How to Write a Book in the Most Distracting Place on Earth

Note: This is a guest post from Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt.  This week his new book “How to Travel on $50 a Day” was released, so go check it out!

This is also a timely post, as on my latest trip I’ve been working through all of the distractions and struggles Matt mentions here, so pay attention.

Last year, I wrote a book while living in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a popular spot with travelers and backpackers known for its beaches, cheap booze, and all-night parties. It wasn’t the best environment to work in – there were always distractions (such as the really pretty Scandinavian girls). And, of course, I would much rather be with them than locked in my room writing a book.

So if I wanted to meet my deadline and party with beautiful women, I needed to stay ultra-focused and use my time wisely. The girls I met didn’t want to see me working in my room all day – they wanted to party and go to the beach.

had to stay on task. I didn’t come to this town to be a hermit – I came to work and party and if I wanted to be able to do both, I had to focus.

The downside to working on the Internet is that it is always on – 24/7/365. The Internet doesn’t have normal business hours. It doesn’t close. The upside is that you can make money even while you are sleeping, as your store is always open. Another downside is that it’s easy to get sucked into the Internet. She is a harsh mistress and will take all the time you will give her.

As folks who have chucked conventional living aside to work on our own terms quickly learn, this can be quite a downer as we find ourselves putting in 14 hour work days while in a foreign country. This isn’t what we signed up for, right?

As someone who runs a travel website, this issue of time management is critical. My job is to travel and write about where I go, but the catch-22 of my job is that to make a living I must travel– but I can’t work when I travel, otherwise I can’t fully experience the place I am supposed to be writing about.

And I certainly didn’t become a travel writer so I could fly to Bali just to sit in my hotel room while working on my SEO and utilizing social media.  I chose this job so I could travel and make a living doing so.

How to manage your time so you can still party with hot foreigners

I struggled for years with time management. Days in foreign countries would quickly disappear as I ran my website and got lost in trouble shooting problems, blogging, networking, and promoting my site. I’d start my day by checking my email and posting a blog and before I knew it, it was the middle of the afternoon. Lists that should have taken a couple of hours to complete took all day because of my inability to turn off Facebook.

Something had to be done in Cambodia. A month watching people have fun and inviting me out, only to turn them down, would have been seriously depressing – and the book would have suffered because of it.

So I used these temptations to hone my skills and productivity. Here are the five methods I’ve devised for keeping my productivity high and not getting sucked into the Internet when I travel:

Self Control App

This is a program for your Mac that restricts your access to distractions. You enter a list of websites and then for a set amount of time, the program blocks your access to them. Even if you turn the program off or reset your computer, the websites are inaccessible until the timer hits zero. This program has dramatically increased my productivity.  (Hat tip to Steve Kamb for telling me about this lifesaver.)

Lists, Lists, and More Lists 

Staying organized is the best way to stay on task and focused. I can’t extol the virtue of lists enough. By writing down what I have to do and organizing my thoughts, I can better plan and break up my tasks.

Set tasks each day – Lists are great, but they can be overwhelming. Looking at a to-do list that’s 30 bullet points long can simply turn into crossing off the easiest bullets first while avoiding the hard stuff and not really moving forward. To avoid that, I break up my lists into smaller lists broken down by day. For example, on Mondays, I might only write. On Tuesday, I’ll do all SEO related tasks. On Wednesday, 6 small tasks. This way I only have certain work to do for the day and when that is complete, I am done.

A 9 to 5 Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

We may have gotten away from the cubicle, but I’ve found having a work day actually helps. By clocking hours and taking the weekend off, I separate work and play. Working all the time can be mentally exhausting and having a weekend is a great way to recharge my enthusiasm batteries.

Set a Specific Timeline

I like to force myself into working set hours. It can be challenging to stick to it at first, but by saying I am only going to work until 11 a.m., I force myself to either get things accomplished or leave them unfinished.

Know Thyself

I work best in the mornings and early evenings. Don’t push yourself into working when you know you won’t be the most productive. Don’t waste time. Work when you’re productive, play when you aren’t.

By forcing myself to work, using productivity applications to help me, and creating task lists, I can better utilize my time and thus get more work done so I can work less. It’s about working smarter, not harder. I still do a lot of work, but now I get a lot out more out of each minute. It wasn’t easy and it took a little while until I got in the grove of being productive. I fruitlessly tried getting on Facebook for many days after I started using self-control.

