Stoic Thinking Tools: The Pro-Con List
Have you ever had a hard time answering such questions: Should I break up with my girlfriend? Should I give up my studies? Should I buy the new PlayStation? Should I take the Job at ACME? Often times we ponder over hard questions a long time, not knowing how to answer them. A Pro-Con List is and easy and powerful thinking tool that can help us to make a decision.
Funny fact about Pro-Con Lists
Do you know who invented the pro con list? I was surprised to find out that it was Benjamin Franklin. At least he seems to be the first person to mention it. Franklin explained his idea of a Pro-Con List in a letter to Joseph Priestley in 1772:
“My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different time occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them altogether in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out five; and thus proceeding, I find 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.” –Benjamin Franklin
Purpose of Pro-Con Lists
Pro-Con Lists are only useful with clear Yes or No questions! Either you can formulate your question in that way or you should use other thinking tools like: Decision Grid, Mind Mapping etc.
How to make a decision with a Pro-Con List
Formulate a clear Yes Or No question! Don’t use the words “and” or “or” in your question.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into 2 columns. Write above one column “Pro” and on the other “Con”.
Brainstorm reasons why you should answer your question with Yes. Write them down in the Pro column.
Brainstorm reasons why you should answer your question with No. Write them down in the Con column. Be as specific as possible and avoid duplicates.
Rate every Pro and Con on importance in relation to each other. I use the Fibonacci numbers between 1 and 8 – 1,2,3,5,8.
Sum up the ratings of the Pros and Cons and compare them. The bigger number wins and you have your answer.
It is that easy!
What to avoid
There are some things you should avoid with Pro-Con Lists:
Avoid asking abstract questions. Make your questions specific, personal and relevant to a given situation.
Avoid compound statements. A good indicator for compound statements is the word “and”. Instead of “Enables me to lift heavier weights and train longer” write “Enables me to lift heavier weights” and “Enables me to train longer”.
Like Benjamin Franklin, I recommend to wait one or two days with your decision. Often times you will come up with new Pro and Cons during these days. Sometimes you’ll have a gut feeling that something is wrong. Maybe you forgot something or maybe it isn’t a question you can answer rationally.
(Most times we don’t have to make decisions immediately. You can plan ahead when to make a decision. But, you should know when you need the decision. Until that point you have time to collect more information.)
With very hard questions, I tend to make 2 Pro-Con lists. Instead of just asking the question I also formulate the opposite question. For example: “Should I take the Job at ACME?” and “Should I keep the Job at my current company?” This change of perspective helps to find new reasons. Sometimes it helps to find inconsistency, wrong assumptions, and bad thinking.
Do you use Pro-Con lists? If so, please tell us about your experience in the comments below!
– Gaius Wolf