Embracing Location Independence: An Interview with Jason Lengstorf
As we have moved along in the stream of time, side-by-side with an ever expanding technological footprint, we’ve gained many benefits to how we live our lives each day. Technology has had a transformative impact on every facet of our lives.
One of the key areas that’s seen dramatic change is in our attitudes and abilities towards work. How we work, when we work, and how we define the workplace has come under scrutiny. As a result, we’ve begun to embrace a wider of model of what it means to be employed. A mere decade or so ago we were just beginning to argue the merits of alternative work schedules to an economy driven by a Monday to Friday, 8-5 mentality. Yet, just 10 years later, we are witnessing a workforce that is in the midst of transformation. Widespread connectivity, smaller and more powerful devices, and a new breed of professional have made these changes possible. Terms like “remote work environment”, “digital nomad”, and “location independence” are bandied about–badges of this new open-mindedness in which work comes first, not the location of the individual.
In our last piece we explored a bit about the idea of being a digital nomad or truly location independent. This time around we took some time to speak with Jason Lengstorf, a location independent writer, developer, and business owner that has been working remotely for the past several years and traveling full time for the past year. Despite being on the road, Jason owns a thriving consultancy based in the US. We talked to him a bit about why he decided to go nomadic, how he conducts business, and how the last year abroad has gone.
The goal of location independence is to remove your need to be somewhere to earn a living.
First off, the term “Digital Nomad”, is it hype (seems a bit “web 2.0” to me)? Does it really describe people who have decided to step out of the normal work model and become a digital nomad? Is there a better way to describe this way of life and work?
I have mixed feelings about the term. On the one hand, it’s accurate: someone you’d call a digital nomad is living without a home base while earning a living online. But it’s also become a catchphrase and marketing gimmick, and that attracts a certain crowd of people who try to finance the dream by selling the dream to others, if you know what I mean.
I try not to use “digital nomad” to describe myself anymore. Usually I describe myself as “location independent” instead. Not as catchy, perhaps, but factual.
You’re a developer and writer with a successful career and business, why did you decide to become location independent?
I’ve wanted to see more of the world for a long time, but I think there’s an important distinction to draw before I go too far: I was location independent for nearly a decade before I started traveling long-term.
The goal of location independence is to remove your need to be somewhere to earn a living. So you don’t have to be on a beach in Costa Rica to be location independent — you could be at home, a five minute drive from the office you don’t have to commute to anymore. The allure of location independence is the freedom to do whatever sounds most rewarding, whether that’s staying at home in your carefully-arranged workspace, or splitting your working hours between coffee shops in Chiang Mai.
So to answer your question, I worked to make sure I was location independent years ago, and I decided to start traveling last year. The decision to travel came from my realization that I wanted to see as much of the world as I could, and that waiting for later only raised the odds that something would hold me back.
I’m currently healthy, I’m in a good place with my consulting business, and I don’t have any reason to stay in one place — so if not now, when?
Many people would feel a sense of fear selling off everything they own and hitting the road. What were the biggest hurdles/fears for you, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest hurdle for me, honestly, wasn’t the actual things I had to get rid of; it was the emotional baggage I was carrying around.
I spent close to thirty years writing a particular narrative for myself, and at no point before 2014 did that narrative include “only owns one suitcase-load of belongings” or “has no permanent place to stay” — I had to convince myself that Someone Like Me can do something like this.
That, and trying to sell things on fucking Craigslist. Craigslist is the worst.
Has being location independent made it difficult running your business? Can you describe a bit about how that process works?
The only challenge that’s specific to travel is time zone math. I’m in Thailand right now, which is UTC+7. Most of my clients are in North America on Eastern time, which is UTC-5. So I’m 12 hours ahead of most of the people I work with — that means a meeting at nine in the morning for my client is a meeting at nine at night for me.
That’s made for some interesting meeting times for me — 2am conference calls and such — but I look at it as a small sacrifice in exchange for the freedom I gain otherwise.
In general, though, not much has changed. I meet “face to face” with clients using Google Hangouts or other video chat apps. Emails, chats, and other text-based communications don’t change based on where I am in the world.
