We almost didn’t write this year in review.
2019 was a rough year for us. Despite some significant accomplishments, we hit some of the hardest roadblocks of our lives. 2017 and 2018 were great years. Not so much for 2019.
We had a major (bad) family event and an accident that really shook us up. These occurrences took a personal emotional toll. They also led to putting our projects on hold for much longer than we wanted. So when it came time to sit down and write a reflection on 2019, we didn’t feel like doing it. It dug up too much personal stuff and we’re very strict about crossing our privacy boundaries online (one of the many reasons we aren’t doing daily vlogs on YouTube). Our self-care comes first and foremost before sharing on the interwebs. We’re still dealing with what happened this past year.
Yet there’s something very satisfying about writing these year in review posts. It’s an opportunity to share some personal reflections, both for our dedicated readers but also for ourselves.
This year, we’re going to keep it much shorter and try using guiding questions. This is a bit of a different format from our previous year in review posts, which you can read here:
2017 in Review + 2018 in Review
What were our key lessons from 2019?
We realized that security vs. adventure isn’t a problem to solve, just something to manage. To achieve this balance, we need to use the right strategies and planning. This means prioritizing long term house sits so that we have a good mix of security (from being in one spot for a while) and adventure (by exploring a few places, in depth, each year).
But this means that traveling in Europe long term on a three month travel visa isn’t practical at the moment. As much as we experienced travel freedom while living in Spain, we took for granted that we had an extended stay visa, thanks to Veren’s gig teaching English through a government program. On the 3 month tourist travel visa, it’s much harder to enjoy Europe at the slow pace that we need. Committing to long term house sits is that much more difficult.
Prioritizing long term stays support achieving our goals. You can talk all day about a goal, but you won’t move any closer to that goal unless you’re doing something daily that works toward it.
For a lot of 2019, we neglected our health, nutrition, and fitness. We indulged a lot in food and zoomed around visiting friends and family, all of which was super fun. But these things distracted us from addressing what was going on with us internally. We thought we were making ourselves feel better. But when we finally slowed down, we became acutely aware of everything that we had been neglecting. Naturally, we weren’t happy with how we felt. We revamped our eating and fitness habits in the fall of 2019 and this is a learning that we’re taking forward into 2020.
Another big learning was how to work in a deep and focused way (and actually do it). Know anyone who constantly reads books but never seem to take anything away from them (but loves talking about it)? We’re bucking that trend. Someone once said that knowledge without follow-through is just bullshit. So we decided to put the principles of Deep Work by Cal Newport into practice. These strategies allowed us to write a first draft of a book in a month. Naturally, we didn’t put a book out in a month. More book work followed, like revisions, design, formatting, proofreading, marketing, and so forth.
People have commended us for writing a book, yet at the same time, lament not feeling as accomplished. We’ve gotten these comments from accomplished people, like the CEO of a startup, along with someone who’s been writing their book for the past several years, wishing they could find the time to finish it.
Everyone is busy. It’s about priorities and having strategies that work towards your goals. Thanks Cal. We’re deep workers for life now.
Blog Lessons from 2019
One of the biggest struggles of running a blog is choosing how to spend our time working on it. Should we write more reflective, honest articles that make us feel more creatively fulfilled yet don’t get read by many people and make us no money?
Or should we skip the philosophical musings and focus on writing articles that actually earn us money as well as grow our audience?
We’re always trying to strike a balance between the need to earn money and the desire to stretch ourselves creatively. We are determined to continue to build Alternative Travelers as an ethical business that helps travelers while also earning us a living. Win-win for everyone!
But to quote a friend of ours, “It’s one hundred times harder to start your own business than to work a ‘normal’ 9-5.” In the latter situation, someone gives you a place to show up at and tells you what you’re expected to do. After you do it all to satisfaction, someone hands you a paycheck. Working for yourself requires a lot of self discipline, an innate belief that you’ll make it and that you’re providing value to others, as well as a healthy dose of perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks.
Looking back at the past year, we didn’t reach all the goals we’d thought we’d reach, a frustrating revelation. How do we measure our success when there isn’t someone handing us a paycheck every time we do something?
The Best of 2019
Our best and brightest moments!
What Went Well in 2019?
Publishing our book, The House Sitting Handbook! Though the strategies of deep work had our backs, writing a book was still no easy feat. It took a lot of planning and strategy. We couldn’t have done it without Cal and the support of friends and family.
And despite our neglect, our blog continued to grow, get recognition, and make a steady passive income. The fact that we could take time “off” or scale back from working when we needed to only reinforced our drive to continue to work for ourselves and grow our passive income.
