How to Make a Decision Like Ben Franklin

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 17, 2009 · 34 comments

in Money & Career


“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

Last week we talked about the importance of being decisive and went over some basic tips for how to make good decisions. We mentioned the pro and con chart as being a helpful part of the decision-making process. As you can see from the above quote, Ben Franklin was a fan of the pro and con chart himself and added his own twist by giving different weights to his various motives.

But what if you try the pro and con chart and the right decision still isn’t clear? You’ve done all the research you can about your possible choices; you’ve journaled your thoughts; you’ve sought the advice of your friends and loved ones. But you’re still absolutely stuck between two or more choices that seem equally attractive. How can you break this stalemate?

Today we’re going to go over a decision making hack that expands on and improves the technique practiced by old Ben. When you’re agonizing over a decision, it can help you discover which choice would really be best.

How to Decide Between Two or More Attractive Possibilities

Every decision has its advantages and disadvantages. The trick is to figure out which choice will give you more of the former and less of the latter.  A typical pro and con chart can be too vague. This is where a decision “balance sheet” comes in. If you want to get really fancy, philosophers who study decision making (yes, there is such a thing) call it a “multi-attribute optimization chart.”  Get out a sheet of paper, gents, you’re about to become The Decider.

1. Make your columns. You need two columns.  Label the first column “Element” and the second column “Importance Factor.”  Next to those two columns, create as many columns as you have possible choices. Label these columns with the names of your choices. For example, “Job in Seattle” and “Job in Phoenix.” If drawing this out by freehand takes too much time for you, just download this template and use it.

2. List the important elements of your decision. In your “Element” column, list all the major elements that influence your decision. For example, if you’re trying to decide between jobs, you would list things like location, pay, benefits, job security, work hours, enjoyment, etc.

3. List the importance factor of each element. In your “Importance Factor” column, assign each element a number from 1 to 10 according to how important that element is to you. For example, if the time your job will allow you to spend with your family is very important to you, give that element a 9. If being close to your family isn’t as important to you, then give it something like a 4. Put down the first number that comes to you; don’t overthink it.

4. Grade the choices in relation to each element. You’re now going to assign a number from 1 to 10 in relation to how each choice measures up to the elements you have listed. For example, if the job in Seattle offers an excellent health insurance plan, you would give it a 9. If the job in Phoenix would sometimes have you working 60 hour weeks, then you would give it something like a 5 for “work hours.” Again, don’t think too much about it; just put down the first number that comes to your mind. These numbers go on the left side of your choice columns. Make sure you leave room on the right side of the column for another number.

5. Multiply the importance factor by the grades for each choice. For example, if you gave the importance of the pay element a 8, and you gave the Job in Seattle a 7 for that job’s potential salary, you would take 8X7 and would come out with 56. This number goes on the right of your choice column.

6. Add up the totals. Once you have multiplied all of your importance factors by your choice grades, add all those numbers up to get a total. Which choice has the highest number of points? That’s probably the best choice for you.

These directions may make it sound more complicated than it really is. It’s actually quite simple once you see an example of a chart. Here is an example chart of choosing between two different jobs. Let’s say that both jobs seem attractive, but you want to figure out which would be the best job for you and your way of life. Here’s how you could figure out which job to take:


After multiplying the importance factor by our choice grades, and then adding those totals up, we’re left with the Seattle Job scoring 428 and the Phoenix Job scoring a 468. Looks like you’re moving to Phoenix! Of course, there is a possibility that you come up with some false positives doing this exercise. Even though you try not to be biased, there’s a tendency to give the choice you really want higher scores, even if it really doesn’t warrant those scores. Despite that small drawback, multi-attribute choice optimization does a pretty good job of helping you come to a choice (after all, if you’re inflating the scores of one of your choices, then deep down you probably already know which one you want!). It forces you to really think about all the factors going into your decision. Kate and I have used it several times when making big choices, and it has always proved helpful. Go ahead and give it try with the sample card below. Remember you can download a PDF with a couple of these worksheets ready for you to use. Enjoy!

