At first you couldn’t wait to get away and erase the drudgery of the same ol’ shit — of being woken up by the same annoying alarm at 6:50 a.m.; of sitting through the same gridlocked traffic to clock into the same cubicle factory; of staring but not really staring at the clock, counting down the minutes until lunch; of going home and sighing that you have to do the same things over again.
Now you realize that “going with the flow” is starting to hurt your focus, mood, and productivity. Uh-oh.
You can’t get anything done! Your health and fitness are slipping. You feel lost, without direction. You can’t even enjoy yourself when everyone else thinks you’re living the dream. It’s absolute chaos.
When the scenery in your day to day life changes as frequently as you change your underwear (and hopefully that is pretty regular…), it gets that much more important to bring stability back into your life with a routine.
Good routines give your day structure, and organize your life in a way that makes sense to you. When you wake, you know exactly what needs to be done and how you’re going to do it. As Ramit Sethi says, “Real productivity gives you freedom and flexibility because you’re consistent 95% of the time.” That’s how a routine helps: to be consistent.
You don’t truly understand and appreciate the power of routine in your day when you no longer have it.
If you work while traveling, you know what I mean, making a routine doubly important.
Before I had lost my routine somewhere amid zipping through airports, busy streets, packed subways, and various thoroughfares, my routine had helped me take more meaningful action, instead of holding me still with lame, basic decisions such as: Where can I get my morning coffee? What kind of breakfast can be made with only jam and lettuce? Does this cool-looking coffee shop have Wi-Fi? What should I have for lunch today (OK, I think about this one regardless…)?
Having to figure out up from down every damn time I travel to a new place can wear on my psyche and motivation. All these uncertainties, every wrench in the works, every little thing to think about, make next steps scary and less clear, and that can lead to a lot of wasted time and opportunities (and FOMO).
I say that a shitty routine is better than no routine. But how do you create something that can stay the same when everything else keeps changing? Here’s how, my friend.
Also Worth Reading (Because I Wrote It ;D): What I Wish I Knew Before Working Remotely Around the World (on Lifehacker)
Introducing Routine-Mapping to Set Up Your Routine
Routine-mapping is something I made up, and it describes a four-step system of sorts that I use every time I need to get my bearings straight and greatly improve my productivity and overall experience at the destination. I typically need between a couple of days and up to a week and a half to set up a routine, but you may need longer, which is fine.
I make creating a routine my absolute priority whenever I arrive in a new location. Routine-mapping will require you to delay your gratification of prancing off immediately to explore and eat new, exciting things (though this process will include some, don’t you worry); but do the bulk of the work now and save perhaps dozens of hours and days of frustration and wasted energy later. I won’t lie: This, as many other things do, takes effort.
#1: Get Your Sleep and Environment Right
If you’re disappointed that I didn’t share the Ultra Secret Konami short-cut to a routine, then you’ve been played for too long by all those other productivity hack articles. The truth is, nothing fucking matters if you forget the basics. Without watching your calories and exercising, no amount of detoxes will help you lose weight in the long term. Without enough sleep and a proper work environment, no amount of tomato timers will keep up your frantic work energy for long.
We’re a culture that wears “overworked” and “lack of sleep” as badges of honor, but this #hustleculture is paradoxically why people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to help them rest and “unplug” for a week or so, and then return to their shitty cycle of sleep deprivation.
YOU KNOW WHAT CAN SAVE YOU THOSE HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS? SLEEP!
I know I sure as hell can’t produce the output I do with little sleep (and I’ve been there!). In the beginning my sleep was not in order due to a combination of factors, including jet lag, my history of insomnia, not always feeling safe in my environment, and just working like the maniac my peers expected me to. Unsurprisingly my productivity, energy, and even motivation to go out and have fun took a real nose-dive.
There’s no other way to dice it: Get your sleep straight, bro.