What Else Made Us Happy?
We got to see friends and family much more compared to other years, which is very important to us. This included visiting some friends in pretty cool places (Florida, Finland, France, Spain, and as always, NYC).
We also ate a lot of great food (see below for our favorites).
Finally, we had some great house sitting experiences in 2019!
2019 in House Sitting
In 2018, we left our apartment in Madrid, and in 2019 we were fully nomadic for the whole year. We mixed it up between staying with/visiting friends and family and house sitting.
Greensboro, North Carolina: 2 months with two adorable cats in a massive and beautiful four bedroom home in a walkable, historic district, for a lovely retired couple. Needless to say, we adored this house sit and would return in a heartbeat.
Asheville, North Carolina: We did two separate house sits here. One was just a few days in between our long house sit in Greensboro and another long sit in Asheville. The second was a month with two parrots that made the most realistic sex noises you’ve ever heard. The owners claimed this was existing habit from the previous owners, a claim we didn’t fuuully believe…
Manhattan, New York: 10 days with two adorable, gluttonous kitties. This house sit was located in Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood that Veren lived in during his college years. It was fun for him to see how the neighborhood has and hasn’t changed.
Galicia, Spain: 3+ weeks taking care of a post-Camino retreat. The Camino is a long distance trek through the north of Spain, which Sam did in 2014 (read her tips and packing list in this article). This wasn’t a typical house sitting situation, because we were taking care of guests and the cats and home. Running a guest house intrigued us, and Sam had spent time in this retreat house after her Camino in 2014. Galicia was beautiful and we met some cool people. Unfortunately some negatives regarding the house sit and owner arose. It was a learning experience on many levels and not a situation we’d return to. If you want more details, check out our article on bad house sits.
Madrid, Spain: 6 weeks caring for a friend’s adorable chihuahua in central Madrid! Since we left, we’d been waiting for a chance to get back to Madrid, so we were super excited for this. We ate our way through Madrid, saw old friends, and really enjoyed being back in our former home.
Brooklyn, New York: We did two house sits in Brooklyn over the holiday season, both times taking care of cats. One was a week over Thanksgiving and the other was 10 days over Christmas. We’ve house sat a number of times in NYC at this point, pretty much every time we return. But it’s always very time consuming to arrange house sits in NYC. People either never respond, respond after days on end, or are just very transactional about the whole experience. Arranging several month house sits literally anywhere else is much easier and less time consuming than arranging a few day house sit in NYC. For more NYC house sitting tips and info, read: NYC House Sitting 101 for Pet Sitters and Owners.
Best of 2019 in Travel
Favorite New Place Visited: Helsinki, Finland
We haven’t posted online at all about our 10 days in Finland in August. It felt like a true vacation: no social media, no posting, no writing articles – it was great. We had an absolutely amazing time visiting our friends there. Since one of them is Finnish, we had a truly Finnish experience. Woodfire sauna, berry picking, home-cooked traditional Finnish food, country house, and visiting an uninhabited island in the archipelago!
Finland is an absolutely beautiful country that is just so green. Nature is everywhere. Plus, it felt like the future, quite literally. Everything was so streamlined, orderly, beautifully designed, clean. Every Finn speaks English fluently, spoiling us on the communication front.
Favorite New (to us) Restaurants
Totum Bistro in Nantes, France
The Totum Cantine and Totum Bistro restaurants are among the best vegan restaurants we’ve ever been to and we’re not just saying that because our friend, Charlotte Roy and her family run them. We’re saying it because the food is that good, and definitely a can’t-miss spot in France (whatever, Paris).
Read More: Food Philosophy, Inspired by Totum Bistro + Vegan Guide to Nantes, France
Thunder and Mad Mad Vegan, both in Madrid, Spain
Vegan junk food for the win!
Thunder Vegan Food and Mad Mad Vegan are two 100% vegan places that opened up in the hip Malasaña neighborhood of Madrid. Both were incredibly delicious. The fried chicken at Thunder was amazing. It comes as no surprise that the owners, both young Madrileños, used to live in the U.K. Fried chicken just isn’t a Spanish thing at all, but they nailed it!
The owners of Mad Mad Vegan are also two young entrepreneurial Spaniards. They first opened up in a neighborhood market, but they grew so popular that they already moved to a bigger, standalone location! Definitely check out these places if you find yourself in Madrid and love vegan comfort food.
For more of our vegan Madrid recommendations, check out our Madrid Vegan Guidebook.