If anything, I have the bonus that when I start working, it’s pretty late for most of my clients. This keeps communication essential — no pointless meetings — and helps me avoid distractions. I’m able to take on a workload that used to take me sixty-plus hours a week back in Portland, and — thanks to the lack of distractions and my productivity-boosting strategies — I can get that same workload knocked out in thirty hours or less.
Housing and location is another major component of all this. What is your method for determining where you travel and where you will stay?
I choose where I’m going next on a whim, typically. Right now I know I’m meeting a friend in Japan in March, but I don’t have any plans beyond that, really.
My girlfriend, Marisa, and I tend to make the decision based on food, weather, and our friends’ plans. (If we know a friend is going to be in Italy for a week, we’ll look into trying to make our schedule overlap so we can get some face time.)
We also take into account the cost of living in each place. Although I’ve found that the cost of living tends to go way down when traveling almost anywhere. It turns out I’ve been able to use travel as a way to save money, which has been a pleasant surprise. I recently built a React mini-app to compare domestic housing costs to living exclusively in Airbnbs around the world, and the short version is that if you can afford to live without roommates, you can probably afford to travel the world full-time.
Do you have any type of current small space, tiny house, location that you have as a permanent residence or are you completely location independent? Was it difficult to transition away from the idea of having a permanent residence?
I don’t have any permanent residence right now. That’s partially because I don’t have any stuff to keep in one, but mostly because I’m experimenting with the U.S. tax code, which says that I should be exempt from most of my income taxes for 2015 if I’m outside the country for the whole year with no permanent residence there. I’m not actually convinced the tax break will work, but I wanted to see what happens.
But I honestly don’t have any interest in owning or renting a permanent place right now. Renting fully-furnished apartments is hassle-free, and it’s really nice not having to worry about whether my crap is safe somewhere.
What type of resources do you use, carry with you to make your job/work life possible?
The nice thing about working online is that you don’t need much to make it possible. The only thing I really need to do what I do is a laptop and internet access. Technically I could even do without the laptop and use public internet cafes to work on projects in the cloud, but that sounds terrible.
Most of my travel packing essentials are for comfort or entertainment: a good-sounding Bluetooth speaker, a Kindle, that sort of thing.
Online, I rely heavily on Dropbox, Google Drive, GitHub, and Draft for collaborating with people remotely.
You’ve been working this way for roughly a year. What do you see as having been the biggest success in your first year of being location independent?
The biggest accomplishment has been my ability to fix my work-life balance. I used to be a severe workaholic — to the point that my beard actually died and fell out back in 2013 — and it was totally normal for me to spend 70–90 hours each week on my computer. I just checked my stats, and between February 15th (the week I installed RescueTime) and November 7th, 2015, I’ve averaged 37 hours and 15 minutes of _total_ computer time per week, Netflix and all. And I’ve managed to do that while getting more done each week.
This is attributable to a lot of things: primarily having fewer distractions and, of course, the fact that overworking tends to make us _less_ productive overall.
Making the shift from “always working and always behind” to “working a reasonable amount and on top of things” has totally changed my life. My health has improved, I’m sleeping better, I’m happier in general — all things that came about because I stopped giving all of my time to work and realized that there are other facets of being alive, too.
For those who might be looking for a change, what advice would you give to them as they prepare to consider this shift?
If you’re in a role where you don’t need face-to-face interactions to work, just go.
And if you’re not quite there yet, take the steps to learn how to become location independent.
Preparing to take off on a long-term travel adventure is the subject of my new book, Untethered, so I don’t mean to imply that you don’t need to prepare. But the only thing you need is to be sure you can afford to stay on the road: stable freelance work or a salaried remote position; a bailout fund in case you need to get back home; and the standard emergency fund (which is a good idea to have anyways, whether you’re living in Tokyo or Tulsa).
Beyond that, the rest is details, and you can figure it out as you go along. There are excellent communities of people living on the road and working who are happy to answer questions, and you’re always a Google search away from the information you need. I also have a free crash course for going location independent if you want a guided intro.
So don’t make travel into a big life decision. It’s a situation that can be as temporary or as permanent as you want it to be. It’s probably less expensive than your housing costs right now.
If you’ve got the freedom to go, and the interest in going, just go.
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Jason Lengstorf is a location independent developer, writer, and speaker. He runs his successful consultancy from wherever he feels the need to be.
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