*This is a re-post from April 2010*
Let’s face it. When faced with an important decision, we are often prone to procrastination. Indeed, the more consequential the decision, the more time we may spend avoiding it. We let inertia reign, maybe even succumb to status quo bias. Our procrastination has multiple causes, some psychological and some cognitive. One clear cause is that most of us are ill equipped to manage decision tradeoffs.
Important decisions include multiple, sometimes competing factors. A tradeoff requires that we sacrifice one factor to achieve another. Consider the challenge of buying a house. A typical home buyer has many criteria: the number of bedrooms, the size of the yard, the condition of the kitchen, the neighborhood, proximity to a good school, among others. Rarely will the buyer find a home that meets all criteria perfectly.
One morning a home buyer wakes up thinking about the wonder of a modern kitchen and decides she should buy House A. The next morning, thinking about the joys of a magnificent back yard, she decides to buy House B. This is the essence of a tradeoff dilemma: we have to sacrifice one criterion in order to achieve another and we struggle to do so. Of course, the real world decision is far more complex, involving perhaps a dozen criteria in the tradeoff “calculus.”
In a 1772 letter to Joseph Priestly, Ben Franklin, always resourceful, provides a simple tool for calculating tradeoffs. Franklin explains: “…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 Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Balance lies…”
The graphic above left illustrates the simple genius of Franklin’s approach. Similarly weighted combinations of pros and cons cancel each other out, in this case the pros outweighing the cons in the tradeoff “algebra.” No need for a decision matrix or other more sophisticated tool to make the decision. The methodology could be taught to a young child.
As Franklin concludes, “tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation.”