Quantify Pros and Cons

Life decisions are hard, sometimes unbearably hard. Without a framework to navigate our way through, we can get overwhelmed by the myriad variables to consider in making them. It helps a ton to put everything on paper, separate ourselves as emotionally as possible from all the details, and see everything in front of us in a more tangible way. Pros and cons lists help frame variables in a more binary way and clear-cut way.

Noodle in the lists too long, however, and we start to see their flaws. Pros and cons lack comparable dimension to the items considered, making it difficult to trust the list at face value. At first glance, the number of considerations on each list seems to matter. But what if the numerous side of the list is full of trivial nitpicks or concessions and the shorter list full of major issues or benefits? Quantity starts to matter far less than quality.

So how can you measure quality on a pros and cons list?

Score the items and tally the results. I’ve found the following scoring criteria sufficiently insightful over the years:

  • 3 points — Really important, not negotiable, a huge win or loss;
  • 2 points —Somewhat important, really nice to have or avoid, conditional based on unknowns;
  • 1 point — Not very important, not that big of a deal, could live without.

Go item by item and score each with the points above. It helps to have someone else take score for you so that you’re not influenced by seeing one side pile up. Once you have scored all items listed, sum up the totals for the pros and for the cons. With any luck, the scores will skew dramatically enough to help make your decision.

For added definition to your decision making, average the scores for each list by taking the score totals and dividing them by the number of items logged. See if you learn anything more beyond the totals. If the total scores and the average scores align, odds are pretty good that you have the answer you’re looking for. For those monks out there dispassionate enough to accept the process, you can stop there, accept the results, and move on with your life.

For the rest of us not so monkish, we may call our own scoring into doubt after seeing the results and feel inclined to tweak it. These emotions matter. If we’re in tune with our emotions herein, they might call us to ignore logic and come to the opposite conclusion. Deep down, our intuition and feelings matter and we should let them win when it counts. That’s okay. Sometimes, it takes a wholly quantified process to successfully navigate an emotional one and come out the other side without regret.