Just now joining us on this journey to becoming a Digital Nomad? In part 1, we discuss how possessions can tie us down, and in part 2 we cover 12 specific things you might not want to own as a Digital Nomad.
It’s easy to observe someone else’s life transformation. When a muffin-top friend disappears for 6 months and comes back trim and buff, the “rapid” transformation belies the difficult steps needed to reproduce the end result. Seeing change isn’t enough to accomplish it—you have to commit to a methodical (and often radical) plan.
In some ways, digital nomadism is like getting in shape: we can easily envy our clutter-free friends and their world expeditions, but achieving a similar situation can be daunting. But even if you aren’t ready to travel the world, you can start “getting in shape” today!
1. Adopt the mindset.
The nomadic mindset is independent of where you live. If you can feel like you aren't living out of a suitcase when you travel, you can eventually embrace a similar lifestyle at home.
Hipsters try to be different for the sake of being different. But fads change, so before long term lifestyle changes begin to pay off, they may cease to be trendy. Consequently, digital nomadism is not a “hipster” thing; like getting in shape, worthwhile lifestyle changes take time. So research what you’re in for, then work towards the goal. Don’t just be different for the sake of it.
That said, be prepared to diverge from cultural norms. Most people have only sampled a few dots within 30 degrees of longitude, so the majority of our conceptions come from a tiny sliver of the 360 degree globe.
Some people become nomads expecting travel to bring them the happiness that possessions cannot. But travel can be like work: it may bring you enjoyment, pleasure and occupation, but not contentment. If you aren’t content now, don’t expect to be content for long as a digital nomad.
2. Recognize cognitive biases.
I grew up in the South, so getting in shape is hard if you don’t first recognize an “eat everything on your plate” mentality and consciously fight it.
Ownership has its own assortment of these mentalities, but before you can break them, you have to recognize generational habits and cognitive biases.
“Sunk cost” is a widespread bias that dramatically affects decision making, especially when paired with a “waste not, want not” attitude. Say you purchased an expensive coffee table a year ago, but now it just doesn’t work with the decor. The rational decision would be to sell or give the item away, but as “you might need it someday” it would be a waste to toss something you paid so much money for, so you might opt to store it.
But ownership also has a cost: you might inconvenience the garage (and your toes) for years before finally tossing the table, or rack up professional mover fees. This is an example of a sunk cost—whether you keep it or toss it, you have already paid for the table and are unlikely to recover the costs. So the feeling of “losing money” shouldn’t affect your decision—sometimes getting rid of stuff pays for itself in emotional well-being! Don’t add to your losses by punishing yourself for costs you can’t recoup.
The “Well travelled road effect” is the tendency to perceive familiar habits (like driving routes) as faster or more effective than alternate options, despite hard numbers to the contrary. It’s the same reason we tend to resist learning new things as we age. “Your way” is always better than Google Maps because it’s the route you’ve always taken, but what new discoveries are you forfeiting? Make an effort to be uncomfortable, and in time you may find yourself comfortable with discomfort.
3. Get comfortable with less.
Your comforts reflect your deepest fears.
“The more comforts you have, the more your comforts have you.”
The American Dream is a shmorgishborg of “indispensable” comforts: hot water, air conditioning, private transportation and laundry facilities. But the most transformative adventures don’t always happen when there’s a hot shower nearby.
Comfort goes beyond hygienic conveniences: are you uncomfortable working on the go without a dedicated keyboard, mouse or monitor? A checked bag? If your productivity is directly tethered to a WiFi connection, it can be difficult to work remotely. With key remappers, careful packing and good offline tooling you might find that you were unnecessarily tied down by conveniences that only prevented you from learning better workflows.
When you need less to be comfortable, you are less likely to forget something — and you can travel the world indefinitely with one carry-on bag.
4. Tighten up border security.
Immigrant clutter should have a rough time getting through customs to your home. Do not become a sanctuary for well-meaning but misplaced things.
Try the “1 in, 2 out rule.” Whenever you make a purchase, donate what it replaces and ditch one other thing. Naturally, you’ll start to bias your purchasing decisions towards things that take the place of multiple things.
“Clutter” includes email and snail mail. When you receive either, do your wallet a favor and unsubscribe immediately. Magazines and email campaigns are designed not only to clutter inboxes, but to tantalize your materialistic yearnings.
5. Deport existing clutter.
Preventing inbound clutter is straightforward, but the real challenge is removing the decades of junk you already own. This can take years, but with the right mindset it can become second nature and inform your buying habits.
If you are hesitant to declutter because you will be moving to a larger house, consider that if you don’t have enough room for your things now, you never will. Humans are bad at spatial estimation, so overflowing closets in a tiny apartment are a mere foreshadowing of the unholy rubbish that will consume your future 3-story house.
