Why You Aren’t Productive as a Digital Nomad

March 17, 2020 ​- 13 Comments

​Being a digital nomad is a dream for many aspiring entrepreneurs. It seems glamorous and exciting to travel on a permanent basis and to keep discovering exciting new locations, countries and cities.

​Unfortunately, it's a lifestyle that is really bad for productivity. In fact, it's a lifestyle that's incompatible with, well, a good lifestyle in many ways.

In today's post, we'll discuss why this is and what you can do about it.


​Obligatory Coronavirus Note

​I began working on this article before the COVID-19 outbreak that we're in the middle of, right now. In the video, I address this towards the end. The reason I'm publishing this now anyway is that everything related to productivity that you find below is equally important whether you are traveling or stuck in your home.​​​

​Habits & Environments

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

The above quote is attributed to Aristotle and it holds up well, even today. The results you get as an entreprneur are largely dependent on your day to day habits and the skills you develop through them.

​The book Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood highlights a crucial aspect of habit building: it's all about environmental ques. Whether intentionally or not, solid habits are always linked to environmental ques.

For example, if you try to build the habit of drinking more water, but you change nothing about your environment, it's unlikely you'll succeed. But if you place a big water bottle right on your desk, you can easily build the habit. Every time you glance at your bottle, you're reminded to take a sip. And when the bottle is empty, that's the que for the second part of the habit: get up and refill the bottle.

Building good, productive, positive habits isn't about willpower as much as it is about optimizing your environment (something we cover in great depth in the focus & action productivity course).

Bad News: Bad Habits Are Easy

​​Stable environmental ques are the most important factor fo maintaining good habits. That means that the most disruptive thing you can do to your habits is change your environment completely.

As you do when you travel to a new location, for example.

I really can't over-state how important this is. Changing your environment is taking a wrecking ball to your habits.

And that's why, in general, digital nomads are nowhere near as productive as they could be. Every time you move to a new location, you have to build your good, productive habits almost from scratch.

And there's more bad news: many bad habits are very easy to maintain, even when you're on the move. To name just a few examples:

The Ever Distracting Smartphone

​Smartphones have become a major source of distraction for basically all of us, at this point. We live in a new, hyper-distracting world and smartphones are our access-portal to that world.

Unfortunately, the smartphone is maybe the most stable environmental que around. It's always in your pocket or purse, it always looks the same, acts the same, has the same apps and so on. No matter where you are, the phone can always distract you the same way.

Late Night Netflix

Another que that remains pretty stable when you travel is the bedroom TV. I would say that roughly 80% of apartments and hotels rooms I've stayed in over the years have had a TV opposite the bed. And these days, it's usually a smart TV that can easily connect you to YouTube and Netflix.

So, if you're in the habit of watching TV instead of doing productive work or bingeing Netflix shows instead of getting your much needed sleep, that's a bad habit that's easy to keep.

Easy Access Junk Food

Whenever you arrive in a new place, you have to figure out how to feed yourself. At least, if your goal is to feed yourself well. Where are the farmer's markets with fresh produce? Where are restaurants serving healthy, wholesome foods, smoothies, salad bowls and such?

In other words, there's some friction in the task of finding healthy food. But almost no matter where in the world you go, you can easily find junk food "staples" like McDonalds or KFC. If you have a habit of eating junk food, travel doesn't disrupt that habit.

How to Fix This Problem

Okay, so some bad habits are pretty resilient to travel, but most good habits aren't. What can you do, proactively, to get the upper hand and remain productive?

Here are the 3 steps I recommend:

Step 1: Plan Accordingly

Before I travel to a new place, I scout ahead. I use Google Maps and Nomadlist to find out things like:

  • Where are the good, less touristy neighborhoods?
  • ​Are there co-working spaces? Cafes with good wifi?
  • Where can I find a good gym?
  • Where are organic and health food focused restaurants?

​I only book an apartment once I've scoped a place out like this. I'd rather pay a bit more to live in a place that's close to a gym, healthy food and good work spots than save on rent and lack access to these things.

Step 2: Make an Arrival Checklist

Ask yourself: what are the 5-10 things that you need to get in place, as soon as possible, to get a good start in a new location?

For me, the list includes items like:

  • Sign up for a gym membership.
  • Get a local SIM card with data.
  • ​Find a spot where I can record videos and set up my gear.
  • Pick a suitable spot for meditation, in my apartment.

These are the kinds of things I need to get done as soon as I arrive. I know that the longer I delay on any of these, the longer it will take me to get in the zone and have a good, productive and healthy lifestyle.

I use Trello to create my arrival checklist as a template that I can re-use every time I change locations.

Step 3: Bring Your Environment With You

What environmental ques can you take with you? Here are a few examples to consider:

  • A laptop stand, good mouse and mousepad and good bluetooth keyboard - this ensures that you have a pleasant, ergonomic workstation wherever you go.
  • Jump rope, resistance bands, suspension training kit - these pack down to a small size and all you need is a bit of floor space and a door to have a mini-home-gym and keep up your exercise regimen.
  •  Meditation cushion - bring your cushion with you and place it in a spot you can easily see, in any new place you move into.
  • Light therapy device - great for traveling in the northern hemisphere, in winter. Start your day with bright light, no matter how gloomy it is outside.

