Modern Journalist Toolkit 17/Digital nomad: Freelancing on the road

Modern Journalist Toolkit 17/Digital nomad: Freelancing on the road

When I saw this VW van in California a few weeks ago, I thought immediately about a recent article about #vanlife.

Somebody who thought she could do her job remotely was surprised to find out that she couldn’t work on her computer during a bumpy ride, nor connect for calls in the middle of a national park. I’m not a full-time digital nomad, but, duh. 


It’s a fundamentally different thing to be traveling specifically for assignments that require on the ground reporting or meetings vs. being away from home and more or less continuing with all-remote work. I’ve done both of these, as well as a hybrid where I work remotely, and take advantage of the change in location to do some different kinds of work than I normally do.

The past few weeks were a mashup of all of the above: I crashed with family and friends, wrote at weird hours, attended a writers conference where I met with editors face to face, and did some reporting (live interviews and tours) for stories that I’ll be able to write up from my notes now that I’m at home.

Also mixed in there were several full days’ worth of travel. Theoretically, the travel time can be well used, but anybody who has done 24+ hour trips in economy class knows that the physical and psychological demands make this easier said than done (and don’t get me started on the laptop ban).

Here are a few of the things that make this work well:

Prioritization and pacing

In a new place, each day is more obviously limited than when the weeks and months unfurl in the typical freelance fashion. (Otherwise known as, What day is it again?)

This comes back to basics: clarifying what really needs to get done, what can be delayed, and what’s not that important after all.

For this moth, I decided ahead of time to post a few pics per week on Instagram, and to otherwise mostly take a break from online platforms. It also meant I was able to easily say Yes or No to freelance opportunities that popped up along the way.

Healthwise, this includes enough exercise, hydration, and sleep, especially if we’re talking about more than a long weekend. This even comes into play on days off: if I get a chance to, say, go to a museum exhibit during down time, I don’t want to have to beg off due to exhaustion.

Plan in advance

I planned my month with blocks of time in several destinations. I scheduled and researched certain things ahead of time, such as reading up about potential clients I would meet in New York during a writers conference.

Some time was blocked off for social time with family and friends. And equally important to me was leaving some time unscheduled, to allow for the kind of spontaneous and timely things that you simply can’t know about ahead of time.

In terms of freelance articles, do as much as possible ahead of time: research and pitch story ideas, schedule interviews, work out at least a rough timetable (more detailed if your time is very limited) of where you want to go and how to get there. You want to have a good sense going in about what you can take care of at home vs. what kind of on the ground reporting you can really only do in person.

Think about what additional angles/articles you might mine from any one interview or location. For example, if you’re on assignment doing a business or health care feature, can you also take a step back and write a travel or other article that takes advantage of your temporary location as well?

Work with your strengths and productive habits

Working on the road takes some planning as well as some flexibility. Don’t overlook where you can and can’t get work done. Technically you might be able to get by with a laptop and internet connection, but know what works for you in terms of a supportive environment when you don’t have access to a dedicated work space at home.

For example, while I love certain cafes, the wrong one can quickly become counter productive. I’ve found that short-term coworking spaces and public libraries can be far more useful to make the most of working hours.

Personally, I get a lot of work done while in physical motion. A couple of hours on a Pacific coast train easily become a challenge to read and respond to all emails before pulling into my final station.

I’m usually more of a night owl, but sometimes the time zones render me wide awake before dawn, and I use that time too.

Start off short

Just because you can work remotely doesn’t mean you should. It’s pretty easy to conflate the idea of a great trip into a fantasy that doesn’t correspond with reality. You may prefer to keep work and travel separate (that is, fully enjoy and relax during time away from home). If you do want to give it a go, try starting with a few days or at most a week to experiment with your productivity and discipline levels before making a bigger commitment.

>>More from the Modern Journalist Toolkit series.


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