Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Productive Working While Traveling Abroad: Living the Dream

Since I can do it, I do it. From Asia to Europe to South America and across numerous countries, I combine work and travel into a more productive, digital lifestyle abroad.

We live in an amazing time period. With the advance of the digital, connected economy, more and more people (like myself!) are able to work from anywhere. For most folks, this means a “telecommute” as they work from home, giving them more flexibility to work and also spend more time with their family. For me personally, as a digital worker, I have embraced this work-anywhere situation to craft a life of constant travel.

I don’t consider myself exceptionally smart, talented or endowed with some well-endowed inheritance. I graduated from a decent university but most of what I’ve accomplished since then has been through self-study and moderate risk taking. As such, I think it’s quite possible to live an amazing life abroad while remaining productive and inspired.

Much to envy of many of my friends, I am able to work pretty much anywhere in the world. My only real work need is having a (decent) internet connection.

While on the surface, this kind of life would appear to be both more expensive and potentially less productive way to live. For me, I live an amazingly cheap yet productive life.

So, how do I remain productive while constantly traveling?

Productive Working While Traveling Abroad

To give a bit of the back story, I’m originally from the United States, but I’ve lived for nearly the last decade of my life abroad in either Europe or Asia. For the last year or so, I’ve a bit more fully embraced my wanderlust, and I’ve basically been in a constant state of “travel” as a “digital nomad,” i.e. striving to combining productive, remote work and international travel.

I mostly work as a web developer, building sites and managing their technical, strategic and marketing launches. I write some and make income through some small investments and web project. Mostly I live through paid client work. Even though most of my clients and projects (and paychecks!) are in the US, I manage a team from around the globe.

The first thing to recognize about productivity is the end goal: getting things done. It doesn’t matter where or when you do it so long as you get it done well and by the time it is needed. While there are some tasks that have set “due dates,” most of my tasks are in the murkier, it’s-not-an-emergency but as-soon-as-possible category.

In order to stay productive wherever (and whenever) I am located, I keep active and up-to-date lists of my projects and tasks. Personally, I use a version of GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology to collect, process and act. Basically, using Evernote, I’m constantly collecting stuff and processing it into actionables tasks. Then, depending on my current situation, I simply move forward on whatever next actionable step I can do then and there.

For example, email is somewhat of an ill-defined workspace today. People have crowded inboxes of stuff, things to do and general distractions. For me, I handle email like this: if it’s something I can respond to now, I respond to it. If it’s an email that is in reality a call to action, then file it into my list of things to do with the next action needed. Finally, if it’s an email best handled later, then I file it for later and handle it the appropriate time. For me the goal of email is Inbox Zero.

Like I said, the goal of most jobs is to get things done. For the remote worker like me, getting things done doesn’t require to be a specific “office” space but to be in a particular state where I can and do work productively. In my case, that’s simply a laptop computer with internet access.

So, with productivity in mind, how do I “schedule” my time and activities while also traveling?

How Do I Arrange My Time While Constantly Traveling?

Instead of a traditional 9-5, I tend to work in shifts, which, depending on my location and travel situation, involves a morning session, a late or early afternoon session and a late evening work session. There is no perfect way to organize and plan-ify what you need to do and do each day.

I’m a Getting-Things-Done type of guy and make sure each task gets added to my organization system (i.e. Evernote) and then attack my actionable tasks according to its urgency, my available time, my current situation and my energy level.

In the end though, once you have an establish list of tasks and clear priorities, you can work on tasks according to what you feel is best to do here and now. Obviously it’s best to “eat the frog” first but if you are eating frogs, then just eat ‘em–big or small–as long as they are truly frogs.

A flexible schedule like mine allows me to travel and visit the wonderful places in the cities and countries I’m currently in. Unlike a more traditional vacation traveler, I rarely spend entire days jetting about cities visiting several sites in a day. Most of the time, after a bit of work in morning, I go and visit one or two sites in the late morning or afternoon. I then try to find an hour or two at my hotel or in a coffee shop where I advance on whatever best task I can be working on then and there.

I can’t travel like I only have 2 weeks of “paid” vacation a year, since I travel all the time and I’m the one paying for that travel time too.

Rarely do my mornings contain much “paid” work at all. Mostly I spend it reviewing my projects and tasks and checking on updates from clients and other programmers. I check and manage all of my email–either responding immediately, transferring email into actionable tasks or, using Mailbox App, scheduling an email for later review.

If there is a task or two that I can accomplish in an easy hour or two, I might do it.

I generally then spend some time reading and studying. I’m currently studying Chinese and Spanish as well as working on various technology and programming stuff. I read about 10 articles a day (usually via Pocket), and I also make sure at some point in my day, I’m either reading or listening to a “real” book. It’s good to read more than just piecemeal articles.

It’s a pretty balanced and productive lifestyle. Over the last year, I’ve used this kind of “system” to work productivity while visiting several places like Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Greece and Turkey. I’ve launched several sites, shared various open source pieces of code and even managed to “level up” in various aspects of my life. I write a lot even if I don’t necessarily publish that much.

So how do you travel? How do you work? Do you think you could craft a life like this in today’s digital work-scape?