I don’t have a good work ethic – I am easily distracted and my low productivity is simply overcome by the sheer volume of hours I put into my work.  If you’re like me — not naturally disciplined — you need to create systems and protocols to reign in the bad parts of your life.

A tiger never changes its stripes and in an unstructured environment, I’m going to sit on Facebook, go out drinking, or read The Oatmeal all day long. The only way to overcome that is to create a structured environment where I’m forced to get things done.

All that said, if these tips could help me write and finish a book in the go go party environment of Cambodia, they can help you too.

Matthew Kepnes runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. He got the travel bug after a trip to Costa Rica in 2004, he decided to quit his job, finish his MBA and travel the world. His original trip was supposed to last a year. Over six years later, he is still out exploring and roaming the world. He’s scuba dived in Fiji, played professional poker in Amsterdam, taught English in Thailand, got lost in a jungle in Central America and broke down in the middle of Australia’s outback.

Matt’s advice has been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, and Yahoo! Finance. His new 272 page, 60,000+ word book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, is now available to help you travel cheaper, better, and longer. It contains tons of tips and tricks to cut your trip expenses in half whether you are going away for two weeks or two months. 

Jimbo February 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

*goes to South East Asia*
*finds Scandinavian girls attractive*

LOL.

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Alex Sidoryn February 7, 2013 at 6:42 am

Great post Matt! Running a location independent lifestyle business definitely comes with its fair share of “problems”. I definitely found this out first hand while travelling for 3 years throughout Asia.

Definitely will be picking up the book :)

All the best on the launch!

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Nomadic Matt February 9, 2013 at 7:39 am

Amazing! Thanks!

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Chas February 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm

LOL, Jimbo~ maybe I should head to Copenhagen, or Stockholm to find a nice Asian girl ;-)
Know Thyself is the best piece of advice. I am a night owl, not a morning person at all.

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David February 8, 2013 at 4:22 am

Guys, there are tons of Scandinavian girls in Thailand and actually anywhere wherever I go, because they have money and travel like crazy. But some islands in Thailand are “Scandinavian” same way as for example Pattaya is “Russian”

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David February 8, 2013 at 4:25 am

@Sean,

Where are the expats mostly hanging out in Bangkok? I was once there as a tourist and met a lot of other tourist or sexpats or just retired guys, but everyone says Bangkok has a great expat scene and they mostly don’t hang out on Khaosan :)

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Sarah Russell February 9, 2013 at 10:03 am

Haha – I need these tips so bad right now!!!

You’re right about how easy it is to be distracted online (and I don’t even have the excuse of Scandinavian girls and all-night parties!). It was a huge surprise to me that, after leaving my 9-to-5 job to become a full-time freelance writer, I still need that kind of structure around my days if I’m going to get anything done.

Seriously, there’s nothing pretty about a writer who’s been wearing the same pajamas for three days and can’t honestly say what day of the week it is… :)

So thanks for these. I’m already using some of them, but I know I need to be better about setting task lists and specific timelines. Hopefully this post will be the kick in the pants I need!

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Pauline February 10, 2013 at 4:41 pm

I struggle with time management too. It is like being offered to go to a candy store every day and pick up whatever you want! But then you need to pay for the candy… oh well, I find that my body tells me when I should work, even though it is 3am, I should listen. Who cares anyway, I don’t have a boss or an office, I can do it on my terms.

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Henry Olsen February 10, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Awesome article Matt! I’ve been wondering about this – I’m shipping off to Taiwan next month with the intention of writing while I travel. We’ll see how it works out :D

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WJ Davies March 1, 2013 at 11:41 am

Taiwan rocks! Teaching there were some of the best two years of my life :)

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Chris February 10, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Congratulations on the new book Matt!

I like your approach here about getting work done while still having a good time. In my view, it’s not an all or nothing proposition.

Thanks for that app recommendation! I’m going to try using that during “business hours.”

Cheers

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Turner February 18, 2013 at 10:28 am

haha perfect timing on this app. Addiction is brutal…Facebook, blogs, facebook…and now that I live in Bangkok myself, has become more of a laughable punchline than a goal. Back on track…after this one last bucket.

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Kevin James McAuley February 21, 2013 at 12:10 am

Great post Matt. I have seen your blog floating about for a while and ifs pretty inspirational. As someone who has similar productivity problems from time to time this is very helpful. Cheers

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