The trouble with working from anywhere 2

Office on the road

You can work from anywhere… but not every place is equally suitable for work.

This week I finally returned from my trip to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. I had a great time, especially in Poland, where I met some amazing people. In part, I think, because the Poles are a pretty interesting people in general. In part because I took my travelling slowly, each time staying in one plays for a couple of days. In contrast, my journey through the Czech Republic and Slovakia was rather rushed, staying just one day in each city. It allowed me to see more places, but not really get to know any of them.

Why working on the road doesn’t… work

One of the reasons I returned home in a bit of a hurry was that I wasn’t getting much work done from on the road. (The other was that I was meeting a friend back in Budapest.) Even though I have created a situation in which I can technically work from anywhere, in practice the amount of work I get done varies greatly, depending on the location and my style of travel. Why is it that it is harder to get anything done while on the road? I think there are three main reasons.

Travelling costs energy

When you’re travelling you expend a lot more energy than normal. Why? There are of course the obvious causes: researching and booking accommodation and travel connections; getting to and from airports, bus stops, and train stations; walking around to explore the place you’re visiting. All of these cost energy. But the sheer amount of new impressions you get when you’re in a new place also consumes a lot of energy. Trying to find your way around, having to read everything in a foreign language, and not knowing where to buy the things you need take their mental toll, too.

When you spend most of your energy on those things, you have little left to concentrate on work. While I’m normally a night dweller, when I travel I sometimes find myself dead tired around midnight. Sometimes the task of just opening my mailbox feels like I’m lifting a millstone. And after a trip to the supermarket, trying to buy the ingredients (in Polish) for the dinner I want to cook, I can be exhausted. Those are not good circumstances when you’re trying to complete a difficult task afterwards.

Travelling is distracting

When you’re at home or in the office, the biggest distractions are usually chores that need to be done, stuff that comes along by e-mail or through social media, or the temptation of going out for a beer with your friends. None of these are real distractions. They are simply things you come up with out of a desire to procrastinate. If you had a bit more discipline, you’d be able to focus on the tasks you set yourself to (and eventually you will).

Working from anywhere in a coffee shop

Working in a cute little coffee shop in Hue, Vietnam. Not the most comfortable place, but with delicious chocolate pancakes!

When you’re travelling, on the other hand, there are many real distractions you have to face. The place you visit will have sights and attractions you haven’t seen before, and might not see again. Depending on your style of travel, there may be many interesting people around you that you would like to get to know. Under those circumstances it is hard to make the choice to focus on work instead. How can you work when you can also go and see the Alhambra, or take that cute girl you met in the hostel out for dinner? You’d have to lock yourself into your room and swallow the key. And even then…

Travel conditions are often not ideal for work

All I need to work is my laptop and an internet connection. I’ve written blog posts on the train, had video-conferences while sitting on my bed, done research in many a coffee shop, and even filed my tax returns from a hostel kitchen. While all those things are possible, they’re far from comfortable. Public wifi connections can be excruciatingly slow; typing from your hotel bed will kill your back after a while; and the constant distraction of people walking around you can be terrible for productivity.

For me this has the effect that I usually do only the things that have to be done now. Anything that can wait until tomorrow, will indeed wait. I’m just hoping that the circumstances the next day will be better, even though they rarely are. It is easy to underestimate the importance of an ergonomic work environment.

Being more productive on the road

If you want to travel a lot and work from anywhere, you have to keep these factors in mind. Otherwise you’ll find yourself slipping too often, and won’t be able to sustain this lifestyle. There are three things that I can recommend you do to improve your productivity while travelling.

  1. Travel slowly. Try to stay in one place a bit longer instead of moving on as soon as you’ve seen it. Once you get used to a place–and this can happen after as little as a day or two–just being there will take much less energy. So you’ll keep more to focus on your work. I did this in Chiang Mai during the winter, and on my latest trip I hung around in a small town called Zamosc, where there wasn’t much to do per se, but where I could better concentrate on my work.
  2. Hunt for good working circumstances. A hotel room with a proper desk, a comfortable chair, and fast wifi has real value when you’re trying to work. It’s worth paying a little extra for. Avoid hostels unless you’re deliberately taking time off to have fun. If you’re going to be in one place for a few days, try to find a coffee shop that is comfortable, has good wifi, and isn’t too distracting.
  3. Set yourself concrete goals that you can reach while on the road. It will help you keep focus and stop you from procrastinating. Rather than an ambiguous end point somewhere in the future, you have something real that needs to be finished by the time you’re done travelling.

Do the problems I mentioned in this blog post sound familiar to you? Do you have additional tips for working effectively while travelling? Let me know in the comments below.


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2 thoughts on “The trouble with working from anywhere

  • Valentina

    Trying to get work done on the road is a good way to find out weaknesses in your “normal” workflow at home. Suddenly you need to work with certain constraints, which hopefully inspire you to create some new routines to open up more space once you`re home AND help you to structure your work on the road in a manner that you can still enjoy the trip. Nothing worse than thinking the entire trip about how you still have to do x, y, or z 🙂
    So you can always use your travel as a litmus check for how well your business is set up and where you can improve in terms of processes, plus you learn lot about what you are capable of. Only one hour of internet a day? Bet you won’t spend it all on facebook (unless this is your marketing platform of choice). Lots of social activity during the day? Suddenly getting up at 6h in the morning to get the last chapter of the book done is not an issue. Suddenly, you productivity is at its best.
    The big question then is: how can you translate these lessons into your work at home? Give yourself some constraints (no internet after 5 pm, no disruptions during the next 40 min), and stick with the clear goals and you might just have time for an extra holiday in your current place of residence 🙂

    • Martijn Post author

      @Valentina: That’s a pretty good strategy. One of the pitfalls of a minimalist lifestyle is that you easily waste time because you just don’t need to work very hard to get what you need (which isn’t a lot). By dividing up your time more strictly, you get work done more efficiently, with more time to spare to really enjoy.