How remote quarterly reviews help me work better

Quarterly review Bali
Pool view during my Quarterly review in Bali

Someone once told me “distance creates insight” and I guess the same goes for the proverbs about the forest and the trees and the one about zooming in on an elephant so much you don’t recognise it’s an elephant. The point is, it often pays off to remove yourself physically and mentally from your daily work and life.

So, for the last 2 years, I have been doing quarterly reviews. A full week of digital nomading somewhere in the world, to create the much needed distance. I did two digital nomad tests in 2019 and the reaction was the same every single time – colleagues would notice my boost in productivity – “Ah, that sounds smart, I should do that”. In 2019 and 2020 I went on quarterly reviews to Dubai, Dubrovnik, Abu Dhabi, Marrakech and Bali as a test to see if/how I would appreciate working away from home, remotely, for a week. Here are some of my learnings and insights.

Bali swimming pool
My favorite spot at the Renaissance Dubai
Quarterly review Bali
Kimpton De Witt Amsterdam
Marrakech food
Evening views in Abu Dhabi
Breakfast at Kimpton Fitzroy London
Running in Dubrovnik
Food in Dubai
Brunch in Bali
Kimpton Fitzroy London vibes

Digital nomad?

As early as in 2008 (!), way before the digital nomad hype and websites like nomadlist, I registered the domain, preparing for a new life, working remotely from different parts of the world. Although I did end up traveling the world (and a lot), it didn’t turn out in the romantic way I had envisioned and/or many digital nomads do now.

Not long after, I met Marieke (now my ex-wife as of 2020), and we decided on a more traditional travel approach and finally settled near Gent in Belgium. For work, however, I do still travel a lot. Probably the closest you can get to a hybrid nomading lifestyle 😉 – spending the weekdays traveling the world, the weekends at home.

My digital nomad experiment

Remembering that, I took a peek at my old plans and ideas about nomad lifestyles. And I decided to tweak bits and pieces and revive the idea. Both as part of my continuous effort to both see more of the world and to create the circumstances to get some deep work done – I had recently realised that spending time at the office usually is not my most productive time. I get distracted way too much.

After a successful week in Dubai and -more notably- in Dubrovnik, I decided to turn my experiment into a habit.

What I do on a remote quarterly review

There are two key purposes for my remote quarterly reviews are re-aligning on my key goals and objectives and having as much deep work time as possible. I will go deeper into how I do that in a second. Because apart from these two objectives, there is a lot of additional value in these remote reviews:

  • As said before, I love being able to go out for longer runs, especially in the evenings to explore the area (Dubrovnik was perfect for that). Having no company and or social obligations, makes it easy to plan for these.
  • It is a great excuse to find or explore some decent food.
  • I limit culture trips, but usually spend at least a part of one day exploring the city (as in Dubrovnik) or museum (as in Abu Dhabi).
  • Working from the hotel lobby or a coffee place is actually a great way to get into contact with locals and learn things about the area. Demonstrating openness to culture and the sheer fact that you act differently from the other guests (it is quite rare that a guy comes to work in the hotel lobby most of the day while most of the guests are out at the pool).

How I structure my quarterly reviews

I wrote a full overview in my post on the tool ‘Remote quarterly reviews‘. I keep the following high-level structure:

  1. Even before my quarterly, I will keep a list of bigger todos and projects (in Notion). This will help me get an idea of what I want and need to do each quarterly. Often, I will allocate a ‘theme’ to the quarterly. E.g. ‘finance’ or ‘personal development’ or ‘grow my team’. This will help focus my activities and set clear goals.
  2. When traveling towards my remote quarterly review location and on the first night or first morning of my stay, I will do a full brain dump of all the things I will want and need to do that week. I sometimes use exercises like the ecocycle planning and hot air balloon for the first brain dumps.
  3. I will write down the activities on post-its and will prioritise the activities on a large mirror or wall.
  4. After that, I will create a simple week planning with my morning routine, what I will do in the morning (usually two activity blocks), lunch, what I will do in the afternoon, dinner and my evening routine. I will make sure to add time to eat good food and plenty of exercise. E.g. in Bali, I decided on evening runs and dinner after as part of my routine and yoga as part of my morning routine. Also, I will add new habits to my routines, e.g. write my daily appreciation journal in the evening. I have found these quarterly reviews a great moment to add new habits.
  5. After having the rough day plannings, I will add the concrete appointments I will have that week. From time to time, I will have some calls I will have to take, I might have a meeting on location and I might want to go explore the surroundings (e.g. in Dubrovnik, I planned a morning in the old town as a well-deserved break). I will try and make sure to have as many uninterrupted blocks of deep work time as possible.
  6. Finally, I will plan in all my activities for the week, making sure to prioritise the key activities first.
  7. And then, it is just do 🙂 Every evening, I tend to quickly review what I have done that day and the next morning at breakfast I will run through that day.
Map white
In an earlier post on my travel blog I wrote about the experiment and the variables I used for booking my stays:

  • Not overly expensive (along the lines of my weekly spend on hotel when I’m traveling Europe)
  • With access to a resort-style swimming pool or beach (hey, important to unwind during the week)
  • A country/city I had not been before (ideally a country/city on my bucketlist)
  • Not too much travel time – as I would be only going for 5 nights, I didn’t feel like spending half a day or even a day of traveling. The only option would be having two night-flights. I went to Bali early 2020 and noticed the travel time is just too much.

Some additional things I found:

  • Running nearby: Dubai was too hot to go out for a run, but running near the Dubrovnik hotel was just perfect. It made me realize I’m also looking for great running places and green areas around my temporary base.
  • Using your bucket list: I’m keeping a wishlist of places both on this blog and in my todo system Notion. When looking for a new place to go for my Quarterly, this is usually a good starting point.
  • Booking outside high season and/or shoulder seasons: As I’m rather flexible I’ve been trying to book in low or shoulder season in the destinations I’m going.
  • Making a year planning: I started making a year planning of my trips as some trips work best in certain times of the year – e.g. end of summer (late July, early August) most of my clients are on holiday, which makes it a perfect moment to travel. Also, February seems to make sense as this breaks the sometimes harsh European winters. I had to learn the hard way that a Quarterly review in September in Abu Dhabi is just not the best idea. I liked Dubai during Ramadan better.
  • Smart use of hotel loyalty points: Both Hilton and Marriott give the 5th night free if you are redeeming points for your stays. That makes it extra interesting to use your points from these loyalty programs. I used it for Dubrovnik, Marrakech, and Bali.
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