Benjamin Franklin’s 7 Best Productivity Tips

Painting of Benjamin Franklin reading a manuscript.

Benjamin Franklin was so busy being productive that he didn’t have time to be president.

There’s humor and truth in this statement — something Franklin would appreciate. The founding father and polymath was a scientist, writer, inventor, and all-around productive man. Not to mention being the most famous kite-flier who ever lived.

Franklin taught himself to read French, Spanish, Latin, and Italian. He experimented with electricity, and his “single fluid theory” led to the electron theory in 1900. He was a master of many things, including getting things done.

Here are seven of his best productivity tips.

1. Use Lists

Benjamin Franklin's Temperance list.

What was true in Franklin’s time is true today: Lists help productivity.

Without a good list you have no way to measure how much you’ve achieved or how far you have to go until you’re done. A good list will translate the tangle of ideas and tasks in your brain into a simple, easy-to-follow list of necessities.

Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.

Franklin not only used lists to follow his daily tasks, but he also kept a list of 13 virtues he attempted to improve upon weekly. He would go down the list of virtues, focusing on one each week for 13 weeks, then repeat the cycle all over again four times per year.

Franklin started his list with “temperance.” For his temperance week he made sure not to overindulge in food or drink. He felt that if he could overcome those urges, the rest of the virtues would be easier to achieve.

Every night he would review his list and mark off the items that he completed that helped strengthen those virtues. This act of reviewing the day is a great way to learn from mistakes and become a better person in small steps. Without nightly review he would have never seen the progress he made in working towards his virtue of the week.

Check out what Franklin’s list would look like today thanks to Evernote.

2. Don’t Fear Mistakes

Not everything that Franklin tried was a complete success, and this was completely fine with him. Instead of becoming worked up and getting off-track, he accepted his mistakes, learned from them, and moved on.

One of the reasons Franklin reviewed his list each day was so he could see what went wrong and learn from those missteps.

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Fearing mistakes is a great way to become paralyzed by preparation. When a mistake is your biggest fear, you’ll spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing and learning.

3. Small Steps Lead to Big Results

Productivity starts with the small steps, not the big ones.

Take action on the small items and the larger ones will be dealt with step by step. Just like you can’t fell a large tree with a single hit of an axe, you can’t deal with a large problem or project with one entry on your to-do list.

Little strokes fell great oaks.

Take small actions and you’ll accomplish great things. By planning out smaller steps you can see your progress and get through even the biggest of tasks. It is this idea that drove Franklin to create his list and work on one virtue per week. He realized that he couldn’t just write a huge task like “be a better person” and expect to get it done.

4. Get Up Early

Sleeping in feels great, but not as great as getting things done. Franklin started at 5 a.m. every day.

He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night.

Instead of getting up and walking straight to his desk to start working, be would take some time to wake up, think about what he wanted to get done that day, eat a good breakfast, and just prepare himself for the day so that when he started to work at 8 a.m. he was already three hours into his day. Those three hours of preparation and mental readiness gave Franklin an edge that most people lacked.

Starting early means less rushing for you, which translates into more productivity when you do start working. Make getting up early a habit. You’ll be glad you did.

5. Have a Schedule

Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule.

Franklin’s daily schedule was a thing of beauty. Most of us have a schedule we keep, but how many of us schedule in lunch and reading? What about sleep or reflecting on the past day?

Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

If it was important to Franklin, he scheduled it. This included sleep and preparing for the day. He adjusted this daily schedule over time and didn’t mind when life got in the way and he had to alter it. Take the basic idea of his schedule for yourself and set a time you get up every day which is a few hours before you have to start work.

Make sure to schedule in other important things like reading, checking social media, and reflecting on the day. Follow the schedule as best as you can and you’ll be surprised what it can do for you.

6. Work Hard

Benjamin Franklin working at a printing press.

Franklin believed in hard work, and felt that glory came from it. He worked tirelessly as a printer in Philadelphia, creator of Poor Richard’s Almanack, civil servant, inventor, diplomat, and more. He basically worked his butt off throughout his entire life, for which he’s justly honored today.

No man ever was glorious, who was not laborious.

Hard work pays off.

7. Time is Benjamins

100-dollar bills with Benjamin Franklin's image visible.

“You may delay, but time will not.”

One of the themes of Franklin’s autobiography is that time is the great equalizer. While others may have more skill, resources, or support, everyone has the same 24 hours in each day to get things done. What matters is what you do with those 24 hours and how productive you are in them.

We already mentioned Franklin’s schedule that kept him on track with his time, but realizing that your time is valuable goes beyond this. Working hard is one thing, but you need to assess whether something is worth your time based on what your time is worth to you. This is a cliche, but not when it’s radically applied to ideas about where you live (high-maintenance house vs. easy-to-clean apartment), how you spend your evenings (TV vs. learning a new skill), and what you eat (junk food that will drain your energy vs. healthy food that will help you be more productive).

The only thing separating you from Benjamin Franklin is hard work and dedication to getting things done. And maybe a kite.

Images in this post courtesy of Wikipedia and the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

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