What Ben Franklin Can Teach You About Time
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Today at a Glance
- Studying the daily routines of people you admire is a worthy pursuit. You can learn a lot about a person's priorities by breaking down their typical day. You may also learn something that will dramatically improve your own systems, habits, and processes.
- Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific entrepreneurs, thinkers, and leaders in history. I expected his daily routine to be a reflection of his incredible output: long, unrelenting, and complex. But the beauty of this schedule is in its pristine simplicity: two core questions and six blocks of time.
- The 6 core principles to apply: (1) Establish a fixed sleep schedule, (2) Create Clarity Questions, (3) Become a polymath, (4) Work in sprints. (5) Create order, and (6) Make time to unwind.
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I've always been something of a history buff.
As a kid, I enjoyed exploring museums and famous sites (though I've always had a general distaste for guided tours!). I took little interest in the history textbooks that filled my school years, but read voraciously on my own time about the lives of historical figures.
In my view, the study of history allows us to use the past to see into the future.
The world has continued to improve and rapidly change, but there are countless lessons to draw upon from the past that will improve our individual and collective futures.
In today's piece, I'd like to dive into a few of the lessons that I've uncovered recently on the topics of daily routines, personal growth, productivity, and time management.
A Day in the Life of Benjamin Franklin
Confession: I have a mild obsession with daily routines and schedules.
When I meet new people, I often ask them to walk me through a typical day in their life, stopping to dig in on minor details along the way.
There are two reasons (beyond my general quirkiness):
- You can learn a lot about a person's priorities by breaking down their typical day. I always feel like I know the person better after understanding how they manage their time. I also feel it clarifies how I might be able to help them since I now understand their priorities (and blindspots).
- You may learn something that will dramatically improve your own systems, habits, and processes. At a minimum, you get new ideas and insights that might be worth a test.
One of the reasons I love biographies so much is that they combine my love of history with my obsession for understanding the daily rituals and habits of great minds.
I was recently reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin when I came upon this glorious image of his daily schedule.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific entrepreneurs, thinkers, and leaders in history. I expected his daily routine to be a reflection of his incredible output: long, unrelenting, and complex.
But the beauty of this schedule is in its pristine simplicity: two core questions and six blocks of time.
The two core questions that guide the day:
- Morning Question: What good shall I do this day?
- Evening Question: What good have I done this day?
The six blocks of time that form its structure:
- Block 1 (5-8am): Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness; contrive day's business and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study; and breakfast.
- Block 2 (8-12pm): Work.
- Block 3 (12-2pm): Read or overlook my accounts, and dine.
- Block 4 (2-6pm): Work.
- Block 5 (6-10pm): Put things in their places, supper, music, or diversion, or conversation; examination of the day.
- Block 6 (10-5am): Sleep.
Since some of this is in old English, I spent a bit of time researching the modern day definitions. A quick glossary I pulled together to help focus the discussion:
- "Address Powerful Goodness": Daily prayer practice.
- "Contrive day's business and take the resolution of the day": Plan for the day ahead and answer the Morning Question.
- "Prosecute the present study": Study and learn something new and interesting, even if unrelated to work.
- "Put things in their places": Organize the study and workplace.
- "Examination of the day": Answer the Evening Question.
Question: What can we learn from a day in the life of Benjamin Franklin that may improve our own systems, habits, and rituals?
Answer: A whole lot.
6 Principles to Apply
Let's reflect on the core principles from Franklin's routine and how we can reasonably apply them to our own lives...
Principle 1: Establish a Fixed Sleep Schedule
Everyone likes to say that you have to wake up early to succeed. Benjamin Franklin himself famously said, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
But the reality is that everyone has their own creative rhythm. I know plenty of high-performers who do their best work after 10pm and rarely wake up before noon. Who am I to tell them to change that?
In my view, there are two keys here:
- Identify Your Energy Schedule: Perform an energy assessment. Spend a week documenting your energy levels at various points during the day. Make a note of how creative or motivated you feel at different times. Try waking up earlier or later and make a note of how that changes things. At the end of the week, look at the results to determine what times of day your creative energy peaks. These are your flow state periods that you want to prioritize.
- Establish an Aligned Sleep Schedule: Once you know your peak windows, build a sleep schedule that is tailored to you. If you peak early in the morning (like me!), establish a sleep schedule that has you going to bed early and waking up early (the Ben Franklin special). If you peak in the late afternoon or at night, establish a sleep schedule that has you going to bed later and sleeping later. Stick to the schedule you create and try to sleep and rise at the same time every single day.
