Centuries before the modern “self-help” movement, Ben Franklin created fail-safe methods to accomplish the most with your time and quickly improve your ability in any skill. Ben’s own ample accomplishments testify to the effectiveness of his methods. By incorporating a few of his basic principles, which rest on a foundation of strong mental focus, you too can boost your skill and productivity just like Ben.
Long before Tony Robbins, before Dale Carnegie, even before Napoleon Hill – there was Ben. A school dropout by the age of ten, Ben Franklin went on to become a popular newspaper correspondent, and later created the iconic Poor Richard’s Almanac. He set up his own printing house and published his own newspaper.
When Ben wasn’t busy writing and publishing, he was busy creating new inventions. Lots of them. A few of his more notable inventions include the lightning rod, a stove that was more efficient than the fireplaces of the time, the glass harmonica, the rocking chair, the odometer and bifocals.
Using a kite, he was the first to discover that lightning is electricity, as well as many of the basic principles of electricity still in use to this day. He also discovered some of the early principles of refrigeration.
Between all of his writing and inventing, Franklin somehow managed to find time to formulate foundational principles used in early demographic studies, principles that influenced the famous economist Adam Smith.
Franklin played several instruments and composed music, was skilled at chess, created one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in the American colonies, developed novel anti-counterfeiting methods, and founded the American Philosophical Society as well as America’s first hospital. And of course, he had a long and distinguished political and diplomatic career, which included working on and signing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Not bad for a dropout from a poor family who displayed no special abilities in his early years. How did he do it? And what can we learn from his methods?
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Franklin wrote an autobiography in which he lays out exactly how he improved himself and accomplished so much. His “self-help” principles are as relevant today as when he wrote and implemented them. Although much has been written about Franklin’s systematic moral virtues, at the heart of his prodigious accomplishments was the ability to use his mind to focus his efforts.
Putting Ben Franklin’s Principles To Work For You
In essence, Franklin’s secrets of success come down to developing a system that works, implementing a schedule that maximizes the system’s impact, developing novel approaches to overcoming external obstacles, and creating a feedback mechanism for overcoming internal barriers and moving the needle on your abilities.
We’ll begin with Ben’s system and scheduling approach, and in the next article detail his methods for overcoming internal and external barriers.
Create a system – and stick with it. One of the foundational methods of getting stuff done and getting it done well is to have a system governed by guiding principles. Franklin was a master at creating a system that enabled him to focus his efforts, boost his abilities and get more out of his day. His rapid rise and his many accomplishments offer tangible proof that having a system works as long as you stick with it.
Today, this a widely accepted self-improvement method, popularly espoused by the late Steven Covey and others. The problem though, is that while many understand the value of having a principle-based system, far fewer put it into practice.
Let’s examine how Ben did it and how you might do the same.
By the age of 20, Ben Franklin had created a list of 13 virtues around which he organized his life. For example, he included silence as one of his virtues, which he described as “speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
He described his virtue of tranquility as “be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common and unavoidable.” For many of us, living our life by these two virtues alone would effect a dramatic transformation.
You need not organize your life around moral virtues as Franklin did (although it couldn’t hurt). Find those principles that work for you and that you find meaningful. I recommend to my clients to schedule an hour with the phone off and only a pen and paper in front of you.
Start by asking yourself, “If I were to live my life at the highest level possible for me, which traits or actions would I need to internalize and then continually act on to make that happen?”
Then, start listing whatever comes to mind. Some or even many of Ben Franklin’s virtues might make your list (click here for the full list of Franklin’s 13 virtues). Or you may choose more practical traits such as never allowing a priority item to stay on your to-do list for more than 48 hours without taking action, or making your health a non-negotiable priority through exercise and proper sleep and diet.
The potential list is endless, and your list may become quite long. But you won’t get very far if you try to live your life according to 40 different principles (for most of us, even Franklin’s 13 may be unwieldy).
Once you have your long list, the next step is to pick the few that you believe will have the highest impact – I recommend starting with no more than three to five – and then define, as Franklin did, with one sentence how you will implement that trait in your daily life.
If all you do is come up with a list and then go about your life as before, you will have wasted an hour. This exercise will help you only if you take the next step and organize your life around your principles.
Write down your principles and one-sentence description, review it often (at least daily), and always have it readily available to you. The goal is not to act on these principles when it’s convenient or you happen to think of them. Rather, these become the guiding principles around which you organize your life, make decisions and determine your priorities.
A tall order? Yes. However, just like Ben, you will function at a far higher level and accomplish far more of your goals if everything you do is organized around a non-negotiable system of principles than if you flail around from today’s to-do list to tomorrow’s to-do list.
Create a schedule – and stick with it. Franklin was a master at what today is called “time blocking.” Let’s say you are a salesperson and your goal is to call five of your regular clients by the end of the week. Most people dutifully write “call five clients” on their to-do list.
The problem, as most of us know from hard-earned experience, is that other life events intervene. Or we feel tired. Or we get distracted. Or we procrastinate. And suddenly it’s Friday and we haven’t made those five calls. So we either rush through the calls, often not doing our best, or we put the calls on next week’s to-do list.
A far more effective way to get the calls – or anything else – done is to implement Ben Franklin's method for accomplishing all that he did. Franklin scheduled his day in six time blocks. Some of his time blocks accounted for the things all of us must do to get through our day independent of any goals we have. For example, his first time block of the day lasted three hours and included getting ready for the day, eating breakfast, personal study time and preparing for work.
Other time blocks created the space he needed to get stuff done. Franklin had a specific four-hour block of time in the morning and again in the afternoon to work on his projects. He also scheduled his sleep time to ensure he always got seven hours.
If the tasks you are trying to accomplish are recurring, Franklin’s method of scheduling general blocks of time for work may prove highly effective. If you’ve scheduled 10-12 every morning to do your recurring work, and you stick with it, you’ll soon notice that the work gets done.
If you are instead working on a specific project, then simply schedule a time for that project. If you need to make those five phone calls to clients, you’ll get through the calls if you specifically schedule them for Wednesday between 2 and 4. If you leave it to chance as to when during the week you’ll make the calls, they likely won’t happen.
Will there be interruptions that you can’t ignore, events that you didn’t anticipate that derail your carefully crafted schedule? Of course. But if you have a schedule in the first place, you’ll find it far easier to reschedule and get back on track. If all you have is a to-do list, you’ll likely bounce around from one distraction to the next.
If you spend an hour defining and refining your guiding principles, consciously put those principles into practice throughout your day, and schedule blocks of time throughout your day to move the needle forward on your tasks and goals, you will by definition be functioning at a higher level. And it won’t be long before you become both more efficient in completing your tasks and more focused in ensuring that your tasks move you quickly toward your goals.