Operation: Bring Nothing to Work

You know those people who show up for work in the morning with nothing with them except, say, a newspaper or a notebook or maybe a jacket slung over their shoulder? They look like free spirits, right? What with their conspicuously absent shoulder bag or briefcase or other such encumbrance — they seem as if nothing holds them down, as if they’re unshackled men and women at one with nature — or with their commutes, anyway

That’s not me. I feel compelled to load up every morning with a bag or briefcase in which I carry a stack of papers, my checkbook, a wallet, a small attaché for credit cards, my New York Times identity card, a point-and-click digital camera, extra pens, my iPod and my iPhone, the latest issue of The New Yorker and my keys. Whew. As much as I would like to do without this uncomfortably extensive inventory of must-have items, I can’t.

Experiments in Exclusion

I can confirm that now because for about a week, I put myself through an experiment I call “Operation: Bring Nothing to Work.” As you can guess, it entailed not bringing anything to work. Well, nothing except for my keys, my wallet (condensed down into a much smaller wallet), my iPhone, a USB thumb drive, and my Times I.D. card.

For the first day, it felt incredibly liberating. But thereafter, it got increasingly complex. As I needed to bring additional things with me to the office — like an umbrella on a day that threatened afternoon rain — or from the office — like a package that was delivered to the office — it became apparent to me how essentially handy it is to have a bag into which one can just stuff all kinds of junk. That feeling of freedom quickly turned to haphazardness and even frustration as I clumsily attempted to keep track of all my goods without a junk-stuffing aid.

Which was manageable, at least, if not comfortable. But then I started losing things. One evening, my USB thumb drive fell out of my pocket while out on the town with a friend, never to be recovered. Then, on another day, when I brought along my sketchbook with me to the post office, I accidentally left it on the counter. Luckily, the postal clerks saved it for me, and I have it back in hand, but what a devastating loss that would have been.

Less Wants More

Maybe most disappointingly of all, I just couldn’t deal with using my iPhone as my sole music player. As it turns out, I’m just too accustomed to having my 40 gigabyte iPod’s vast contents available to me at any one time. And I became very quickly bored with the 8 gigabyte iPhone’s much more limited capacity — as well as the inconvenience of having only software controls to advance songs when I was using it at the gym. (At its introduction, people remarked often that the iPhone was the best iPod since the iPod’s introduction, but at this point, I no longer believe it.)

There were days, even, when I cheated. I rationalized some need for packing items in a bundle of some sort — if not my briefcase, then how about a small tote bag? I actually caught myself doing this one morning as I prepared to leave the apartment and realizing that there was no particularly urgent need to carry the extra items I was packing — as if stashing a bunch of superfluous items in a small bag was somehow materially different from stashing a bunch of superfluous items in a big bag.

Carry On

That particular day was so telling, really. My conscious desire to travel to and from work unfettered was being powerfully combatted by my subconscious need for the security of some kind of carrier. Maybe this whole experiment says something very telling about my psychological attachment to carrying items. Perhaps my briefcase is a security blanket, of some sort. Or maybe it says something about how difficult it is to get by without a bag or briefcase in New York City — if I drove a car to work, would it be that big of a deal to leave items behind at home?

Ultimately, I gave up and returned to my old ways. As soon as I did, I felt relieved; there are far fewer items to worry about during my commute now. Just one, in fact. Which I suppose is the true mental benefit of a container — the freedom afforded when a big object handles all the worrying after many smaller objects can be very relaxing. I’m more or less happily commuting with my briefcase again every day, but I can’t help but think I never really got to the heart of my problem — why am I so tied to these many little objects? It irks me a little. Especially when I see some self-satisfied, goody two-shoes, free-spirited commuter heading to work with just a newspaper in hand.

  1. I think the unfettered types you see carrying just a paper have someone else, somewhere, who keeps track of all those little things for them. The solution isn’t to carry less…just have someone else take care of it for you. Either that, or they have the sort of job that entails just showing up to get a paycheck.