Remember: No matter what windows of time you establish for sleep, everyone needs ~7-8 hours to function at a high level. Make sure you're getting it.
Principle 2: Create Clarity Questions
Benjamin Franklin had two simple questions that framed his entire day:
- Morning: What good shall I do this day?
- Evening: What good have I done this day?
I call these "Clarity Questions" because they provide clarity by cutting through the noise and forcing a distillation of the day.
My Clarity Questions are:
- Morning: What three wins will I have today?
- Evening: Did I achieve my three wins?
- Before Bed: What three things am I grateful for?
I like to think of "wins" because it helps me build momentum throughout the day. I start with three key wins in mind, and each time I execute on one of them, I get to feel the gratification of putting a win on the board. I find that the feeling of one win propels me into achieving the next one. Momentum is everything. Use it to your advantage.
My before bed question is my very simple gratitude practice. It centers me before bed and washes away any stresses I feel before I fall asleep.
Decide what your Clarity Questions will be. Keep them visible throughout the day until answering them becomes a part of your ritual.
Principle 3: Become a Polymath
Benjamin Franklin was one of history's most famous polymaths (a person with wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary knowledge).
Becoming a polymath is a wonderful and fulfilling pursuit for any growth-minded individual. Lifelong learners tend to be polymaths, as their curiosity naturally leads to knowledge accumulation in a variety of disciplines.
If we can learn one thing from Franklin's routine, it's that you have to make time for this multi-displinary knowledge accumulation. The block of time dedicated to "prosecute the present study" was exactly this.
Make time daily to learn something new and exciting. Don't worry about it being "useful" knowledge, just follow your inspiration.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs famously referenced inspired learning in the context of taking a calligraphy course after he dropped out of Reed College:
"Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating...None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."
It's often very hard to predict how inspired learning will functionally impact your life, but it's safe to say that it will.
Learn both vertically and horizontally. Become a polymath.
Principle 4: Work in Sprints
Most modern work is done at a moderate pace for long hours. It’s a staple of the work culture that was created during the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, it’s dated at best and harmful at worst.
Benjamin Franklin's day was built around two 4-hour blocks of working sprints split up by a 2-hour break to rest, read, and eat.
The 4-hour blocks of focus are *very difficult* to execute in practice. I have found that 60 minutes is my general limit for intense focus in a single stretch (though there are exceptions where I get into a flow state and can go longer).
My recommendation would be to try to work in shorter sprints:
- 60 minutes of deep focus work on a task
- 15 minute break (walk, coffee, breathe)
- 60 minutes of deep focus work on task
- 15 minute break (walk, coffee, breathe)
Think of it like creating an "interval workout" for your workday. Give it a shot and see how you feel. My bet is you feel an immediate difference.
Principle 5: Create Order
"Put things in their places" is perhaps the most underrated part of the schedule.
A clean, organized space makes for a clean, organized mind.
Take time to organize your physical and digital workspace on a daily basis. It becomes easier to function when the distractions of mess are removed.
Principle 6: Make Time to Unwind
The last principle is arguably the most important: schedule time to unwind.
Never fall victim to false productivity traps. Obsessively optimizing your time with new "productive" activities is ironically counter-productive.
I like to think of idle time as a “call option” on future interesting opportunities.
When you have idle time built into your life, you have the headspace and bandwidth to jump at the high-upside ideas and openings that come to you in the normal course of your endeavors.
Relax, go for a walk, take a shower, watch TV, chat with friends, be bored.
There is a lot we can apply to the future by studying the past.
While Benjamin Franklin's routine was clearly devoid of some of the life realities that many of us encounter (childcare, home responsibilities, etc.), there are still several lessons we can learn from analyzing it.
The core principles to apply from the study of Benjamin Franklin's routine:
- Establish a Fixed Sleep Schedule: Align your sleep to your peak energy periods. Sleep and rise at the same time every single day.
- Create Clarity Questions: Create 2-3 questions that cut through the noise and force a distillation of the day.
- Become a Polymath: Make time to learn horizontally and develop broad, multi-disciplinary knowledge.
- Work in Sprints: Stop the long jogs. Work in 60-minute sprints followed by short 15-minute periods of rest.
- Create Order: Keep your physical and digital workspace clean. An organized space makes for an organized mind.
- Make Time to Unwind: Build idle time into your life. Relax, go for a walk, take a shower, be bored.
Give these principles a shot and let me know what you think. You won't regret it.
P.S. You should all be very glad I didn't write a piece on the lessons we can learn from the daily routine of author Hunter S. Thompson...