2009-08-16_2355Post inspired by the 1963 Doubleday Personal Success Program

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luke August 17, 2009 at 2:32 am

Great, i’ve been using Ben’s method for quite some time, but maybe at my next decision i will try the element/importance factor method.

Of little importance, but just for future reference, there is an artithmetic error in the sample decision under “oppurtunity for advancement”. It isn’t significant, but if it were close i’d hate to see the guy end up in Phoenix because of it :)

2 Steve Doran Trail Boss August 17, 2009 at 2:32 am

I have to say I think it is to complicated and not a system I would use. The Key ingredient in life is happiness. It is all an adventure. Bogging yourself down with more complicated systems adds to the stress and confusion. Who ever thought this up probably enjoys corporate meetings and reading tax code.

3 Beat Attitude August 17, 2009 at 7:57 am

jump out of way of bus : stand still
live longer : die
minor effort : no effort
discover if d _____

*remaining text unclear*

4 Julie August 17, 2009 at 8:40 am

The best piece of advice I ever heard for when you’re really, really stuck with something is to do a pro/con sheet. Write down everything and come up with a rational, logical decision. If that decision leaves you trying to rationalize going for the other one, go for the other one.

Sometimes intuition trumps logic.

5 Dan August 17, 2009 at 8:41 am

This is great! A simple pro/con list can be difficult sometimes as it does not take into account the weight attached to each reason.

6 Lou August 17, 2009 at 9:09 am

This is a lot of effort. This is what coins are for. Just flip it.

7 Terry August 17, 2009 at 11:55 am

Our old parish priest would add that before making a serious decission, make a good confession, receive communion then make your decission. Which ever one brings you peace of mind is the one to go with. It’s worked for me.

8 Ian Dundrillon August 17, 2009 at 11:59 am

My default method is to consider the best possible outcome, the worst possible outcome and then look the point spread. It very often becomes “a no-brainer” decision.

9 Matthew August 17, 2009 at 12:00 pm

This is similar to Stuart Pugh’s method for a decision matrix also called the Pugh Method. We use is constantly when making engineering decisions.

Decisiveness = manly trait.

10 Jake August 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Interesting method. I’ll definately give it a try the next time I have a big decision I agonize over.

As an aside, I wonder if prioritizing the Importance Factor from 1 to 10 relative to eachother might make for a more decisive result. By that I mean, if you had 10 Elements, only ONE of those elements could be rated at 10, only one at 9, eta. Might be interesting to try.

11 Torrey August 17, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I understand the importance of doing all you can to make wise decisions, but keep in mind that overthink can cause one not to make any decision at all. Sure, the documents provided in this post are good, but I think using your instincts will get you in a good situation more ofther than not.

Also not sure why the first document needs multiplication. Just add up the points compared to overall (just being picky here, though).

12 Playstead August 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm

You gotta love Ben F. The guy had a system for everything, but he goes into this the same way I go into my fantasy football draft — by over-analyzing. It’s usually the death of me.

13 Mike August 17, 2009 at 5:12 pm

May I suggest reading the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point.I finished it recently and it provides some very interesting scientific info on making snap decisions.

14 Brett August 17, 2009 at 5:53 pm

It seems as though several of you have misunderstood the purpose of the chart. I absolutely agree that over thinking and over analyzing one’s decisions can actually be detrimental. If your intuition pulls you in a certain direction, then you should go in that direction. The above method is to be used when there are two choices which seem equally attractive and you do not have a hunch about which would be better. When you are absolutely stuck, the chart can get you unstuck.


You multiple the importance factor you give to each element times the point value you give each choice for that element. You do this because some elements are more important to you than others, and thus should be given greater or lesser weight.

15 Agosto Mesmer August 17, 2009 at 11:47 pm

I think I’ve got the hang of this, made a rough excel template.

16 Pete August 18, 2009 at 5:08 am

One approach I use is to pretend you’d be *forbidden* to choose one of the options under consideration. If you’re disappointed, that’s the one you really want. If you’re relieved, go with the other.

