10 Realities of Working From a Tropical Island

Note: On Tuesday, September 20th at 6pm PST I’ll be doing a webinar with my good friend Derek Johanson of Live Uncomfortably.  We’ll be discussing the 5 Essential Components of Running a Laptop based business.  I’d love it if you would join us!  Register for the webinar here.

You know the dream? The one every lifestyle entrepreneur seems to have, where you’re sitting by the pool with your laptop, and the cute little umbrella drink.

Sounds great in theory?  But does it really live up to expectations?  I feel like the beach vacation or the beach trip is oftentimes better in theory than in practice.  People forget about sand.  Sand gets everywhere and it definitely doesn’t like your laptop.  If you’re in Asia you can also bet on being hassled be any number of other people trying to sell you everything from laser pointers to croaking frogs.

I’ve been in Bali for a little over a week now, and have experienced first hand the pros and cons of laptop travel and work.

There’s very much an allure to working from exotic destinations, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an objective and truthful account of what it’s like to work from a tropical island.

So here are 10 of the biggest realizations I’ve had since I started running my business from Indonesia.

1) Internet sucks – even the “good internet”. This a reality of pretty much every tropical island – and it’s definitely true for Bali and similar SE Asia destinations. You will spend a good majority of your time searching out good wifi, cursing dropped service, and rejoicing anytime you’re able to stream a You Tube video.  At our place in Bali we essentially have the best internet on the island – and even that drops to under 1mbps download during the middle of the day. Prepare yourself for this beforehand, otherwise you’re in for some serious headaches.

2) Time zones are way more of a pain than you think. Aside from missing all of the college football games I wanted to see this week, trying to schedule meetings and phone calls with family and friends can be really difficult from Asia. Getting your calendar organized and not forgetting about that 10pm meeting after a couple beers can definitely take some getting used to – but hey, it’s a global economy, better start preparing for more of this!

3) There are distractions everywhere. Let’s use this article as an example.  As I started writing it, I realized that I really did want to live that dream today. So we headed down to Potato Head Beach Club to “work”. I really had every intention of working. Seriously. No really, I swear! Well 4 hours later I’m back at the house and am no closer to finishing this post than I was before.  Although I did get some fantastic video shot – so I guess you could consider it work…right?

4) Seemingly simple things aren’t always so simple. Let’s say you want to get your laundry done – unless you know someone who can recommend a place or you stumble upon a sign, you could spend 2 hours of your day just finding a way to get your towel washed. Speaking of a towel, I spent an hour just trying to find a place to buy one for a reasonable price when I got here.  Things that would take 10 minutes back home, can take quite a bit longer.  Not to mention traffic on islands can be even worse than the 405 during rush hour.  #Balitrafficsucks.

5) Food can be an adjustment. There is some fantastic Indonesian food in Bali. There’s also so not some fantastic food.  Regardless, getting used to the local cuisine can be a big adjustment both for your taste buds and your stomach.  If you aren’t used to the food abroad, be prepared for to take a week to get used to it. Also be aware that sometimes it’s the western food that can cause the most problems.  Infrastructure issues on many islands, lead to power outages, which can lead to food that has been thawed and refrozen multiple times. I learned just how dangerous pizza can be first hand in Thailand last year.

6) Hangovers are killer. Straight up, it’s easier to party on an island – and pretty much easier in Asia in general.  Life is different here.  If I were back in Portland and wanted to stay out until 4am every morning people would think I was either a) an alcoholic, b) crazy, c) both.  Here it’s just a way of life.  Everyone is on their own schedule, and there are always opportunities to party.  This isn’t to say that I go out every night, but the option is there. If you aren’t disciplined, or don’t have much self control, think long and hard before heading to an island to work.  Your liver and wallet will both thank you.

7) Everyone else is on vacation. This is a big one.  When you’re working from a tropical island, regardless of where it is, you can bet that anyone who isn’t a local is on vacation.  This leads to more distractions and more hangovers.  Most of these travelers also don’t understand the idea of working from anywhere.  We met a couple people on vacation from Melbourne today, and they just could not comprehend the idea of working from anywhere.  No matter how clear I made it – they just didn’t understand.  This isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

8) Good working environments can be tough to come by. To get a nice desk in a quiet space with everything you need in an office, probably isn’t going to happen. You’ll need to learn to work with your laptop actually in your lap, how to deal with screeching motorbikes while at the local cafe, and how to stop looking at the beach every two seconds.  This leads us right back to the idea that distractions are everywhere.  Make sure you have a detailed to do list and a pair of head phones.

9) Extra layer of difficulties with finances. Back home I’d simply throw everything on my Visa card.  It was super easy to pay, and I only had to worry about the bill once a month.  Out here, it takes a bit more planning than that.  Not only do most places not accept credit cards, but you have to get cash.  If you have a Charles Schwab checking account, you don’t need to worry about any atm fees.  My card showed up a day too late, so unfortunately I do have to worry about fees. Along with that, many places don’t like big bills, so you have to have a constant supply of smaller bills.  All of this to say,  there’s simply more effort required when it comes to money – and it’s easy to let that distract you from the primary goal of making more of it.

10) It’s freaking awesome.  Yes, all of the above annoyances are very true.  But if you’re able to make this work, there are few things that compare to having the freedom to work from anywhere.  Every day I’ve been here I can’t help but think, life doesn’t suck.  It’s made all of the hard work worth it, and has motivated me to work that much harder to ensure this is a lifestyle that I don’t have to abandon anytime soon.

