Today’s guest post is from Alison of manylives.ca. She’s an incredibly talented fiction writer and I’m pleased to be able to share her tips with you today on something every digital nomad has to deal with: Chaos.
Once upon a time I worked in a beautiful Herman Miller cubicle on the half-empty floor of an office tower. You could have bottled the peace and quiet. I had hours at a stretch to get my work done, uninterrupted by noise or other people.
Last fall I worked at a cramped desk in the small bedroom of a Beijing apartment. Construction crews banged and jackhammered 24 hours a day. I could hear my young kids chattering outside the door while my husband looked after them. And the city itself called out to be explored.
During our three-month stay in China, I learned a lot about working in less-than-ideal conditions. My husband Shawn was on parental leave so I was the bread-winner, and I needed to get my writing and editing jobs done so we could pay for the trip and our expenses back home. Plus I was trying to finish the draft of a novel and do coursework for my creativity coaching certification.
Thankfully I was able to figure out how to focus amid all these distractions. Digital nomads don’t always have the luxury of a well-appointed office — we have to make do with what we can find. So I thought I would share a few things that helped me work despite the chaos.
Build good habits ahead of time
Before our trip, I had been working from home for a few years and knew the challenges of setting my own schedule and staying away from the TV and the housework.
In an office, the discipline is built-in: you show up on time in the morning because your boss is expecting you, and you stay at your desk because there’s not much else to do. But at home I had to develop my own internal discipline.
I needed to sit down at my computer soon after breakfast and resist the temptation to do laundry or read a book. And I slowly got used to being in charge of my own productivity. I knew my weaknesses (idle web surfing, ack) and how to compensate for them (LeechBlock and a good to-do list).
For six months before we travelled, I had been building the habit of writing my novel in the morning, before the household woke up. Becoming an early riser was tough, but I stuck it out because that quiet empty hour was the best time to do my creative work. My routine wobbled in the first jumbled days of hotel rooms and jet lag, but once we settled into our apartment I went back to it.
Set boundaries around your space and schedule
I was very lucky — the door of the bedroom/office in our Beijing apartment was sticky and my three-year-old daughter couldn’t open it. After we’d eaten our scrambled eggs with chopsticks, I kissed the kids, pulled the door firmly shut, and didn’t come out until lunch.
Shawn often took the kids out in the mornings — they explored parks, temples, and playgrounds, and I got the apartment to myself.
When I did need to tune out the clamour of children and construction, I plugged in my earphones and listened to This American Life while I did tedious formatting tasks, or Sigur Rós if I needed to concentrate on writing.
If the noise in the apartment became too much, I headed to a nearby coffee shop for free WiFi and a strong latte. That time was especially good for starting a new project or working through a sticky editing problem.
Thankfully I didn’t have to share my laptop with my husband; he had bought his own especially for this trip, which meant my daughter could play Starfall while her brother napped and I could keep working.
And I was strict about going to bed at 10 p.m. so that I would be alert for my 5:30 a.m. writing session the next morning. I found this easy to do because the apartment and our few possessions hardly needed any attention.
Okay, so my boundaries weren’t set in stone. I took a sunny afternoon off so we could all visit the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park together. I quit early one day when a friend invited me to the spa. I sometimes came out of the bedroom/office when I could tell things were desperate and Shawn needed a hand. But having a regular schedule to go back to was really helpful.
Focus on the essentials
I loved the simplicity of life away from home. No appointments except for the occasional massage, no weekends crammed with errands and housework, no busy social calendar. The laundry only took a few minutes a day and we ate out often because the food was delicious and cheap.
I used Leo Baubata’s method for setting my three Most Important Tasks for the day. I wrote these down the night before and went over the next day’s schedule in my head just before falling asleep.
I could have done a hundred things in Beijing. I could have taken cooking lessons, worked on my Mandarin, tried brush painting. But I decided that just living there was enough, and that my novel and my coaching work took priority.
Interestingly, many of my usual vices lost their grip because I was enjoying myself so much. My husband would stay up late watching bootleg episodes of The Wire and checking the stock markets opening in North America, but I would happily slip into bed, journal for a few minutes, and turn out the light.
Invest in improving your setup
Finding a school for our daughter and an ayi to babysit and clean house took a little time and effort — a morning visit to the hospital for school-mandated medical checks, a few phone calls and emails to get a good referral for an ayi.
But we got huge benefits from making these arrangements. With our daughter occupied in the mornings, Shawn could explore farther afield with our son, which made him happier and relieved me of some guilt.
Twice a week our ayi put the kids to bed and cleaned the apartment while Shawn and I went out for Date Night. I was more reconciled to missing the daytime sightseeing because we got to experience Beijing alone in the evenings — the nightlife of Nan Luo Gu Xiang hutong, the galleries in the 798 Art District, the drawn-out meal of Mongolian hotpot.
Act like you deserve it
Working while Shawn parented wasn’t always easy. I could hear him groan when he discovered a dirty diaper that needed changing. I heard the kids fighting and throwing tantrums. I also heard giggles and tickle fights and boisterous games I was left out of.
I was tempted to help out and join in. I felt guilty for getting the easy job (sitting peacefully at my computer) instead of the tough one (have I mentioned my kids were three and two?).
I had to remind myself that I had put in my time — I finished six months of parental leave just before Shawn started his. And my job now was to bring in the money we needed.
So instead of acting hesitant and conflicted when I shut that bedroom door or escaped to the coffee shop, I behaved like it was my right. I announced my plans confidently and followed through. Then Shawn and the kids knew what to expect and were less likely to interrupt me while I worked.
During our last two weeks in China, we did some sightseeing in the south and I got to test out the strength of my routines. As soon as the kids conked out in our sleeper car on the night train from Nanchang to Guilin, I pulled out my laptop because I knew exactly what work I needed to do. My early rising habit stuck even when we were all sharing a hotel room in Yangshuo — I woke up without an alarm and typed away quietly in bed. I even managed to write on the transatlantic flight home.
Working on the road may not come naturally but it’s a skill I’m happy to develop if it lets me see the world while earning a living!
About the author
Alison is a fiction writer and creativity coach who helps writers and artists get their work done. Visit gresik.ca to pick up a free copy of her workbook, Safeguarding Your Creative Time. Her family blogs about their travels at manylives.ca.