Once upon a time, in a city far, far away, I used to work in corporate America. I was a paralegal/compliance officer/stock plan administrator in the legal department for a huge, overly-complicated real estate investment company. This all sounds way more business-y and official than I actually am, or ever have been for that matter – it was mostly a matter of this job being the only game in town for me when we lived in New Mexico. I used to joke that I wasn’t a registered investment rep in real life; I just played one in a cubicle. I learned a few things that have come in handy here and there, and I got to wear some nice suits.

Anyway, the phrase “cost-benefit analysis” was certainly familiar to me from those days, but I never took time to pay attention to it. I actually didn’t have time to pay attention to it, what with helping hotel managers around the country exercising their stock options, reviewing continuing ed requirements for brokers, and managing the corporate records for 100s of subsidiary companies.

​So, from Wikipedia:

Cost–benefit analysis (CBA)…is a systematic approach to estimating the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives used to determine options which provide the best approach to achieving benefits while preserving savings (for example, in transactions, activities, and functional business requirements).

Exciting stuff. I went further in my research and smacked into a bunch of economic history, some discussion of bridges, math (shudder), politics, and a fair amount of criticism of the whole concept.

But “costs” and “benefits” often come to mind when I’m talking with people about their organizing decisions, and in my observation, weighing those options is anything but systematic in the moment. It’s frequently an emotional and cognitive free-for-all of “what ifs??” I’ve done it myself, looking through the things my parents left behind, or artifacts from my kids’ babyhoods, and other things (as we’ll see)…

For example, does the Cost of keeping an item you no longer use, and perhaps didn’t even remember until you unearthed it, outweigh the Benefit of the delight you feel when you remember using it? Or the fascination of coming up with new ways to use it?

Does the Benefit of sitting down with a calendar and plugging in commitments outweigh the Cost of the time it takes, and the irritation you feel when you forget to look back at it (what I might term, a “what’s-the-point-ism”)?

Does the Benefit of holding a garage sale for your clutter outweigh the Cost of what it will take to set it up, give up a Saturday, and still have to take unsold items to Goodwill? (y’all can guess my thoughts on that one).

I got to wondering if we could possibly make this process a little more systematic and objective? How could an actual CBA work in an organizing scenario? Now I really went down the rabbit hole, because of course, basic B-flat CBAs use money, and it’s hard to translate a dollar value of enjoyment, irritation, or guilt – or even an accurate, consistent dollar value for used items. So what are the factors we would want to measure here? Could we rate them on a 1-10 scale of some sort? Maybe…

  • Available space (1 no space – 10 tons of space)
  • Available time (0 no time – 10 all day proposition)
  • Satisfaction (0 could care less – 10 just try prying it out of my cold, dead hands)
  • Trouble (0 easy to deal with – 10 pain in the butt)
  • What else??

I know there are other possibilities, but I’m trying to keep this to blog length today. So, say you have an item you aren’t sure about. It could be a pivotal object, like Encyclopedia Britannica’s set from 1982 that your parents thought essential for your educational development. How could you weigh the costs and benefits of letting go of them? Keeping them?

Or, it could be something like this little hunk of lucite that I can’t ever decide what to do with:

20 years I’ve been lugging this thing around (insert eye roll emoji here).
It’s what was known, at least in my legal circles, as a “deal cube.” Kind of a little trophy of sorts that commemorates a significant transaction. Ironically, this one was given to me as appreciation for my role in the sale of the company…which ultimately resulted in me and hundreds of others being laid off. And there are probably millions of these things out roaming the earth, taking up space in offices (or sadly, landfills). Yeah, see. Organizers have complicated items too.It’s clear that I’m not going to get my particular version of a CBA worked out today, but stay tuned. In Part II, I’ll play with some scenarios and ideas, and I’ll welcome your thoughts in the meantime.