    Ah, the American Dream.

  2. Isn’t it funny how we will go out of our way to try things that seem to make other people more efficient, even when we ourselves are perfectly efficient as we are?

    An example: All the time, I see Mac users benefiting from the power of QuickSilver. I watch them keyboard away and think, “I should do that…it looks so efficient!” So I try it. For a week. And I just can’t get into it. So I quit. Until I see another person going to town with QuickSilver — then I try it again. Seriously, I’ve probably tried QuickSilver more times than I’ve tried sushi. I know it doesn’t work for me. It just doens’t. But I keep trying. Why? It’s totally irrational.

  3. i’m the one person in my office that brings my backpack with me everywhere i go, including many of the items you’ve listed (replace iphone w/ recently acquired touch — & agreed on yr hanging on to an older ipod as the MUSIC player, i do the same thing), mostly because i always expect to get a wee bit of drawing in at whatever location i end up at. often, i end up just carrying around a bunch of crap.

    i did recently talk myself out of lugging around my tank of a 20D + spare 17-40 lens in my bag, as well as my macbook.. neither of which were being used at all, and were contributing to a good 9 pounds of extra weight. ouch.

    (love yr 1-letter captcha btw, very nice.)

  4. I take it you dont use the iPhone’s supplied headphones? You can pause / skip tracks without taking the phone out of your pocket…and answer calls. Pretty amazing at the gym I think. Though I just shuffle songs.

  5. Jay: I do use those headphones (sometimes) but you can’t skip tracks, go back to the beginning of a track etc. with the control on the headphone wire. (At least not that I know of.) When I’m at the gym I want to be able to do that, for sure.

  6. I carried nothing for over the better part of a year recently. It was actually commented upon in the office quite a bit, almost socially leprous, but I couldn’t see carrying anything that didn’t fit in my pockets (cellphone, pen, wallet, and keys). I even found myself wanting to ditch the cellphone after awhile.

    I’ve got a bag again (which I got for free from a client), and I don’t mind it at all, but I do seem to be carrying stuff I don’t need more and more.

    I think Jeff’s point is true though: I’ve read Getting Things Done and 43 Folders to death and I still can’t do it. And yet I still get things done. If the bag works, let it be. 🙂

  7. I use a backpack.

    Things always seem to fall out of my pockets, and those goody two-shoes, newspaper only type people you speak of always come across as aloof and unprepared.

  8. Khoi: double-squeeze the mic on your iPhone headphones to skip to the next song. No, you can’t go back to the beginning of a track that way, but at least you can skip a track if it’s not the right mood for your workout.

  9. Thanks, Khoi, you brought to mind a somewhat dormant image: Fifteen years ago I sat through a multi-level-marketing sales pitch. I don’t remember what company or what product; I recall only two things: One, thinking “this is interesting, but what if I don’t sell any products or don’t find anyone for my downline?” (yes, even in my 20s I was jaded and cynical); and two, the sales guy, at the front of a room of 150 eager listeners, pitching the ultimate in freedom: walking to work every day with a single manila folder, with a single sheet of paper representing your sales.

    It’s proven to be a rather enduring image….

  10. The solution is to use a smaller bag to force yourself not to carry so much stuff (there is a Parkinson’s law at work there – stuff expands to fill all available space allotted to it). If you occasionally need to bring something bulky back, pack a folding bag, there are many inexpensive ones available at most art supply stores or even Whole Foods.

    You might be amused by what people carry, as evidenced in this Flickr photo pool.

  11. I’m similarly configuring my get-up. Like you, I’ve the habit of bringing a ton of stuff, largest of which is my Canon 1Dmk2 with 24mm lens.

    The best photo opportunities always crop up when I decide to leave the monster at home.

  12. These people that don’t carry anything, they don’t *do* anything either that isn’t provided by the tools on their desk. You have a sketchbook; they don’t sketch, you have a camera; they don’t take pictures, you have an iPod; they don’t listen to music, etc.

