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Often, when you're weighing a decision, people throw out the advice to make a pros and cons list. But, a pro and con 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 between the potential benefits and drawbacks, compare the two sides, and then make some decisions.
Yet, do these lists help you make an informed decision? Let's take a look.
Does a Pro-Con List Really Help?
Let’s look at an example of a basic pros and cons list to see how helpful (or not) they are.
Should we get a dog?
The Benefits of Using this Model?
- Easy way to compare a situation when you've got one option (get a dog or don’t get a dog).
- Can be a simple, fast way to solve a problem (get some paper and make a chart).
- Uses a process that 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?
- Questions tend to be narrowly framed (and we know broad questions are better).
- 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).
- 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.
- Not always helpful in actually making a decision.
Could you use the pro and con 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, especially financial decisions.
A costly decision, such as leaving your career to become a stay-at-home parent or purchasing a home with someone you aren't married to shouldn't be made with a simple comparison list.
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're going to use the pros and cons list, though, here are a few ideas to increase the chances it helps you make a better decision.
1. If there's one do or don't option, you can consider using a pros and cons chart. But use yes or no phrasing and 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?
3. Before you start your list, think of related topics or categories to make it more complete and organized. For buying a couch – cost, comfort, size, style, color.
4. 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.
5. Avoid combining two issues into one statement. Low cost and very comfortable should be two different items
6. Consider reversing the question. Should we keep our couch? Rather than – Should we buy a new couch?
Do your pros and cons list for this question and it may reveal blindspots you hadn't considered.
7. 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. Just remember, the number of pros or cons on each side of your chart shouldn't be the driver of your decision. It's the impact of those specific pro-con items.
You may also want to consider quantifying or ranking items on your list too, which we discuss below.
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'd 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 below would not have helped me make the best decision, and I would have defaulted to 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 significant life and financial decisions, look to the decision matrix instead!