How I Get More Work Done Even When I'm Traveling

Five months ago, I packed up one giant suitcase, my laptop, a protein shaker, and portable workout equipment, and took off to Japan. The plan was that I'd wander around Japan, visit my family in Hong Kong, and be back in the States by January, February at the latest. Well, it's March now and I've just mapped out the next couple of months:

  • March 12 - May 10: Back to Japan
  • May 10 - mid-June: South Korea
  • Mid-June - July-ish: Singapore
  • Beyond... ???

The schedule above is still tentative (at the time of this writing) and doesn't even include possibly shorter trips to places like Taipei or Bali, but all in all, it looks like I won’t be returning for a while. 

Okay, I heard you thinking: "Farewell, poor savings." or "Is she the Nigerian prince I've been hearing from all these years??" 

Actually, my current lifestyle is funded by my own writing and consulting business which allows me to work from anywhere as long as I have an internet connection and able, money-making fingers. I'm beyond thankful I manage to make a respectable living while traveling, albeit my process could probably be better and more efficient. It has certainly had its rough beginnings and is still very much a work-in-progress. 

You may sneer, “Must be nice.”

Listen, the Stephasaurus still gots to eat and earn that dough like most.  There are great upsides and challenges just the same--albeit some different, unorthodox ones. 

The First-World Challenges of Work-Travel

The good of work-travel: The freedom is awesome, and I get to stay long-term in countries that I’d only once dreamed about visiting. 

As a VICE headline put it: "Living as a 'digital nomad' is like one super long vacation." It sort of feels that way, sure, but work and travel are more like oil and water: You can blend the two together, but they'll never quite neatly mix. 

The sort-of bad of work-travel: Aside from the occasional overwhelming homesickness, this whole thing is a challenge to my discipline and work productivity. I don't get *as much* work done as I think I could. I constantly have an itch to explore and play hookey because, hell, I'M IN ANOTHER COUNTRY.

When I first started being a nomad, I thought I was justified in slacking off and deserving rest--an anime binge here and Netflix marathons there--because who really cares? But I was only lying to myself and growing more anxious. There's no joy in "vacationing" and "unplugging" if I'm anxious about (not) working!

Overall, it's an exasperating push-and-pull between needing to get work done and scratching that wanderlust-induced itch but also sometimes just chilling without feeling obligated to travel or explore. Some would call this, hm, what is the word--balance.

So, I had to build a system of habits, mind tricks, and processes to find this "balance" and be able to have occasional shenanigans along the way.

And even though the backdrop to this post is a lifestyle that doesn't apply to most people, the main ideas and the tips I'll share with you are still applicable in any instance where you a) work, b) travel and kinda need to work, c) want to be a productivity ninja. 

The Most Important Idea About Balancing Work-Travel

In this world, there are only three scarce resources that truly matter on a day-to-day basis: time, money, and energy. 

I like to focus on energy, particularly mental energy, because I believe it underpins time and money. For without mental energy, you can't make the decisions to prioritize where to spend your time and money, or put forth the effort, or willpower, to act on them. Think of it as a willpower meter that depletes every time you make a decision, similar to a magic meter in role-playing games.

We think we can push through things if we just grit our teeth, but in reality, there's only so much awesome we can work with in an entire day. At least before we give in to our most primal impulses to binge on junk, go on Visa-inspired sprees, put off important tasks, or veg and do nothing at all. And understanding how mental energy works, its limits, and the things that hurt or help it all relates back to traveling.

'Twas my office for a bit... #fitngeeky #nomadlife #singapore #travel

A photo posted by Stephanie Lee (@superlee7) on

If you think about it, its whole premise is entangled in a series of decisions under the guise of fun and relaxation: Which new thing should I go see today and post on Instagram? What shall I discover? Should I try a new restaurant or stick with that great corner shop? What did this person just say to me [in another language]? Is this guy intentionally ripping me off?

It's all pretty draining.

The biggest energy sucks I've found are from figuring out the logistics in the day-to-day, like whether a coffee shop has WiFi, or if I'm on the right train; or if I'm lost, figuring out how to un-fuck myself (and this goes double when I have to think in another language). It hit me then that having constants in my life--things that I know will be there and would not change, like an office or desk to go to, meals that I can rely on, foods I know I will find at the market, and so on--means I waste less mental energy.

Basically, I'm saying traveling is like a zombie that will eat your brain energy. 

Things got better once I started figuring out how to automate mundane stuff to the best of my ability (like cooking in bulk again and eating breakfast and lunch at home) and generally establishing as many constants as possible. I got more work done, I was more organized, and I had more time to have fun without worrying.   

The Rules, Habits, and Carbs

Realizing that willpower is a limited (yet adaptable) resource is a powerful way to know how to Tetris your priorities. I prioritize ruthlessly and shunt the actions, decisions, and efforts of my day to give my willpower the best fighting chance to dominate before it gets KOed.

I already shared some of my ”productivity hacks" and favorite gear on Lifehacker, but here are some more detailed strategies that can help you get more work done and gain more free time as well:

Single-task to the max

I used to work on a little bit of everything throughout the day, but the quality ended up being piss-poor and I had to put in extra time to fix it. It was a vicious cycle that kept me on a work treadmill.

In order for me to have time off for things I want to do, I work in "batches." Inevitably, it means I'll have days where I work a ton, but then I get ahead and can take a breather for days to do whatever, and repeat. 

Batch work is the idea of grouping "like" things together. The like things could be actual writing, researching, editing, responding to comments and emails, checking social media and email (usually at night for me, when Stateside folks are awake), scheduling posts and things all at once, and anything that wouldn't require you to totally switch mental gears. So, I'll dedicate a chunk of time to doing all of the researching or all of the writing. 

