3 Self-Improvement Tips from the Journals of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin sitting by his collection of journals and reading.
Benjamin Franklin by David Rent Etter (1835). Source: NPS

In my quest to study the journals of successful people, Benjamin Franklin has not only been near the top of my list but also has been most request by many of you who kindly write to me. Franklin has intrigued me due to his self-made success, start starting from humble beginnings and rising to become a successful printer, writer, musician, inventor, and, of course, Founding Father of United States.

Many, including myself, are aware of Franklin’s life accomplishments. But I wondered what processes he followed that eventually resulting in his accomplishments.

To answer that question, I dug into Franklin’s journals and writings and found timeless tips that I then experiment with on myself.

Insights from the Journals of Benjamin Franklin

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin

Before I share the specific tactics I experimented with, here is the repeatable formula that I observed consistently applied throughout Franklin’s lifetime:

If I have to sum up the theme in an equation, it would be;

curiosity + writing = self improvement

Curiosity drove Franklin to try vegetarianism and write about philosophy, politics, morals, and self-improvement — all despite dropping out of school at age 10.

Writing is how Franklin seized his curiosity and made it tangible not only for himself but also for others. But wait, how did he learn to write if he dropped out of school at age 10? Franklin’s curiosity led him to teach himself.

With that formula in mind, we can now dig into the specific tools and techniques that Franklin articulated while using it.

1. Create a List of Habits to Adopt — and Track Your Progress

By his early 20s, Franklin had already failed in business twice and was raising a son born outside his marriage.

Personally and professionally, Franklin felt unsatisfied, to say the least, and decided to change by articulating 13 virtues for his lofty goal of “attainment of moral perfection”:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. [Emphasis added.]

Franklin’s list of 13 virtues:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

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

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloths, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Source: The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, Part II, page 38

What is worth noting is that Franklin decided to concentrate on one virtue at a time:

  • “I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues.”
  • “I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day.”
  • “I crossed these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” [Emphasis added.]
A page from Benjamin Franklin's virtue journal
Benjamin Franklin tracking progress on his virtues. Asterisks indicate when he violated a virtue. Source: “The Autobiography of Ben Franklin,” Part II, page 39

Lessons Learned from Franklin’s Habit-Creation Process

Not everyone has the same goals as Franklin, and neither did I, so I articulated my own virtues (or goals) and followed these fundamental lessons learned from his process.

  1. Singular Focus: If you have a lofty goal, break it down into smaller chunks, and focus on each chunk at a time.
  2. Track Progress and Reflect: Changing habits take time. Rewire and condition yourself by recording your progress and reflecting.
  3. Repetition: Repeat until it becomes a habit for which you don’t have to exercise much effort.
  4. Accountability: Franklin shared and consulted with a friend, which must have allowed him to develop accountability — not to mention that he was writing his autobiography, in which he wanted to present his best self.
  5. Clarity: Instead of just setting the goal of achieving “sincerity,” Franklin further defined it with a sentence — “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly” — so his mind would have the clarity to focus.

2. Embrace a Routine with a Clearly Defined Schedule

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” — Benjamin Franklin

Under virtue number three of order, Franklin meticulously planned, tuned, and reworked his schedule to structure his days:

“The precept of Order [Franklin’s virtue number three] requiring that every part of my business should have its allotted time…”

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

A page from Benjamin Franklin's daily journal
A daily schedule in Franklin’s journal. Source: “The Autobiography of Ben Franklin,” Part II, page 40

Franklin also asked himself a couple simple questions each day to encourage gratitude:

  • In the morning: “What good shall I do this day?”
  • Before bed: “What good have I done today?”

At first glance, sticking to a rigid schedule may sound counter-intuitive to people whose lifestyle (family or otherwise) won’t allow it, but the lessons learned from Franklin’s schedule are more important than the rigidity of his schedule itself.

Lesson’s Learned from Franklin’s Daily Schedule

Despite the popularity of Franklin’s quote “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” it is incomplete and inaccurate: What about night owls? Did Franklin himself successfully practice it? Don’t feel intimidated by Franklin’s early schedule or disillusioned if you fail trying to adopt it; instead, extract the fundamental lessons and apply them to your own schedule:

  • Work in Compartments: Work takes over the time it is allowed; thus, constrain yourself for focus and productivity.
  • Track Your Time: You can’t improve what you don’t track.
  • Organize Your Time and Day: This help you focus on doing the work instead of thinking and managing it .
  • Reflect on Your Day: Ask yourself those two simple questions mentioned above.
  • Keep a Journal: Like Franklin, keep a journal so you can apply the simple formula of writing and curiosity in your life.

3. Making Decisions with a Smart Pro-and-Con List

Just when I thought I had discovered all of Franklin’s tools, I came across this letter, which arguably includes the earliest and wisest known description of a smart pro-con list for decision-making:

[M]y Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavor to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equalI strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Balance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly. [Emphasis added.]

Example of a decision I made in my journal using Franklin’s decision making method.
Example of a decision I made in my journal using Franklin’s method.

As fundamental and simple as it sounds, most of us struggle with good decision-making, which is a fine art of decisive, quick, and educated guesses. I didn’t realize how stress-free decision-making can be — from ending a relationship to shutting down my company — with Franklin’s decision-making method.

Lessons Learned from Franklin’s Decision-Making Method

Next time, do yourself a favor and keep the following decision-making fundamentals from Benjamin Franklin in mind:

  • Write It Out: Don’t use your brain as a storage device where you keep looping over the same details; rather, use it as a decision-making tool.
  • Weigh Your Options: Weigh each of your options so you can eliminate them against the pros or cons.
  • Focus on Articulation Before Making a Decision: Clearly write out your decision, including the pros and cons, so you can clearly make a decision.

Living with the Lessons Learned from Franklin’s Journals and Writings

It is worth appreciating that not only have some people brought scrutinyto Franklin’s ideas on self-improvement, but many of us also lack the freedom to worry about the higher levels of self-improvement on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After all, Franklin had a dedicated housewife to take care of his children, a sister to help with household chores, and even a handful of slaves. Thus, one could argue that he had the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy provided for him, which then gave him the personal and economic space to reflect and develop higher-up values of virtues.

My take on that — as well as other arguments against why we can’t be like our heroes — is that it’s about the journey of self-improvement and not the destination. Franklin may have arrived at an economically and socially privileged position later in his life, but it’s important to keep in mind that his journey started humbly and ended with him yearning for more — that alone is enough for each of us to be forever growing through life.

“Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

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