Think of what you’re doing as rebuilding Maslow’s pyramid, every time:
We’re focusing on the bottom half of the pyramid (including Wi-Fi, because goddamn is that important). The latter is why, when I check Airbnbs and accommodations, I look for a comfortable and safe-looking place for sleep and a place to work.
Sure, your sleep environment may change more often than you’d like, so this means you need to bring familiar items that help you sleep with you. I have my Sleep Anywhere Kit with me, which basically consists of soft foamy earplugs, comfortable PJ shorts and shirt, and a sleep mask (I like and use this one). I also sometimes put on a podcast that intentionally tells meandering, boring-ass bedtime stories to lull me to sleep.
Susan Shain told me, when I interviewed her for my New York Times article, that she brings her bedtime routine — hot shower before bed, then journal and reading for an hour — everywhere to help her feel like she’s home and can sleep more comfortably.
Whatever your bedtime ritual consists of, you’ll level yourself up automatically by never neglecting sleep, even when you’re in another country. Make fixing your sleep schedule a priority when you first arrive.
#2: Identify Your Perennial Habits
Habits are why you tend to put your left foot down before your right; why you brush your teeth in the morning (or don’t); and why losing weight and changing your ways are hard. They’re easy to take for granted because, by its very nature, you don’t really need to think about it; it’s just something you do because you’ve done it — made coffee, wrote in your journal, took a good poop, etc. — a kazillion times before.
I mention habits because part of creating a routine is understanding how routines are underpinned by habits. There must be certain habits that you feel as if you couldn’t get on with your day if you didn’t do them. These can be good and bad habits, which help you lose weight, wake up earlier, go to bed too late, and so on.
Charles Duhigg explains in his book,The Power of Habit, that habits are created by a three-part feedback loop:
- Cue: The subconscious trigger that starts your habit. Grabbing your toothbrush and applying toothpaste is a habit, for example, to brush your teeth.
- Routine: This is the habit itself. Perhaps that’s drinking coffee, working out, biting your nails, brushing your teeth, etc.
- Reward: What you get as a result of the habit. If you brush your teeth, the reward is clean-feeling teeth and maybe fewer painful visits to the dentist.
What I call perennial habits, then, are simply those habits that ride or die with you at all times, wherever you are. Brushing your teeth is (should be?) a perennial habit because you’d feel icky without doing it and you’re not suddenly going to stop just because you’re in Alabama instead of in Utah. Take note of what these perennial habits might be. There will be obvious ones, but others may be less so.
I’ll give you a couple of examples that are high-priority perennial habits for me. I don’t include the super obvious stuff on this list.
- Getting coffee in the morning: Coffee dominates my first thought in the morning, regardless of where I am. I mean, it is a physiological need to some extent, but drinking it also is a signal that the day has really begun and it’s time to get to work. Without it it feels weird starting any meaningful work, and I have a much slower start to my day.
- Writing: Duh. It’s only my source of living and being.
- Working: I separate this from my writing, although they’re closely intertwined. But you know.
- Working out: This is non-negotiable, so I have to find a way to work out several times per week, though I’ve talked about how I concede to doing less if I have to.
- Cooking: This makes sure I don’t spend a bunch of money eating out and also fit in plenty of vegetables and protein into my diet.
- Sleeping: As I mentioned earlier, sleeping is incredibly important to me, so I have to HAVE TO get this right.
Think about the things that make you feel as if something’s gone really funky and you just can’t get through your day without feeling “off”. Specifically, focus on the ones that help set you up to be your most productive and happy, like working out, drinking something warm in the morning, or meditating. Be sure to write this all down on a list.
#3: Map It Out
In the video game The Legend of Zelda, you must navigate multiple dungeons. These confusing labyrinths are nearly impossible to get through without a map. Unfortunately, the map of the dungeon is initially hidden to you. But as your little sprite of a character (named Link) explores those unfamiliar areas, the map automatically populates that missing information so you have an easier time referencing it. You only need to be brave and adventurous first.
