I am a full-time digital nomad and I have experienced burnout.
In my past corporate life, I worked in financial services in the US, UK and Ireland before working from home as an academic during the pandemic. I felt the burnout heat in those jobs too.
Feeling the burn
Here is a little of my experience. For me, the signs of burnout become obvious after I feel their pinch. I start to recognise that burn when I use push, ambition, drive, productivity, getting this DONE… as ways to mask the fact I am in an unreasonable situation at work. In the corporate world, that was usually a more senior manager wanting more done for a lower cost in less time. But now that I control my own diary, some of that burden is placed on me by me. It can be me who sets unreasonable expectations. Let’s get one more blog finished. Could that picture be improved before I post it on Instagram? Can I get one more piece of content out of this trip, this location, this experience? Have I squeezed all the juice out of the Lemon of Life??!
When 7 is heaven
Burning out poses a question. It’s also a great big klaxon. Why are you trying to operate at a 10 all the time? What is motivating that? I’ve heard most Digital Nomads talk about ‘the hustle’. By that, we mean the process of pitching for and winning business, while maintaining a life on the road. Your hunger for that hustle (and your success with it) can create a delivery nightmare. How can you possibly deliver when you do win business? Perhaps maturity allows me to say that I’d prefer to win enough business and produce more meaningful content that creates a life lived at a steady 7, not a 10. It doesn’t mean I’m no longer hungry for my work, but that I need to live a sustainable experience. Sometimes a 7 is heaven.
Do I need to slow it down?
I began full-time travel in June 2021, visiting over 20 countries as they reopened after pandemic closures, from Iceland to Finland, the US to Mexico. I started to travel Europe full-time in my campervan a few months ago and intend to do a world tour of Digital Nomad hotspots next winter. A year in, I have respectable but modest numbers of subscribers on YouTube, and think I’m just getting started on Instagram and TikTok.
Like many people who work online, analytics are our main source of business data. I can see some things really resonate with my viewers, and I work hard to create content that comes from my heart, but also overlaps with my target audience. Generally, the more expensive the experience, the higher my numbers. I love business travel, but a flight a week would have broken my bank months ago. How to resolve that? I knew I need to broaden out and share more and different kinds of travel experiences and I’ve worked hard to do that. The figuring out phase was stressful, but resolving it has improved my work and how I feel about it. I am a solo traveller in his 40s who gave up corporate life to travel full-time as a digital nomad. I create journey and destination vlogs and share my take on how to change your life from Corporate Workhorse to Digital Nomad. That’s my niche. Now I need to work out how to turn my niche into growth.
I attended TravelCon 2022 in Memphis, TN, a big conference bringing together the community of online travel bloggers and vloggers. I wanted to hear the stories of people ‘ahead’ of me in the process, many on slightly different paths, but who all run small travel-based operations reliant on social media. I wanted to understand how they moved from a desire to travel and create content to build their success.
Questions of Pace
TravelCon spurred a hundred ideas and as many questions as answers. How could I take practical measures to grow my business (and it is a business), while maintaining a healthy work schedule? Could I encourage blog readers to enjoy travel vlogs or engage with my monthly newsletter? When would I get time to write all this content, film all these vlogs, when I was already on the move all the time? As soon as one idea settled into being a practical goal, three more ideas sprouted that could make a fun series of videos or a practical set of handy tips.
I couldn’t have predicted the level of interest from subscribers to similar questions. Where are you going? When? How long will that take? Why didn’t you film X? How can you afford that? What happens if you don’t like flying/vanlife/hiking/Country Z? When will we see the film you promised from that place?
I developed a bit of a bland catch-all answer to those questions and I realise it’s a symptom of burnout. “I’m going so quickly, I don’t have time to edit/share/respond”. So when am I going to slow down in order to go faster? Because that’s the deal here. It’s a question of pace. How I recognise and respond to symptoms of burnout is not just about being a Digital Nomad. It’s about how I navigate life. I think it’s imperative that I share some ideas from my experience about how to handle your wellness as a full-time vlogger or Digital Nomad (or people thinking about this life). Often we talk wellness, while our behaviour hints at burnout.
10 Ways to Avoid Burnout
What follows are my ideas about how to avoid burnout as a Digital Nomad. They are ideas and discussion points and are not placed in any order of significance. Other professionals may have different takes. I welcome your thoughts and what works for you. Please add your views in the comments below.
1. Maintain Community
Going on the road alone (and, I imagine, as a couple too) makes it more difficult to find and maintain community. You have to work a little differently than at home.
Keep family and friend relationships alive (at least those you want to maintain). That means spontaneous calls and texts, scheduled FaceTime calls and taking time during downtime to spend real time, in person, maintaining those relationships. You may not be present for celebrations, but your card, gift or handwritten letter will be very meaningful to those you love.
Find a community of like-minded people – online and in in person.
Online – join travel forums, comment on Twitter threads, reach out to people in your niche and network at conferences and events. I met so many people at TravelCon that my mind was buzzing. I got and dished out advice, enjoyed coffee time and built relationships that moved from in-person to online.
In person – seek out places and activities that allow you to engage with other people. It’s easy when you travel full-time to opt out of social interactions. Particularly if you move very quickly from place to place (ask me how I know!) and if you stay in fancier hotels. It’s fun to spend some time using a co-working space and get chatting to people (even if you have wi-fi in your van/hotel)… even if you’re only there for a week or month, you could join with others for a coffee or a drink and your experience will be vastly changed. I’m not saying you need to do this in every place and all the time (that could become exhausting), but you need human interaction.
2. Create Routines
Travelling full-time can disrupt any sense of normality. Bring back some predictability by creating simple routines
- Set-up your hotel room, hostel space or van the same way each time your arrive somewhere.
- Create a workspace that has everything you need at hand (laptop, journal, water bottle, ear buds, hard drive, phone). If the weather is good and I’m parked up, I do this outside and enjoy the view.
- Aim to work at set times (whatever works for you – I try to stop work before 7pm so I have some no work time).
- Having set patterns of blog or vlog release each week gives some structure to the week. Don’t overpromise – the only person you’re annoying is yourself.
- I am resistant to the Theory of Productivity: getting more work down in a shorter time. It’s one facet of capitalism that too often leaves out the wellness of the worker. An over concentration on productivity offers a pathway to hurting yourself and inevitability towards burnout. If you find yourself saying that you “only” produced three blogs this week or edited until midnight or achieved 15 goals instead of 20, there will be few people at your pity party. Paying attention to balance and pace are more important metrics that will see you still produce what you want as your goals, but without losing the run of yourself.
- Have days where you don’t work. Take a weekend even if you had to work last week. Who says that Wednesday isn’t your day off?
3. Slow down to speed up
I have struggled with pace. For the first year, I travelled and filmed so much that I had hard drives full of material and created an enormous gap between filming vlogs and releasing vlogs. That loses some immediacy and creates an editorial backlog for me.
I spoke to fellow full-time vanlifer, Róisín Cahalan, who travels with her husband and daughter about her approach to schedule.
“Our schedule varies based on a number of factors. It begins with how much we like (or dislike) a stop, and we have a few deadlines throughout the year that helps shape our goals. Leaving those aside, we are very flexible and can go as slow or as fast as we like”.
When I started travelling a lot, I might move every day. It felt like a luxury when I slowed down and started to move every two days. Even that is a very tight schedule if it looks like this:
- Day 1 – drive 5 hours, park up, set-up, cook, work for a couple of hours, sleep.
- Day 2 – get from campsite to local area (bus/cycle), visit local attractions, lunch for a food blog, film a lot, get back, download footage, back-up, work for a couple of hours, sleep.
- Day 3 – repeat Day 1, etc.
As I type that, I can see how unsustainable it is. In short bursts, sure, but to be a full-time travel b/vlogger or Digital Nomad, requires longer and sustained periods of being static (with good wifi). Your work pile will grow and grow and the gap between reality and your online life will become confusing for your subscribers and followers. Slowing down gives you time to get in control of your work, whatever that work is.
4. Take a Holiday from your Holiday
“But you travel all the time”… I have heard that more than once! Yes, in some ways it’s true. When you travel full-time, it can appear to others like you’re on a permanent holiday. The reality is that you do get to move frequently, or live in different places, but there is often just as much (if not more) time spent at the coalface of the laptop, camera or drone. Nobody is looking for sympathy here, but there is a fundamental principle at stake:
“Working as a Digital Nomad is still work“Hughes, Patrick J, 2022
So it’s cool to take a holiday from your holiday, as you are not really on holiday. Just working somewhere else. There are some relatively easy ways to do this. Opt out of vanlife for a few days and stay in an Airbnb or VRBO property, for example. Fellow vanlifer, Róisín Cahalan said, “So far on our year-long journey, we’ve stayed in an Airbnb twice”. For Róisín, it was a chance to get out of the van, take time out and have a change of scenery. If you have a motorhome, you need to find somewhere where you can also park up, but that can be organised by carefully selecting your host property.
Remember, not everything has to be about the hustle. You will have some of your best ideas when you’re not thinking about work.
5. Practice Self-Awareness
People who work hard often put their head down and bulldoze through. To be fair, sometimes that’s the right answer. However, over time it becomes important to be able to practice self-awareness, to take moments of reflection. If you feel sad or down or need a break, just take it. If you work mainly through social media, some time away won’t kill the vibe.