  13. I once saw a guy on the train with a briefcase. As he opened it to put his free paper in, I saw inside it… a banana. That was all. A single, lonely, bruised banana.

  14. Khoi, you know my little Jack Spade bag, right? You really should get one of them. It’s basically a replacement for all your pockets in your clothes, not really a backpack. Hell, it’s a damn purse.

    I bought it specifically because it cannot fit anything 8.5×11 unless you are desperate and are willing to crush it — you definitely cannot bring a laptop in it. I typically put pens, sketchbook, iPhone, chap stick, my keys, and usually a rolled up magazine in it. Commuting, I can even put my tiny folding umbrella in it and my coffee thermos, too. When traveling or walking around on a weekend, I can bring a camera in it. It will, in a pinch, even fit a wine bottle for a trip home after a rough day at work. Never *all* the above, but just enough.

  15. I can understand people’s desire to travel light, but for me that’s completely outweighed by being prepared. I couldn’t live without my Chrome bag (which you can fit everything you’d ever need to cart around inside.)

    Not surprisingly I’m the one at the office someone comes to if they need to borrow an umbrella, some antibacterial wipes (sounds nuts but you wouldn’t believe how often these come in handy, especially if you’re prone to spilling stuff on yourself) pens, you name it.

    Since I pack this way daily, it’s also only natural I never forget anything on a vacation and I’m also the family’s go-to person.

    Lastly, I also don’t think very much of the iPhone’s iPod capabilities, though coverflow is pretty and all. I still carry my old iPod photo, or use Simplify Media. I’ve put 5 albums on the iPhone and never listened to them on it.

  16. Chris: You’re probably on to something. Using a small, compact bag is what European men do. In the States, we mock those ‘man purses’ as effeminate, and that may be part of the reason why I’ve never really tried one. Anyway, I definitely have a preference for briefcases with a handle that can be carried at one’s side. I guess what I need is a really small one.

  17. Glasseswalletkeyscellphone.

    I find the morning Litany of the Widgets quite comforting; maybe it’s a little shade of OCD, but a series of mental mnemonics help me get out the door with confidence that I have the things I need.

    So what if I never use that mechanical pencil or art marker in my pocket, if it helps me remember to bring my keys or Shuffle? There are few things worse than arriving at work and realizing that I left my MacBook power cable underneath my desk at home.

  18. I’m a bagger too, but my problem is heading out the door w/o one of my essential items. I’ve been thinking how great it would be if there was a cheap RFID system that I could use to tag all the important stuff that goes in my bag. Then, with the right software, I could use my phone/handheld to quickly reveal all the items in my bag — sort of a flight check before rushing out the door.

    Another problem I have with bags is that even the most compartmentalized, neatly organized bags tend to turn into a black hole for stuff. Recently I noticed that my bag was getting heavy, only to discover that I had been toting around a 1 lb brass pipe fitting in my bag for a week. I knew it was somewhere!

  19. I’m one of those “free spirits” who comes to work with virtually nothing. But I have a secret: I used to be one of the ones who had to bring a bag everywhere. My problem was that I kept forgetting things if they weren’t already in my bag. I tried doing it cold turkey like you, Khoi, but it ended up getting worse. What I started doing was thinking of my work space as more of my own, not my company’s. So I started leaving things behind at the end of the day, on purpose. Eventually, I ended up with everything I need at work, at work. Some things can’t be avoided, but they all fit into my front pockets: keys, wallet, cell phone, notebook, pen. I even keep a store of snacks/breakfast bars in my desk and a couple extra lunches in the company fridge in case I can’t get away from the office to eat.

