- People often think the life of a digital nomad is idealistic and full of parties and beaches.
- In reality, you have to work twice as hard to keep a routine, and focus on what’s important to you.
- Otherwise you can end up getting sucked up into the cycle of getting up late and never sticking to a work schedule to achieve your goals.
- Psychologist Carolin Müller has been a digital nomad for nearly six years, living in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam since 2018 alone.
- She said change is wonderful and exciting, but everything comes with a catch.
The life of a digital nomad is often looked at in envy. You can work while travelling the world, seeing all the places you’ve ever wanted without having to press pause on your paycheck.
But while there are definite advantages to this remote lifestyle, there are pressures and stresses that aren’t talked about as much.
Carolin Müller has been a digital nomad for the past six years, running an online psychology business.
She spoke to INSIDER from Vietnam, but in 2018 she was in Sri Lanka, then Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Currently she has a tourist visa so has to move again in three months’ time.
“I know the struggles,” she said. “When you live in another culture that you don’t understand, you focus a lot on your career you can feel socially isolated. It’s much harder for digital nomads to stay mentally healthy.”
You never feel settled
It’s different from the life of an expat, she said, because you can never feel settled having no fixed address. Expats at least know they’re going to be in one place for the forseeable future.
“This is the ideal, exploring the world and working at the same time,” Müller said. “But you’re never in a stable culture. You’re always changing from one culture to another, you’re coming and going, and sometimes you have a culture shock.”
For instance, in Vietnam , the chairs are just 30cm high, even in luxury restaurants. In India, people tend to sit on the floor to eat. Even coffee varies depending on where you are — the Vietnamese drink it with ice, while in Malaysia they fry the coffee beans, which makes it really oily.
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“Everything is so cultural and you always have to adapt to that,” said Müller. “And I think there’s this big feeling you don’t understand and don’t feel understood at the same time. And this is really exhausting.”
In our daily lives, it’s easy to underestimate how much we depend on an easy daily routine, like where to get your favourite coffee in the morning, how much a kilogram of tomatoes costs, and where to get on the subway. The cost of living can also halve or double depending on which country you go to.
“When I go to a place, you have to figure out what is the real price of a mango, am I getting the tourist price or is it the real price?” said Müller. “It’s a bit more of a fight, let’s say.”
There’s pressure to succeed from back home
There are also pressures from the people you leave behind, who expect a lot from those who move country to work, she said, especially if you move from a poorer country. One friend of Müller’s moved from Tunisia to Canada, and his family and friends always ask him about his house, what car he has, and how successful he is.
“Depression and anxiety don’t need a visa, they can travel everywhere,” Müller said. “It’s harder to share with the people back home if you are struggling, that you are in a crisis, because they say ‘How come? You live in Singapore, you have a house, you have a driver, you have a housekeeper, you have a nice job, you make money, what’s the problem?'”
It’s the same for digital nomads — people think working remotely around the world is living the dream. But Müller said everything comes with a catch, and it’s not all beaches and being happy and carefree.
“Even this can be hard,” she said. “You can sit on a beach and you can be sad.”
Burnout in paradise
Being in a relationship can also be testing. Müller and her partner have different passports, meaning if they travel they may not be able to stay in the same country for the same amount of time. This is just another price you pay for the lifestyle, she said, and the way to keep yourself grounded is to focus on the things that are really important to you.
For example, don’t compare yourself to a false image you see on social media, and instead think about what you want to achieve, and to look after your mental and physical health first.
“Change is nice but you always have to check in with yourself and ask yourself do you have the energy,” said Müller. “Keep the balance between travelling and taking care of yourself. Because it’s always important to sleep well, to eat well, to exercise, to keep a certain routine.”
Otherwise, you may find you get whipped up into the intense cycle of partying all night, waking up late, and never really sticking to a solid working schedule. Your environment can mean this takes double the effort, and takes real motivation and self-control. One way to help is to seek out real friendships, Müller said.
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“Everybody is moving and not always in the same directions, so it’s hard to keep friendships, or to stay in contact because you are always finding new friends,” she said. “You have to try to focus on a few people, or make an effort to see the people back home … Because at the end we are social beings, and this is very important for our mental health.”
Digital nomads may find their life takes a really different route to the people they know back home who start buying houses and having children. But if you stick to your routine of what’s important — morning coffee, yoga classes, meeting up with friends, having a few hours in a coworking space, or whatever else it is — you won’t feel the need to compare yourself as much.
“It’s very important first of all that you understand the illusion of it, that it’s not necessarily how you thought this life would be, and also that you focus on real goals, what is important to you,” Müller said.
“Sometime digital nomads can focus too much on the work and isolate themselves, but then you end up having a burnout in paradise.”
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