Nicole Arnott: Digital Nomad
Meet Nicole Arnott, a Scottish freelance content writer who is part of the burgeoning “digital nomad” movement. Digital nomads are people who are location independent because they use technology to perform their job. They can work from anywhere so long as a reliable WiFi connection is available. Nicole has been working and traveling simultaneously for the past six months. During our conversation, she talks how she accidentally fell into this line of work (which often gets misconstrued as a glossy, dreamy and highly romanticized lifestyle), about the realities of pursuing the ‘digital nomad’ path, and why she’s decided to trade hostels and airbnbs in favor of a more settled existence in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and the journey you’ve taken to become a ‘digital nomad’?
I’m a Scottish girl from a town called Dumbarton, just outside Glasgow, currently traveling the world while working as a freelance content writer. I never expected myself ever to live away from home or have such a strange job - actually, I never even knew this was an option until a couple of years ago!
I studied music at university which wasn’t particularly useful since I had absolutely no intentions of ever becoming a musician. When I finished uni, I spent 2 years working as part of a merchandising team for a Scottish outdoor clothing company but felt like I was missing out on the whole travel thing. I enjoyed my job but apart from the odd weekend in Europe, I’d never really traveled like a lot of other Europeans do. So many people do the backpacking in Southeast Asia “gap yah” thing after graduating but I’d went straight into employment and had worked while I was studying, too. I wasn’t content with seeing somewhere in Europe, though. I wanted to see somewhere completely different.
After doing research online, I decided to teach English in South Korea, affording me to pay off my debt, save some money and see another part of the world at the same time.
I spent almost 3 years in Korea but after that it was time for me to leave. I still wasn’t ready to go home so I wanted to find a way to travel and make money that wasn’t teaching. I already had a travel blog and was learning a lot about social media marketing, SEO and copywriting. I had also begun to read about a lot of other “digital nomads” online and realized that I had developed the right skills to work in a remote field.
So, I got started. I spent weeks pitching clients, doing crappily paid jobs and building my repertoire until I had enough experience to charge higher rates and pick up more jobs. I’m still not making as much money as I would hope to but I’m making more than enough to support my lifestyle. I’m currently in an Airbnb in Playa del Carmen, Mexico!
Why did you decide to become location independent and what does it mean to you?
The main reason for becoming location independent was to be able to actually build a career for myself while traveling the world. I consider myself to be fairly career-driven, although some people might laugh at me for saying that considering how much time I spend galavanting! One of my biggest dreams in life is to have a successful career but, at the same time, I love to travel. I didn’t want to return back to The UK with gaps on my C.V. or with years of teaching experience when I don’t want to be a teacher. Through location independence, I found a way to broaden my skills and make an income while immersing myself in new cultures around the world.
What’s a typical working day look like for you?
At the moment, it’s difficult to say what a typical working day looks like. My travels in Central America have been quite crazy - one day I might be out looking at Mayan ruins, the next I might be cooped up in an Airbnb trying to meet deadlines, answer emails and create my own blog content.
It’s not been ideal and I’ve realized that I want to focus more on work and making money rather than traveling like a backpacker. My partner and I have actually decided to relocate to Chiang Mai, Thailand - the digital nomad capital of the world - to have a base and focus mostly on our work!
The ideal productive working days go something like this: Wake up at 6am and practice yoga, have a healthy breakfast away from any screens, then begin the day by checking emails. I usually write a weekly to-do list on a Monday and a smaller one each day to tackle priorities and deadlines. If my schedule isn’t too full, I like to spend an hour pitching new clients to ensure that I always have work lined up. I also dedicate some time to updating the social media for my blog and creating new content.
How do you earn an income now?
Most of my income comes from freelance writing with my specialist area being SEO copywriting. I have quite an analytical brain, so I really enjoy this area of writing which others find dry and boring. I can write creatively to an extent but technical and systematic writing comes much more naturally to me. Because of that, I can charge higher rates and apply for jobs that no one else wants! I also earn some pocket money from my blog and have a few virtual assistant clients who I help with Pinterest management and travel planning.
Which resources or tools have helped you the most?