    I still go through some mild neurosis when I realize I don’t have x on my person…

  20. It’s the same reason women wear purses. There are things we might need throughout the day and most of our clothes don’t have good pockets. I also carry an iPod, a small digital camera, and other things. I’ve been the “hero” in more than one situation at work by having the digital camera always ready to go and on my person. And I don’t know about where you live, but you need cards for everything these days, video rentals, office supply discount cards, cash rewards cards for restaurants,… Just carrying those alone in a billfold would make the billfold unwieldy.
    I do recommend, though, getting a case with a shoulder strap. That way, you have both hands free to do things. I’ve never been able to tolerate a purse or bag that I have to hold with my hand. How can you stand it?

  21. Thats funny, becasue today is the first day I started using a bag to cary more things. I was super excited, so much so I packed the bag last night and set it beside my bed so I was sure to remember it. It was so much easier, because usually I have to throw all this garbage into my pockets and then cary the rest in my hands.

    Some days I grab a few design magazines such as HOW or Communication Arts, and then my lunch, and I throw my cell phone, wallet, keys, and flash drive into my pockets which then become bulgey, and irritating. With all this I still ahve to grab my 2 year old daughter who most mornings wants me to carry her to the car, along with a few select toys she can not part with, on the long five minute car ride to work to drop me off, also I have to grab her juice and her blanket.

    So this morning when I had all of my things in a bag, handling her and her things was a breeze, and was very liberating…

    So I say WAR bags/briefcases, and war all the PACK RATS out there.

  22. It is funny how much this sounds like a trusted system in Getting Things Done. Your bag is simply a giant portable inbox. I do the same thing and have the same problem even though I drive to work.

    I still manage to have too much stuff in my pockets, because once I’m at the office, my bag stays under my desk.

    If I want to make sure something comes with me to work, I immediately put it on top of or in my bag. The worst thing is that it is a laptop bag but usually I leave my laptop in my docking station at the office. I only bring it home occasionally, but I had switching bags back and forth.

    I have a really bad out-of-sight out-of-mind problem. I keep my keys, wallet, sunglasses, ipods in a group and if something get set down elsewhere it is likely not to make it into my pockets in the morning.

    Maybe I’ll give your experiment a try though. I would like to be unencumbered.

  23. Even though the briefcase is not called a purse as the man-purse is, it’s basically the same thing. As Laura said, girls carry purses for the same purpose – to to keep all the random things we may need through the day. When I started working, I bought a larger purse because I needed more space to carry things.

    I think Aegir also made a good point that the people who don’t bring anything don’t do anything. Even if I could somehow fit my wallet, keys, cell phone, iPod, & notebook into my pockets (if I have pockets), I’d still need a bag for the knitting/crocheting I do on my commute! That means I’d have to actually carry it with me, rather than leave it at work. In fact, none of the stuff I carry is even work-related.

  24. It’s funny. The whole time I was reading this, I kept thinking, “but then how would I carry my lunch?” It must be something about your life as a busy New Yorker that you completely omitted something I bring to work every day. Eating lunch out every day in the city gets to be damn expensive. If nothing else, that’s what you’ll find in my bag.

  25. I carry a lot, but most of it is practical.
    – Thermos for homemade coffee saves me a couple hundred dollars a year
    – 1L Nalgene for water has become indespensible
    – Book or iPod for relieving slow subway boredom
    – Laptop on some days

    I used to feel a burdened by the weight of it all (liquids are heavy) and recently I switched from a Gravis shoulder bag to a North Face Surge. The weight is now negligible and I’m controlling the wasteful costs of not having all that stuff with me.

  26. Andrew: Heh, yeah, it actually seemed anachronistic to me when I was typing it out, too. But I do write about three or four checks a month, and believe it or not, there are some vendors in my day-to-day personal business that don’t accept PayPal or even credit cards. It’s a shocking world out there.

  27. For a Web Designer in the digital age. You carry a lot of stuff around!

    I find myself carrying only my iPhone my wallet and my keys. I used to carry a pack of smokes, but good riddance. I get around using my email account to transfer files to myself, I never got used to using a thumbdrive (yes, it is a rather bizantine way to go about moving files, but on well.)