Have you ever worked from a tropical island? What’d you think? How did you deal with the constant flow of distractions?

Reminder: On Tuesday, September 20th at 6pm PST I’ll be doing a webinar with my good friend Derek Johanson of Live Uncomfortably.  We’ll be discussing the 5 Essential Components of Running a Laptop based business.  I’d love it if you would join us!  Register for the webinar here.

Matt September 20, 2011 at 9:20 am

Hey Sean! The key concept I’m picking up here is “discipline”. You gotta have discipline to hunker down, ignore the distractions and the urge to party and explore, and get to work. And maybe the misnomer of location independence is that it’s easy and requires less work than a “normal” gig. What I like about Location 180 is that it doesn’t try and sell you on the dream but rather on the reality of location independence and this post is a good example of showing that yeah, anyone can live the dream, but the dream comes from discipline and hard work and the ability to handle changing and sometimes uncomfortable situations.

Mike F September 20, 2011 at 9:40 am

a) The internet here in South Korea is blazing fast (fastest internet in the world if I am corrected. My download speed is 70 Mbps & upload speed is 60Mbps

b) It’s about 1am here on a Wednesday morning. People are walking around in my city having a great time, drinking – it’s a totally different culture than back home in the States.

c) You know, tropical destinations get a ton of love, and rightfully so. But I would LOVE to spend some time in Alaska – mainly because of this photo: http://scottdickerson.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/scottd_070306_2740b.jpg (don’t worry the image is a small size so it will load quickly for you)

Question: Have you ever tried to get international data plan mobile hotspot? I wonder what kind of speeds & how expensive it would be.

Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista September 20, 2011 at 9:53 am

Dream meet reality! How true this is. We all dream of how nice this would be without thinking about all the obstacles in our way. Its great you took the time to introduce us all to reality 🙂

Jeff Weiss September 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm

The distractions would be the worst part for me. I have friends who are doing this remotely and they agree. When I started working from home 15 years ago everybody said I wouldn’t get any work done but I never had a problem. Some days it is difficult writing at home but if I was on an island? Forget about it. It’s impressive you can get posts out.

Tristan September 20, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I like that you present both sides of the coin, here. I can still see the essence of “it’s a superb lifestyle” shining through (and I’m sure it is!), but it’s good to hear about some of the challenges, too. And it makes us office feel a little more at ease 😉

Hope to be out of the cubicle soon, though, and writing about some of my own tropical island challenges.

Keep the good posts coming!

Chris Schwarz September 21, 2011 at 4:37 am

#6 solution: Fresh mango shakes & ocean dips

James P Hart September 22, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Sean, thought I’d pop back in and see how things are going and this post is particularly relevant to me. Over the last couple of years I have lived in Hawaii, Barbados, Bequia (SVG) and Mauritius. After location and availability/price of accommodation I ensure a decent internet connection is available. I’m not a productive cafe worker. Haven’t been 100% successful though. Bandwidth limits are another consideration and can mean no regular Ted video downloads or other similar things. Forward planning helps as well as hotel wifi in between island stays.

One I would add is trying to work with island time. It’s something I still have trouble with and see it as a result or poor prioritization sometimes combined with laziness. I feel you can still be laid back and on time in the majority of situations.

Sometimes the distractions are welcome and I would often break up the day with a run/walk/swim down at the beach and then back to the computer.

Like you though, I too think it’s freaking awesome.

Jeff - Digital Nomad Journey September 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I can imagine how the “everyone else is on vacation” and liver damage potential is a problem.

As your #10 states, besides all the previous reasons, it’s a hell of a life to work from anywhere like this.

In that spot I’d probably hunker down for a few days a week and attempt to get it all done, then basically f**k off the other 4 days!

Darlene September 26, 2011 at 10:42 am

Hey Sean – yeah working remotely is hard! I can attest. When we spent 6 months on the road in the US and Canada in our RV 18 months ago, we had great intentions of how much “work” we’d each get done. But there are too many things to see and do everything you hit a new city. I sorta thought my laptop would work as we drove and I could plug it in (my batter sucks) but that wasn’t a reality unless we ran the generator and ate tons of gas doing that. So no laptop while driving. Didn’t get nearly as much done as we thought we would when we started out.

Ollie Rattue October 2, 2011 at 6:24 am

Thanks for telling it like it is. I got increasingly annoyed at the ‘Life is always amazing working in paradise’ theme that runs through so many life design and digital nomad bloggers and decided to share my experiences ‘It’s not all beaches and cocktails: The reality of being a digital nomad’ – http://toomanytabs.com/blog/2616/its-not-all-beaches-and-cocktails-the-reality-of-being-a-digital-nomad/

‘Everyone else is on vacation’ – This is something that I touched on. When working on the road you are not a local but you are also not a traveller. You fall into a strange middle ground which can be tough. When everyone else is on holiday it’s tempting to join the party and as you say people often don’t get it or perhaps think you are being anti-social if you take your laptop to a cafe for a day of ‘work’. Still there are plenty of benefits to living in a perpetual holiday environment 🙂 I totally agree with ‘Matt’ that discipline is the key to making a success of this lifestyle.

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