Learning to Go with the Flow

a river panamaSometimes it’s good to travel with absolutely no plans and sometimes it’s good to have a rough itinerary. No matter what your choice is, it’s important that you remain flexible. When I first started backpacking in 2006, I remember jumping on a train to Amsterdam on a whim. After I left there for Spain, I missed the city so much, I spontaneously flew back to Amsterdam and lived there for 2 months. One time I was in Thailand and rather than moving on with my itinerary, I just decided to stay on in Ko Lipe for a month.

However, recently I’ve become more rigid in how I travel. I like to work, and though I might (sometimes) complain that having a website means I can’t go off grid, the truth of the matter is that I am a workaholic. I love improving this site. I got this work ethic from my parents and I’ve never gotten rid of it.

This website often doesn’t give me the flexibility to make crazy changes in my plans like I used to be able to do. However, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to work less and play more. I want to better organize how I do work so I can do less work. Last year, I found myself working more than traveling and I didn’t like that. I love what I do but I left the cubicle world so I could spend less time on work, not more. This year, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to work less, and enjoy myself much more.

While in Panama City, I met a Finnish girl who only “goes with the flow.” She makes no plans, doesn’t carry a guidebook, computer, camera, or phone. They are all things that weigh her down she said. Because of her, I stayed in Panama City an extra week and skipped where I was originally going. I traveled last minute with her to the small town of Portobelo to see her and my friend JD off to Colombia. I was even going to join them in Colombia but I decided that the two weeks I have left in my trip wouldn’t be enough time to see Colombia.

nomadic matt looking out in tortugeuroWaking up and heading to Portobelo last minute was by far the best thing I’ve done since I arrived in Central America. Portobelo, a town with no Internet, no good beach, or no fun activities to speak of, ended up being my favorite spot in Panama. The locals were friendly and talkative, spending their nights hanging out in the town square. This was the only place in Panama where I really enjoyed the local food (it had spices and flavor!!!). Moreover, since this was the site of an old Spanish fort, there were good crumbling ruins to get lost in.

As travelers it’s important that we are willing to change our plans at a moment’s notice. My friend JD joined the Finnish girl on the boat to Colombia. He was going to Costa Rica, but he decided a boat trip sounded better the morning we went to Portobelo, and he changed his plans right then and there. He too embodies a go with the flow attitude. And because I went with the flow I got to see this great town and spend more time with people and not my computer.

I recently read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he says that while we can over analyze things, it’s the split second gut decisions that yield the best results. Sometimes we just know what feels right. I agree with him. Looking back on my life, I realize that it is the gut decisions that have always worked out best for me.

I think it’s important to never second-guess yourself when traveling. That place you were going to go will be there in the future but the people you go with and the experiences you are about to have won’t be. My Finnish friend was right. Just go with the flow. If you want to spend more time with people, go with them. Don’t get caught up in your itinerary. You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t feel like going.

As a digital nomad, I think it’s easy for me to get trapped in the job. The Internet will always take as much time as you give it. I get stuck behind my computer and stuck in my itinerary, and I feel that I have to go here or I have to do that. I’ve forgotten how travel is always at its best when it isn’t planned.

portobelo in panama

And so I’m grateful for this experience in Portobelo because it made me realize that my intuition was right. I do need to go with the flow more. I need to forget about the computer and open myself up to change and spontaneity….because, after all, those were the reasons I left the cubicle in the first place.

  1. Such great advice. I try hard to not make too many plans in advance when traveling because you never know exactly how long you’ll want to stay in a particular place until you get there. Most of the best memories come from the spontaneous decisions.

  2. I can really relate to this; we’re both total workaholics, and a big impetus for becoming digital nomads was to break out of our routine and take more time to explore and be flexible and just fracking relax. Unfortunately we’ve sorta taken our work-obsession on the road (though we’re getting better, I swear!) so it’s a constant balance.

    Thanks for the reminder that sometimes we just need to let go.

  3. I’m like you –
    Where I’ve over ‘logic-izied’ and gone with the head (overriding what I felt) its failed ‘orribly!!
    You can’t beat the good ‘ole instinctive gut for intuitive guidance.
    So cliché but following your heart rather your head always wins… hands down 😉

  4. It’s exactly moments like this where one rediscovers the joys and magic of travel. I have to admit that while I do enjoy working and writing, I’m looking forward to some of that “go with the flow” and off the grid time in Bangladesh. And, even though it’s not working time, I find that some of our best ideas happen when we are in this mode and our heads have cleared.

    • NomadicMatt

      I agree. When you start fresh, you can see everything new again and come back with the best ideas. It’s like writing. Taking a step back from an article let’s you look at it with fresh ideas and work out the rough edges.

  5. Great post. It’s something I’m learning as I go. I don’t feel right unless I have an itinerary to follow and have activities planned out. However, once I started traveling, I realized that doesn’t always work and have experienced some great moments on quick decisions.

