To Make Better Decisions, Practice "The Ben Franklin Method"

Benjamin Franklin was a true renaissance man. Throughout his life he worked and succeeded in just about every profession he tried: politician, writer, scientist, engineer, and businessman.

One of Franklin’s lesser-known secrets to his success was his decision-making method. According to his biography, Franklin developed the method when he was in his early 20s. He would continue to use it throughout the rest of his life, guiding him ever forward to success with each decision. Today, it is known as The Ben Franklin Method.

The Ben Franklin Method

In the summer of 1772, Franklin received a letter from his friend Priestley. Priestley was stuck on deciding whether or not he should quit his job to take a new, potentially more lucrative one.

Like many of us, Priestley turned to his friend, Franklin, for a little advice about what he should do. Rather than offering direct advice on the matter, Franklin decided that he would share with his friend the decision-making method that was working so well for him. This would be hugely beneficial, as his friend would then be able to use it for future decisions too.

As the saying goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

The Ben Franklin Method is documented in Franklin’s return letter to Priestley, which reads:

“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.”

We can break that message down into a few easy steps, in plain English:

  1. Get a sheet of paper for writing
  2. Draw two columns: Pros and Cons. Write the pros and cons of making that decision in each respective column
  3. Give each pro and con a score based on their importance. Score each of them on a scale of 1 to 5
  4. See which side ends up having a higher score at the end to come to your final decision
  5. Give yourself a few days for steps 2 to 4 to mull things over. You might remember an extra point to consider or feel that you should change some of the scores

Simple yet elegant, easy yet effective. It’s not crazy or complex. But it is intuitive and helps you think more clearly.

There are a few key things to note about this method.

Write Things on Paper

First off, write things down on a physical sheet of paper.

A big reason why we find decision making so difficult is that it’s hard to think about everything all at once. Imagining all the possibilities, and all the pros and cons at the same time is hard to do in just your head. Writing things down on a physical sheet of paper will give you more clarity since all of the points are being saved in front of you. You can then take your time remembering and continuously writing things down until you’re sure you have everything. Franklin actually mentions this in another note:

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

On top of that, research in psychological science has shown that writing notes down with pen and paper is superior to typing on a laptop for memory retention. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard study noted that physical writing things on paper help to slow down the process, thus giving our brains the chance to absorb and understand the information more effectively.

Prioritize your pros and cons

Not all points are equal. When making a decision, some aspects will be more important to you than others.

For example, let’s say that you’ve received a new job offer and are wondering whether or not you should take it. You should be asking yourself: what is most important to me? Is it money? Company prestige? Learning opportunities? Vacation days? Commute time to the office? Flexibility to work from home?

The idea of The Ben Franklin Method is to consider the relative importance of each of these things by scoring them. Once you do, it will be easy to compare them against each other and “find the balance” as Franklin says.

Maybe the commute sucks, but if the job has a fantastic salary, company prestige, and lots of vacation days then it might be worth it in the end. Or perhaps you find that there are 4 pros each worth 1 point, but a single con that is worth 5 points, so you decide not to take the job. In any case, this simple scoring system helps you to compare things fairly.

You should always consider how important each of the points in the decision is to you, both in the short and long term. Doing so will help you make the best overall decision without getting lost in the small stuff.

Sleep on it

Franklin mentioned in his letter that he would take a few days or more to think about his pros and cons before coming to a final decision. Although he may not have known it at the time, there is real science behind why “sleeping on it” is beneficial for decision making.

Studies have shown that sleep has a direct impact on cognitive skills, including decision making. More sleep consistently leads to higher performance in memory, problem-solving, and decision making. So if you’re ever feeling tired, it’s always a good idea to get some sleep and delay your final decision until later.

From a more practical perspective, it is advantageous to wait things out just to be able to remember everything. Our first thoughts may not be the best ones and we may not remember all of the important points right away. You could be in a bad or sad mood that day, resulting in you writing down more cons than pros. Or you might come home super tired from work, causing you to forget some of the important points to consider.

“Sleeping on it” helps with all of that. You slow things down to brainstorm over a few days and nights so you can be sure to remember everything without a rush. Giving yourself that time to relax and think will ensure you’re making fully informed, well-thought-out decisions.

In Conclusion

Your life is defined by your ability to make decisions. Making them effectively is critical to your long-term success.

Benjamin Franklin came up with an incredible decision-making system. Follow it to improve your decision making and your life:

  1. Create two columns for pros and cons
  2. Write the pros and cons
  3. Score each one based on the importance
  4. Find the higher total
  5. Sleep on it for a few days to make sure you’ve got it right

For more about Benjamin Franklin, see Walter Isaacson’s book: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

For more on decision making, see 3 Simple Techniques for Making Faster and Better Decisions

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