Terms of Endearment in Brooklyn, NYC
New York has long been lacking a vegan patisserie for a such a massive vegan scene. We’ve visited amazing vegan patisseries in both Salt Lake City and Miami, and have never understood how New York has been so behind on the vegan croissant game for so long!
Read more: Ultimate Vegan Guide to Salt Lake City
Happily, the NYC croissant desert is no longer. In a happy coincidence, brand-new vegan patisserie Terms of Endearment opened up in Brooklyn while we were house sitting there. Naturally, we assembled team vegan NYC and descended to try all their goodies. The croissants, pastries, and atmosphere all impressed us. The place felt like stepping into a classic French patisserie, straight out of Paris. Another can’t-miss when you’re in New York.
For more NYC recommendations, check out our budget vegan guides to Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Favorite Book: Deep Work
Each year, we think about which book has influenced us the most that year, starting in 2017 with Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In 2018, it was The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Me Help by Amanda Palmer.
2019 was all about Cal Newport’s work, who had a significant impact on us with his books Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding tasks, like writing, creating, inventing, as opposed to “shallow work” such as answering emails or attending useless meetings. Being able to focus and work deeply is a skill that is increasingly valuable yet also increasingly rare. There are just so many distractions. Case in point: how many times do you check your phone, email, or social media while you’re working?
You might think that’s no big deal, but in fact it is. Each time you give your brain something else to focus on and then try to jump back into working, part of your brain is still thinking about whatever you just looked at. You won’t be fully focused or working at full capacity. That means it’ll take you longer to do what you need to get done. Not to mention that you’re literally training and rewiring your brain to be unable to focus for longer periods of time (there’s groundbreaking research on all of this). That’s just one example and one facet of working deeply, but it highlights just how important this skill is in today’s distracted world.
We’ve implemented deep work strategies in our work and it’s absolutely transformed how we work. The strategies aren’t necessarily anything mindblowing, but understanding why it’s so important and actually implementing them makes a world of difference. The biggest takeaways for us were that multitasking is a straight up not productive in the least (it’s actual detrimental to working deeply) and that you only have 3-4 hours of deep work in you per day. It’s just a normal physiological human limitation that you just can’t get around.
At the risk of trying to explain the book just – read it!! You won’t regret it. Click here to get Deep Work.
What We’re Going to Stop Doing in 2020
Continuing our above discussion, we’re going to stop trying to go back to NYC when we don’t have a place to stay. We spent 12 weeks in NYC in 2019 (broken into two 6 week segments). While it was amazing to see friends and family, we spent too much time jumping around from one stay to the next. It’s incredibly disruptive to spend three to four days in one place, then three days in another, then rinse and repeat for six weeks.
What We’re Going to Keep Doing in 2020
Better health and fitness: We got a bit of a headstart on new year’s changes. We already implemented an awesome new fitness and nutrition regimen back in September. So we’re going to keep up with this so we can continue to see the great benefits that come from exercising and eating well each day.
Reducing social media use: Another change that we implemented in 2019 was drastically reducing our time on social media. This is another thanks to Cal Newport and his discussion of social media in both Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. We took a hard look at why we were using social media and the benefits (if any) that it brought us. Turns out that the amount of time we spent and the negatives of social media use far outweighed any benefits.
Social media also doesn’t work towards our current goal of building our website and passive income. If we spend time writing a blog post, that article will be read for years to come. Alternatively, an Instagram post has a lifespan of less than 48 hours. When thinking of it that way, it’s easy to see where we want to spend our time.
Weekly relationship meetings: Finally – and this is a pretty personal one – we started doing weekly check-ins with each other this fall. A couple of friends of ours put us on to this idea about a year ago. At the time, we thought the idea of having relationship meetings was super weird. But our weekly check-ins have become a designated place for us to be super focused and open with each other. We follow a four part format that we learned in a (poorly titled) book on the topic: 1) appreciate what your partner’s done this week (we both love this part haha) 2) talk about what chores need to get done and by whom 3) plan for good time together (dates) 4) discuss problems and challenges.
Checking in with each other has strengthened our relationship and communication so much. There’s this pervasive, dangerous myth out there that once you find the right person, you shouldn’t have to “work” on your relationship. Quite frankly, that’s bullshit. Even therapists say so. A romantic partnership is a crazy thing. Two completely different people with completely different emotions, thoughts, feelings, life histories, etc, come together to share their lives. We work on our careers, we work on ourselves, we work on our creative endeavors. Why wouldn’t we work on our romantic partnerships?