  6. Not bringing a guidebook is one step too far for me. I like to know what my options are and I don’t want to miss out on anything just because I didn’t know it was there.
    But I’m not a planner. During my first solo travels, I made an iternary before I left home, but I ended up getting annoyed because I wanted to stay somewhere more or less time than planned and I had to rewrite my itenary again and again until I threw it away

    • NomadicMatt

      I hardly ever travel with a guidebook and when I do, I hardly ever use it. But it’s good to have around sometimes just to get a basic idea of a place.

    • For me it would be to heavy to carry all the guidebooks. I inform me a little before I am going, take my tablet with me (it is heavy enough) and am most interested in the tips of the locals.

  7. I’d really recommend you go somewhere where you can’t get online for a while. If you’re a workaholic operating in the digital world, it’s one of the best ways to switch off — even the only way.

  8. Then there are those of us who feel like they need to plan every little detail of their travels…I personally think if you ‘go with the flow’, make last minute decisions and changes, you will have to pay more for things (accommodation, flights etc.) then if you plan ahead, so some people, for example myself, just have to think in advance and stick to plans. This makes me save money and makes me able to travel more.

  9. Wow Matt, well said. I think it’s quite easy to get caught up in the internet world and not truly be in the moment. I recently had the same conversation with my husband about a roadtrip we are taking this year…whether or not to take my computer… Sometimes its hard to put those things aside, because I also really love what I do, but in a way it could be very freeing (if thats a word!, haha)

    Awsome post though, I enjoyed reading it :)

  10. Good to know men can follow instinct as well!
    That’s the way we should do it – always! I do plan my trips, but just the things/places I wanna visit, but always leave some time for the unexpected, which usually turns up to be the best thing I could do.

  11. Matt, is great that you are trying to go with the flow when traveling. Sometimes I get frustrated because I want to accomplish tons of things in one day. Then, I end up doing things but without really paying attention. I stop enjoying simple things like eating or just taking a break to breath. It is good that you are trying to take things from a more relaxed point of view because in that way you can enjoy more.

  12. I’ve also read Blink- a pretty good book, I agree, though I would throw in the word “usually” when you conclude “it’s the split second gut decisions that yield the best results”. Also been to Portobello, so different from Panama City! By the way, don’t you think that Maracuja juice in Panama rocks?

  13. I fully agree. I used to be too hung up my Plan, I had a certain list of things to see and I had to cross all of them out to 1) make myself feel better, 2) tell others I’ve been there and 3) it somehow made me feel like I have truly been there.

    But recently I have stopped planning so much. On a recent trip that I did (Oslo-Paris-Barcelona-Porto) I didn’t read any information, except what concerns how to get to the city from the airport. I’ve been to Paris before for a weekend and you hear so much about BCN these days that you involuntarily know places, but still I had neither an itinerary nor an agenda. And it was by far one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I let the cities impress me on their own. And it worked big time.

    • NomadicMatt

      The best times I travel are when I just show up in a place and let the city, not the guidebook, do the talking. I’m glad you found the same thing too!

  14. When we first started traveling full-time (in the U.S. in an RV) our original plan was to make it up as we went along, to stay places for as long, or as little as we liked. But after getting shut out of some places that seemed really neat because we didn’t have reservations, and having to scramble for second best alternatives, we discovered that not planning ahead often meant missing out on things we wanted to do. We’ve also discovered that many “off the beaten path” places are off the beaten path for a reason. In the romanticized world of travel, you go places at random and find hidden gems that nobody else knows about. And while that happens occasionally, it doesn’t happen nearly enough in our experience to make up for all of the well-known gems you miss by not doing at least a little bit of advanced planning.

    Ultimately I think travel, like life, is about balance. A little planning ahead combined with a little spontaneity makes for the best travel experience.

  15. Going with the flow is definitely best when backpacking. I learned early on that whenever I try to be “organized” and make plans, they never go how I want them to. Also, while I do like to have a few guide books with me, I find that I learn a lot more from other travelers and locals than I ever will from those books!

  16. I’m a true planner at heart. I usually travel with people who don’t travel as much I do and therefore they always look to me as the travel expert. More recently I have been traveling by myself and have found that when I just “go with the flow” I usually meet someone interesting and we end up doing things together. Those have been some of the best experiences yet!

    • NomadicMatt

      I’m a planner too. I love making lists and planning everything. I like the change though. It’s good to see it’s not just me too.

  17. Hello,

    I like your tips, even I follow them already. Actually I have an idea where to go, what area I first will see and which one I will leave (you can never see all of a country, I think). I also decide which way I will go there and how I will move in the country.

    For me – soon a pensioner – also costs counts. Therefore I am using couchsurfing and hihostels (even other hostels). Once in the country I can book last minute because I changed my mind, where to go by an advice of a host or someone else or because I will stay in a place longer than planned. So I did on my last trip, exploring the Iberian peninsula. I am happy, that I am flexibel!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us

  18. Pierre-Yves

    Been trying to go with the flow for the last 13 months in Asia, but it is getting increasingly difficult as more and more countries require a proof of upcoming exit, before they accept you in. This is strictly enforced if you fly in.
    As I tend to exhaust the allowed tourist visa period, even extending it within the country at times, it means that I do need to plan some weeks or months in advance.

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