The hardest part of the holidays? Deciding what to pack

Picking a holiday destination is the easy part. The hard part is choosing what to bring along.

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It is about that time of when my packing anxiety kicks in. Do you have this malaise? Or are you one of those annoying people who can pack like a dream?

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can pack, and those who cannot. It has nothing to do with meticulousness or organisation. I know a doctor who keeps careful records of his patients and runs a successful private practice that is built on being organised. Put him in front of a suitcase and he gets panic attacks. He doesn't travel much and therefore doesn't have much practice with packing.

My packing issues run much deeper. It doesn't have to do with the actual act of packing. It has to do with the thought process behind it. There is a term in computer science called binary tree. It talks about a data structure in which each "node" has two child nodes, one leading to the left and the other to the right.

In computer binary trees, there are "siblings" and "ancestors". My packing binary tree simply bifurcates endlessly. For every item of clothing, I have a left and right question structure: should I wear this in the morning or in the evening? Should I pack it right away or leave it out as a last choice? Since such questions never get resolved, my entire packing exercise remains stalled.

I've tried to apply logic to the situation. Typically, I empty out my entire wardrobe on the bed and stack items of clothing into heaps. I first eliminate those items that don't have a hope of entering into the equation: lightweight summery clothes and tank tops are eliminated when I go on a winter holiday. Once I reduce the stack to a manageable size, I then lay it out into three heaps: "definites", "maybes" and "clothes that have potential". It is at this point that things get complicated.

How do you pack? Do you apply scenarios to your clothes? For example, do you take out a shirt and figure out which part of your itinerary would suit it - pun intended? That's what I do. I go through the days of travel in my mind and try to slot in specific clothes for specific times and events. I sometimes start from the first day and go on to the last; but equally, I start from the last day and work forwards.

In a TED talk in July 2005, psychologist Barry Schwartz gave a lecture on the paradox of choice. Having too many choices, he said, stymied action. You walk into a grocery store and see an endless array of cereals and are not sure what to buy. Having a plethora of choices with respect to jeans cripples the shopping process.

The same, I might add, applies to packing. If you have four suits that would be appropriate for morning or evening wear, you are stuck. Which one do you pick? If everything works sartorially, nothing works with respect to the decision-making process.

I've watched good packers in action. My husband is one. They just go boom-boom-boom. Pick out five shirts, four trousers, three suits, underclothes and the tie-box. It's like a rapidly clicking algorithm. Ten minutes later, it's done. When we go on holiday, my husband packs his clothes and those that belong to my two daughters in half-hour. I lay out my clothes for three days and on the eve of our travel, I throw it all into the duffel bag in desperation. I get to our destination and end up having to buy a new wardrobe, because there are always chasms of inappropriateness in what I've packed.

There is one area though, in which I am an expert. I once watched a video that showed how flight attendants pack. They roll up each piece of clothing and stack it beside each other. You'll be amazed at how much you can fit into your carry-on by simply rolling every item you pack. I am an expert roller of clothes. I can put in more clothes than you can imagine into a tiny carry-on. If I tell you that I attend big fat Indian weddings carrying a mere backpack, you'll know what I mean.

Now if only I could decide what to roll, I'd be golden.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir