Working and traveling are like oil and water. You can force them to mix together, but they never come together quite neatly. The challenges of working while traveling or just living temporarily in another country exist, albeit they are unorthodox and often come off as someone whining. But believe me, the struggle is real.
It’s often an exasperating push-and-pull between finding the proper setting and state of mind to get work done and scratching that wanderlust itch. Sure, I can play hooky for a couple of days, but the nature of my freelance work requires me to deliver every week. Also, sometimes it’s just nice to chill without feeling this invisible pressure to travel or explore. Some would call this, hm, what is the word–balance.
So in order to be more disciplined and focused, I absolutely 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.
1. Do the Easy Stuff Anywhere
Like literally, anywhere.
The convenience of opening my laptop from anywhere in the world is a great upside to this nomadic life, but a huge drawback is that I’m only afforded enough time and concentration to do basic “maintenance” work, the easy house-keeping stuff. In order to make real progress on important stuff, like writing an article or really mapping out the steps to do better and grow my site, I need the focus and a conducive environment to support the craft.
Since my laptop is so compact and lightweight, I bring it with me even when I’m out exploring and devote little free moments to working on small stuff, like interacting on social media, posting stuff to social media, answering emails, and maybe even brainstorm some ideas. I’ve worked on park benches under blossoming cherry blossom trees in Tokyo. I’ve propped my laptop on a rock while overlooking a cold, disappointing beach in Jeju Island, South Korea to answer some emails. I’ve even squatted in a dark corner in Hong Kong because I realized there had been an error in one of my articles.
In most cases, I need WiFi to access most of my work, but sometimes not having WiFi actually benefits me because then I can just brain dump on Microsoft Word or Ommwriter.
2. Single-Task to the Max
Multi-tasking doesn’t work. You can try to do everything half-assed, and that’s fine, but for something like meaningful writing your brain just can’t afford to be distracted. Every time you have to stop yourself and switch to a different task, you incur a switching cost. As a result, you are likely to make more errors, finish things a lot more slowly, and generally do a terrible job at it.
The clear solution to this is to identify one thing you need to do and do that one thing only. That’s it.
If it’s writing, write the shit out of your writing. If it’s answering emails, answer or delete everything in one fell swoop. 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.
Then I took single-tasking to another level: I started doing things in “batches.” Batch work is the idea of grouping “like” tasks together. These like tasks could be actual writing, researching, editing, planning, emailing, social media, scheduling posts and things all at once, and anything that would require you to totally switch mental gears. Sometimes batch work could also mean just focusing on one client or type of work at a time.
Let’s say, I’m writing articles for Lifehacker. I’ll dedicate that time to only writing articles for Lifehacker. Inevitably, it means I’ll have days where I work more than usual, but then I get it done quickly and can take a breather. I’ve found that I can get through work a lot faster.
3. Take Advantage of Technology, Bro
We’re in the 21st century so most of us need to act like it, including myself. Phones, planners, apps, slim laptops, and everythang.
I don’t utilize and streamline everything with tech as much as I could, but the few tools I do use serve me well. I use built-in scheduling tools in my blog, on YouTube, on Lifehacker’s infrastructure, and things like Buffer and TweetDeck to 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.
4. Do Important Work in the Morning
I feel fresh and clear-headed in the morning (most of the time), so I dedicate them to what I think is the single most important task. (Of course, I have coffee first.) It used to be that “important” work to me was starting to write an article for someone else, planning content or new posts, or helping a client become awesome-r.
Make no mistake, they’re important, but these days I’ve learned to recognize that I should come first. I try to spend the first 30 minutes of my working time, doing a bit of writing for myself. It’s just a way to let the thoughts that clog up my head throughout the previous day or night come out and be recorded somewhere. These often turn into articles that I later put here or for another site, anyway so it’s a win-win overall.
Only once I do that, do I move on to the other the big things that need my attention that day. 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.
5. “Front Load” Work Early in the Week
Following the idea of doing a bunch of work in the mornings, I also make it so that my busiest days fall between Mondays and Wednesdays, and start to taper off from there. It allows me to avoid getting overly stressed out from racing to reach deadlines from beginning of the week to the end of the week.
6. Know When to Walk Away
My to-do list is as long as the eternity it feels when I’m watching Twilight with my 12-year-old niece, and some things just take longer than I anticipate to get done. Because I’m a precrastinator, someone who gets anxious about not getting things done long before they’re due, I let myself spend far too long on a task than I should or need to.
In the past, I couldn’t recognize this as a good idea to stop and would try to power through, write, and re-write gibberish. It was a waste of my time, caused me a lot of anxiety, and prevented me from doing something else.
Leaving in the middle of a project or article (sometimes mid-sentence) or just setting a hard stop time has been very helpful, outside of absolute deadlines. 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. Plus, it also keeps me from falling into the “just one more thing” trap, which if you know how that works in an online role-playing games, that means I never stop.
7. The Two-Minute Rule
The two-minute rule is a brilliant kick-in-the-ass to get you to do something. I cribbed it from the awesome James Clear. Basically, if you want to build a new habit or just push yourself to start something, figure out the lowest-effort related thing that takes you only two minutes to do. He uses the example of wanting to eat healthier. To kick-start the goal that day, try eating a piece of fruit. The fruit takes only two minutes for you to pick up and eat.
While there are definitely missing steps in-between, the general idea is sound. It’s the idea of lowering the barrier and your resistance to starting the task. So 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. This works for almost anything. For example, if I’m having trouble prying myself from work to go to the gym or just even 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.
8. Fuck Yes! Saturday (Of course.)
And finally, no matter what, I’ll have a day where I will not work and strive to agree to do stuff I’ve already said “no” to the rest of the week. If you couldn’t tell, this is usually a Saturday (hence, Fuck Yes! Saturday), but this could be any day.