Living and Working in Istanbul - The Importance of Routine
Updated: Jul 30
After wrapping up our first Monday to Friday “work week” living in Istanbul, we needed to take a step back and ask - what’s working, and what isn’t?
A central goal of travelling was to work less and explore more, so working more and exploring less didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The Initial Plan
Mike Tyson, ever the wordsmith, has a great quote:
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Okay, claiming that our shift from initial plans was comparable to being punched in the mouth would be more than a tad dramatic. But, we did change our initial work/explore balance plan after giving it a shot.
Going into this adventure, the plan was something like this:
In every new place we’d visit, starting with Istanbul, we’d ideally stay in one spot for a couple weeks - settle down and get a decent sense of an area. Work-wise, we’d work a “modified” Monday through Friday week. Instead of off to a 9 to 5 every morning, we’d get up, have a leisurely breakfast, and then work for a few hours. After knocking out some work, we’d head out for a day of exploring - taking in the delicious food and things-to-do of a new town.
With a set-up like this, we’d check the “re-prioritize” box, flipping the emphasis from 1) work all day and maybe do something else to 2) work part of the day and definitely go out and do something else.
Time Zone and Contract Dilemmas
Definitely a solid plan, but Jenna and Chipp both ran into issues.
For Jenna, the challenge became making a clean transition from full-time, east-coast-based employee to part-time, somewhere-else-in-the-world-based contractor. Wrapping up the former on a Friday and moving into the latter the following Monday - seven time zones ahead of E.S.T. - made for a bumpy ride.
Still directly responsible for the digital marketing aspects of a few client campaigns, Jenna worked as initially planned in the mornings - running reports, responding to e-mails, and other general work stuff. But, three nights of required conference calls due to this seven-hour difference - including a six-hour marathon of a session - definitely qualified as burning the candle at both ends.
Chipp, on the other hand, had more self-inflicted work problems. Finding writing contracts on UpWork has been awesome, and it offers unbelievable flexibility. But, there’s also a gulp-we’re-now-both-unemployed compulsion to take every single contract offered.
While not working quite full-time, Chipp logged more hours freelance writing in Istanbul than he did in Buffalo before leaving the States.
These definitely are we’re-extremely-fortunate-and-shouldn’t-be-complaining-type problems, so we’re not complaining, per se. But, we had to ask ourselves if this was the right approach to travel and work, and if our priorities aligned with the stated purpose of this trip.
Over-Exploring in Istanbul
While we worked far more than we’d anticipated that first week, we also had the new-place excitement and drive to get out and explore. Fueled by that drive, we ignored our longer-than-expected work hours and still tried to get in full days exploring different parts of the city.
And, we did do some awesome exploring (and eating!). Each night, we’d choose a new area for the next day and pick out things to do and see there. Once we wrapped up work the next day, we’d just head out the door and start walking (iPhone step trackers may as well have broken after the shift from our sedentary beginning of September to 5 to 10 miles per day by the end of the month - and Istanbul’s hilly). Exhausted at the end of the day, we’d climb the stairs to our apartment, crush some coffee, and start working again.
But, after a Friday night experimenting with Turkish raki, the national booze-of-choice (more on that in another post), and an early morning boat cruise up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea the next day, we basically collapsed at home Saturday night. We were exhausted to the point that, despite being in a city of incredible food (and an awesome kebab restaurant around the corner where we quickly became regulars), Jenna just made some noodles with butter to put something in our stomachs before passing out.
Once again, certainly not complaining, but we had our priorities wrong if we were burned out by our first Saturday night overseas.
Figuring out a Work/Explore Balance
Taking stock of the situation, we decided we needed to make a few adjustments, both in terms of action and mindset.
For Jenna, she needed to accept the fact that she was no longer a full-time, salaried employee - and couldn’t do everything she used to be able to do in her old position. From a practical perspective, this meant being more direct about the actual right and left lateral limits of her new role, that is, setting clear expectations about her availability. Some cross-time zone calls will certainly be inevitable, but they need to be the exception, not the norm.
For Chipp, it became a matter of saying no to new freelance contracts. The initially stated goal of freelance work was to cover our travel expenses, not try to replace US income. With a few awesome long-term clients, he could do this while working a few hours every day (beauty of solid exchange rates and US dollar purchasing power overseas).
It’s a hard mindset shift, but accepting this situation meant turning down new contract offers. If a current client falls through, scramble for another then. In the meantime, all’s good.
For both of us, we needed to shift our mindset and accept that it’s okay not to do everything, every day. If we happen to have a lot of work on a given day, maybe just explore the local neighborhood or grab some takeout that night. On the other hand, if we have a cool day trip lined up, it’s okay to push work to the next day - we’ll get it done.
There’s a guilt to not doing every single task and answering every single request absolutely immediately (cynically, a product of 24/7 expected connectivity). Overcoming this guilt - and the associated shift in priorities - is liberating, but far more difficult than expected.
Routine - A Path to Sanity
After talking about it, we decided that establishing - and enforcing - a solid routine would be key to retaining our sanity over the next year. Being on the road this long (and excuse the cliche) is a marathon, not a sprint. Treating every day with an ad hoc approach, while entertaining for a bit, certainly wouldn’t be sustainable.
First, as we were working, we needed to follow a work week. Rather than 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, we’re trying to do more of a 9 to 12ish, Monday through Thursday - with the ability to extend through Friday on particularly busy weeks.
And, we recognize that calls will come up, writing projects will be longer than expected - some days we’ll just need to work a Stateside-like, 8- to 10-hour day. But, A) those need to be the exception, and B) when those one-offs do happen, it’s okay not to try and force a full day’s adventures into the schedule, too.
So we clearly hadn’t been “punched in the mouth,” but we did need to recalibrate our priorities. What’s the point otherwise?