What Three of America’s Founding Fathers Can Teach You About Productivity


Though they lived before homes had electricity and thought it was absolutely dapper to conceal their real hair with powdered wigs, the lessons America’s Founding Fathers taught us over two centuries ago still ring true today.

In order to help forge America, the Founding Fathers were forced to make the most of their time. Farmers, scientists and scholars by trade, these men had to carve out time from their schedules to round up their fellow countrymen and get them ready for revolution. And once that revolution proved successful, it was up to these men to create a permanent government that was fair and just.

Not quite the easy task.

In order to successfully juggle all of these serious responsibilities, the Founding Fathers had to figure out how to get things done well and done quickly.

Since these men hold such an important place in American lore, many of their writings and teachings have been preserved. And we stand to learn a lot from them. So let’s take a look at what three of the Founding Fathers did to be productive.


George Washington

Leading an army of rebels, Washington—the quintessential leader—certainly had his work cut out for him during America’s war for independence. Facing grievous odds, the general displayed his penchant for thinking outside the box, employing guerilla tactics to defeat the better armed and more formal British military.

Part of the reason Washington led the underdogs to defeat was because he understood that other men might be more intelligent than he. While British General Cornwallis employed a top-down approach to management, Washington was eager to listen to men of all rank.

In addition to valuing all ideas, Washington’s genius on the battlefield stemmed from his ability to conduct his affairs in an impressively civil manner. But it makes sense: America’s first president was enamored with rules of etiquette he strived to live by. Here are some of them:

  • Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  • Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
  • Read no letter, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity of doing it, you must ask leave.

Seems like Washington wouldn’t really dig a smartphone, eh? He was productive because he focused on who he was in the room with, respected them and listened to what they had to say.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph_Siffred_Duplessis_leftBalancing being a man of the world and a man who helped build a country was a tough thing to do—at least from anyone else’s shoes. But Franklin was impeccably organized, and as a result, he accomplished a hell of a lot during his time on earth.

Like Washington, Franklin bound himself to a set of principles—what he called his 13 Virtues—and at the end of each day, he reflected on whether he lived according to them. His virtues:

Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity, Tranquility, Humility.

By adhering to those virtues, Franklin believed he would be most productive. But on top of that, he employed a decision-making process that many to this day still find useful. Believe it or not, Franklin is the father of the ole pro and con list we use from time to time to assess the worthiness of a decision.

Per Franklin, we’re most productive when we adhere to our virtues and weigh our decisions carefully, choosing to invest our energies in the most sensible endeavors particular to our personal situations.

Thomas Jefferson

T_Jefferson_by_Charles_Willson_Peale_1791_2For Jefferson, there was nothing more important than being as productive as you could possibly be. To accomplish that goal is simple: Never find yourself with nothing to do; always be doing something worthwhile.

“Determine never to be idle,” Jefferson says. “No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.”

A man fiending for knowledge, Jefferson found “reading hacks” before “reading hacks” were even a thing. You could argue that he created the concept of tabbed browsing: In order to absorb as much knowledge as possible, Jefferson created an apparatus that allowed him to keep multiple books open at once, spinning them around to read the text he was most keen on at a particular moment.

Living in a world without electricity, Jefferson also believed that the key to being productive was to stay physically fit—exercising the body also exercises the mind, he believed—while maximizing your exposure to daylight.

“Whether I retire to bed early or late, I rise with the sun.”

Jefferson was productive because he refused to be idle and he consistently strived to lead a healthy life. It paid off: He died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, at the then-extremely-ripe-old age of 83.

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