Return to site

Four years, 400 flights: coping strategies for the digital nomad

· Time management,Travel

I am an outlier.

Not in every respect of course. My height, weight and looks are all pretty close the mean. But when it comes to the daily routine, travel, and work/life balance the rule book is out the window for me. I've totted up over 400 flights, 50 countries and 6 continents in the last four years, juggling my job with some pretty varied extracurriculars; futurist TED talks, plenary keynotes on energy and a passion for travel and exploration.

This level of travel may sound like heaven to you. Maybe it sounds like hell.

This article is about that (sort of). Half a 'day in the life' story - from someone who doesn't really do average days - half a survival guide as to how I cope, deal with the stress of the anti-routine and reap the benefits. I can't promise it will help you, but it works for me.

If that sounds good, read on...

broken image

Wake up Mr West.

My alarm goes off at 4am. Or 7am. Or 8am. Possibly 11am on a weekend. It could be anything really, I’m not one for routine; and my schedule and job is as far from 9 to 5 as they come. Sometimes I've burned the midnight oil, sometimes I’ve a 9am meeting to make in Central London from my home in Amsterdam so the early start is essential.

There are only two elements of consistency to my morning routine (conventional hygiene activities aside).

The first is I always snooze my alarm at least 15 minutes. It’s a habit, one that drives my ‘one alarm and get up’ girlfriend crazy. I like the dozing period between that first wake up and needing to drag myself out of bed. Where you’re sort of in a dream yet aware of it.

I’m sure a sleep psychologist would be horrified to hear about my irregular approach; I think it breaks most of the traditional wisdom of what’s good for you. If it’s any solace, I am pretty good with getting 7-8 hours; my wake up time is just regulated by my bed time.

If you want to change the world, make your bed

The second, I always make my bed without fail, and have done since childhood. Doesn’t matter if I’m in home or a hotel. Always have. I know in the latter it’s a somewhat pointless activity and housekeeping always re-do it (far more competently too) but there is a psychological significance to the action.

Admiral McRaven gives a good account of this being drilled into the discipline of the US Navy in his University of Texas Class of 2014. It is the first task and accomplishment of the day; if I achieve nothing else I’ve achieved at least the small feat of preparing a bed to come home to.

If I’m up after 7.30am I usually skip breakfast – I just don’t start feeling hungry for 2-3 hours. I’m fueled by (preferably good) coffee until lunchtime. I’ve cased out my favorite independent coffee spots in just about every city and my google maps is a patchwork of starred places (hearts if they’re really great) and green flags for places to check out. I’m big on data like that; it helps me quickly make recommendations to people and helps strengthen my spatial awareness when I’m in a new place. Plus after visiting over fifty countries across six continents (so far) it starts to get hard to keep track.

broken image

The independent coffee shop or airport lounge is my natural habitat. With over 100 flights and 20 countries last year, a lot of my time is spent in the 3rd space between home and (someone’s) office. It’s also where I do my best work. I’m not sure what it is about that sort of environment, perhaps it’s just the variety but I find I can shut off from the world and work with razor focus. Routine blunts my productivity.

I’m a morning person; but one that hates getting up. I love *being* up early. Once over the zombie like 30min it takes me to get ready (I usually allow 45min to account for some procrastination and variables) I hit my stride with my best work.

With my job straddling US and European time zones, it’s the one time of day where I can get through tasks without distraction and emails flying in faster than they can be dealt with.

Daily Tetris

I fly through emails, sorting, flagging, deleting. I work to an empty inbox always so I don’t lose track of anything, which sometimes calls for some heroic Tetris like efforts with the volume of emails, messages on Linked In etc.

One of the skills I’ve really had to home in on in recent years is to ruthlessly priortise. As Warren Buffet famously said: “I can buy anything I want, but I can’t buy time.”

I can buy anything I want, but I can't buy time

- Warren Buffet

Working at a company with a market leadership position in the utility scale energy storage space, Fluence attracts a tsunami of interested from parties all over the world. Everyone wants to talk about energy storage. And it’s hard to resist… because I love talking about it.

The attention is a good thing – a company in growth mode and growth industry should always be oversubscribed. My leads and Linked In inbox always overflowing and figuring out what is real and concrete as a potential project and what is hype or a probe for free advice is critical to success.

It also means I have to manage expectations when we do take it to the next level with a client. Working with an international team, coordinating to provide proposals or answers isn’t always totally within control. I find that being direct, honest and engaging when that happens is critical. No one likes to be ignored, and an update of what’s up is better than silence.

