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The 6 useful habits I developed over 20 years as a global nomad

6 habits of flexible worker
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Written by Oscar Venhuis

Laptop, passport, headset, pen and notepad. These are the essential items I need to get my job done. They all fit neatly in my backpack and, for 20 years, I’ve taken them with me everywhere I work and travel to. I used to have a corporate job with my own private executive office. Very fancy with a great city or sea view. Looking back it was a lot of space for just a few essential items.

Now with several coworking spaces at my disposal I have foregone my own office. I was a professional nomad even before opening theDesk. I’ve spent half of my life in Europe, the other half in Asia. I’ve commuted between cities and worked with people from all over the world. Flexibility and freedom of movement, it sounds wonderful, but how do you cope with permanent change? Over the years this nomadic way of living has shaped my habits and who I am today. Let’s see what they are.

1. Be disciplined

This is probably not the first thing you associate with flexibility but without it you’ll end up wasting many hours or even your life. Typically my day starts at 6am. Sometimes earlier when working with the west coast of the US. The first thing is a 30-45 minutes brisk walk and a mindfulness exercise before breakfast. Then coffee and work, 3 to 4 hours straight with a short break in between. Lunch starts early at around 11:30am and lasts for about 1.5 hours. After lunch I have another 1-2 hours of focused work.

Whenever possible the rest of my afternoon is reserved for meetings, research, and reading. Why meetings in the afternoon? Because I can’t get much work done when listening to people. Complex thinking is better in the morning than in the afternoon. This schedule works for me because it allows me to concentrate on things uninterrupted. Everyone, of course, is different, so develop your own schedule to maximize performance.

2. Keep a journal

Writing down my thoughts helps me to prioritize. Entries don’t need to be long nor even everyday. Even reflecting and assessing what really matters once a month is a great mental practice. My notes aren’t minutes of meetings but thoughts and observations including personal challenges, critical questions, and wild ideas. I use a rather old-fashioned ballpoint and a small black Moleskine sketchbook to document my notes.

“My notes aren’t minutes of meetings but thoughts and observations including personal challenges, critical questions, and wild ideas.”

To record my thoughts online, my go-to app is Google Documents. It is free, easy-to-search, and cloud-based which means losing data is a nonproblem. The habit of examining my notes regularly really helps me to stay focused.

3. Have a life beyond work

“Do what you love, and you never work again.” (Confucius, 551-479 BC) is a popular quote found all over the internet. I think this is total garbage and wishful-thinking. A slogan devised perfectly for Pinterest. Try monetising a hobby into a profitable and sustainable business, the fun ebbs away pretty quickly. I love my work. Paying bills, retirement savings, insurance, and holidays are only possible because I work. And there is nothing wrong with that.

A hobby is something I want to do, not something I need to do. And I have many interests, in fact too many, if that’s even possible. My curiosities range from photography to arts, reading, philosophy, whiskey, cigars, and other stuff that probably doesn’t make sense. Not necessarily in that order but having other delights in life keeps me sane and, most importantly, my novel solutions come from serendipitous discoveries and activities. FYI, 50% of patents filed came upon by accident. (P. Kennedy, 2005)

4. Invest in socializing

But not on social media. I spent what might be considered a stupid amount of time on conversations with people from all walks of life and from all over the planet. In coffee shops, in offices and in the virtual world as well. Great gatherings discussing ideas, different viewpoints and conversing about divergent cultural realities. Investing in socializing is like having a hobby. When I want to, not when I need to, beautiful and surprising collaborations develop when you invest in social connections.

From my personal experience, shared space is the only professional environment to cultivate intended but unplanned collaborations. Coworking spaces aren’t perfect. Yet, for now, they are the most conducive environments for unexpected collisions (in a good way).

Would you walk up to a stranger in a coffee shop or airport lounge? Or if you work in a conventional office have you ever spoken with people one floor up? Even though coworking spaces offer opportunities to connect I also need to make an effort and lean in. Things don’t happen in life without stretching or pushing myself.

5. Be tech savvy

To function in today’s business environment a healthy possession of tech competency is needed. Zoom, Asana, Slack, and Google are my daily applications. I use Adobe, Sketch, InVision, Keynote, iMovie, and OBS regularly. In 12 months time my choice of tech will likely be very different. The constant and rapid change is sometimes tiresome and always exciting.

Whether I like it or not, keeping up is imperative because the need for tech in business is like the need to write or to read. Tech has many benefits but there are also times to consider other options. Online is often compared with offline. Avoid doing this because it’s like comparing apples to oranges. They offer different, not better nor worse, experiences. Both are used for different reasons and one is not a replacement for the other.

“Online is often compared with offline. Avoid doing this because it’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

Imagine you need to write a letter. You can do this with pen and paper or using software on an electronic device. The first option may offer a personal and tactile experience, the latter may be more conducive to quicker distribution and making an immediate impression. The appropriateness of the options depends entirely on my objective.

Both pen and software are tools that attribute to achieving my objective, yet for writing a great letter a tool alone won’t suffice. Being tech savvy is going beyond just using tech. Being tech savvy is the ability to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary. I aspire to be a techie.

6. Break habits

I started this article with discipline. To come full circle I finish this article with the need to break my own habits and routines because discipline is more than rigidness. Breaking with familiarity is necessary when overcoming unique challenges, living abroad, working with different cultures, and especially for innovation to flourish. During everyone’s life, new situations will occur. A lot of literature is available on “how to cope with” and I’ve read enough books in the self-help section myself. Some claim to have the perfect 7-step solution for complex situations. Others have been a source for inspiration.

Now, I have to admit there is nothing better than reading a book from my comfortable chair but remember, it’s just a book. To help yourself and break certain habits, you need to get up and do it yourself. No, you can’t outsource this. I’ve tried. And when you finally decide to deal with it, you’ll find out that your situation is unique. Much more complicated than a case study from a best-selling book. Sorry, I never promised life was easy.

“To help yourself and break certain habits, you need to get up and do it yourself.”

When facing new radical uncertainties and changes, like the recent ones, conventional knowledge and practices no longer apply. Shifting from physical meetings to virtual ones is an example of a situation when we have to break our routines because virtual meetings are conducted differently than physical ones. Equipment, environment, behavior, expectations, preparation, and user-experience are in both cases distinctly unique.

We are all creatures of habit. We like to see ourselves as unique animals with our capacity for reasoning yet when logic tells us to change, we discover that breaking our habits is very hard. We fall back to old safe havens because we fear what we don’t know or understand. Safe havens and old ideas that used to work but don’t work today. Breaking habits, try it.

Are we ready?

Habits aren’t solutions, but for me, they are crucial behavioral mechanisms in a world that is changing constantly and rapidly. Flexible work requires persistent toggling between strict discipline and cognitive agility. It is the practice of letting go and letting in. Are we ready for constant change and radical flexibility? History is not on our side. Without fail responsive action has often been too late. Man-made disasters continue to occur – wars, hunger and poverty. It is happening because of our unwillingness to let go of certain habits and routines. Conflicts and disasters all caused and inflicted by ourselves.

What’s the good news? While we are the problem, we are also the solution. If we want to be future ready, one all-important feat needs to happen, starting with ourselves. It is very simple yet extremely complex. Adaptability..


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