Make up your mind! How to make the process of decision making easier

When you’re faced with several choices, it can be difficult to actually decide which one to select. Your brain can become cluttered with worry and you can get trapped in what seems like an episode of The Twilight Zone, where nothing is what it seems. You may even start doubting yourself when you do make a decision and begin thinking that you should have made a different selection. Or, you may end up not making a decision at all.

A recent article in The New York Times described it this way:

Although it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue, they are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.

When your choices are limited, you’re likely to make a better and quicker decision. Why? Because when there’s less to choose from, the process of figuring out what to do speeds up. You’ll be able to quickly compare apples to apples because there are fewer apples, and when you’re calmer you tend to make the best decision based on the information you have.

Of course, in the modern world, we do have a lot of choices. But, we also have a simple tool — a list — that can help us pick a direction a little easier. When you think of making a list, you might think of a collection of tasks you need to take care of or things you plan to get at the grocery store. But, creating a list also can help you make a decisions about almost anything. A pro vs. con list has one specialty (just like the punter on a football team). Its main job is to help you compare the advantages and disadvantages of two (or more) scenarios or points of view. One of the main benefits of using this type of list is you get all your thoughts out of your head (no matter what they are) in a structured way.

Other benefits of a pro vs. con list

  • Helps you think things through. More than just helping you get your thoughts on paper (or in your smart phone or tablet), a pro vs. con list really lets you think about the best and worst consequences of a particular direction. And, you’ll also be thinking about the things that are most important to you. Sometimes, your thoughts will pour right out of your head and, other times, you may need to put your list down and come back to it later.
  • Chance to test drive your ideas. If you need to set down your list and spend some time gathering the pros and the cons, take a day and live as though you have already made your decision one way. Live with the what ifs of that choice. The next day, act as though you made your decision another way. Try out all your options to see how they feel based on the benefits and potential pitfalls for each one. Capture your feelings and experiences on your list. See how comfortable you feel with each decision.
  • Can be used for large and small decisions. You can use a pro vs. con list as a starting point to making very important decisions (when to have a baby, whether to move to location A or B, what college to attend, who would be the best life-long partner), but it can also help you with day-to-day decisions, like what you should wear today or have for lunch. When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, even the most basic decisions can appear daunting. Formally collecting your thoughts can help you regain a sense of calm and move you from the crossroads to a more clearly defined destination point.

Ways to construct a pro vs. con list

  • Paper and pencil. The nice thing about using paper and pencil (or a large flip pad and a marker) is you probably already have these items in your home or office. They’re easy to use and you can get started quickly on making your pro vs. con list. Simply create two columns (draw a line vertically down a sheet of paper) and add the headings “Pro” and “Con.” Or, you could purchase a pre-printed notepad if that is your style.
  • Mobile or web-based apps. If you’d prefer a digital option, there are (not surprisingly) several decent ones available beyond opening a Word document and making your own. is a free, web-based app that lets you create a pro vs. con list without having to download anything to your computer. The site also allows you to name, describe, categorize your decision making project, and to rate each pro and con on a rational and emotional scale. It will also calculate the results (via pie chart percentages), though you will need to sign up to see them. You can also share your list with others and view their feedback.

    Smart phone applications like Pro Con (iPhone, $0.99) and Pros and Cons (Android, free) are similar to each other and can all help you to get to a final decision.

  • Mindmap your way to a decision. A mindmap is often used to brainstorm ideas, but it’s also a useful tool (sort of an pro vs. con list on steroids) to help you look at almost every detail of a particular situation.

Closing thoughts

Decisions can be tricky to make because we want to get them right. We don’t want to risk failing or making a poor decision. Instead of fretting, be organized with your decision making and vet the possible directions you could choose by writing down the good, bad, and ugly aspects of each. Consider seeking out the objective advice of one or two people you trust. And, add a deadline to the process so you don’t re-hash options repeatedly and unnecessarily.

21 Comments for “Make up your mind! How to make the process of decision making easier”

  1. posted by Brock on

    I absolutely love the idea of the pro and con list, and use it on a regular basis. That said, why recommend/suggest the unitasking Pro/Con notepad when a normal pad of paper (which can be used for other things as well) would work equally well? It’s almost something I could see featured on Unitasker Wednesday. I don’t know about others, but that would just take up space and end up as, well… clutter!