  28. You can extend your observation to school kids who don’t carry bags/books. I was always (and remain) amazed that whatever curriculum they were following didn’t force them to carry the same over weight, over wrought tomes I was carrying. Nice life…

  29. You can’t deny that there is something great about walking from your car to the office empty-handed. Feels as if you’re not going to work, but more like, hanging out. I always look forward to Winter because of that, so that I can stuff things (ipod, wallet, keys etc.) into the pockets of my coat.

    Having said that, I guess I would be happy with a “man purse”. The smaller the better.


  30. I’m feeling this post, Khoi. I rock a bag from Reiss.co.uk that is for slimline items such as a laptop, zines, file folders, etc. It works well and I usually get down with it on days that I take a writing-lunch.

    I have to plan ahead on days that I know I plan to ride the freestyle BMX into the office — meaning I leave the bag behind, because you can’t pull a 360 barspin in midair and worry about the bag offsetting your balance!

    Not a fan of the big/bulky messenger bags, although they are functionally a big-league win. What do you do when you have all your gear/content, but, want to meet up with some friends for dinner, drinks, etc after work. Do you carry all of that around with you?

  31. Everytime I go out without a bag I get constant flak from the people I’m meeting up with. They just can’t fathom that every once in a while I leave my cell phone at home (horrors!) or that my iPod is enough to both fit in my pocket and supply me with in-subway entertainment. I don’t do it everyday, but it is nice to head out sometimes taking only what you can carry without a bag.

    Most days, though, I carry a black-on-black Timbuk2 Metro mini-messenger bag. It’s not a purse (man- or otherwise), it’s not a huge bag, and like the bag Christopher mentioned, it discourages 8.5×11 unless you really want to squeeze (it is, however, the perfect size for my Moleskine sketchbook). I can dress it up or down for meetings or casual outings, and it’s got pockets in all the right places. I highly recommend it.
    (or just hit Sam Flax)

    (p.s. Looking forward to the FOWD conference!)

  32. Recently went “no bag” and havent looked back.

    Sure there are days when I’ll need to carry one for papers/contracts/anything that hopefully shouldnt become a tube (my preferred method to carry around important documents..)

    But went down to an iPod shuffle, cell phone and smaller card-only type wallet. No keychain even.

    Work pass card in the back pocket and bob’s yer uncle! even room left for a coffee in one hand.

    man, this guy is good.

  33. Occasionally I manage journeys without a bag, but I rely on all the pockets on my combat trousers /cargo pants. I feel half-naked if I wear trousers that don’t have so many pockets.

    I’ve been half-wondering about one of those waistcoats photographers or fishermen wear with lots of pockets – really practical, but probably a bit dorky for day-to-day life.

    A guy at a party recently told me how he was at the theatre with a lawyer friend, when the friend’s cellphone went off. The cellphone was inside the large box-like document case he’d been lugging around. He scrabbled to unlock the case, finally managing it, and turned off the cellphone. The guy telling the story looked inside this big case and realised the ringing cellphone was the only thing inside it.

  34. I was thinking about the exact topic of this post earlier in the week whilst I was driving into work. Its amazing how many people you see walking along just wearing a suit with a newspaper tucked under their arm, or a similar item.

    Theres no way I could do it. Im in ore. :P.

  35. Good design is mostly good information design, and good information design is mostly sticking stuff in buckets/containers/categories that make sense to the people looking for that information. Your bag is the container for stuff you can’t be caught without or need at both work and home. Bag on.

  36. I carry a backpack – works great.
    Why I’m really commenting is about your captch – the source is lowercase but the span tag forces it to appear uppercase – but is it really case sensitive? I’ll try lowercase… and was able to preview my comment…

  37. I know exactly what it’s like, Khoi, since I always carry a shoulder bag with me if I have anything more than just a set of keys and my wallet with me. I almost feel naked without it. I need my wallet, tobacco, keys, the ear buds for my phone, some papers that I really should discard, my deodorant spray, my sammich (if I’m off to work), my work shoes (ditto) with me. At least.

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