However, let’s be clear. If you practice self-awareness and you come to the conclusion you should stop being a Digital Nomad, then carefully think it over. If the answer is still ‘stop’, then stop. Just because everyone thinks you are gallivanting around the world (and that’s how your Instagram looks) does NOT mean you have to be locked in to what everyone thinks is a GLAM WORLD (even though it’s mainly not that glam).
Remember what I said above: “Working as a Digital Nomad is still work”. It’s a job with some positive benefits (freedom from the desk, ability to make your own decisions) and a lot of downsides too. Do it for as long as it suits you to. And you’ll find your answer through practicing self-awareness.
6. Treat Yourself
I asked Róisín about what keeps her going as a full-time vanlifer. She said “little treats are very important, as well as unexpected nice events, like seeing reindeer in the wild for the first time”. That sounds idyllic!
Most Digital Nomads are experiencing life in a different city or country which costs less than their country of origin. That’s why so many people flock to Thailand, Vietnam or Colombia where the cost of living is lower than the US or Europe. So we are a budget conscious lot. I find this with vanlife. I try to make sure that I don’t overspend in an area where I don’t need to (e.g., with food) meaning I might go weeks without eating out. But Róisín is right… why not get yourself a little treat from time to time? It doesn’t always have to be something expensive: perhaps an ice cream on a hot day or a fun cocktail in the evening. Or it can be something free like giving yourself an afternoon off to enjoy a hike or to read a book under a tree.
7. Take Wellness on the Road
Try to keep up with healthy routines that you might have done at home. Did you love yoga, a little weightlifting or even just a daily walk? There’s no reason to ditch these because you’re on the road and looking at a busy editing schedule. Get out of the van, hotel or hostel room and stretch your legs. It’s good for the mind. Róisín says “exercise is very very important to me. On my recent Arctic trip, I got some strange looks from sheep and people!”.
Speaking of your mind, keep up with other wellness routines that help your mind. You’ll know what’s best for you. I try to keep away from screens for a few hours each day, to read something which isn’t about work and keep my brain going with fun word games. Cooking things from scratch is also part of my daily practice and that can help both mind and body.
8. Budget, don’t Budget
That sounds like a contradiction. Every Digital Nomad I’ve met has a budget and it can be pretty tight for some of us. Particularly if eking out your entire budget carefully allows you to stay on the road for longer. By all means set up a tracker (there are apps galore or just use a free version of Excel) but please, please, please build in some release, even if you don’t use it every month. You need space for the treat (see #6) or for an emergency. People can become slaves to the budget and that can end up dictating your entire experience. Set it, create routines that allow you to keep to it in general and then let it go.
9. Learn & Adapt
Life on the road is all about change. In some ways, Digital Nomads can behave like change junkies. New place, new people, new vistas is grist for our mill. However, depending on your personality and health profile, the change you love can wear on your mental and physical health. To avoid the burnout that comes with Change Exhaustion requires a healthful approach to learning about and adapting the way that you deal with change.
There is not just one way to travel full-time or work on the road. So advising you to Learn & Adapt is not about me setting you a rule which will solve your issues. But it is putting you in a position to be able to better manage change and avoid burnout. So you get cranky on travel day, even after you check yourself for hydration, snacks and sleep? Don’t write an important brand email that evening or set up a Zoom with a client. Change your schedule to adapt to your patterns.
If you need to work on your behavioural patterns, I fully endorse using therapy. It’s great!
10. Be Kind to Yourself
Burnout comes up ALL the time with people I follow online. “I’ll be back soon guys” pops up on YouTube or Instagram or Twitter. The unwritten script can sometimes be “please don’t forget me”. Social media is some intense sh*t. It’s completely right to take time out.
Working online, often for subscriber numbers and likes (#s = influencer deals), means you can lose big numbers as quickly as you gain them. If your self-esteem is tied to subscribers and likes, then that’s a fast road to emotional volatility. There is a difference between seeing subs as a business metric and a measure of your self-worth. Building a successful life as a Digital Nomad does require balance. Avoiding burnout starts with being kind to yourself and finding in your interior life the great person you really are. Then big numbers or online compliments are a fun side note to life, not the reason for your self-validation.
After a year as a Digital Nomad working full-time on my travel channels, these are my ideas about how to avoid burnout. There is more thoughtfulness and kindness in the online community of travel bloggers than I ever discovered in finance (with some notable exceptions) and I could have used some of the ideas I have expressed here in my 20s and 30s. Still, you start from where you’re at, not where you wish you were. I welcome your thoughts and comments below. Do these resonate with you? What is missing? What is your experience?