3 Timeless Productivity Lessons from Benjamin Franklin

Just how productive was Benjamin Franklin?!

Author. Printer. Politician. Scientist. Postmaster. Founding father.

As one of the leading thinkers and most creative public figures of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin knew a thing or two about getting things done.

He also knew how to play the whistle (more on that later).

Our man Franklin demonstrated a tremendous stability to balance competing projects, interests and jobs.

So how did he accomplish so much during his lifetime, and how can you apply these mental strategies today?

Keep to a Strict Routine

Benjamin Franklin understood the merits of effective calendar management long before the advent of Outlook or Google calendar.

He used a simple notebook to outline what he wanted to accomplish each day in advance. He said, “…every part part of business should have its allotted time.”

Franklin invariably rose about 5:00 a.m. to study and read. He also asked himself each morning, “What good shall I do today?”

He spent from 9:00 a.m. to lunchtime working. Then, after twelve o’clock he tended to administrative tasks like reading or his accounts before eating lunch.

(They had no Twitter or Medium back then.)

At the end of the working day, Franklin tidied up and unwound by listening to music and talking to friends or family.

Before going to bed he also reflected on what he accomplished with an examination, asking himself, “What good have I done today?”.

Use the Carrot, Not the Stick

Benjamin’s insane daily routine… image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph_Duplessis_1778.jpg

Franklin once advised a Presbyterian minister with a reluctant congregation.

The minister was struggling to encourage his congregation to attend their prayers. The hapless minister was also responsible for doling out rations of rum to the men under his care.

Franklin said to him,

“It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.”

So the minister offered rum after prayers and attendance swelled.

You might not be a Presbyterian or (if you’re like me) care much for rum, but you can tap into this psychological insight. In other words, associate rewards like rum with activities you or your team are likely to put off.

You could, for example, reward yourself with a cup of sweet coffee if you spend an hour preparing a presentation that you’ve procrastinated about for a week.

Similarly, I once worked under a manager who took her team out to lunch every two or three months or after a difficult project as a way of motivating and rewarding her team.

Don’t Pay Too Much for the Whistle

When Franklin was seven years old, he walked into a shop with a pocketful of coppers and bought a whistle with a “charming sound.”

At home, young Franklin felt delighted with his purchase and began blowing on his new toy.

His perturbed brother, sisters and cousins told him he paid four times more than the whistle was worth. In the end, the overpriced whistle caused Franklin more chagrin than pleasure.

However, the ever astute Franklin turned this childhood lesson into a principle for life, that is to avoid paying more than things are worth. Later in a letter to a friend Madame Brillon, he wrote:

“When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.’”

He added:

“When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.’”

In short:

Consider how much something costs in terms of money, time or resources before you commit. After all, that whistle you admire might prove more expensive than you imagine.

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