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What happened when I followed Ben Franklin’s schedule for a month

Benjamin Franklin was a productivity master. In his autobiography, he shared his daily routine, and its simplicity and rigor intrigued me.

What happened when I followed Ben Franklin’s schedule for a month
[Illustration: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons]

As someone who is obsessed with productivity, I’m always looking for the latest book, idea, or tool that can help me accomplish more in less time. Sometimes, though, new isn’t necessarily better. Recently I found a good source of inspiration for creating a better schedule from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

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Franklin was a productivity master. It’s likely what allowed him to juggle a variety of roles and tasks, including writer, printer, politician, entrepreneur, scientist, inventor, diplomat and postmaster. In his autobiography, he shared his daily routine, and its simplicity struck me. So did its rigor.

Franklin was a morning person and a creature of habit. He got up at the same time every day, worked a set number of hours, and then went to bed at the same time. His schedule included a prep period in the morning, a two-hour lunch, and a hard stop from work at 5 p.m. He worked in two four-hour bursts. As Franklin once wrote, “Lost time is never found again.”

Here’s what Franklin’s schedule looked like:

  • 5-7 a.m. Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.
  • 8-11 a.m. Work.
  • 12-1 p.m. Read, or overlook my accounts and dine.
  • 2-5 p.m. Work.
  • 6-9 p.m. Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day.
  • 10 p.m.-4 a.m. Sleep.

In the morning he asked himself, “What good shall I do this day?” And he ended the day by asking himself, “What good have I done today?”

Having a daily routine can be a blueprint that eliminates the question, “What should I do next?” I’m always game for trying new tactics to organize my day and improve my productivity. I’ve done everything from using a Bullet Journal to taking a social media hiatus. Where I stumble is not taking work breaks. So I decided to try Franklin’s routine for a month and see if his time-blocking techniques coupled with plenty of reflection and breaks could help me handle the busy few weeks I had before the holidays.

Easing into the day at 5 a.m.

Franklin got up at 5 a.m. In a previous experiment, I tried this and found myself exhausted. This time I still felt exhausted. Franklin spent three hours in the morning easing into his day, making plans and reflecting. After six days I decided to rise at 6 a.m. instead, condensing my morning ritual. That was plenty.

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Franklin’s morning notes, “Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast,” don’t seem to include exercise. I didn’t want to stop my regular routine, so I added “workout” into this block of time. By 8 a.m., I sat down to work.

Four hours of uninterrupted work?

According to his schedule, Franklin worked for four hours straight before taking a break. I’m used to working in 60- or 90-minute sessions, which productivity experts say is the length of time you can reasonably focus. Adjusting that length to four hours was a challenge. I noticed that some of my work in the second half of those time blocks felt like a struggle. I found a fix by tackling harder tasks, like writing first drafts during the first half, and using the second half for tasks like research or revisions to something I had written the day before.

The two-hour lunch break

Taking a two-hour lunch felt downright indulgent. I work from home and rarely take more than 30 minutes, often fitting household chores and a YouTube video into the “break.” But I committed to following Franklin’s lead to “Read, or overlook my accounts and dine.”

During the first week I watched the clock to find out when I could return to work–I’m someone who feels compelled to make the most of every minute. When Franklin said “overlooking accounts,” I don’t think he would have envisioned social media accounts. The first few days I spent more time than I should have reading social media updates, but those sessions left me feeling empty. Eventually, I opted to read and dine—not at my desk, which is a rarity.

I did “cheat” at times, reading books that were work-related. But I’ll admit that I spent more time with them than I normally would have done before, which meant I was better prepared for my interviews and I learned something along the way.

Winding down

By 2 p.m., I was ready to get back to work. The long break was actually refreshing. Just like in the morning, I chose tasks based on my energy level, writing and strategizing during the first 90 to 120 minutes and scheduling interviews and phone calls for the end. By 5 p.m., however, I was ready to call it a day.

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Franklin’s evening routine involved putting things in their places, having supper, and then enjoying “music or diversion, or conversation.” This isn’t much different than my normal life. What was an addition was the examination of the day. Franklin asked himself, “What good have I done today?”

Time to reflect

For me, some days were better than others. I mostly stuck to Franklin’s routine, but there were days when it wasn’t possible, due to an appointment or an unexpected interruption. Franklin struggled at times, too. He wrote:

I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.

Since finishing the month’s experiment, I’ve reverted back to my own schedule but with a few changes. The two-hour lunch break is now about an hour and it’s away from my desk, which is an improvement on my previous 30-minute break. Franklin planned his day in the morning, and I prefer to do it the night before. It helps me transition from workday to family time.

The things I’ve kept are the morning and nightly questions. At first, I thought they were silly, but taking time to recognize the clean slate before me and then acknowledging the good work I had accomplished set the tone for making the most of the day. It also put my life in perspective. Sometimes the answers to the questions were work-related and sometimes they weren’t. Taking time to plan and reflect really is the foundation for spending your time wisely and making the most of your days.

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