Think about what your cornerstone habits are. The ones that make a biggest difference to your life quality and productivity. Whatever small aspect you can take with you, to have a reminder and a stable environmental que will go a long way to keep up those habits.

​Reach Your Goals

​As you can see, my concern is not just with "business stuff" productivity, but with overall lifestyle. I believe you'll be most productive and most capable of reaching your goals when you are at your best, overall.

This is also something I've baked into my productivity course, by the way. The course fully acknowledges the importance of optimizing your physical and digital environment, whether you travel a lot or stay put.

What other tips do you have, to optimize your environment and get more done? Let me know in a comment below!

Shane's Signature

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Karen M McCamy says:

    Thanks, Shane!

    Great to hear from you & know you are well! <3

    Soon after the New Year, (some 8 weeks before the virus spread impacted us here in SoCal) in an effort to get back to being productive "after the Holidays," I turned once again to "focus & action" to see where my productivity processes could be improved…

    Of course, I'd already discovered a few things that had inevitably 'slipped through the cracks' so I went back through your lessons on Trello & "calendaring."

    Another HUGE lesson I've learned from you is how helpful writing is… In this case, it's therapeutic AND removed blocks of all types…work & psychological! Finding it especially helpful in these fear-inducing times!)

    Not trying to be a huge "ad" for your course, but — honestly — that's been the single BEST productivity resource I've ever seen and one I've returned to many times!

    It's still effective & I'm still learning from you! :D

    • Thank you, Karen!

      I’m happy you were encouraged to use writing. Writing has been such a valuable tool for me, in so many ways. I struggle to really convey what a game changer it can be. I’m always glad to see someone give it a try, based on my advice.

  • Very useful and timely, Shane. Under lockdown in Europe but keeping busy on the computer – no Netflix. But I already checked the fridge twice this evening and you’re quite right, I didn’t select anything to eat. I wasn’t hungry – it was just a habit, a bad habit.

    • Thanks for your comment!
      Not sure what you can do about the fridge que, to be honest. Can’t exactly remove the fridge from the environment. :D

  • OMG! – now you’re making cat videos… Just kidding, I couldn’t resist saying that. I have a cat, I love cats, they’re great. That was interesting, the environment and its effects on habits. I’m going to pay attention to that while I adjust my habit patterns. Thanks as always.

  • Awesome Video from Shane as usual…I dream to see the day when I can make such quality videos…all the best!

  • Hey Shanie,

    Please tell the story of the cats! We have time… we´re not going anywhere –literally (in the old fashion sense, not the teen´s contradictory sense) ***OMG it’s the confinement! I’m correcting semantics to phantom teens!***

    Two years ago, in my parents´ house there was a lonely neighbourhood kitten roaming around. So out of compassion, my father bought a small bag of cat food. Just to … you know… . Then the lonely cat had kittens, so my father caught her and took her to the vet to have her castrated. But it was too late… the new kittens soon enough became grown ups and pregnant themselves and now there are like ten hungry cats everyday. And no one has the heart to stop feeding them.

    So, watch out with yours ;) — I bet you found them newly born and without a mother…

    Well, with the lock down / confinement / don´t leave home thing, my home office has become a family Xmass reunion. ***Why is everybody in my office???*** I had issues being productive when I was alone during the day! Guess now!

    I used to write my thoughts just to get them out of my head and it’s a life changing method as you say. But now I can’t. Perhaps these are the first words I write in the last five days. My writing is in quarantine.

    TL;DR — tell us the story of the cats.


    • Karen McCamy says:

      Hey, Marisa!

      I feel you! It’s hard to focus on “work” for me too, although as I wrote yesterday, it’s become therapeutic for me now!

      I especially admire those of you who are multi-lingual! Conversation is one thing, but being able to read & write in multiple languages is truly awesome! <3

      Glad to know you are okay…and still have your sense of humor! :D


      • Hey Karen!

        So good to read your message! I´ve heard you say something about speaking another language before. Perhaps you can seize this pandemia to learn a new one. I´m a life long student of French, but I could never have a real conversation with anyone in that language. And when I understand a single word I celebrate like if I had just cross the finish line of a marathon. So, I´m planning to get serius about it again now. I also want to learn how to code, something simple really. Or perhaps just binge watch Netflix. My plans change by the hour and my mood. Sometimes I daydream about being dancing at a wedding party of a distant relative. You know those parties where you are lost in the corner table next to the bathroom and can drink as much as you like without chatting with anyone for the whole night. Sometimes I just promise myself that when this is over, I´ll be dining out every day, twice a day. Sometimes I think what a great thing is just to meet anyone in a coffe shop just chat. In Argentina it´s kind of a custom between friends. We meet for coffee. At any given day you get the “hey, let´s have coffee” message from a friend. And with no particular reason you just meet up, chat for a while and say goodbye till the next coffee together. Such a small thing. Such a luxury.

        What strange times we´re living in.

        What about you? Are you planning something special for this “time-off”?

        Good to hear from you Karen :)


      • Karen McCamy says:

        I’ll contact you on Messenger! :-)

  • nadiya@nadiyaday.me says:

    I also want to hear the cat story – they’re adorable!

    • Karen M McCamy says:

      Okay… I **have** to ask: what’s with the “cat stories?” ;D LoL!

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