  2. posted by PH O'Neill on

    I completely and entirely agree with the conclusion that too many choices can paralyze people. I belong to a food co-op that is quite large for a co-op but which is probably about the size of a very small grocery store. I feel so much more comfortable and in control when I shop there than I do when I go to a regular, big supermarket. I know how to choose between 15 salad dressings; I do not know how to choose between 150.

    My husband and I did pro/con lists when deciding between two public schools for our kid. We had been wobbling on the fence for a couple of weeks, but doing the pro/cons made it completely clear which was the right way to go. We both felt so sure of our decision after that.

  3. posted by Dusty @ Wine Logic on

    Ha, I’m going to send this article to my wife! She can never make up her mind. What I like about doing a pro/con list myself is that it not only reveals the best option but shows you which one you are biased toward as well, even if you didn’t see it at first.

  4. posted by Sassy on

    I used to work in a field where I had a lot of experience and my decisions were quick — the “intuition” that comes from having a great deal of experience and a thorough knowledge of the facts. To convince colleagues and managers of the correctness of a decision, I would create Pro/Con lists. It doesn’t hurt to articulate the basis for a decision and if they believed I made the list before I made the decision, it didn’t hurt anything. We were all happy.

  5. posted by Dede on

    I love lists, but I don’t use a pro/con type as much as I should – thanks for the reminder.
    And I agree with Brock about the Pro/Con pad, it is a definite Unitasker. I just use a sheet of paper from my printer.

  6. posted by luxcat on

    I love pro/con lists but I’m also learning that there is an often-missed choice… do nothing at all. Sometimes we create scenarios where we think we need to make choices, and if you just stand back and look at it objectively, nothing need be done.

  7. posted by [email protected] on

    I have a terrible time making decisions – sometimes! Sometimes I do just fine. Other times I can’t make a decision to save my life. But the worst thing I’m doing these days is making the decision and then taking it back. It’s happening with big decisions and small ones. I bought a new purse the other day because it was cute and I thought it would work well for me. Then I decided I should take it back. I still have it but I haven’t used it yet. It’s JUST A PURSE! I can’t decide between my planners either. I have 2 going right now and can’t decide. I’ve actually tried the pros and cons list but they come out equal. I hate making decisions! What happened to that decisive person who used to make decisions without any effort? Oh, maybe it’s menopause!

  8. posted by Mike on

    Besides making columns for “pro” and “con”, another column can be added labeled “interesting”. This is for those factors which may be neutral but worth considering. I think it’s important to realize that decisions aren’t made by just totaling items in each column; various factors have differing value and importance. Making the list helps look at them all at once, rather than mulling them over one at a time.

  9. posted by ChrisD on

    I think a pro and con list is an important tool, however when I was trying to choose between two jobs, even after drawing up the list I found it very hard to decide. At that point I tossed a coin. I think this is a good route to your feelings. If you get heads and you think YES!, or you get tails and you think ‘best of three’ then it is now clear which option you prefer. However, I believe the list is still important so that you get all the facts out for your intuition to work on (for choices that are quite finely balanced).

  10. posted by Marguerite on

    I agree – the pros/cons list works well (and on plain old printer paper, too).

    We took a similar approach when searching for a new place to live, shifting ourselves from city dwellers to country folk. We constructed a Wish List, itemising the features of the hoped-for new property that we considered (a) Non- Negotiables (had to have); (b) Highly-Desireable (but not deal-breakers); and (c) Negotiables.

    After every property visit, I would make notes specific to that property, following the paradigm of the Wish List.

    It took four years of searching, but believe it or not, when we finally found the property that ticked all the boxes on the Wish List, we knew it immediately. The list kept us focused on finding the property that would work best for us and our needs, and prevented us from deciding on anything that offered us less than the whole list.

    That made the decision-making much, much easier. And we are completely thrilled with our new place. For us – this more than justifies the Wish List approach (although we don’t use this often – just for the really major decisions).

