“He who would travel happily must travel light.” ~Antoine de St. Exupery
After nearly a dozen overseas trips I’ve learned that you really don’t need to take as much stuff as you think you do. In so many ways, that also offers us all a lesson in rightsizing. Of course it is easier for guys because they can get away with a pair of jeans and a couple of t-shirts. But even though I’m responsible for toiletries and toothbrushes, I’ve learned that the penalty for lugging around a ton of stuff while trying to enjoy yourself is not worth the benefit of having it “just in case you need it.” And that made me think about all the other things I’ve tried to over-pack throughout the years, and a few things I’ve discovered about eliminating unnecessary clutter.
Part of the problem is that as we get older we start expecting more comfort. When I was younger, I didn’t mind sleeping in the car on the way to somewhere if I didn’t have the money for a motel. I’ve even slept in a tent, although I’ve never been much of a camper. At the time, a cheap picnic or fast food was a perfectly acceptable way to eat dinner. But gradually through the years Thom and I got more and more accustomed to king-sized beds in hotels with air conditioning and restaurants that served fresh and nutritious entrees. And did I mention how nice it is to fly business class? So after a while the temptation is to adjust your adventures to fit the circumstances that you find most comfortable. That can easily lead to spending more money than necessary—as well as the danger of insulating yourself from some of the most rewarding aspects of travel in the first place by dragging along too much stuff.
So, keeping in mind that the goal of travel (just like the goal of life) is to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about letting go of the unnecessary:
* Experiencing every part of the trip is as important as arriving at the ultimate destination. I used to think of travel as just the means to getting where I wanted to be. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is epidemic in our culture and we end up sacrificing so much along the way just to reach what we think will make us happy. When traveling, I routinely see people at the airports so loaded down with luggage and paraphernalia that they are struggling to move. Being casual and relaxed, and having only a few pieces of luggage to mind in transit, allows you to sit back and enjoy even a busy airport—not to mention a busy life.
* The more stuff you take with you the more you have to manage along the way. While I consider my laptop as important as my toothbrush, it does come with some responsibility. Clothes are the same—instead, when you make certain your few pieces of wardrobe go together, it takes the guesswork out of what to wear. Every single item we take with us fills up our time and attention, so let’s make sure that we take only those things that hold importance. It’s not so much what you take, as your willingness to accept the trade-off of having it along.
* Never forget how the Peak-End rule affects your memory. In case you’ve forgotten, this cognitive process suggests that most of the time people remember the peaks of their vacation along with the ending, far more than they will remember all the rest of the details. For example, the “peak” will usually be a strong emotional response to some event, either good or bad, that happened during the trip. The end will be the overall feelings about how the trip ended. The way our memories work, soon after we return from our trip those two elements—the peak and the ending—will be what we remember.
With that in mind, it makes sense to include several “peaks” that will stick out long after you return and to plan something special in the end. And, if that’s mostly what we remember long into the future, why make ourselves crazy planning amazing (and likely expensive) activities along the way? In fact, too many activities will soon be forgotten and are unnecessary for a happy experience overall. Then add in the experience of dragging along too much stuff, and your memory of the trip will be one of struggle rather than fun.
* Relationships are always more important than stuff. Who we go with and those we meet along the way will often affect our travels more than our destination. I still remember very vividly a great dinner conversation with two young men Thom and I met in a smoky pub in Edinburgh nearly ten years ago, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. The men were from a university in Spain and only partially spoke English—but their warmth and intelligence made several hours pass very quickly and enjoyably.
I also remember another trip traveling with another couple who had dramatically different touring styles than Thom and me. We both learned from that experience to be very careful about our traveling companions in the future. Because people have the ability to affect our emotions so dramatically, it’s important to remember that the people you encounter along the way will make the “peaks” of your vacation, and your life, stand out.
* There is no way I could ever take enough stuff with me to make me feel safe if I don’t already have that mindset. Unfortunately, I think many of us take so much with us when we travel (or experience life) because it makes us feel more safe and secure. If I take that special pillow, then I’m convinced I’ll sleep better. If I take that extra pair of shoes, my feet won’t hurt. If I pack that cold medicine, I’ll have what I need if I get sick. And never forget Pepto-Bismol!
So instead of feeling confident that we can handle any eventuality, we pretend we can shield ourselves from those events. As one of my most favorite quotes from Helen Keller goes, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
* Clutter in your head can ruin a good vacation as much as too much luggage. Ever gone on a trip when you’re worried or distracted by a major concern? Sometimes the most cluttered part of our lives is our mind. It may not be easy, but attempting to let go of worries or problems before you leave might be one of the best things you can do to have a good trip.
* We need far, far less than we think we need. One of the best things about travel is the very real experience of how little we need to experience and appreciate life. After living out of a suitcase for several weeks it feels decadent to come home to a closet filled with clothes, a pantry full of food, and a house full of stuff. Again, I think most of the items we accumulate in our lives are dedicated to the pursuit of comfort and security. While those are not necessarily bad, if they hold us back from experiencing the sweet nectar of life, then they become a crutch rather than an aid.
Consumption and clutter are very real obstacles to happiness that can often be avoided with greater awareness both at home or on the road. So, regardless of whether you are planning a trip any time soon or looking to rightsize your entire life, it might be SMART to take a good hard look at the baggage we all carry around with us every single day and decide if it’s worth taking along.