How do you pack for a business trip in a way that’s efficient, painless, and guarantees you never forget anything or pack things that you don’t need?
Simple: you make a checklist, you actually use that checklist, and every time you unpack, you revise the checklist.
NB: This article isn’t about what’s actually on my checklist, It’s about the checklist itself. If you’re looking for specific guidance on what I pack and how to use that to make your own packing list(s), I’ve written extensively about how to pack a work bag for travel and how you might make your own capsule work travel wardrobe elsewhere on the blog.
In defense of the checklist
If this feels like super boring un-innovative guidance, you’re right. It is.
In fact, most of my favorite life hacks are “do the boring thing that everyone already knows is useful but don’t do consistently because it’s easier not to and not very painful if you don’t.” Things like sending an agenda before the meeting, writing down things you need to do, and making a plan for how you’re going to be eating before it’s time to choose a meal.
I love doing everything I can to systematize my life, to make all of the uninteresting things that I have to do as automatic and intentional as possible so that instead of worrying or thinking about them, I can just trust a known process and spend my energy doing more interesting things.
Checklists are one of the best tools ever devised for this sort of thing. Remembering takes effort, takes energy, and is prone to mistakes. Checklists, on the other hand, are simple, explicit, repeatable, and easily withstand being distracted by everything else that’s happening on your Sunday evening.
But: they’re boring, and seem so obvious as to be stupid. Write a checklist for what goes in your suitcase?
Yeah, write a checklist for what goes in your suitcase.
To quote Atul Gawande in the best, most entertaining book about checklists ever, The Checklist Manifesto:1this is a joke, because to my knowledge, it’s the only full-length book about checklists ever. But it is actually very good — full of surprising and funny anecdotes AND actionable information, a tragically rare combination.
We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating
He goes on to make a different point (about our societal definition of heroism) than the one I want to make2His point, if you’re curious, is that our definition of heroism should include embracing fallibility, and encouraging teamwork and procedure (that is, using a checklist) is a tool to do so.
I want to make a simpler point: packing a bag is not heroic, nor it it interesting. Neither is filing your expenses, or making sure you keep up with business contacts, or making sure you have clean gym clothes for the week, or writing an agenda for a meeting.
These things also don’t reward extra effort past a baseline standard. They just have to be done reasonably well. Packing the best and packing good enough are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.
Which is to say, the only possible change in outcomes for packing is downward: if you do it fine, it’s invisible. The clothes are there. If you do it and it takes longer than a couple of minutes, it eats away at your limited Sunday free time. If you do it wrong, it takes time and energy out of your week to fix, because now you have to go buy an extra few pairs of socks or toothpaste or what-have-you — time and energy you could have been using to do actually useful things, or hell, just things you enjoy more than a Target run.
For packing, and anything else in your life that fits this description, create a (simple!) system — a checklist, a runbook, a standard operating procedure, a routine — and use it.
How to start a packing checklist (or any checklist)
The hard part of becoming a checklist disciple isn’t so much using them, it’s writing them.
The slog of sitting down and remembering how exactly you do something, step by step, and writing it down somewhere you can easily find it again, whether that’s your preferred note-taking app, a notebook, or even a piece of paper. It takes time, you’re sure you’re going to forget something3which, um, if you can’t remember it now what’s the likelihood it was going to get remembered during the task? Maybe a little higher thanks to context-dependent memory, but not by much., and it’s uninteresting work.
The solution is blissfully simple: start at the end. When you get home and go to unpack your suitcase to do laundry and whatnot, just write down everything that was in it. Checklist made.
This works for almost anything. No need to make it up if you can just record the world as it is — ideally while you’re doing a task, or directly after. It takes a little extra effort that one time, but it’s more likely to be complete, and way easier to remember what to write down.
Now that you’ve got a brand new packing checklist, there are only two things left to talk about: using, and revising.
Using the list
Quick digression to talk about the two main types of checklists that Gawande identifies in The Checklist Manifesto: DO-CONFIRM lists, and READ-DO lists.
DO-CONFIRM is a checklist that you use as the last step in a regularly-performed action, like packing. You do what you’re gonna do, and then once you think you’re done, you run the checklist quickly to make sure you’ve checked all of the predetermined boxes. It’s good for low-stakes situations where there’s some flexibility in order of operations, and is normally, easier and simpler to use.
A READ-DO list is one where you read, perform, and then check off each item in sequence. These are more suited to high-risk endeavors with explicit orders of operation, like surgery, flying a plane, or restarting a piece of hardware.
A packing list is normally a DO-CONFIRM list — grab your week of clothes, your toiletries, your computer, your kindle, your notes, bonus items, and put ‘em in your bags, then cross-check against the list to see what (if anything) is missing.
Do be sure to actually get visual confirmation of the thing in the bag though; I can’t count the number of times that I said “yeah I’m pretty sure I remember packing that” only to realize that I had grabbed it and then set it on a table or counter when I got distracted.
So, you’re packed. Now what?
The last item on the checklist.
The last checklist item always the same thing, no matter who you are or what you’re doing: a critical examination of everything on the checklist.
Every time I repack, both as I’m packing and as I’m reviewing, I ask myself:
- Did I actually use that last time?
- Is it worth the space?
- Does it bring me the most utility that space could bring?
- If not utility, happiness?
- What might be able to go in its place?
If I haven’t used it in more than two trips, or it just doesn’t bring me much utility anymore, I give it the ‘ol Marie Kondo and thank it for its service before chucking it into the hamper and crossing it off the list.
It works the other direction, too:
- What did I need last week that I didn’t have?
- Is that going to be a common occurrence?
If so, add it to the suitcase and the list.
Then, zip that suitcase up and be on your way, knowing that you’ve packed everything you might want or need, and will never have to worry that you don’t again.