Rocks in a jar

Prioritization starts long before work though; life is a fundamental question of time management. We can accomplish virtually anything if we use our time wisely. Goal setting is easy – but it’s the following through is the only thing that counts.

Like many people, I set myself new years resolutions. Unlike most, I usually keep mine with a pretty good success rate. It’s a delicate balance – they have to be ambitious and stretch me or I feel they’re a cop out, but if they’re too aggressive then it’s easy to fall short and give up. On my list this year:

  • Reading a book a month (currently on track - month 7, book 7)
  • Preparing and delivering a TED talk (done)
  • Visit 7 new countries (in progress, with projected success) 
  • Learn conversational Dutch (wavering)

Stephen Covey came up with a striking visual metaphor for time management which has stuck with me over the years – placing large rocks in a jar, followed by pebbles and sand. In this way, the jar – representing our allocation of the finite time we have – appears full at each stage but continually more can be found as it is shaken and compacted.

The abridged version is that the rocks represent the most important things in life - our family, friends, health and passions, the pebbles represent the other important things – our jobs, our home, our possessions, the sand – the small stuff. If we start with the sand, and spend all our time and energy on it, there’s no room for the bigger stuff like the rocks to fit in the jar - and the same is true of life.

broken image

To the point on family, I (virtually without fail) always skype my parents on a Sunday. They’ve given up being surprised when I pop up all over the world and having to figure out the timezone difference. There are a handful of people I can truly rely on and that look out for me. My parents are among them.

I try to pay attention to the things that are critical to my happiness and prioritize them above all. Find a way for them to exist symbiotically has been the keystone to building the kind of life I’m living.

It helps to love what you do – if you can find work that is your passion, then already you’re already living far more fulfilling life (I’ve written about this before). For everyone who knows me I would hope that my love for my job is evident. I get a firebrand glint in the eye when I get going about the importance of sustainable energy and accelerating the journey to 100% renewables. I don’t confine it to working hours, I spend much of my spare time thinking or reading up on it.

“I don’t think of work as work, and play as play. It’s all living."

- Richard Branson

It does mean I have somewhat a reputation as a workaholic but I don’t see it that way – to quote Branson: “I don’t think of work as work, and play as play. It’s all living.” I enjoy what I do enough not to confine it to arbitrary hours.

Living life in symbiosis

Two of my other major passions are travel and photography. Again, I’ve found a way for these to live symbiotically alongside my work. I travel a lot for my job and this gives me the opportunity to kill two (three?) birds with one stone. Not that I have anything against birds.

One of my favorite ‘hacks’ when travelling to a new place is to make it a workcation. Staying on for the weekend and travelling back on my own time, which allows me to see more of a city than airports, taxis and office buildings.

This is one of the benefits of leading a fairly nomadic team – I can work from virtually anywhere, with a strong level of trust that the work will still get done. I’m lucky in this regard to have helped build a strong group of people around me.

My trips allow me to build cultural fluency and challenge the many preconceptions I have about peoples, countries and cultures that many of us never bother to visit or dig deeper to understand. From my global travels I love to curate content, keeping my Instagram vibrant and, when I can get around to it, organizing the odd photography exhibition or two.

broken image

I struggle with routine. A 9 to 5 desk job in the same office weeks on end starts to sap my energy and my spark. Boredom kills my creativity. Diversity ignites it.

I come to life on the road, and I’m fortunate to have a role that fuels me – I spend a good 70% of my time travelling around the world, speaking at events, having face-to-face meetings and connecting dots. My Market Director role is part sales, part engineer, part strategy, part marketing, part policy, part commercial. Part everything really. The jack-of-all-trades entrepreneurial, scaling start up environment suits me because it isn’t so rigidly structured and functional.

A number of efficiency hacks help me along the way. I make it a habit whenever I’m home from a trip to unpack and repack immediately, without fail. I’m so often on the road that having a pre-packed bag always ready at home with a post-it checklist for things I can’t always keep in the bag (e.g. my electric toothbrush) saves valuable time. Plus, to my earlier point, early morning zombie Marek is inherently forgetful so pre-packing is a foolproof way of not forgetting something like a plug converter or passport.

Travel: have 12% of a plan

An abundance of cortisol isn’t a good thing, and it comes from all sorts of places. Travel for instance, is also a common stressor. Worrying about where you’re going, about your connections, about boarding times, about finding somewhere to stay. I’m no different, but I’ve developed a few shortcuts and found a few tools that make it much, much easier.

I handle mine, perhaps counterintuitively, by not over planning. My schedule is fluid, and I rarely know where I’m going to be this time next week. Booking too early doubles up the work and stress of having to undo a carefully constructed itinerary when invariably client meetings move or priorities change.

