How To Make Decisions Like Benjamin Franklin

Hi Dane, thanks for the great blog. The redesign looks great! I’m in the middle of deciding between two possible businesses to start, and I’m stuck. On paper, they both seem great. How do I unfreeze and make a decision?

Life is full of choices. Some are permanent, like who to marry. Others will impact you for a long time, like what business to start, or where to live. And others are so transient that it’s almost not worth fretting over, like what to have for lunch.

I long time ago, I read a book that included a letter from Benjamin Franklin to a young man in a similar situation. The young man had written to Franklin and asked his advice on how to decide between two fields of study.

Franklin, always the practical genius, offered his advice on deciding between two options. The system he described has come to be called the Benjamin Franklin close.

I will reprinted his original comment at bottom of this article, but for now, here’s how to make decisions like Benjamin Franklin.

The Process


  1. Setup your page. On a sheet of paper, or in a spreadsheet, down the left side list the factors that might go into your decision.

  2. Weight the factors. To the right of the factors, write a number between 1 and 10. This is the “weight” of this factor. If a factor is very important to you, give it a higher number. If it is less important, a lower one.

  3. Add your options. To the right of the weight, at the top of the page, write Option #1. Move over two columns to the right and write Option #2. If you have more than two options, skip another column and add Option #3 and so on.

  4. Score each of the options on the various factors. Now in the cell next to weight, and under Option #1, put a number between 1 and 10. This number represents the score that a particular factor has for that option. Do this also for Option #2 and so on.

  5. Compute. Multiply the weight factor by each of the options scores. Add up all of the results for each option and score. The option with the largest total wins.

I know this sounds complex. But it’s not. Here, I made you an Excel spreadsheet.

Franklin’s Original Letter

To Joseph Priestley
London, September 19, 1772
Dear Sir,

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

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.

To get over this, 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 Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And 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 take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear Friend,
Yours most affectionately
B. Franklin

Source: Mr. Franklin: A Selection from His Personal Letters. Contributors: Whitfield J. Bell Jr., editor, Franklin, author, Leonard W. Labaree, editor. Publisher: Yale University Press: New Haven, CT 1956.

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