The biggest resource for me has been Upwork, a freelance job platform which has made finding clients really easy for me. A lot of people give up with Upwork after the first hurdle as it can be difficult to find well paying clients but I decided to stick with it and now have good enough feedback to charge the rates that I want. As well as that, facebook groups aimed at freelance writers have been an invaluable place for me to learn how to pitch,what to charge and find opportunities.
Some of my favorite Facebook groups for budding location independent freelance writers include Binders Full of Editors, The Binders, Binders Full of Writing Jobs, Digital Nomad Girls and Female Digital Nomads.
And, for advice on where to stay, NomadList is a huge help!
I’m sure that there ups and downs pursuing this lifestyle. What are the biggest struggles you face being location independent?
On this journey in Latin America, the biggest struggle, for sure, has been finding stable WiFi!! Even though my work isn’t too internet intensive, I still need it for sourcing stock photos for clients, researching topics and obviously emailing my completed work to clients.
As well as this, self-motivation is very difficult - especially when I’m working from an amazing place with a beach to enjoy! There are so many days when I wish I had an office to go to, a boss to give me feedback and tell me what to do, and a steady paycheck at the end of the month. I also miss the social side of office life. I was always that girl that went on every work night out and gossiped about it in the tearoom the next day! I don’t have any colleagues now so that’s a bit boring and I often get lonely since it’s hard to meet other backpackers when I need to work but we hope that going to Chiang Mai will rectify some of these problems since the coworking scene there is huge!
How can one become a digital nomad, how should they start?
If you know that you want to live a location independent lifestyle then I’d begin by assessing your skills and seeing what kind of job would suit you. From there, start building a portfolio of your work - whether that be through a blog or in the more traditional sense - that you can use to show clients your worth. When it comes to actually finding said clients, Upwork was a good starting point for me but you might even be able to find clients locally, through friends or from cold pitching. I’d read up on some blogs and books from those who’ve been through it all before so that you can learn from their methods.
Any advice for digital-nomads-to-be?
My biggest piece of advice would be to go slow! It’s difficult to get a freelancing career off the ground if you’re packing up your backpack every few days. I recommend finding places with good co-working scenes and strong internet and basing yourself in those places. Traveling as a digital nomad is a completely different ball game to traveling as a backpacker. Rather than looking at lists on the top 10 things to do, you’ll be looking up laptop-friendly coffee shops - your priorities will change completely.
Most nomads have difficulty in finding balance. How do you center yourself while traveling?
This is something that I still struggle with on the road. Some days, I’ll get up at 6am to go on a tour and then spend the evening working until 10pm. It’s not necessarily a healthy lifestyle and I often neglect doing yoga on the road! But I do always give myself one day off a week. A day when I don’t look at emails or cram in any last minute work. If I want to spend that day doing something action packed like a hiking tour, that’s fine. If I want to meander around the city or relax on the beach then that’s even better.
To completely escape, though, a good book or addictive TV series always helps! I recently started watching K-Dramas again and they definitely deliver up a healthy slice of distraction whenever I need it. I have too much of a monkey mind for meditation so my method of centering myself is a bit different!
Do you ever suffer from procrastination? If so, how do you overcome it?
When you work from a computer with no one around to see what you’re up to, procrastination is a dangerous probability. If I don’t start my day with a good idea of what I want to achieve then you can bet that I’ll end up watching a series of 20-minute long videos about what vegan bloggers eat in a day (I’m not vegan), planning a hypothetical trip to Indonesia and reading a few Buzzfeed articles about American celebrities who I’ve never heard of! After that, I’ll realize that I’ve lost 5 hours and end up working until silly o’clock at night.
I like to plan my to-do list with an idea of how long each task is going to take me and then give myself an allocated time for each task. That way, I always know what I’m meant to be doing at any given time. Usually wearing proper clothes rather a t-shirt and pants (‘pants’ is British speak for underwear) gets me into the work zone. If I’m in an extra silly mood then GO F*CKING WORK always helps.
Do you miss something about stable life?
I miss lots of things about stable life but most of all, community. I miss my friends and family every day. Even though I meet a lot of people while traveling, it’s not often that friendships go much further past “where are you from?”, “where have you been?” and “where are you going to next?” Sometimes we do meet amazing people who we love hanging out with but because we travel much more slowly than other people, it’s not often that we get to meet up with the same people again so that’s been difficult!
