This is an odd thing for someone who spent about seven years travelling the world to say, but…I’ve never been that into travel.
I have no desire to tick off every country. We skipped most of the “must see” sights (I still can’t publicly admit that we failed to visit the Alhambra in Granada). It sounds contradictory, but the only way I can put it is that I like being at home…but I also like it when home moves every so often.
Recently we’ve been spending much more time in the UK, yet it’s been the same: I’m enjoying being at home, but (because we choose to rent) we’ve already moved twice and are thinking of doing so again.
Really though, thinking about it, it’s not the travel but the option to travel that I actually value.
This year, because of Covid, we couldn’t even do our annual “get the heck away from the darkness and coldness of January and February” trip – which we’ve previously always done, even if we were in the UK for the rest of the year. But still, even though we went nowhere, I felt satisfied by the fact that we could and will again: it was only a one-off factor beyond our control that stopped us.
Why could we? Because although we can’t consider ourselves “digital nomads” now (which is just as well, because I hate that term), we still have a lightweight life.
What is a lightweight life?
The average family in the UK moves house every 19 years. There’s nothing wrong with putting down deep roots in a place: it’s the norm, and my desire to always be on the move may well have unhealthy psychological roots.
But there are many people who’d like to move – even if just move house, not to a new part of the world – but feel trapped by one or more factors.
What I aim for is the opposite of this: a “lightweight life” that can be picked up and moved anywhere with relative ease.
It doesn’t mean “full-time travel”. It might mean very little travel. It might mean a few weeks away one year, and six months away the next. It can mean anything, depending on what you want at the time: it just means having the option.
A lightweight life isn’t the default: life has plenty of natural anchors. To keep my life lightweight, I’ve had to take deliberate action in multiple areas:
- Renting, not owning
- Controlling your stuff, not controlled by stuff
- A portable income source
- A flexible family
Renting, not owning
I’ve covered this one elsewhere. The rent v own debates are quasi-religious, but when you run the numbers there’s no clear winner. It comes down to this: psychologically, some people want the perceived security of owning. Others want the flexibility of renting.
Renting is a core plank of the lightweight life. Clearly we rent when we go on trips, but we also choose to rent at home. This has given us the opportunity to try out living in different parts of London, flex up and down size and number of bedrooms as we need to, and (as nowhere is perfect) make different compromises based on what’s important to us at the time.
Currently we’re considering moving – and even if we don’t, it’s still fun to look at Rightmove listings and go to the odd viewing knowing that we could if we wanted to. It’s all the fun of planning a holiday, but better: you get to try out different ideas for what your life could be like for a year or more, not just a week.
Admittedly the downside to this is that the process of renting in the UK is generally awful, but owning isn’t a non-stop party either (maintenance and so on.)
Controlling your stuff, not controlled by stuff
We used to travel with a small carry-on backpack each, representing all our worldly possessions: we didn’t have anything in storage back home. Now we have a child and spend more time in one place, our “stuff” has expanded to a point that stretches the definition of “minimalist” to its limits.
It’s still “relatively lightweight” in Western terms, though. I know plenty of people for whom moving house would be an intimidating, months-long process of decluttering, sorting and packing. The last time we moved, we comfortably managed to pack up, move across town and unpack again within a day.
There’s a happy medium to aim for: there’s no point being overly minimalistic for the sake of it (I spent a year inconveniently only owning one pair of trousers for no good reason), but if your possessions are an impediment to living the life you want, then something’s gone wrong.
A portable income source
If you’re geographically tied to one location for work, there are still benefits to being “lightweight” in terms of being able to move to different areas within a certain radius of your workplace. But full freedom requires your source of income to be disconnected from geography.
Covid has done everyone a favour here: I’m not suggesting that everyone will be working from home all the time, but on the margins there are definitely going to be more roles that can be performed remotely.
Even better is running your own business, or working as a consultant in a role that requires Facetime rather than face-time.
I know it’s not helpful to go “oh yeah just figure it out so you can make money from anywhere” then dismiss it in a few paragraphs. It’s just that there are a thousand different ways to do it, and they’ll be different for everyone. There’s no easy option, but a source of income that’s not tied to a physical location is the ultimate freedom.
A flexible family
As I wrote when talking about the common barriers to location independence and how to overcome them, family is the most difficult barrier to going “full nomad”.
There are no magical answers: kids need something that keeps them away from you for most of the day (bonus points if they learn something), and if you have a partner they’ll also need to have the same work flexibility you do. That’s before you add in the possibility that you need to care for other family members.
For now though, we’re not talking full nomad: we’re talking “lightweight”. Even with kids in traditional schools, you still get a solid six weeks for a summer trip if you have all the other pieces together. With a less traditional option, you may be able to do extended trips at other times of the year.
And even without any of that, a lightweight life still gives you the ability to move easily within a certain geographical radius of a school (or even easily into the catchment area of a certain school), exploring new areas and scaling your living space up and down as you desire.
The biggest benefit of a lightweight life
I touched on it before, but for me the biggest benefit of a lightweight life is the feeling of possibility.
It’s horrible to feel trapped, and it’s possible to feel trapped by inertia or by your past decisions even if you appear to be fully free.
A lightweight life also makes decisions more easily reversible: if moving to a new area costs just a bit of time and effort moving rather than thousands of pounds in transaction costs, you’re more likely to do it. If a change is reversible, you’re more likely to make it — and even if it doesn’t work out, it’s rare to regret giving it a go.