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What is it really like to be a digital nomad?

Digital nomads set out to lead the life of their dreams — but not everything is perfect

By Miriam Partington and Tim Smith

Bogdan Danchuk is what could be described as a veteran nomad. In the last 13 years, he’s lived in 36 countries across the globe, including New Zealand, Spain and Malta, travelling every few months to a new location. 

Japan, above all, has been his favourite spot so far. 

“When I went to Japan, it felt like I didn’t just arrive in a new country, but to a different planet which is 100 years ahead of us,” says Danchuk, who’s the founder of an international tax consultancy business. “I found myself suddenly amazed by things I’d never noticed before and felt stimulated in ways I never knew existed.”

Bogdan Danchuk, at the Royal Savoy hotel in Funchal, Madeira, which overlooks the ocean.

These kinds of moments, when you see the world with new eyes, are exactly why Danchuk’s living life on the move. But being a lone traveller has its challenges too. 

Things have changed

The life of a nomad has gotten considerably easier since Danchuk first packed his bags. When he first started out, there was no Airbnb, no Facebook groups, no Tinder, and Google Translate wasn’t as effective as it is today. The expat hubs of young, digital professionals that have sprung up in major cities such as Berlin, New York and Chiang Mai also didn’t exist back then, he says.

“You didn’t have communities, you had nothing. It was just you, and what you could make out of life. Your social skills were everything,” he says.

Technology has certainly made things easier. Now, travellers have information and ready-made communities at their fingertips via platforms such as meetup.com, Facebook and WhatsApp. Dedicated digital nomad “villages” and communities have started to appear too, offering free coworking spaces, official accommodation partners and a lively calendar of events.

Places like this make it simpler to find friends, or even romance, and the atmosphere, according to some nomads we spoke to, resembles being back at university — except everyone has more money. 

But sometimes constant socialising isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Nomad burnout

When you’re a digital nomad, being a great storyteller is part of how you make connections. But explaining who you are, where you’ve come from and where you’ve travelled to over and over again can eventually become fatiguing. 

“One of the downsides of this lifestyle can be the repetitiveness of conversations,” says Danchuk. “When you first arrive in a place, you go to those first few meetups and find yourself having the same conversation that you’ve had the past 6,000 times with other new people.”

But that’s not to say that conversations are always superficial. Danchuk says that in nomad circles, you’re often forced to share your “philosophy on life” and other intimate details about yourself in order to build relationships on a deeper level.

“But sometimes you get really burnt out by sharing details on such personal topics,” he adds.

Sometimes it’s easier to just introduce yourself on Slack

Gonçalo Hall, a nomad of four years who was the brains behind the digital nomad village project in Madeira, says that creating and maintaining relationships is by far the biggest challenge of being a digital nomad — which is why being part of a community is so important. 

“When you move like every month or every two months, it’s very hard to connect with people to the next level, because you know, everybody’s leaving the next month,” he says. “Why should you create a deeper relationship with that person?”

Julie Boucek, who’s been digital nomadding since 2015, agrees: “A decision for nomadding can be a decision against being a solid part of a community over time. It can be a decision against being near family and old friends that you’ve known forever. It’s hard work.”

“Eventually, we feel the need to ground ourselves and put down some roots”

That’s why many nomads tend to slow down with time, adds Hall. “Eventually, we feel the need to ground ourselves and put down some roots. They say you’re grounded when you have books in your home. Where are my books right now? In my girlfriend’s mother’s house.”

Friendship hacks

In today’s world of digital nomad convenience, there is, however, a hack for forming meaningful relationships in double-quick time. Andrea Callan is another digital nomad who’s temporarily settled in Madeira, where she runs regular workshops on “authentic relating”.

This is a technique designed to fast-track social interactions, giving people the feeling that they get from deep connections with old friends in just a matter of minutes, she tells Sifted. The workshops use short games to try and take people out of the “small-talk” level of conversation, encouraging them to be intimate and share their feelings of the here and now.

“Authentic relating is all about how to get into a more intimate connection in any conversation,” she says. “It takes the pressure off this story we have — of having to build these long-term relationships to be able to meet our need for connection and depth — because we can just do it with somebody very quickly in a two-minute game, and never have to see them again.”

Andrea Callan says that authentic relating changes the narrative that friendships have to be fostered over months and years

And that isn’t the only friendship hack we heard of while spending time with nomads. Since the rise of bitcoin, digital nomad communities have become increasingly populated by crypto and tech bros who are translating the concept of decentralised finance into friendship.

“Because I’m meeting so many people while travelling, I can pick and choose people that align with my mindset much more,” says Sini Ninkovic, a digital wellness guru from Silicon Valley. “I think it’s just part of the trend of digitalisation: creating decentralised friendships.”

👉 Read: What do the locals think of digital nomads?

To translate: Ninkovic keeps in touch with his nomad friends even after everyone has travelled somewhere new. 

“Instead of being local, the friendships become global. I do three to four phone calls with friends every single day to keep up relationships,” adds Ninkovic, taking his phone out of his pocket and showing us a map where each little coloured dot represents a friend he’s met along the way and their location. 

Lifestyle design

Relentless productivity and self-optimisation are common traits we noticed among digital nomads in Madeira’s digital nomad village.

“You know what really optimises your day? Scheduling in your free time in your Google Calendar. That way, you remember to take time off,” was one snippet of conversation we overheard during our stay.

“Being a nomad is a journey you’re doing by yourself, for yourself, to find what makes you happy,” says Hall. “It’s about designing your life to become the best that you can be.” 

A popular weekend hiking spot in Madeira, where mountains can be seen for miles.

Self-optimisation — from hiking to meditation to vegetarianism — is something  Tomasz Sledz knows a lot about. He’s a life coach and the organiser of the weekly “Integrated Man” workshop, designed to support men in sharing their feelings and ultimately becoming better versions of themselves. So what makes an integrated man?

“An integrated man is a man who is connected with his strengths, weaknesses. He’s very open minded and open about what he struggles with,” he explains. “My mission is to show guys that it is okay to share their challenges, and that they don’t make them less masculine.”

Tomasz Sledz, an “integrated man”

Sledz adds that digital nomads tend to make perfect prospective clients for a life coach: “Usually digital nomads are very adventurous and open minded. For the coach, it’s the best type of person to work with.”

While this might all seem like a bit of an exhausting environment to exist in, it’s also possible to enjoy some of the fun of digital nomad life, without all of the intensity.

Thanks to Covid and the world of remote work, digital nomadding has become something many more people can try, even if just for a month or two.

Carol and Alan Geere pick and choose a few digital nomad meetups to attend

In Madeira, Sifted met Carol and Alan Geere, a British police investigator and Chinese university lecturer respectively. They had set themselves up near a small digital nomad community in the southern town of Machico, but had opted to rent an apartment in the hills, a bit further away from the action.

“I’m working for a police force in England. I had to get special permission to come out here, but it’s amazing that I can do my job the same here as I do it at home,” says Carol. “We certainly wouldn’t fit the stereotype of what a digital nomad is. We’re both over 50, we both had full careers and we’re both working from home for the first time. So it’s really opened the world up to us.”

Tim Smith is Sifted’s Iberia correspondent; he tweets from @timmpsmith. Miriam Partington is Sifted’s Germany correspondent and future of work reporter; she tweets from @mparts_

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Sifted spent a week staying at Madeira’s digital nomad village as guests of the official accommodation partner, Flatio.

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