And, of course, I miss little things like feeling like a local and knowing the best places to eat and buy things. If I stay a while in a city, that definitely lessens but I never feel the same as I do in Glasgow! Staying healthy is also difficult when you’re moving around and I’ve tragically packed on a fair few pounds, making beach days a bit more gloomy.
What is the best part of this lifestyle?
The best part is being able to set my own schedule - I can go out when it’s sunny and work when it’s rainy. Coming from Scotland, that’s a big deal! Any Scottish person will tell you that most of our heatwaves are 5 days long, from Monday to Friday, and the weekends are always rainy. Sods law!
Plus, because I can work from anywhere, I don’t need to worry about visa issues while I travel with my boyfriend who’s from South Africa. It’s difficult for us to go back to The UK together and we’d like to see the world while we can so this option is ideal for where I am in my life, really.
There’s also a lot of potential to grow in a career like this. If I want to branch out and start offering a new skill, I can learn it and add it to my repertoire. My work is a nice mix of whatever I want it to be and whatever I want to specialize in and that’s something you can’t always find in an office job.
Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly, and why?
I’ve been traveling for about 5 months now so I’m not as seasoned as other digital nomads but this time has been a huge learning curve for me. Like I mentioned, we’re about to move to Chiang Mai and following that we plan to travel really slowly. I don’t really want to go anywhere for less than a month unless it’s a proper holiday with no laptops in tow. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I’m settled but moving around every few days is exhausting - especially when you need to go home and type up articles for clients. I also feel like I can’t be a good freelancer when I’m moving around. It’s difficult to organize myself and develop routines so, for me, slow travel is the best.
What are some important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
You can’t do everything and you need to decide what’s more important for you - meeting work goals or checking countries off a list! I know that most people decide to be digital nomads so that they can travel forever and “live the laptop lifestyle” but, for me, location independence is much more than that: it’s about being able to have a career from wherever I want to be. I started this journey thinking my boyfriend and I would travel from Mexico to Argentina. We never factored in the importance of finding good hubs, good internet or actually getting work done! In 5 months we made it as far as...Guatemala! It would take us a lifetime to actually get as far as Argentina at the speed we’re traveling. We’ve since realized that Latin America needs to be appreciated a chunk at a time and that to thrive as freelancers, getting work done should be more of a priority than visiting the Bolivian Salt Flats or hiking in Patagonia. We still want to do those things but we’ll do them as holidays when we’re fully focused on just traveling and not trying to work at the same time.
What are your short and long-term goals?
For now, my short term goals are simple. To continue being able to support myself and my travels around the world through my location independent lifestyle. I’d also like to get some impressive by-lines to my name and start working on more travel-focused content.
In the long term, I’d love to start my own business and be able to work completely for myself. This is something I want to focus on over the next few years. I’m not sure what exactly this business will be yet, otherwise, I’d already be working on getting it started! I’d love to start something that helps others leading a location independent lifestyle. Our generation is lucky to be at the forefront of this digital revolution and there are plenty of advancements to made in it. Maybe I can be the CEO of the next big thing!
S O M E T I P S
- Use Facebook groups and co-working spaces to connect with other like-minded people and find inspiration. You’re absolutely not alone in what you’re doing but there are times when you’ll feel like you are.
- Know your field. You need to be clued up on what’s happening around you if you ever want to succeed. If you want to make it as a blogger, read travel blogs in your spare time. If you want to be a photographer, research the trends in the industry and find a source of inspiration. Whatever you want to pursue, study it!
- Invest in yourself with books and courses but make sure they’re smart investments. Websites such as Udemy have lots of sales and offer high-quality material. Exercise caution with courses made by bloggers. Take it from me, online courses, for the most part, are just another cash cow trend in the industry.
- Opportunities aren’t going to land on your lap and you will have to work hard to find them. You will get rejected and you need to learn how to deal with that. Never stop hustling just because one client didn’t want you. There are plenty more clients out there who you’re probably much better suited to. If you feel like your work isn’t up to par, identify what you’re struggling with and re-read the step above!
- Take time to enjoy this opportunity to be location independent. Schedule time to treat yourself to beach days, photo walks and sunsets on rooftop bars. If anything, this is a great incentive to get to the end of your to-do list and really enjoy these treats!