Often, when you’re weighing a decision, people throw out the advice to make a pros and cons list. But, a pros and cons list might not be the best decision model to use.
Think back to elementary school when your teacher asked you to fold a paper in half and put headings at the top such as good/bad, +/-, for/against, advantages/disadvantages – or maybe they even used the terms pros and cons.
That was likely your first introduction to using a pro and con list as a decision model.
Maybe you used the pros and cons list to analyze the decision a character made in a novel? Or you decided on a position to take in a debate about an environmental issue based on the pros and cons you researched about the topic?
Your job was to find and organize information, compare the two sides and make some decision.
But does a pro and con list really help you?
Let’s look at a basic pros and cons list for an example.
Should we get a dog?
The benefits (pros) of using this model?
- an easy way to compare a situation where you’ve got one option (get a dog or don’t get a dog)
- it can be a simple, fast way to solve a problem (get some paper and make a chart!)
- it uses a process which is more deliberate than just discussing it (writing = deeper thinking)
- possibly a good use for more straightforward, low cost or low “energy” decisions (a dog should be a long-term decision, unfortunately for many, it’s not)
What about the drawbacks (cons)?
- questions tend to be narrowly framed (and we know broad questions are better)
- it may oversimplify results (or you may fail to do things like seeking the opinions of others)
- you can rush to judgment (by not taking the necessary time to think through the decision)
- it can easily be manipulated to match the decision you want to make
- the “chart” makes it look like a more complicated (fancy) process than it is
- it is not always helpful in actually making a decision
Could you use the chart to determine if you should get a dog? Perhaps, but it’s really not very helpful at all. There are just as many pros as cons – so it is hard to know what to do.
So it makes sense to avoid using a pros and cons list for decisions having a significant effect on your life or for decisions that are costly, such as purchasing a home with someone you aren’t married to.
You might use a pros and cons list for – Should we buy a new couch? (Or something that really doesn’t matter too much if you make a mistake…)
How to Use Pros and Cons Lists
If you are going to use pros and cons list though, here are a few ideas to increase the chances it will help you make a better decision.
- If there is one option, you can consider using a pros and cons chart. But leave words like “or” out of the question to prevent multiple possibilities. (Should we buy a couch? Not – Should we buy a couch or a recliner?)
- If there is more than one option, such as renting or buying a home, consider using a decision matrix such as the one outlined here.
- Before you start your list, think of related topics to make it more complete. (For buying a couch – cost, comfort, size, style, color.)
- Always compare to the original situation. (Your pros and cons should be challenged against the old couch. Use words like more or less to help quantify the statement – the new sofa will be more comfortable, seat fewer people, etc.)
- Avoid combining two issues into one statement. (Low cost and very comfortable should be two different items.)
- Consider reversing the question. Should we keep our couch? Rather than – Should we buy a couch? Do your pros and cons list for this question and it may reveal blindspots you had not considered.
- Consider asking the advice of others. Have they had a similar experience? Can they see bias in your reasoning? (Again, not a big issue with a couch, but with a dog – definitely consider checking with others!)
Hopefully, some of those ideas will help you make a better decision. But you may also have to consider ranking items on your list too.
What Else You Can Do
Put some kind of feelings or judgments around what is most important to make the decision.
If you assign a scale (for example 1-4) to the essential items (4) and rank them down to the least critical items (1) and then add up the totals, it may “show” you the better choice. (This is very similar to ranking goals in the decision-making process I use.)
But keep in mind, using pros and cons lists to make decisions may still end up frustrating you.
If I had used just a pros and cons list to decide whether to take an extended contract at my full-time job, I likely would have stayed at my job. The pros and cons list would not have helped me make the best decision, and I would have defaulted into what I have always done – go to school and teach.
Should I take the full-time job?
Pros and cons lists can be useful for specific questions in certain less significant life situations. But for better decisions, look to the decision matrix instead!
Adapted from this original post appearing on Make Smarter Decisions.