March 08, 2017

Playing the Value Card

On the right side of the Spotlight Scorecard, you’ll see a small section labeled Value. It’s about the size of a miniature business card, with four vertical bars for marking specific qualities of an item. It’s probably not immediately obvious what this section is for or how to use it.

The purpose of the “Value Card,” as I’ll call it, is to make a quick assessment of the value of an item you have. The four bars represent how likely it is that you will use the item, how valuable the use of it will be if you do use it, how easy the item is to store based mainly on its size, and how much it would cost to replace. In general, lower scores indicate an item you can get rid of with little risk. Higher scores indicate an item you probably want to keep.

It’s not quite as simple as that. A more precise rule of thumb is that if you have two low marks and two middling marks for an item, that’s something you won’t miss if you throw it away.

Let me take paper clips as an example. In my case, the likelihood of use is medium. I don’t do a lot of paperwork on paper but sometimes it’s required. The value if used is medium to high. Paper clips keep papers organized, and that’s important. It can save time and perhaps prevent distractions from missing papers that could interrupt my train of thought. Paper clips are very small, resulting in a very high mark for storage size. The cost to replace is low. It makes sense for me to keep some paper clips, and the small size is the deciding factor.

When you’re looking at the chance of using something, it’s tempting to think of everything you might do the next fifty years, but don’t. Usually imagine a period of a few years, something suitable to the size of the object and its expected life span. Paper clips are so small and durable that it makes sense to ask how many you’ll use in the next 15 years. Rubber bands are also small but do not last nearly so long. If they’re new, ask how many you might use over the next five years. A pickup truck, by contrast, is about as large as anything you might own, and it won’t last longer than a month or two unless you turn it on and run it for a few minutes. If there’s no chance of using the pickup truck in the next one year, it probably makes sense to sell it immediately.

Consider the chance of using the individual item, not the category it belongs to. For example, I know I will use plates, but the chance of my using one of the miniature square plates is small. I can’t seem to find an occasion to use them. Obviously, the more items you have in a category, the lower the likelihood of using each one. At one time I had more than 1,000 paper clips, and the likelihood of using any one specific paper clip was obviously very low. Now I keep around 25 paper clips, and every year I use some of them. The likelihood of using one of them over the course of a year is still low, but it’s not ridiculous.

The value of an item if used may cover a wide range. At the top end, consider a fire extinguisher. You probably will never use it, but if you do, it might save your house and your life. That’s a high value. The opposite situation may apply with something you use regularly out of habit even though it doesn’t do anything for you. Maybe you have a lava lamp. It’s easy enough to turn on but hardly anything happens when you do. You don’t want to let the high likelihood of use obscure the fact that you don’t really care about something.

The cost to replace an item is important if there is a low chance of using it. I can always buy 1,000 paper clips for about $2, so I don’t have to be sure I save enough for every hard-to-foresee circumstance. I can throw away or give away my excess supply with little risk. A pair of headphones costs much more to replace, so it makes less sense to throw away headphones I am not sure I will use in the near future.

You won’t need the Value Card for every item of clutter. If you know you’ll never use something or that you don’t like it, its other qualities don’t matter. The more difficult decisions are items that obviously have some value. An extra bed pillow — you don’t expect to use it in the next year or two, but is it worth keeping anyway? The Value Card helps you decide.

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