§2 – Unpacking

(Part 2 of 3 in ~ Travel Gear)

Every time someone was looking for something my grandfather would bark out:

Put it where you got it! It’ll be there when you go for it!

When I was little, I thought that was pretty cool. Turns out it’s a variation of the old adage:

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Unpacking begins with things having a place

In certain productivity and self-improvement circles there is an idea called Clearing to Neutral. Simply put, when ceasing work on something think ahead to the next time a task will be worked on, and eliminate as much start-up friction as possible.

Having all your travel and packing items in their place means packing for a trip is simply taking things out and putting them into your bag. (And perhaps some things should simply be kept in your bag.) That’s as close to zero-friction as possible. So clearing to neutral suggests I prepare for the next trip by immediately putting everything away.

So where to keep the stuff? The first iteration is to simply have a pile of things on a shelf, or in a drawer, where you know you keep “the travel stuff.” The next iteration might be a dedicated bag, or large box. But the best solution I’ve found is to use translucent plastic filing tubs. (For example, these filing tubs.)

These tubs are perfect; you can see what is in them and they are easy to handle. I have one which holds things I grab most frequently; for example, my micro-flashlight and M’Urgency kit. I have another tub which holds the less-used random stuff; for example, the replacement o-rings for my flashlight, those little toothpaste tubes the dentist gives me, refills for my cartridge razor, and my rarely used, travel laundry kit. When packing, I just pull the tubs out and grab what I need.

The tubs can be stored on a high shelf, on the floor in the back of a closet, or in the garage. Regardless how exactly you store your travel gear, it should have a dedicated home where things don’t get dirty, lost, or eaten by your cat.


So now everything has its place, and I’m mentally prepared to spend time putting things away when I return. But I have a problem: When I return, some — often most — of my stuff is not ready to be stored.

I gave out a bandaid from my M’Urgency kit which needs to be replaced. The sheet from my sleep system needs to be washed. I lost a zipper-pull on my backpack that needs to be replaced. My flashlight needs a new battery. My razor needs a new cartridge. I need a new bar of soap. …and on and on.

Each of these issues is a very small thing to take care of, and it is tempting to leave these small tasks for later. But this is exactly the moment where a little work now leads to zero-friction later. This is where the magic of clearing to neutral shines. All of those little issues would slow me down — or worse, leave me in the lurch during a trip — when next I pack to travel. By taking care of them when I return, I eliminate all the friction and make packing a breeze when the next opportunity arises.

If I’m exhausted, I may simply set my bag down and go to sleep. But when I’m ready to unpack I explode everything in one place. I pull everything out and if it’s ready to store, (that is to say, it is ready to use again when I next travel,) I put it away immediately. If it needs something, I leave it in the exploded area. Normally, this is right in the middle of the floor, in the middle of a room. So the goal is to clean up the entire pile. Laundry into the laundry basket, or better yet, right into the washing machine. Get a fresh battery, change it and put the flashlight away. Grab a spare zipper pull and fix the backpack. Grab a bandaid and razor cartridges from the spares tub and fill up the M’Urgency and bathroom kits; then put them away. Zip, zap, done.

Aside: I clear everything to neutral. Years ago, my Hueco backpack came with spare zipper-pulls. I put them in a ziplock bag, with a 3×5 card that says “spare zipper pulls for Hueco” in the tub of less-used items. By the time I lost a zipper-pull, I had completely forgotten it had come with spares. But I knew that _if_ I had spare zipper-pulls, they’d be in the less-used tub. And there they were!

Using processes like this will expand outward into the rest of your life. I just used the last of the spare razor catridges from the storage tub to refill my bathroom kit? Add “razor cartridges” to the shopping list that we keep in its assigned place, so everything is on the list when someone goes to the market. Go to the market, buy what is on the list.

As you’re unpacking, sorting, cleaning, repairing, etc all your stuff, you’ll find you’re automatically reviewing; Which is the next part of this series.

Series Navigation << §1 – Introduction      §3 – Reviewing >>