23 Jun 2023

The realities of life as a digital nomad

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 23 June 2023

New Zealander Nathan Thomas has spent 10 years working as a freelance writer while travelling around the world.

He explores the rewards and challenges of the digital nomad life in his new book Untethered.

Nathan James Thomas - founder of the travel writing website Intrepid Times

Nathan James Thomas - founder of the travel writing website Intrepid Times Photo: NZ Business

Nathan Thomas is the founding editor of Intrepid Times - an online magazine that publishes narrative travel writing. He is currently living in Eastern Europe.

As a "proud Kiwi" who comes back to Aotearoa as often as he can, Thomas says he feels as at home here as anywhere else but feels a need to keep exploring.

"I'm no opponent of the routine life. I think it's aspirational and brilliant in the fact that people can create shelter and can create safety and comfort for themselves and their loved ones. That's not something I'm here to mock or to criticise. It's admirable."

Before university, he did "the classic Kiwi gap year" in Australia and Europe then hit the road again after completing his degree.

"I always knew that travel was ironically where I felt most at home, it was the thing that I was most passionate about, most loved. The thing I would think about at every moment when I wasn't doing it, I'm sure many people can relate."

Wanderlust can be fuelled by unease but at its best is about curiosity, he says.

"Suddenly, the world seems bigger and richer. And you think' Well, I think learned all that from this one trip to Europe. What am I going to discover from the next one?"

Thomas says he's no opponent of the more "routine" way of living, though. 

Photo: Supplied

He's more about introducing people to the idea that a life like his can be really educational, fun and inspiring – and more attainable than they may guess.

Thomas was in China when he realised he wanted to become a digital nomad, he had to have a good look at the skills he had to offer - writing and digital marketing.

His first local writing gig was poorly paid but also became his gateway to the world of professional freelance writing.

Yet as Thomas was approaching 30, and catching up with a couple of lawyer friends in Hong Kong, their suggestion of a restaurant he couldn't afford was a wake-up call. 

"That was when I really started to focus on business development – how he could use his writing skills to help other people earn money."

How someone can develop a successful remote career is something Thomas investigates in some detail in Untethered.

Generally, he says, you'll need a skill – such as writing, design or teaching English – and if possible a specialisation such as in teaching business English, travel writing, SEO, copywriting or graphic design, particularly for e-commerce websites.

"Once you have that client knowledge, that in-demand skill and that specialisation, then you'll be able to make a living because you have something that is valuable to people."

The lifestyle isn't for everyone, and navigating visa logistics and language barriers can become exhausting when you're also running a business.

One digital nomad he interviewed for the book – Canadian blogger Nora Dunn (aka The Professional Hobo) – talks about moving home to Toronto after twelve years on the road and burnout.

Dunn did eventually start travelling again, Thomas says, but with the knowledge that she needed to be better connected to the digital nomad community.

"When you travel definitely try and make friends with locals, people who live there, get amongst it don't just be a tourist, but it also helps to have a network of friends who live the same kind of lifestyle as you do. So you can share you know, experiences at this border or trying to deal with clients in that timezone. And that can be really reassuring."

A usual day in the life of a digital nomad? Waking up in your rented accommodation, grabbing a coffee and then working for six to eight hours before you head out exploring. Thomas says.

"Of course, you have the weekends and you facilitate time off when you can but you wake up, you do the work, then you enjoy where you are."

If time zone difference requires you to be on Zoom calls late at night that's okay occasionally but it will wear you down if it's every day.

"Because the entire day you're thinking 'oh no, I have to do this. I can't really relax, I can't get amongst the moment."

As a younger traveller, Thomas took pride in "hitting" as many cities and countries as he could, but he's now an advocate of slow travel.

"As I got older, I started to travel more slowly, to spend three months or six months in a place as opposed to just a few days… This means you get greater knowledge of a place and there's a level of connection you find somewhere when you're not just seeing the sights, you're standing in the queue in the supermarket or queuing up at the bus stop.

'if you travel slowly, and you get to know some cafes where they're a good Wi-Fi and there's also good coffee, where it's okay to do a Zoom call maybe, where you feel in the flow of writing, you can start to do that. It's great to have the flexibility to get work done wherever you are, but it also takes practice."