I remember my first several months as a nomad, viscerally. I use the word “viscerally” because I can almost, now, feel the caustic taste of the anxiety that took over on most days. Honestly, most days.
At the time, I was so confused. That feeling took me by complete surprise. I had traveled solo a lot, and I was finally doing what I had long dreamt of doing.
But what I was feeling, I now realize, was the result of the systematic demolishment of every normalcy in my life — from how I showered and got dressed in the morning, to how my days progressed to where my food came from at night. My job had changed, my house had changed, my network had changed, my belongings had changed, my whole life had changed.
I had almost zero routine.
I had gone from a person who set the alarm before 5 a.m., hit the gym almost every day and scheduled life around a series of meetings, deadlines, happy hours and events to someone who had nowhere to be, no one to be with and was suddenly working in a job without any outside framework or direction.
While some people seem to operate just fine without routine, research has long showed that many successful people keep daily or weekly habits, and attribute their prosperity and happiness in part to those patterns.
And to be honest, without that structure, I was drowning. As a nomad, I crave that routine and continuity more than I ever have. Without it, I felt like an astronaut, untethered; floating through space with nowhere in particular to go.
But figuring out why I felt that so strongly, and how to actually build routine in an ever-changing world that lacked the same guideposts of my previous life took time.
Almost a year, to be honest.
Now, though, I feel perhaps as grounded by routine as I ever have — because my habits no longer rely on other people or outside influences like the norms of a particular company or boss, and I am free to create an ideal system that best works for me.
Here are ways I build normalcy and routine in a life designed to have neither:
Morning consistency. I don’t always know where I’ll be, what my housing situation will look like or what will be on tap for the day, but I try to keep my early mornings pretty similar regardless of what’s going on. I always make my bed, I typically make coffee at home (having access to a coffee-maker is a new “must have” on my list of needs for a room or apartment), I read the news briefings that land in my inbox each day, I do the New York Times mini crossword puzzle and I do some kind of workout, whether its strength and conditioning or yoga (see below). It gives me a sense of satisfaction going into the day and a starting point for whatever else is on my list. Speaking of which…
Lists, forever. I make a to-do list for every day of my life. Admittedly, I’ve always been a list person, but in these days of truly independent work-flow (no more bosses or meetings or professional networks), wide-ranging and simultaneous projects and additional necessary errands (on any given day, I might be planning a project, editing a video, writing a newsletter, mailing postcards, buying more cell data, promoting a post across social media, editing photos and hitting the ATM for the ever-needed cash), I find those little iPhone agendas help me get focused right away and stay on track throughout the week.
Gym-free workouts. It took me almost a year to really figure out how to workout in the nomad life. Previously, I was really reliant on gyms and equipment and when that was suddenly removed from the equation I did *not* know how to respond. I figured walking a lot would have to fill in for a while. But hell, I’m not getting any younger, and toting around your apartment on your back can be a liability. Now, I’ve got a pretty solid routine, and I do something for my physical health almost every day. The key, I’ve found, is keeping it approachable. I don’t often feel like I have time to work out for an hour, so instead I’ll rotate YouTube videos that target specific groups of muscles (one day of back, one for abs, one for arms, legs, etc.) for intense 10 to 15-minute workouts. In between those days, I’ll do 30-minute Yoga sessions (I really like SaraBethYoga) and I’m experimenting with guided meditation for days I feel especially stressed (I really like the Calm app). I set aside specific time during the week to stretch my hips, hamstrings and neck, areas I know get really tight. AND I spend some days just focused on strengthening and stretching my feet — something I never really thought about before. To do all this, I search for “equipment-free” workouts and rotate videos to stay fresh. (You’ll look like an idiot doing it, but I love this ultra simple arm workout, and it will WEAR YOU OUT.) I’ll use a towel for a yoga mat and a pillow to pad my joints. I love to travel with a resistance band, too. (But I recently lost mine!)
Reading time. Having small habits, things that can act as breaks in my day, every day, no matter what else is going on, have always helped me. For me, reading (a book, not a website) is one of those things. I try to set aside 30 minutes with a book at least every other day. (Check out some of my favorite books of the moment on my Amazon page.)
Staying home. When you’re ever wandering through a new place, it’s easy to feel like you should be out ALL THE TIME — seeing all the things, trying all the restaurants, meeting all the people — but that’s just not sustainable. Now, I plan nights at home — perhaps more so than I did when I had a more structured job and life. I’ll buy a bottle of wine or some beers and get creative with whatever cooking set-up I have or order take-out or delivery, when that’s an option. I’ll use the time to do more work or read or binge a new Netflix series or have a long, leisurely phone call with a friend back home (see next). In El Salvador, since I plan to be in the country for a while, I actually borrowed a guitar from a new friend for nights such as those. Normalcy!
Scheduled phone calls. The glorious thing about traveling alone is that you tend to meet new friends all the time. Even so, there is nothing like old friends, the ones who know you and all your history. In Year 1, I was woefully neglectful about keeping up with those countries away. But in Year 2, I am trying to do a better job at keeping up those deep, meaningful connections through phone calls or video chats. My community, even far away, helps to ground me when everything else is always changing.
A reward system. Since I have no normal hours anymore, I often fall into stretches where I do almost *nothing* except work, especially when I’m very busy with various projects. So I try to plan little rewards here and there to keep me motivated and pull me away from my computer screen. I’ll plan a weekly outing or a coffeeshop day. I like to take myself out to a nicer dinner once a week. I’ll buy a different pastry, weekly, from the bakery around the corner. I’ll make myself take a long walk if the weather is nice.
Making a place my own. Lately, I’ve decided to root a little longer in El Salvador, finding a longer term apartment in the capital. But even when I’m moving every week or two, I try to find small ways to make a place my own. Usually that means taking time to put away all my belongings immediately and finding a spot for everything. Sometimes that means buying fresh flowers or a candle to give some personality to the space. Often, that means asking for cleaning supplies and for information about where to put the trash so I don’t have to rely on a cleaner to keep my home the way I want it (and because taking care of my own space connects me to it).
Because for me, if I can feel at home, I can act at home — and that comfort bleeds into every aspect of my work and life.