The incredible lightness of leaving

My family and I are heading back to our home in Chiang Mai Thailand after a Summer in Seattle. We maintain houses in both cities and rent the one in Seattle when we’re away. While this may seem like a lot of work, it’s a modern version of human migration that our ancestors followed for millennia; seek out a more comfortable seasonal climate to optimize health and abundance. We’ve exchanged yurts for permanent seasonal camps, and it’s a lot to keep track of, so we are continually perfecting the migratory art of traveling light. Here are some tools we’ve learned to apply over the last 10 years.

Migration as a System

When first considering the pros and cons of making such an involved annual journey, I thought about it in terms of qualitative change; what aspect of life were we attempting to radically improve? Was there a particular problem we were trying to solve? After all, unlike our ancient ancestors, it’s not as if we face famine or losing our livelihoods enduring a harsh Winter. Living in either Seattle or Chiang Mai are equally pleasurable, so why the big schlep? In addition to travel costs, the process creates disruption and forces us to organize in creative ways to benefit from extended stays in two hemispheres.

The quality of life issue comes down to both seeing family in the US each year and helping make our daughter truly bi-cultural. This could be done through shorter visits, but the cost and hassle of flying halfway around the world makes a longer stay worthwhile if there were a way to recoup the accommodation. What came to mind was a phrase from Dr. Roni Horowitz, an Israeli engineer behind an elegant system of inventive thinking known as ASIT. In ASIT, “The problem is the solution”; the very thing you are trying to remove or solve for becomes the solution itself. As with this next gen wind turbine, sometimes with just a small design modification, the obstacle becomes the way.

The first immediate obstacle, or in ASIT language, the “undesired effect” was the financial burden of maintaining a second home. Most would go the conventional route of VRBO for the Summer. It made no sense to pay taxes and mortgage interest on a house we would only live in three months a year. But the solution to this problem was also the second home. By appealing to families transitioning into Seattle, we could help them solve a short-term problem at the same time. Most of these families don’t want a house for a full year while they look for something more permanent, while three to six months is often too short to find a new home. Through Zillow we’ve been able to easily find families each year who are happy to rent the house for nine months at a time.

As this is now our investment, our costs are deductible and rental mostly covers mortgage payments, except for Summer, where we would have to pay a similar amount to rent another property. Over the next 10 years, such a seasonal rental would cost us more than $40,000, but through tax deductions, we can claim $20,000 each year in real estate taxes, interest and depreciation while building equity in our second home.

The importance of redundancy

Enter the ASIT tool of Duplication – a means of redundancy to solve a problem by using elements of an existing resource. In our case, it means having two of everything. We keep a car in both locations, renting the car in Seattle with the house. We have two coffee makers, two sets of dishware, bedding and other amenities that make a high-value rental possible. There is some up-front expense, but again, if structured properly as an investment, much of it is deductible. Duplication is one of the ways that we avoid hauling a lot of stuff with us.

Making room with division

How many pairs of jeans, t-shirts and shoes does the average person have? How many times in a given week could one wear all of these? We found it easy to simply divide up our wardrobe each Summer and leave half in the rental house storage. When we are away, we still have plenty to wear and when arriving back each Summer, opening up those boxes is like Christmas. While we always bring a few favorite items with us, we found there is really nothing that we couldn’t live without for part of the year. The ASIT Division tool refers to breaking up an existing component and reorganizing its parts. In this case, dividing and reorganizing a wardrobe solves the problem of hauling a lot of clothing across the world.

Same same but different

My business is in Asia, and much of what I do is build and maintain digital marketing platforms. When I am in Thailand, the companies and I are just one time zone away. This presents a challenge in that if something like a web page or pricing needs modification, I have to work on it while staff are using the system. Toward the end of working hours, staff will present me with something that came up in the course of their work that needs my attention. By this time, it’s late and I’m too tired to work on it until the next day, while the system is in use by staff. So I often work on issues during the day and test them in a sandbox until going live in the evening. But this makes for some unpleasant surprises the next morning when things go wrong and staff need to use a broken system.

This brings into play another ASIT tool of Breaking Symmetry. The idea is to identify problem objects and environmental factors, (here the website and staff scheduled use). When I am not in the same time zone, staff can leave me site issues at the end of their work day and I see them first thing in my morning, giving me the day to work on them while staff are not making changes to the system. It also gives me more time to validate my changes at a time when the team is asleep.

Changing the values of time and location variables in this problem does not guarantee a foolproof solution, as it still comes down to human error in the system, but it makes for much a more effective and pleasant work experience for me. So I am able to get more substantial work done when I am actually out of sync with the team.

While these problem solving tools have helped us to create this mobile lifestyle, the key to implementation is in the administrative detail. We keep a punch list of all the things we need to easily move-in and move-out. This includes:

  • Tenant search, orientation and contracts
  • Utilities transfer
  • Adjusting insurance coverages
  • Checking household inventories
  • Housekeeper/gardener scheduling
  • Phone contract hibernation/activation

These are a few of the major ones and much of it becomes routine with annual calendar-based reminders. I like to use Evernote as the lists and notes are easily shareable with family.

As more work and educational opportunities become less and less location-based, I believe seasonal migration will return as a human norm. This means everyone will have easily navigable systems for moving around the world. The sharing economy and cloud-based services are making it easier to live anywhere. By applying systemic thinking to the migration process, the problem can become the solution, giving us new ways to build value, mobility and freedom.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
— Henry David Thoreau