The safest category to start with is clothing: if you toss half your wardrobe, you’re unlikely to upset your spouse. Moreover, you can quickly cultivate the virtue of indifference with just a few cleanings. Here’s the decision tree:
- When did I last wear this? Specific dates are your pal in spring cleanings. It you haven’t worn it in 12 months, no questions asked. Donate it. Otherwise…
- Will I need this for a special occasion? This is a deceptive question: if the answer is “no,” that’s easy confirmation, but it’s usually “yes” even if you actually won’t ever wear it. We forget that life is not organized like our clothes rack. Donate it. Otherwise…
- Is there another article I would always prefer wearing over this? Second-rate multiples rarely get worn, and by the time they are called for your tastes will have changed. Donate it.
- Otherwise, keep it.
Furniture is difficult to cull. The easiest cure is prevention: focus on creating a modest, well-rounded ensemble. So instead of purchasing 3 bookshelves to fill up a big room, invest in 1 bookshelf, 1 couch, 1 rug, etc. An assortment of pieces can adapt to different spaces more readily than a trio of duplicates. If any item unfairly infringes on the negative space, store the offending article; a well-designed room does not need excess furniture to feel “finished.” If it is uncalled for after a few months, it’s time to part ways. This is also a good time to bias towards furniture you can easily move with a friend’s help.
6. Virtues of remaining citizens.
After a couple years of decluttering and curbing buying habits, your remaining possessions will hopefully exhibit exemplary virtues.
The best things happen
when you’re dancing when you can embrace spontaneity. When an unexpected trip means adventure instead of inconvenience, digital nomadism begins to pay off. Thus, it’s important to choose equipment that frees you to travel.
Could you pack for a couple weeks out of the country in 15 minutes? It’s a daunting benchmark, but you can prepare for international trips by streamlining coffee stops and overnight visits. For myself, that meant consolidating my photography equipment and wardrobe into a compact kit. For my mom, it meant switching from glasses to contacts and replacing two purses with a money belt. For artists, it could mean familiarizing yourself with digital art programs like Procreate to replace an inconvenient gaggle of art mediums.
With daytrips as a way to gauge yourself, you can decide what you absolutely need at all times to enjoy spontaneous adventures.
Your remaining possessions and records aren’t much use if you can’t access them when you need them.
Start by digitizing everything—ideally, the only paper you own should be green and issued by the Federal Reserve. I had enough stacks of paperwork and sheet music to cover half my bedroom, but it was well worth a few days of scanning:
- Sheet music
- Bank statements
- Tax forms
With a good backup plan (more on that later), digital copies are better than reams of paper! Image Capture and Scanner Pro are great for scanning documents.
Now with everything digitized and backed up, it needs to be accessible from anywhere. You can rely on web services like Dropbox and Gmail, but don’t forget that you may not always have an Internet connection. For sensitive documents, 1Password is worth its price tag when paired with Dropbox for syncing; moreover, the free 1Password mobile app stores a copy of your documents so you can access them offline.
Is your phone loaded with important text messages, like directions or addresses, that you wouldn’t be able to access in a pinch? Travel reservations should be backed up and easily accessible offline. I use the TripIt app to track all of my travel reservations, but sometimes the app doesn’t pick up all the details I may need (like barcodes or check-in instructions), so Dropbox and iBooks are a great last resort.
As a frequent traveler, it is inevitable something important will be damaged or stolen. Losing a phone or laptop is a very real concern for those who create their life’s work on a fragile arrangement of silicon and plastic. How much data would be lost? How long would it take to set up a brand new device and get it work ready?
The moment of doom is not a great time to discover just what money can’t buy. Don’t put yourself in a position where your life would end in cardiac arrest if any of your equipment croaked.
For many with the flexibility of a nomadic lifestyle, data is your most valuable possession. Protect it with the 3-2-1 backup strategy: create 3 independent backups with 2 external hard drives and an online service like CrashPlan for your 3rd backup.
When swapping out equipment becomes a non-event, you’ve achieved Replaceability. After 3 laptops and 7 clean reinstalls of macOS, my personal configuration takes little time to replicate thanks to dotfiles and a macOS configuration script.
The nomadic lifestyle eliminates worry while enabling you to take advantage of life’s unforeseeable opportunities, and it’s a mindset that you can adopt now! So don’t wait until you decide you’re ready to travel—prepare for it now, and you may find it to be a lifestyle that befits you even at home.
Get comfortable with less, eliminate sources of inbound clutter and attach a cost to existing items. Your reward for a well-culled “stuff life” is a quality portfolio that is accessible anywhere, easy to replace and friendly to spontaneity.
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