Making Decisions You'll Feel Good About

You have probably heard of the technique of drawing a line down the center of a piece of paper and listing the pros on one side and the cons on the other to make a decision. Apparently this technique has been around a long time. In a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Joseph Priestley in 1772, Franklin advises Priestley to use the technique, but adds two extra tips I had never heard before — tips that make the technique much more effective.

The first tip is to take three or four days to think about it, and during that time to add to the list of pros and cons as you think of them. That's a great idea. If you try to make a good list all in one sitting, you will necessarily neglect to consider some things. Take your time and allow things to percolate up into your awareness as you try to think of what's against the decision and what's in favor of it. Write them all down.

Then when you have them listed all together on one piece of paper, try to eliminate as many as you can. This will help simplify your decision. This is Franklin's second tip, and it's worth its weight in gold.

But how should you eliminate items from your list? How can you do it in a way that will help you make a good decision? In Franklin's words, here's how: "I endeavour to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two (one on each side) that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side I come to a determination accordingly."

This is a much more sophisticated and effective way to use the two-column decision-making method. Try to judge the merit or importance of each item on your list and find one or two on the other side that has equal weight and cross them off your list. They balance each other out so you don't have to consider them.

As you pare your list down, your decision will probably become clearer and easier to make.

Benjamin Franklin added, "And though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash step; and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation in what may be called moral or prudential algebra."

When you have an important and difficult decision to make, try Franklin's technique. Take three or four days to think of the pros and cons of your decision and list them. Then try to find items on either side of the line that are of equal weight and eliminate them. Then give yourself another day or so to see if you think of anything new to add to the list. Then make your decision. In all likelihood, using this method, you will make decisions that will help you enjoy the best moods in the long run.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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