After identifying your perennial habits, you’ll be like Link and explore the outside world and your surroundings to map out exactly how those habits will fit into your new, albeit temporary, life. Again, let’s use my perennial habits as examples. Remember this list?
- Getting coffee in the morning
- Working out
Here’s where you identify the barriers to completing those habits, what resources are currently available to you, and what you still need. My perennial habits all seem simple, but for each I need to break it down. Here’s what I mean:
- Coffee: This is easy if I had a coffee maker in the place I’m staying at. If there is, I may need to find a grocery store or a roastery/coffee shop where they sell beans. If there is no coffee maker in the place I’m staying at, that means I have to figure out where the closest coffee shop is and how convenient it is to get there. I don’t mind walking for up to a mile as my sort of morning jaunt.
- Writing: My writing ritual is as follows: Get coffee (somehow), and while sipping coffee, sit down and write in the morning. Typically, I need a comfortable, naturally lit desk and a couple of hours to “warm up” and write, but usually not before I have coffee. If I cannot get coffee where I am, then I have to think about doing my writing wherever I get my coffee. This task of writing gets bundled with my trip to the coffee shop.
- Working: I make it a point to separate my time for my writing and time for client stuff/other tasks. Typically I split this up into two sessions in each work day: one in the morning, after writing, and another sometime after the gym and before dinner time on some days. I can work after an hour or two of writing, leave for a mid-day break and possibly return home for a bit more work thereafter.
- Working out: I bring my suspension trainers with me, which means I can set them up anywhere to work out. The area should be away from busy foot or street traffic with a tall structure, or a park with a playground. Even better if I can find a gym. If you run, this is even easier. It would be ideal to find a place that’s within a mile radius around my place. Or if the transportation is convenient and I have the time, I don’t mind spending 20-30 minutes commuting to a real gym.
- Cooking: I typically cook my breakfast and lunch due to my schedule. That way I keep dinner open for new things while I’m out, without having to worry about heading home to cook. Assuming the kitchen carries the basics I need, I need only find a grocery store to pick up a few staples.
- Sleeping: I technically already covered this in the very first section above. Recap: earplugs, sleep mask, comfy PJs, and a sleepy time podcast.
You know what the hurdles are and what you need to do. Now you need to find the locations that cater to your needs and solve your problems…by going out to explore! Such fun.
I set my new temporary home as my home base, take inventory of what is already available to me there, and look at Google Maps, Sidekix, Yelp, and other apps to see what is around. Specifically I search for coffee shops with Wi-Fi (and charging outlets), grocery stores, parks and playgrounds, and gyms (if available). Then I go to scout those out in person, usually walking around a one to two-mile radius of my home base and mapping out, in my head, where all those places are.
Use your home base as your central navigation point and branch out as far as you’re willing to go from there. During my exploratory walk, I’d note any parks with playgrounds or any gyms I passed by and how far they are. I’d note how long it might take me to get groceries and coffee. If I find a cool coffee shop, I decide to test it the next morning. If it’s not up to my standards, then I try another.
Observe that what I’m doing is simply combining exploration and testing, both of which keep the spirit of travel alive. You likely won’t nail your routine quickly or perfectly. As I noted it could take between a couple of days and over a week (or more!) to settle into a routine where every piece falls in line well enough.
Keep in mind: your routine needs to be feasible for you to repeat it every day. So if you go to the coffee shop to work and then need to go to the gym, make sure they’re close, or along the way from each other.
#4: Know What You’re Going to Do Every Day
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO DO. Know what you’re going to do. knowwhatyou’regointodo. Oops, I was trying to hammer that into your head. Did it work?
One of the biggest obstacles in daily life are the constantly changing variables — some you have control over, others you don’t — which is made several orders of magnitudes worse when you’re a nomad. Once you’ve figured out where things are and have traced them to your existing habits from the previous step, commit them to a calendar to avoid the dreaded “What should I do today?” question.