Five years, many adventures, and a growing business later, and our relationship just keeps getting better:
What We’re going to Start Doing This Year: 2020 Goals + Plans
Blog Goals for 2020
Promote our book: Writing a book is only Phase 1. The lion’s share of the work comes in the marketing and promotion phase. We published our book, The House Sitting Handbook, at the end of 2019. Now the real work starts in earnest – letting people know about it! That means doing podcast interviews, guest posts, and writing more house sitting articles to get the word out. We can’t wait to share even more about the benefits of house sitting and how our book can help you achieve your travel dreams. House sitting can absolutely change your life for the better – as it’s done for us.
Launch a Podcast: This is something we’ve been toying with for a while. But as we were always behind with our blog work, we could never devote the time. We want to record a season and launch The Alternative Travelers Podcast in 2020. Let us know what kind of things you’d like to hear about in our podcast and watch this space!
Reach certain passive income goals: We’re not going to throw income numbers out there. Though we (Sam) find it fascinating and inspiring to see what other bloggers make, it’s still kind of weird that bloggers publish their incomes. No one else publishes their income on the internet for everyone to see. On the one hand, we get it – no one outside of the blogosphere takes blogging seriously as a profession. So publishing income reports is a way for bloggers to legitimize their work. Nothing helps someone take you seriously as a blogger as when you share that you earn $100K a year (#goals).
But our income grows at a much slower pace than bloggers and “influencers” that accept sponsored blog or Instagram posts. Instead, we are focusing entirely on growing a passive income. This means that we do the work up front and reap the benefits for months and years to come without any additional work. For example, we have articles that we wrote in 2016 that still earn us money 4 years later. The goal is to always increase the amount of passive income we make as well as diversify our income streams so that we never have too many eggs in one basket.
One of our motivations for earning more money is so that we can spend more time with our friends and family in NYC, one of the most expensive places in the world. Even though we don’t want to live full-time again in the Big Apple, we want the flexibility to pop back when we want and afford our own place to stay. While we have friends and family there, everyone lives in tiny apartments, meaning we don’t have a place to stay when we go back. Long term NYC house sits are quite rare as everyone is a workaholic.
Living in NYC is no easy feat (mostly why we left), so imagine trying to pop back in and out at our leisure, paying for short term places to stay.
Write More Digital Nomad-Focused Articles: For a long time, we thought that we shouldn’t write articles on our full-time travel lifestyle. There are already enough digital nomad blogs out there that tell you all about how to “sell your stuff, quit your job, and travel the world.” While we kind of did some of these things, we started from a vastly different place from most digital nomad bloggers and influencers. We didn’t have a six figure salary, we didn’t have a property that we sold, and we didn’t have any “stuff.”
In a nutshell, we didn’t start off with a nice pile of savings or significant income stream off which to live while digital nomading. Many digital nomads that we talk to live out of Airbnbs and hostels. We don’t have the money for short term rentals like that – instead, we house sit. All of that is to say that in 2020, we’re going to start writing more articles about how we did it and how we continue to live a full-time travel lifestyle. We want to talk about everything from nitty gritty technical details, to the benefits and challenges of what we do. Stay tuned (and let us know what you want to hear about in this series).
Personal Goals for 2020
Practice and maintain Spanish: Regularly practice and maintain our Spanish. We know Spain is always in our future, but also so much of American culture is Latin American culture. Having that confidence navigating in another language lets you into that world like you couldn’t with a translator.
Fitness: We have some flexible fitness goals. Mainly, we want to keep doing what we’re doing and continue to see the benefits!
2020 Travel Goals
As ironic as it may be for digital nomads to say “travel less,” that’s our goal for 2020. Traveling too fast (though still slower than many frequent travelers that technically live in one place) was detrimental to our health, well being, and our blog. We didn’t meet some of our goals because we were constantly focused outwards. 2020 is going to be about lining up long term house sitting opportunities and focusing on growing our blog’s passive income.
So far it’s happening: we’ve booked house sits for the first half of 2020. Literally – we’re booked until June 30th. We’re currently on a repeat house sit in Salt Lake City, Utah, where we’ll be until the end of March. Then California’s Bay Area until the end of June.
We plan to stay entirely North America based in 2020, going where the long term house sits take us. Being in Bosnia when some serious family stuff went down made us acutely aware of the long, untraversable distance (due to expense and time required). Even though the U.S. is massive, if we needed to, we’re only a flight away from our families, no matter where we are. We also want to explore the U.S. more, especially small and mid-sized cities. We’re always keeping an eye out for potential future places that we’d like to live. Not settling down anytime soon though!
Well, good thing we did write this in the end! We ended up enjoying reviewing our past year and looking forward to 2020 with some exciting projects and goals. Let us know in the comments how your 2019 went!