire way to lose focus.
Working from cafes’ is probably the most productive way that I can work. The endless supply of coffee has nothing to do with this – I swear!
Some cafes can be overly distracting, so just make sure that you pack those headphones in case the noise level is too high. They’re also a neat way to prevent someone from chatting to you – if that’s something you want to avoid as well.
For music, there’s a new service called Brain.FM which plays specialized tracks optimized for maximum mental focus and peak productivity. They also have tracks designed for relaxation and better sleep. App Sumo has a partnership with Brain.FM here (not an affiliate link) where you can get a lifetime membership for a discounted rate of $25.
4. Disconnect the Wi-Fi
If you can complete your work without using the Internet then disconnecting from it can save you tons of time. Trust me on this one. I’ve tried it and it definitely works.
Jonathan Franzen, called the “Great American Novelist” by Time magazine, has famously remarked that he has permanently disabled the internet port from his laptop.
When you work in spaces without wi-fi, there are no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube distractions to peel your eyes away from your work. This also has the added benefit of saving some battery power when you’re working in a café and are unable to find a power point.
Yes – those extra few minutes of battery power add up over time. And more focused time = increased productivity.
Finally, when the sun is out, bring your laptop outside and work in the sun. When light passes through your retina, it releases serotonin, which enhances your mood and energy, and makes you more productive.
5. Have a Wi-Fi Back Up Plan
The lifeblood of all online businesses is Wi-Fi. Not having it when you need it most can literally mean the loss of a client or at least a project.
If you check-into a hostel or hotel with the intention of catching up with work online, then you’re going to get caught with your pants down at some point with a bad (or non-existent) connection.
This happened to me a few months ago after a 16-hour bus journey in Argentina. I needed to get a couple of orders emailed off to a client back in the UK, so I took the receptionists word at the hotel when she said that the Wi-Fi was working.
Long story short… it did not, and my client was ready to chew my head off afterwards.
If you’re going to be traveling or visiting a country for longer than a few days, then it may be worth getting a local SIM card for your phone.
This would allow you to get an Internet data plan so that you could tether it up to your laptop.
I’ve done this in many countries and it’s a real lifesaver when you need a connection. It may seem overkill to a lot of people but when your business depends on it, then it makes perfect sense.
6. Diet and Exercise for Productivity
It’s not as easy to eat healthily and work out while travelling. Yes, it’s definitely possible but it just requires a lot more effort and can end up being quite taxing on the wallet.
However expensive it is and whatever effort it requires, it’s totally worth it as stuffing convenience foods down the hatch day after day coupled with little or no exercise does nothing for focus, productivity and overall health.
Try and grab as much fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy snacks as you can. Cut out the fizzy drinks and replace them with water and fruit juices for a much better long-term kick.
Joining a gym just isn’t feasible if you’re jumping from one location to the next. One solution to this problem I’ve found lately is working out “at home” in the hotel room. I found a pretty cool book that details a high intensity workout in 30 minutes.
Many nomads and frequent travelers report great success with the P90X program, which provides a great deal of variety and can be done from anywhere.
Sitting in front of a laptop for hours on end can really frustrate most people, so make sure you pencil in some time each day to work up a sweat. You’ll find it does wonders for both your mood and your concentration.
Use a stand-up desk whenever possible (sitting for too long creates back-strain, shortens your life span, and makes it hard to sleep). You can create a makeshift stand-up desk by placing a chair on top of a table. A kitchen counter with a book under your laptop to prop it up to eye level can also do the trick.
Finally, there are many condominiums that come with a small gym with a treadmill which you can plop your laptop on to and create a treadmill desk – Mark Zuckerberg style – to improve both health and productivity.
7. Bonus Tip: Breathing Exercises For Productivity
“If you breathe well, you will live long on Earth.” -Sanskrit proverb
At various times, it’s important to flood your system with oxygen. Most of us are not breathing correctly or getting enough oxygen to our cells. We hyperventilate, only getting oxygen to our upper chest but not down through the lowe nervous system, where it could do us a lot of good.
When we fill up our bodies with oxygen, it activates our lymphatic system. This transfers energy to our cells and also acts as the body’s waste disposal network, removing toxins from the body.
Even the US Military has identified the importance of proper breathing and created a program called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training,” or “M-Fit,” to help soldiers deal with stressful combat situations.
As digital nomads, we’re not on the frontlines per se, but there’s no doubt that we face a number of pressures. We’re on the frontlines where productivity and focused is concerned so that we can earn more pesos and keep traveling!
For a simple breathing technique, chapter 10 of Buy Your Own Island offers one of the best and most practical exercises:
- Find a nice, quite place with fresh air.
- Breathe deeply for five seconds, through your mouth. Let the air flow all the way down through your system until it fills your lower belly.
- Hold the air in for ten seconds.
- Slowly exhale all of the air over ten seconds.
- Repeat ten times.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Like a lot of things, improved productivity stems from increased awareness of the situation. By paying careful attention to your own daily work habits and utilizing a few of the above steps that I’ve detailed – you too can start to develop a system that will have a significant impact on your online productivity.
The key is to realize when you’re not being as productive as you could be AND actually taking steps to rectify the issue. Over time, you’ll develop your own system that works best for you and your ideal schedule.