How to Make an Effective Pro/Con List

The Ink+Volt Decision Pad is on a desk, partially filled out

The ability to make good decisions is a defining characteristic of successful people.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously talked about his decision to wear his trademark black turtleneck every day — he said he wanted to cut down on the number of decisions he had to make each day by eliminating the decision about what to wear. 

Picking out an outfit isn’t the half of it. Some sources say humans make upwards of 35,000 decisions each day — some without much thought at all, like whether to put your blinker on before switching lanes or how much milk to put in your morning coffee, and others with more lasting consequences, like whether to accept a job offer or move out-of-state. 

Needless to say, decisions can sometimes define our days. So how can you ensure you’re making good ones?

When I’m faced with a tough decision, I turn to my favorite strategy: pro/con lists.  

The benefits of pro/con lists

One of the big benefits of a pro/con list is that it helps to take the emotion out of the decision-making process by encouraging you to focus on facts. While your gut feeling about a decision is definitely an important factor to consider, it’s also important that you try to analyze all sides of a decision with as little emotion as possible.

Doing so can be harder than you think. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, studies the role emotion plays in our decision-making. Her findings indicate our feelings are extremely influential in the choices we make.

“What we find across various different studies is that our emotions can cloud our judgment in two main ways,” she says. “One is that they make it difficult for us to judge whether advice is good or bad. And then two, depending on the emotion we might be feeling, we might completely shut down and not listen to advice at all. Or actually rely on the advice too much.”

By sitting down with a good old fashioned pro/con list, you’re allowing yourself space to jot down how you feel about each option, but then also to fairly consider all of the other factors involved in your decision, setting you up to make a more balanced, rational decision.

The drawbacks of pro/con lists

Simply put, a lot of decisions are more complicated than just pros and cons. Basic pro/con lists often don’t delve into critical decision-making factors like money, time, core values, personal goals, impact, and so on. 

But that’s where we’re here to help! The Ink+Volt Decisions Pad is a pro/con list on steroids with a super targeted structure that will help you make just about any decision you come across. 

What’s the secret? Here are tips for structuring your own effective (and robust!) pro/con list:

Making an effective pro/con list structure

When you’re starting your pro/con list, begin with the objective of your decision. 

Let’s say you’ve been offered a new job and are deciding whether or not to take it. Option 1 is to stay at your current job. Option 2 is to take the offer. But neither of those things are the objective of your decision. Your *objective* in this case might be to decide what direction you want your career to go in. 

That’s a really important distinction because already you’re helping to put some parameters in place to guide yourself toward the right decision. If the new job offer is in an industry that you have no interest in gaining experience in, for example, by narrowly defining the objective of your decision, you’re one step closer to making a choice.

Once you’ve defined your objective and your two options, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting. Try going through these 7 themes:

  1. Intuition: What is your gut telling you? Do you have a really great feeling about that job offer? Or did something feel off when you spoke with the hiring manager? While you (almost) never want to make a life-changing decision based solely on your gut, it’s important to recognize and give value to what your intuition might be telling you.
  2. Time: Would one option require a significant increase or decrease in time commitment? Maybe the new job would tack on a half hour to your commute, or maybe the new role would eliminate a responsibility that has taken up a lot of your workday to complete. If there is a difference, note that here.
  3. Money: Now it’s time to think about money. Is there a significant salary difference? Are the monetary benefits of one role (healthcare, 401k, etc.) better or worse than the other’s? While money definitely isn’t the key to happiness, it’s important to lay out all the facts so there are no surprises.
  4. Values: Which option is more in line with your values? If one offer is with a nonprofit you deeply believe in, and the other is not, maybe here’s where the values scale is tipped in favor of one option over another. If the companies are in a similar industry, what can you tell about the values of the hiring manager or the team you’d be joining?
  5. Goals: Which option is going to help you get closer to your personal and professional goals? If you have a personal goal to train for a marathon, but one job option requires extensive travel every day that would cut into your training time, that might not be setting you up for success.
  6. Sacrifices: Will either option require sacrifices on your part? What about sacrifices from your family or friends? You aren’t the only one who will be affected by the decision you’re making, so use this space to get real with yourself about what would be required.
  7. Impact: It’s important to consider how your decision will impact everyone around you — not just you — and here’s the place to do that. Will there be any changes in your home or social life? Now let’s expand that lens: What kind of impact on your community — or out in the world — will each decision allow you to make.

Now it’s time to look at the bottom line. This could be a summary statement of the details you’ve listed previously, or simply highlighting the elements that are most important to you.

Do you have your decision yet? 

Once you get past the difficulty of making a decision, you can put your focus into the execution phase and get back to the work that you do best.

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