This post was originally written for The Post Grad Survival Guide.
When I was a child, my parents and I would sometimes drive out into the desert to meet Bedouins; nomadic Arab people who roam parts of Africa and the Middle East in small tribes, surviving by herding goats or camels. Sometimes we would buy jewellery from them. Sometimes we would sit in a beautiful tent, a cocoon of ornate treasures and colourful textiles amidst the bleak sand dunes, and drink sweet mint tea from tiny glass cups.
I adored them. I thought they were the most wonderful people in the world.
My dream, at the age of six, was to one day join a Bedouin tribe and live an untethered life out in the desert, moving from place to place.
The notion of living a nomadic lifestyle faded from my mind for a dozen or so years, until I found myself writing full time and not needing to be in a fixed location.
People suggested I become a digital nomad. I devoured hundreds of blog posts on the topic and my old urge to live a life of constant movement returned, in a somewhat different form.
So I tried it, in a haphazard and ill-managed way for several months. Then I came home. Then I never seriously considered it again.
I didn’t ‘fail’ at being a digital nomad. I just learned that the lifestyle is not a panacea. While I planned to return to it at a later date, that never happened. Ultimately, I moved to London and decided to stay. As of a few days ago, I live in a converted warehouse that resembles a combination of a Victorian brothel, a natural history museum, and a dance hall. I plan to stay here a long time. Before that, I lived communally in an old carpet factory with about 26 other people. Travelling outside of England is a rarity unless it’s for work.
But, seeing as I have a full-time mostly remote job, people often ask me why I am not a digital nomad. They ask with shock and second-hand regret.
If you’re working a job that requires being in a set geographical location all the time, staying in one place when you don’t need to might seem like a wasted opportunity — especially for someone in their early twenties, with few attachments, a penchant for solitude, and few physical possessions.
Today, there are fewer and fewer Bedouins. Their nomadic lifestyle was a matter of necessity — moving around let their animals find enough nourishment among the sparse vegetation, let them move with the climate, and trade between areas, among other factors. But today, it also seems that more and more people live a transient life by choice.
Here’s why I’m not one of them.
I’m not going to touch on the problematic colonial undertones of digital nomadism because it’s been covered in a far more coherent form than I could manage here, here, here, and elsewhere. Nor am I going to question the environmental impact or general damage to communities.
Also, I’m going to ignore the strawman argument of ‘Everyone believes digital nomads sip fruity drinks on a beach all day but that’s not the reality!!!’ because no one actually believes it. And it seems every article about the topic includes the same tired joke about laptops and sand.
Remote work is still work
One of the most frustrating misconceptions remote workers face is the assumption that if you’re not in an office, you’re not really working.
Even after over two years, people in my life still treat my work as a voluntary diversion I can abandon at any time. While I enjoy having a degree of flexibility, I follow a consistent schedule the vast majority of the time. I certainly don’t work fewer hours than I would in an office.
The problem with travelling is that it makes it hard to get enough work done. It’s easy to assume it’s possible to plunk a laptop down on any available surface and get to work. Combine inconsistent workspace with poor or unavailable WiFi in some places, jet lag, distraction and more, and travelling takes a huge toll on productivity.
Then there’s the matter of focus. When I travel, it’s a choice between either seeing next to nothing of the place I’m visiting or getting next to no work done. Focusing when there is a multitude of possible new experiences just outside the door is a challenge.
For instance, when I went to Copenhagen while I was still freelancing full time I intended to do the minimum possible work, a contract requiring about 6 hours a day. That might not sound like much, but it meant I only had 3 or 4 hours a day when it was light and places were open, at best. As much as I enjoyed the trip, I only saw a fraction of the city.
Travel is time consuming
I’ve been on trips where working and managing logistics took up all of my time. Sure, you get better at parts of it with time. But certain elements are irreducible. It always takes time to find your bearings in a new place.
Part of why I like working remotely is how much time it saves. No commute, which saves the equivalent of at least an extra work week each month, freeing up space to get more done.
If I need to think something through or take a break, I can get up and do laundry, go to the gym, or whatever, then work later in the evening. Instead of staring into space at my desk, then doing those same things later anyway.
Adding perpetual motion to the mix would eliminate those time savings, and then some.
Most of us need human contact of the non-superficial variety to stay healthy and sane. Maybe some people find it easy to strike up friendships in a short space of time. I’m not one of them, nor do I enjoy the process of meeting new people that much.
When I travel alone, as I usually do, I spend the whole time alone. When I tried to do so long term, I mostly found it lonely in a painful way.
While I’m sure it’s not too hard to meet casual acquaintances while on the road if you make the effort, meaningful friendships take time to develop. Considering how much I struggle to find the time to socialise staying in one place, travel makes it almost impossible.
Shiny object syndrome
Our culture can make the unending pursuit of shiny objects seem like an almost noble virtue.
But not everyone is wired that way. Some of us favour depth over breadth. Some of us are content to watch the same films, listen to the same albums, go to the same pubs, visit the same galleries, and do the same things again and again.
Novelty and spontaneity have their place. In excess, they become an addiction.
Places become backdrops and entertainment, people become disposable, experiences become a game. There’s something to be said for remaining comfortable with simplicity.
Constant movement is offered up as a panacea for the boredom and dissatisfaction inherent in living.
But sooner or later, novelty ceases to be enjoyable. It becomes a crutch and a distraction. We adapt faster and faster.
I like shaking things up every so often. I like stability more — all the more so because it’s something I lacked for too long and am still chasing. Living in London offers countless things to see and do, every single day. The sheer number of exhibitions, shows, events, and the like on any particular evening is staggering. For me, the tradeoff of living somewhere consistently interesting though too expensive to make travelling often practical is worthwhile. Considering the tiny fraction of it I’m able to see, it’s going to take a long time to get bored of this city.