In my case, I'll take it an extra step and batch my writing for different purposes and outlets. Let's say, I'm writing articles for Lifehacker. I'll dedicate that time to only writing articles for Lifehacker. Essentially, this is a way for me to get a bunch of work done now so I can be lazy and dick around later.

take advantage of digital technology 

We're in the 21st century so most of us need to act like it, including myself. I don't utilize and streamline everything with tech as much as I could, but the few tools I do use serve me well.

Built-in scheduling tools in my blog, on YouTube, on Lifehacker's infrastructure, and things like Buffer and TweetDeck help me load up and shotgun a bunch of stuff out into the wild so I don't have to worry about them for days, or if I'm diligent enough, a week at a time. 

I use Evernote for organizing my notes, thoughts, and to-do lists, which I can access at any time on any of my devices. If I'm having trouble being focusing and getting into productivity mode, I would use something like Tomato Timer to start the avalanche, so to speak. 

Do important work in the morning

My willpower meter is topped off in the mornings, so I dedicate them to what I think are the most important tasks. (Of course, I have breakfast and coffee first.) Usually, this is writing an article, planning content or new posts, or helping a client become awesome-r.

With big-ticket items out of the way early on, I have time later in the day to squander my remaining mental energy on exploring.

front-load work early in the week

Following the idea of doing a bunch of work in the mornings, I also work my heaviest days between Sunday and Wednesdays, and start to taper off from there. It allows me to avoid getting overly stressed out from constantly racing to reach deadlines. 

Eat regular meals

I never put off a meal because low blood sugar is terrible for making decisions (plus, you don't want to see me hangry). Indeed, a study on willpower in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that even small decisions could suck up your brain's glucose and hurt your self-control.

Since I'm in Asia, I make it a point to fit plenty of carbs in my diet for a couple of reasons: They're plentiful, easy to acquire, and seem to help me focus. Especially when I find myself struggling work-wise, a carb-y snack like dragon fruit or grapes helps me re-focus.

And as I mentioned in the Lifehacker article, eating is a great way for me to take a meaningful break from a long day of work.

Know when to walk away  

I have no problems leaving in the middle of a project or article (sometimes mid-sentence) because I've learned to recognize when I've hit my limit, and writing and re-writing gibberish in that state only waste my time and prevent me from doing something else.

Oftentimes this is useful anyway because I'd return to it and pick it up again as if I never struggled in the first place.

Eliminate ruthlessly

Creating the to-do list makes us feel good, whether any progress was made or not. And if something is easy, like making a sandwich, we might race to get it done just so it's crossed off--and hark, productivity, bitches! There's a term that describes those who hastily get things done only to feel productive and feel that rush of crossing something off a to-do list.

They're called "precrastinators", the opposite of procrastinators. 

I used to be a precrastinator, and as a result, I spent too much time on things that didn't matter. Confoundingly, I'd even be grumpy some days for not checking enough off my to-do list. Was the to-do list working for me, or was I in fact working for the to-do list? I was a sucker. I had to become callous and be able to say "no" to certain tasks.

The tricks are in recognizing that not everything is a big deal, knowing the limits of what you can do, and deciding what's worth your attention at that point in time and what isn't.

If something truly can wait, this is a good time to be procrastinating. 

"The Two-Minute Rule" 

I cribbed this one from the great James Clear. Basically, if you want to build a new habit or do something, figure out the related thing that takes you only two minutes to do. Want to eat healthier? Eat a piece of fruit that takes two minutes, he says as an example. 

While I think there are a lot of missing steps in-between, the general idea is sound. If you're struggling with a big task, do the small things first to get started, and soon you might feel inspired to get more stuff done. If I'm having trouble prying myself from work to go to the gym or head out the door, I'll take two minutes to change into workout or street clothes. Then if I'm already in "workout" or "going out" mode, then the following steps become easier.

A "Say Yes!" Day

And finally, no matter what, I have a day (usually Saturday) where I will not work and agree to do stuff I normally say "no" to the rest of the week.  

Establishing a Home Base

I suppose this all begs the question of "Am I really traveling and exploring a city or country to its fullest when I'm working so much?" I struggle with this question still and a part of my brain constantly tugs at me saying, "To what end are you working? You're missing out!" It's a delicate balance between understanding that this is my unconventional job but also needing to please my wanderlust and FOMO.

I compromise by having extended stays in places and trying to establish a home base, a constant.

For example, in the past five months I've only really been in Japan and Hong Kong, with a small trip to Singapore in-between. In both Japan and Hong Kong, I established a home base so that I can feel somewhat anchored. I've determined that it's more cost-effective to stay at least a month in places, making it feel as though I have normal monthly expenditures and earnings.

This way I also have the freedom and time to soak in the country--sometimes through the eyes of a wannabe local. 

I wouldn't say my process is perfect and I learn a little bit more every single day. One area where multitasking has been helpful is that I'd sometimes bring my laptop around with me when I explore. If I find a nice spot to set up camp--a peaceful park bench or a coffee shop--I'll work a bit. After all, I just need my laptop and a comfortable seat. While I do require an internet connection,  I can get a lot of work done on plain ol' Microsoft Word, or on my new favorite writer, OmmWriter.

In some ways, I guess working and traveling do kind of work! 

Throughout all of this, I constantly ask myself if this is something I want to do long-term. I still don't know the answer, and I'll likely have another post when I do. For now, the best I can hope for is to...enjoy and live in the mome--Blagh! Barf, so cheesy.

--Stephanie

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Photo credit: Karen Hong Photography.