Empty Thoughts, or Do Zen Monk Robes Have Pockets?
by Robert Daeley
Context: this essay is originally from 2005. Links to external websites may be broken but are left in place for future reference.
1. Cargo Cults
So you’re managing to keep that inbox on your desk emptied pretty well, and the incoming email gets dealt with more or less immediately. If your mind isn’t like water yet, it’s at least pleasantly gelatinous. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself and you’re Getting crazy amounts of Things Done.
For some reason, though, you’re just not able to get fully comfortable.
Maybe your back develops a bad ache over the course of the day just sitting in your cubicle, or there is a persistent pain in your neck and shoulders that no amount of Ibuprofen or Tiger Balm can mask. Perhaps you become aware that when you stand up, you’re listing at a severe angle, or something simple like leaving the house turns into a logistical exercise on par with an amphibious invasion.
For an era when millions of urban folks have supposedly left behind the burdens of a rural existence, we sure are burdening ourselves like pack mules. Take a look around at the next business gathering, especially if there are a lot of geeks in the room — check out the bulging cargo pants and Bat-Belts of devices, the modern geek’s pocket protectors. Wonder at the laptop bags and suitcases with hidden crannies stuffed full of all manner of supplies.
Heck, look no farther than Flickr with its recent craze of What’s In Your Bag?
Even our children are suffering from literal overload — have you tried lifting one of their backpacks lately?
In the spirit of GTD, in which you try to empty your head of all the cruft and worry so you can concentrate creatively on the task at hand, let us look to our burdens to see if we can’t undo a little of our daily Sisyphean-wear.
Mind like water? Meet pockets like air.
2. What’s Your Alignment?
Take a moment and contemplate what you attached to yourself as you left the house this morning. How long did it take you? How many individual items did you have to consider? How much does it all weigh?
The inspiration for this article came to me late one day in my cubicle when I became aware that my lower back was hurting. Again. And that my torso was deformed into a shape reminiscent of one of those alphabets where each letter is a different contorted animal body. Great for Kindergartners learning to spell, not great for a programmer sitting on his butt all day.
And then I realized that I hadn’t been sitting on my butt all day: I had been sitting on my butt and my wallet. I took the wallet out of my back pocket and threw it in my laptop bag. As I untwisted my body into a more normal alignment, it immediately felt better.
“Hmm,” I said. “Hmm.” My face was bathed in the light of a bulb turning on above my head. “Not sitting on wallet good.”
I did a bit of reading up on the subject, and it turns out this is an all-too-common problem. I wondered if I could just leave the wallet in my backpack all day, but came to the conclusion that trying to remember to grab it if I was heading outside was too much trouble.
3. It’s About Time
About this same point I got fed up with my wristwatch. Mind you, I love watches of all kinds, especially old-fashioned ones with elaborate mechanisms. But I was letting the wristwatch rule my existence, paying more attention to it than the world around me.
Reaching into true old-fashioned territory, I decided to ditch wearing a wristwatch unless it was a truly necessary device that day and instead depend on the clock on the front of my cellphone — which is rather like pulling out a pocket-watch to check the time. Much more civilized than being led around by your wrist all day.
4. What Has It Got In Its Pocketeses?
With the confluence of wallet and watch thinking, I started to ruminate on the bigger picture: What do I really need to carry everywhere, every day? Here were the big ones to start with:
Those were the things on my person. I do carry my laptop backpack (though I am probably switching to a messenger bag) to and from work every day. But let’s look at a couple of the above items with a finer focus.
How many keys do you need to take every day? I’m down to one: the car. Days on my bike, that becomes zero. For most folks, probably two or three is reasonable.
What’s in my wallet that I need to take everywhere, every day? I converted a clear plastic lanyard sheath into a new super-slim model of wallet, with the absolute essentials in it: Driver’s License, credit card, health insurance card, RFID card to get in the office, and gym membership card. (The two most necessarily visible items are facing outward — the Driver’s License for all those “Can I see your ID?” moments, and the gym card’s barcode for scanning.) Fits into my front pocket and is barely noticeable, by me during the day or by anyone else for that matter.
What’s missing from this picture?
- The watch. 
- Electronics other than the phone.
- Cash. Everywhere I go takes ATM or Credit.
- Unsightly bulges and back aches.
- Cargo pants, or worse, a photographer’s vest.
- Stress about making sure I have everything.
( Realistically, I don’t even need the phone to tell time — you can’t swing a cat nowadays without hitting a clock of some sort. Lying here in the bedroom where I’m writing this, I can see six different devices: two alarm clocks, and one each on the stereo, DVD/VCR, cable box, and the computer menubar. Being aware of this lets me choose whether or not to wear a watch — especially as a nice fashion accent — rather than being compelled to wear one like a one-wrist shackle.)
One unanticipated side benefit is that the checkbook gets updated more accurately and often, since receipts don’t languish in my wallet for days, forgotten.