17 Jason Y August 18, 2009 at 10:12 am

I think I get it:

The columns are decisions available.
The rows are factors to consider, each of which is assigned and importance.
By multiplying the importance of a factor by the goodness rating for a given decision-factor pair, you find a number representing how much reason you have to pick that decision based on that factor. Adding these together, you get a score for that decision. That sounds quite useful.

Sometimes, significant differences come into light with these sort of systematic, scientific approaches as biases are removed. This approach should only be used for major decisions that are worth much time to consider, such as choosing a job or buying a house.

18 Brett August 18, 2009 at 11:05 am


Yup, you nailed it.

19 dsu August 18, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I like the coin flip method: I flip a coin and if I’m relieved by the answer it gives me, then I follow the coin. If I’m disappointed and find myself looking for reasons why the flip doesn’t count (like the coin bounced off the couch before landing), then I know what I wanted to do all along. I find that usually I’ve already made the decision, but don’t realize it yet. I do tend to use this more for deciding what to eat for dinner than whether or not to move to Phoenix.

20 Agosto Mesmer August 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm

I was messing about earlier with my template but I did a real one for myself and it was really useful.

I do a similar thing with the magic 8-ball, i know deep down that 50% of answers are positive so it brings things into focus, the way i’ve phrased the question often gives me my answer.

If you haven’t you should read dice man

21 Robert August 18, 2009 at 6:03 pm

I already do something very similar when contemplating a major decision. I just do it in my mind. Writing tends to marry my mind and my heart. I think I will try Mr. Franklin’s method next time I have an important decision to meditate upon.

22 Gauhar Kachchhi August 19, 2009 at 9:27 am

Awesome decision-making tool… I’m going to share this info with all my friends…

Thank you… :)


23 Russ Smith August 19, 2009 at 10:34 am

Sounded a bit complex at first, but I think a major decision is worth it. This is a nice method of going about those big decisions in life, that we want to take carefully. Thanks for posting.

24 Jonny | August 20, 2009 at 1:56 am

I agree with Mike about reading Malcolm Gladwells “the Tipping Point”.

This points are great ways of making a conscious decision, however it is worth remembering that the unconscious is far more powerful and research such as detailed in Malcolms book indicates that snap decision made from the subconscious using all the previous knowledge of everything you have learnt in life are just as effective, if not more effective for decision making.

Could anyone advise how to include an image into blog posts on this here fine site. It would be greatly appreciated.

25 Mike Kieffer August 20, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Well said… Good advise for anyone.

Now I have a way to evaluate who to vote for….

26 Brett August 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm


We don’t allow image posting in the comments. Sorry, partner.

And I agree with you about snap decisions being good. Sometimes, though, it takes some work on our part to giver our unconscious mind the info it needs to make a snap decision. This method is one way of doing that.

27 Lenetta @ Nettacow August 30, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Came by via Trent at The Simple Dollar – very interesting post! Being a math geek and lover of all things complicated, I’ve actually done something similar to this before. I linked to this on my weekly roundup – post is under my name. Thanks for sharing!

28 William August 30, 2009 at 6:29 pm

I think it’s hard to make a decision based on pro/con lists. A person can rationalize pretty much anything if they think about it enough.

29 Bryan February 2, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I made a website that has an app for creating Pro Con Lists. Including a importance weight.

The only things I don’t have for the Ben Franklin method is the ability to compare lists once they are created, but that feature is coming soon. Hope you will check it out.

30 Elizabeth January 28, 2013 at 12:22 am

can’t download the templates. Get these errors when using Google Chrome:

All access to this object has been disabled


31 Ngoc Neo April 18, 2013 at 1:17 am

Thanks for this wonderful post. It really helps me when I make a tough decision for my life.

32 Mike April 28, 2013 at 9:21 am

Nice post… I’ve put a very similar decision tool together using microsoft excel – your readers are welcome to download this tool for free from my web site…

Stay manly.

33 Curtis July 29, 2013 at 4:56 pm

The job in Seattle should have been given an extra 6 points!… :-) I’ll leave it to you to spot the mistake ….. :-)

34 Brandon October 3, 2013 at 9:57 pm

WADM: Weighted Average Decision Matrix.. so Franklin used this!

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