  11. posted by Carla on

    While I appreciate the usefulness of a pro/con list, that doesn’t address the initial point raised in the article. A pro/con list is helpful for comparing a small number of options – but the issue of way too many choices is the part that is paralyzing. How do you narrow the options down to a manageable number? Preferably in a reasonably fast manner so I am not spending hours (days?) getting 100’s down to 2-3?

  12. posted by Janet on

    Even though “common wisdom” may have declared that there is no such thing as too many choices, I wrote down a quote years ago that I keep at my desk and refer to often,

    “Too much choice causes paralysis and anxiety.”

    I wish I could remember who said or wrote it but I don’t so I can’t give them credit but it’s absolutely true.

    The common wisdom of today often lacks common sense.

  13. posted by Layla on

    I’ve noticed this over and over and over again. This year, school is pretty much taking up all the time that I spend not sleeping (and some of the time I should be spending sleeping) so all of a sudden decision-making got a whole lot easier.

    Do I want to participate in the school musical? It would be great fun, but no because school.
    Do I want to get involved with student groups that I’m really interested to get involved with? No, because school.
    Do I want to go for a walk on a beautiful day? yes but only because I feel that going for a walk in nature will make me more able to focus on school.

    I’m worried about how I’m going to cope in 199 days when school’s over…

  14. posted by Layla on

    @Carla: I’d recommend not even considering the ones you know won’t be chosen. And if it’s a choice about career or where to live, maybe if you know 5 of them would make a good life, keep them all in the back of your mind and pay attention as your values change over the years. Or if you have to make a decision now, do some sort of quick optimization to make a good decision rather than striving for perfect.

  15. posted by Kari on

    I had to “third-size” my 3600 square foot house after the divorce. To get 100 down to a manageable 10 or so – I used a multiple rounds approach. I grouped like items and then took out the ones I hated. After that I bounced back and forth between “I love this one” and “I wouldn’t miss this one”. The hard part is at the end, when the “love” pile was too big, but my cottage is 1700 square feet and I refuse to rent a storage unit, so many things had to go. Good luck – I do daily mini-decluttering sessions because I never want to lose another six months of my non-working time dealing with “stuff”.
    My favorite online list making tool is workflowy. Simple, elegant, effective.

  16. posted by Shalin on

    I’ve seen mindmaps before, but only to brainstorm and gather ideas, not to make a decision. I may have to try it.

    One hilarious alternative: KnockKnockStuff’s “Make a Decision Pad”:

  17. posted by EngineerMom on

    I recently moved and was hit with the “too many choices” issue of dealing with new-to-me grocery stores. It made me realize how I completely eliminate choices when I’m shopping in a familiar store. I don’t even bother looking at most of what’s in the store. I go through produce, the meat department, the pasta/sauce aisle, the diaper aisle, the baking aisle, and the dairy aisle. The regional and store variations on where things are placed always throws me off for a while, and all of a sudden I’m confronted with the enormous quantity of choices available. Whole aisles devoted to nothing but crackers and cookies. An entire aisle of nothing but breakfast cereal (around here we only eat oatmeal or very occasionally frosted shredded wheat, so the CEREAL AISLE always freaks me out a little bit!). What feels like dozens of different variations on the humble yogurt.

    There’s a reason I like to retreat to farmer’s markets and bulk food “hippy” stores – fewer choices!

  18. posted by Jo on

    You listed a number of the benefits of using the pro/con list. What are the detriments, if any? 😉

  19. posted by Deb Lee on

    @Jo: I think the pro vs. con list is pretty straight forward and fairly simple to use. But, since making a decision can be complex — and we sometimes make that more complicated than it needs to be — how we use the pro vs. con list may also become complicated. Curious to hear what you think the disadvantages are.

  20. posted by John Hritz on

    Pro / con lists sound good, but there are a few additional steps to consider to avoid simply comparing the length of the cons vs the length of the pros. Create your list of pros and cons. Rank order them in terms of importance. Apply weights to each in turn as a fraction of 100%. Is the top thing on your list worth 99% or just 50%? Is the second item worth 25% or 10? Pretty quickly you’ll find the dominant elements of the decision. Score each of your options based on your weighted list. BTW, this doesn’t work well on subjective selections. In jam tastings (the subject of the book), most people pick the sweetest one which may not be the long term favorite.

  21. posted by John Hritz on

    For more on this sort of approach, see:

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