I’ve got very comfortable with only ‘book-ending’ my travel ahead of time, for instance my flights. A room for the night, I reason, will always be found. I’ve never been wrong yet. Often, it’s advantageous as hotels scramble with last minute deals. Sometimes, if I don’t know how long a critical meeting will run I even leave the return open.

broken image

For someone who hasn’t tried this approach to travel, you probably think I’m crazy. My girlfriend still looks at me with a mixture of surprise and horror whenever we turn up at the airport with what appears at face value is no plan but I think (hope) she’s starting to trust in the results.

I thoroughly recommend it… it sounds alien but as I write this I’m on a train to Luxembourg. A trip I planned only a couple of days ago and although I’m only an hour away I still have no idea what I will discover when I get there or what I will do. It’s liberating, and in many ways an advantage. Booking in advance can shackle you to an itinerary that when you get to your destination ties you up from doing something more interesting. I like to learn what’s worth doing from the locals.

To minimise airport stress I’ve found I keep a close eye on FlightRadar24, which tells you exactly where your aircraft is. This is one of the single biggest things that has reduced my tension in airports where I’m worried about how much time I have left before boarding.

Airport departure boards are notoriously slow to update and devoid of information. With a few taps I can see that my BE401 flight from Belfast City will not be boarding in 5 minutes, despite the departure board saying so, because I can track the aircraft’s previous flight BE400 from Southampton to Belfast City and see that it’s still in the air and a good 10min from landing. If it’s not at the gate, there’s little point rushing to queue up when I could be getting on with some work or inspecting the whiskey at Duty Free. Zen.

Managing stress: the not so secret secret

My other tool for combating stress is... wait for it… that I stay active and try to eat a balanced diet. Shock and surprise.

broken image

When in Amsterdam (my current basecamp) I cycle to and from work – which is a true joy, one of the best infrastructures for it in the world. I walk the canals, run in the park, hit the gym… what you might expect.

I’m an outdoors person so my preference unless the weather is terrible is to go for a good length run. Great way to see a new city too. Sometimes I even take webinars or conference calls that way (only when I just need to listen in, obviously not recommended if you're presenting).

I find that where I am in the world time-shifts the habit. In Europe, it’s a tough ask for me to go for a morning run, and I usually exercise in the evening after work. Heading westwards I find it flips and I am full of energy and motivation for a 6am morning run. Why fight the jet lag when it can work for you?

My diet is mixed and I’m not fussy (to the extreme, there’s virtually nothing I won’t eat – or at least try). Some days I pig out, some days I reign it back. I’m not vegetarian or vegan but I find myself increasingly consuming and enjoying veggie/vegan food these days (it helps having a veggie girlfriend to steer me towards those options).

The last tool in my arsenal for stress management are apps (and trusty Apple Watch). I track most aspects of my health – calories, weight, sleep, alcohol consumption. Not in a self-righteous way you understand… I’d sheepishly admit to falling short on each of those areas on frequent occasion but I find data helps. It establishes a numerical baseline that can overcome some of the shortcut and dismissive judgements that our minds intuitively make about how well we’re looking after ourselves.

This is the end

As it gets towards night, I usually have no trouble getting to sleep. I’m not a night owl, and all nighters are not my thing. Even on a weekend with friends at a house party or some other social event that social convention warrants extended hours, I’ll be yawning by 1-2am and look for my exit strategy. On a regular day bed time is 11-12pm. Wasn’t always like that, perhaps just a sign I’m getting old.

I don’t do screen free time really per conventional wisdom. I can be checking my phone or watching Netflix right before bed. The thing that I find that really upsets the habit and keeps me restless if work is too heavily on my mind. If the use is recreational – chatting to friends, checking Instagram, Facebook or what have you, there’s never usually a problem.

I’m not a big before bed reader, as I find it makes my mind too active too when I really need to put it on backup mode.


I will admit weakness with my phone though. I hate having notifications unread, and it compels me to be checking my phone constantly throughput the day, if only for quick swipes to get rid of them (I track my app use also by the way – another app) so I can’t weasel my way out of this one, I DO IT A LOT. I know I could turn them off, but then I fear on missing something important. Call it a work in progress.

Having said that, whilst people I know find it difficult to doze off in a different bed, I don’t often have that issue. Occasional disorientation the next morning when I forget where I am, but that’s about it… ready to start it all over again.

Enjoyed this post? Then please like and share! You can also subscribe to my blog below or view other articles I've written e.g. Five Little Hacks to Boost Your Avios Points Fast.