Benjamin Franklin & the Two Important Questions


Though Benjamin Franklin isn’t remembered as an influential politician the same way other Founding Fathers are, the statesman and diplomat had an inarguably distinctive effect on America.

Over the course of his life, Franklin donned many hats. He was an inventor credited with creating bifocals, flippers, and the lightning rod, among other things. A student of life, Franklin was a pioneer of the public library. He is also credited as being the father of the pros-and-cons list. The achievements are endless.

By all measures, Franklin was an incredibly productive individual. Part of the reason he was able to accomplish so much was because he invested a lot of time and energy into planning his days. In fact, he tried to live each of his days the same way by following a timetable he created.

Here’s what Franklin’s average day looked like:

  • 5 a.m–8 a.m. Wake up. Get cleaned up. Say hello to the good Lord above. Figure out what’s on the agenda for the day. Eat breakfast.
  • 8 a.m.–12 p.m. Work.
  • 12 p.m.–2 p.m. Read or overlook accounts; eat lunch.
  • 2 p.m.–5 p.m. Work.
  • 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Clean up. Put things away. Have dinner. Listen to music or get entertained somehow. Engage in conversation. Reflect on the day.
  • 10 p.m.–5 a.m. Sleep.

Some of his rituals were definitely eccentric, to say the least. Not everyone is interested in opening up all of the windows in their house, getting naked, and letting the cold air consume them for 30 minutes in the morning. Of course, there are some people who might take kindly to such an idea. But they probably don’t live in Minnesota.

The two questions

What’s most interesting about Franklin’s routine is that he made sure to ask himself two questions every day—one in the morning and one at night:

  1. What good shall I do this day?
  2. What good have I done today?

Take note of the way the second question is phrased. As an inventor, Franklin’s experiments didn’t always go correctly. He shocked himself often while tinkering around with electricity, for example.

Most people who reflect on the progress they made over the course of a day might ask themselves “did I accomplish what I set out to do today?” In many cases, we don’t complete everything we hope to on any given day. By asking himself what he accomplished instead of whether he accomplished what he planned on accomplishing, Franklin opened up the possibility of noticing accidental innovations and new perspectives on single events—even if those events didn’t go as originally intended.

Let’s say you’re a student who was planning to finish up a group presentation today. Unfortunately, the day got away from you and while you made some progress, there’s still a lot of work to do. You didn’t accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

But that doesn’t mean your day was a total failure.

One of your partners on the project taught you 35 new ways to apply effects in Photoshop. And another member of your team taught you how to say “one more beer” in Czech (ještě jeden pivo). You also stumbled upon this incredible article about one of America’s Founding Fathers and learned about his unique productivity system that is still useful centuries after his death.

Just because you may not accomplish what you intend to get done on any given day doesn’t mean your time was wasted. In 1968, Spencer Silver was working for 3M and was asked to create a super strong adhesive that could be used by manufacturers in the aerospace industry. Silver failed in that regard. But he ended up creating the non-super strong adhesive that’s used on Post-it Notes.

Veering off track—or straight up failing at what you set out to do—may even result in major unintended accomplishments. It all depends on how you frame the questions you ask yourself at the end of the day.

The relevancy of the Franklin timetable

Though Franklin’s timetable is more than 200 years old, it remains relevant today. There are still 24 hours in a day. We still work in the morning, take lunch breaks, work in the afternoon and then quit for the day. We still sleep at night, and seven hours is still considered enough shuteye.

Sure, you’re probably not too thrilled at the concept of getting up at 5 a.m. each morning. But you don’t have to copy Franklin’s schedule precisely; you can modernize it and customize it to your own schedule.

The point is that Franklin devised a schedule that worked for himself and did his best to stick to it as often as he could. By following a strict regimen—no matter how unspecific it was—Franklin made certain he could accomplish things every day he worked.

Projects might not move forward as seamlessly as you hoped. Something you budget three hours for might take you eight. A distraction may throw you off your game and thwart your progress.

But as long as you’re always learning new things and making progress, you’re being productive.

Franklin’s schedule may not work for you. But his two questions almost certainly will. Check in with yourself at the beginning and the end of each day to see where you stand. Don’t dwell on your failures. Celebrate your achievements, always, no matter how tangential and inconsequential they may seem.

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