My old wallet is in the laptop bag, and that’s where I keep all the store club cards, video rental card, etc. and thus have the cards handy every day. So if I’m going to a particular store, say Barnes & Noble, I take the Barnes & Noble card out, then throw it back in when I get home.
Whoops, did I forget to grab the card? Hey, no problem — at Barnes & Noble they’ll take my phone number instead. Same thing at Blockbuster and Vons. I guess I didn’t really need to carry over a dozen cards around everywhere, every day, screwing up my posture.
5. “My Lord, I Have A Cunning Plan!”
There are a few wrinkles in this cunning plan.
Like most men, I don’t wear makeup. Those who do, not to mention a great percentage of women, might require carrying cosmetics. This same idea goes for those of us — e.g. photographers and contractors — who actually need to have a number of different tools at the ready all day long.
But that is the very point we’re trying to make here: all of these items are tools. We are ostensibly the tools’ masters, but we have allowed the tools to dictate to us rather than the reverse. And why? Because we “might” need them that day?
The skillful photographer or contractor doesn’t carry any more tools than are necessary to do their job that day. Why? Because it’s as much of a pain in the butt to carry around a bunch of tools you don’t need as it is to sit on your wallet all day long.
On my first bike commutes, I learned quickly that the fewer things I had to carry the better, especially if the temperatures started climbing, or even more so, when I started climbing.
Canny travelers, like those who jet around as part of their jobs, learn that lesson as well.
Let’s review that two-step filter:
- What tools do I truly need to carry with me everywhere, every day?
- What other tools do I really need to do my work today?
Carry no more, and carry no less.
Batman carries his tools in a Bat-Belt, sure. But he’s a super hero. You aren’t. He also has the Batmobile for the bigger Bat-Crap.
So we’re standing next to the bed in the morning, trying to decide what tools to take today. How do we decide what we really need to take?
First off, unless you’re entirely unlike me and have access to your higher cerebral functions before 10 AM, you might want to try to get organized the night before. That said, I believe this decision process is remarkably similar to the GTD process of placing actions in @Contexts.
Going to a meeting in another building, can I get by with my HPDA index cards, or do I need to bring a legal pad for more expansive topics and notes?
If I have a wreck in my car or run out of gas, there’s one thing I can be sure of: I will very probably be in or near my car. Thus, my AAA card goes in the car where it belongs. Same thing with the CostCo supermarket card, since that’s one place that insists on seeing the actual card, and I always take the car to CostCo. What other tools of yours could be offloaded into the car?
If I’m headed to a different office or city, are some of those tools I think I’ll need there reasonably available by either borrowing or buying them when I get there, rather than carting them around airports?
Take a moment to think about the context of where you’re going and what you’ll be doing there, what tools you’ll need once you get there, and whether or not you really need to carry it all with you.
7. Research & Destroy
To paraphrase a Slashdot comments pundit of some time back, it’s too bad there isn’t some vast worldwide network of information, available anywhere and any time of day, on which you could freely look up any arbitrary iota of any area of human knowledge you might desire ... oh wait, there is!
Before you travel, do a bit of research.
What’s the weather going to be like? Do you really need to bring five sweaters and an arctic parka, or would a pair of Bermuda shorts do you better?
Look up your hotel and venues on Google Maps and check out what restaurants and handy businesses are nearby. Then switch over to the satellite picture of the neighborhood and print it out, making notes to carry with you as you walk around.
Merlin Mann recently mentioned a trip he took to Vancouver, when he packed “tons of unnecessary, cheap, heavy” stuff ... and as he got to his hotel, found there was a huge shopping mall literally across the street.
Check out the Life Hacks section of the 43 Folders Wiki and see if there isn’t some nifty trick to help you out this trip, whether across the country or across the corporate campus.
8. Do The Zen Monk’s Robes Have Pockets?
There is a reason monks renounce worldly possessions: they are distractions from important work.
There is a reason people in therapy talk pejoratively about carrying around “baggage” from relationship to relationship. Baggage is Bad.
Carting around pounds or kilograms of unnecessary stuff is so, well, unnecessary. It hurts your concentration, and physically hurts, too. Take that extra minute and filter your cargo.
Do you need to carry a keychain so intense that a ninja assassin might enjoy using it on a mission?
Do you need to tilt to one side in your office chair because of a wallet the size of a deli sandwich?
Do you need to walk around like Quasimodo?
What do you really need to carry everywhere, every day?
What other tools do you need to get your work done today?
9. Update regarding monks
Knowledgeable commenters over in the 43folders.com story linking to this article (thanks, Merlin!) have related that some monks will tuck items into the sleeves of their robes, which is very cool and fits in well with the above advice. Not that I’d foresee thousands of geeks going for monkish chic or new “Sleevy Packs,” but rather that you won’t see a monk tucking a suitcase worth of crap in their sleeves. :)
I should also take the opportunity to paraphrase Robert M. Pirsig and say that this article should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on pockets, either.