A calendar gives controllable structure and stability in a life that is otherwise akin to being tossed around in an industrial grade tumble washer. Sol Orwell said on his Facebook that most successful people he knows use their calendar judiciously and set priorities. If you want, optimize your calendar so that certain times or days are dedicated to certain important tasks. For example, Orwell has his Fridays blocked off to meet with people and still be insanely productive.
Identify the most important thing you need to work on that day (I use the Productivity Planner and have written about this on Lifehacker). Basically, it should be the thing that makes you happy that you actually worked and made progress on (it can’t be everything). Everything else can be slotted into the calendar. My calendar is a living witness to my life, week to week; some things will change and others don’t. You’ll notice some of my perennial habits stay in my calendar and I stick them.
The idea isn’t to cram your calendar full of habits or shit you think you have to do; but to keep yourself accountable to the things that helps you stay productive and spur on personal/professional growth, while keeping your day flexible to do whatever else. As a supplement to this, check out how I use my phone’s calendar to help build new habits.
Mostly the calendar provides consistency, and is a forceful reminder to me for when my routine starts to stray or I get overwhelmed.
Also Worth Reading: My interview on My Morning Routine
You have the initial legwork done. Now you just have to follow it for a while to build it into your day. If something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to tweak and optimize it. I’ve found that even after setting up a routine and gradually getting used to it, it can take me up to a month to really feel like I’ve settled down.
But you should know by now to never play in the dangerous game of waiting to “feel” like you’re ready to do something (it’s never).
Stay Put in One Place for As Long As You Can
At the peak of my vagabonding streak, I moved between eight countries within a year. Every day felt like a blank page, waiting for me to fill it with stories of my adventures (spoiler: just me sitting in a coffee shop). For the world traveler that is focused only on travel, that’s like hopping from one Disneyland ride to another, NBD. For a full-time writer and an ambitious, type-A business owner/control freak, it was breakneck-pace travel that often hurt my productivity and sense of ownership over my day and life.
You’ve probably felt the same. We’re not the only ones. Check out this reddit thread from /r/digitalnomad:
Travel days always fucked me up because all of my mental energy gets shunted toward getting to places on time, sitting, and waiting. If you have several hours to kill, sure, you can squeeze in some work, but I’ve always found it difficult to do meaningful writing during that time.
Travel slow, if possible, by staying in one place for as long as you can.
Typically I aim to stay in one location and Airbnb/accommodation for at least a month. This gives me time to familiarize myself with the lay of the land, leave my stuff strewn about my room to make it feel more home-y — kind of like a pet marking its territory — and going through my routine-mapping process. If that’s not possible, you’ll have to make concessions as to how productive you expect yourself to be. It’s better to under-promise at this point than think you can do everything, come up short, and hate yourself.
If I know I have to travel, I front-load the most cognitively demanding tasks like writing in the days before, saving more administrative tasks like responding to emails, paperwork, and whatnot for travel days. That way I won’t feel like my work week has been jolted suddenly by travel. (You might also find my other article on work habits helpful. Read: 8 Work Habits I Live By to Get Work Done While Traveling)
It took me over 3,000 words to share how I create a routine wherever I go and be as productive and positive as I can be, which is still not 100% but “good enough.” TL;DR version:
- Good routines give your day structure, and organize your life in a way that makes sense to you, so you know exactly what you’re going to do when you wake.
- Sleep is important. It’s not sexy, but you need it if you’re going to have any success in creating an effective routine for yourself.
- Identify those habits that are your must-haves no matter where you are. These are your perennial habits. Write them down.
- Explore your area and work backwards to figure out whether you can make your perennial habits work in your new location, and how.
- Know what you’re going to do by putting it in your calendar or planning your days out in advance.
- Travel slow so you have time to work the new routine into your life.
Feature image by Karen Hong Photography.
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