Handbag Theory

This is a bit of a weird post but maybe worth making.

So, close your eyes and imagine a handbag. Your handbag is of fixed dimensions and you need to carry an assortment of things in it each day. You need different things on different days. You have thirty minutes to pack your bag and get to work. The heavier your handbag is, the slower you can walk. This suggests a few things:

  1. You want your bag to be as light as possible while still carrying everything you need.
  2. It follows that each item has a carrying cost - its weight can be represented as time.
  3. But it’s also true that going through your handbag before you leave to take out unwanted items has a checking cost that can be represented as time.
  4. So you must weigh the two costs against each other to optimise your handbag.

Say you need your house keys five days a week. Keys slow you down by 3 seconds a trip just sitting in your bag; it takes you 33 seconds to check if they are in there and pack them or take them out. So it’s easy to see that you should just leave your keys in the bag, even if you don’t need them that day. The cost of checking every time, to optimise your key-carrying load, is larger than the cost of just keeping your keys in your bag. Keys are light.

But two days a week you really need your laptop. It’s kind of heavy. Your laptop slows you down by 2 minutes 45 seconds. It takes you 45 seconds to pack it. So maybe that’s worth taking out when your bag is so heavy it will take you more than 30 minutes to get to work if you carry everything. (Numbers for illustration purposes only. Right now you are probably feeling tempted to ask how much speed each item nets you and what the exact distance is but shh.)

Now this is true for everybody, but the carrying costs for most things are negligible; there’s no particular utility in optimising your handbag load in this way, unless you enjoy it in a sort of LifeHackery way. You may as well just take it all, most of the time.

But now look in your imaginary handbag. Someone has put a bowling ball in there. You try to take it out, but it’s sewn in. The rotters! It could take thirty minutes or more to take the bowling ball out of the bag, but if you carry it, you might still get to work on time.

Now think again about what you really need to carry in your bag. You are going to radically change your assessment of what is a want and what is a need. You are gonna have to get creative, fast. Tampons. Do you need tampons specifically? Could you use a Mooncup? Lipstick? Forget it. Purse? Do you need a purse or would it make more sense to buy a skirt with pockets and carry a credit card in there. Phone? Ouch! You really want to tear that bowling ball out of this handbag, goddammit! But it’s so easy to get fixated on the bowling ball. It’s the elephant in the room. The bowling ball in the handbag. You wouldn’t have to think about ANY of this if you could get that bowling ball out of the bag. But it will take all of the time you have to do that, and then you won’t get to work.

So choose.