Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. See our disclosure for more info.
He made his fortune as a newspaper publisher in Philadelphia, before dedicating himself to a life of public service. He started a volunteer fire department, served in many government offices, and helped start the revolution that gave birth to the United States. He might be the single most influential person in American History.
I mean, you’ve got to be pretty awesome to get your face on the hundred dollar bill, am I right?
How did one man accomplish so much? Well, he left behind a wealth of writings which give us a great idea of how he lived. The Poor Richard’s Almanack he published for many years is full of pithy sayings so often quoted they have become cliché.
But perhaps most instructive of all is the daily routine he recorded in his autobiography:
By reflecting on Old Ben’s daily schedule, and the words of wisdom he passed down to us, I have identified 8 lessons we can all learn about making the most out of life.
1. Winners Wake Up Early
The early morning has gold in its mouth.
Franklin was up before dawn every day, because he knew that the quiet solitude of early morning is the best time to compose yourself, get clear about your goals and the direction of your life. He would take 3 hours to read, study, plan and prepare for the day ahead – all before breakfast!
We all know what it’s like to oversleep. The alarm doesn’t go off for some reason, and you open your eyes to find that you have to be at work in only ten minutes. You leap out of bed, throw your clothes on, and rush out the door, feeling hurried and frazzled and completely out-of-sorts.
For some of us, this is an everyday occurrence!
Now imagine what life would be like if you had 3 full hours to get ready for your day. You can wash, dress, make breakfast, read the news, all at a leisurely pace. No rushing, no stress, just relaxing, enjoying your morning, and taking your time to fully wake up.
Ahhh… doesn’t that feel great?
2. Clear Your Head
Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man…
The first thing Franklin did each morning was “address Powerful Goodness.” That’s another way of saying he started the day with prayer. He would turn his thoughts toward his Creator, and ask for help and guidance. Such a prayer is recorded elsewhere in his autobiography:
O powerful goodness! Bountiful Father! Merciful Guide! Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolution to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favours to me.
Now I’m not saying that everyone should pray exactly this way. Quiet contemplative practice can take many forms, such as meditation or journaling. You don’t have to be religious; you don’t even have to believe in God.
What is important is that you take time each day to clear your head, and get your bearings, and get your inner world in order. Listen to your heart, and remember what really matters. Strive to live in harmony with all that is good and wholesome and sacred in the universe… whatever that means to you.
3. Make A Plan
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Following his morning prayer, Franklin would then proceed to “contrive the day’s business.” In other words, he would make a plan. This can be as simple as a to-do list written out on scratch paper, or it can be as profound as setting a major life goal, like going back to college or starting a new career.
The important thing is to write it down, on paper or digitally. Organize your goals and responsibilities into action steps, and prioritize them according to what needs to be done first.
Besides setting goals, both big and small, it is also helpful to set clear intentions. Franklin would ask himself, “What good shall I do today?” Indicating that he was setting a clear intention to do good, to be of service, to be productive.
One of my daily intentions is to do things slowly, mindfully, to savor each moment. You might have other ideas. The point is that besides asking what shall I do, we go deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be today? How am I going to show up?”
4. Never Stop Learning
An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
Franklin scheduled time every day to “prosecute the present study.” That is, he always had something that he was studying, something new to learn. He was always seeking to better himself, to further his knowledge and skills.
Never stop learning. Never let a lack of knowledge hold you back from doing what you dream of. Now more than ever, in the internet age, we have a limitless ocean of knowledge at our fingertips. Anything you want to learn, all you have to do is ask.
In a matter of moments you can find a how-to article or YouTube video that will answer nearly any question you have. The only limit on what you can learn, do, or accomplish, is the limit of your own curiosity, imagination, and willingness.
5. Routine is a Good Thing
Motivation is when your dreams put on work clothes.
Franklin followed the same schedule, day in and day out, because he understood the benefits of healthy habits and routines. Even though he spent a good part of his life engaged in lofty intellectual, political, and scientific endeavors, he still adhered to a strict work schedule.
He dedicated the same 8 hours of the day to whatever task lay before him, whether he was investigating the nature of electricity or negotiating peace between nations.
This is a challenge for me, and many other artists and creative types. As a writer, I want to be inspired, to be kissed by the Muse, to channel words from some mysterious, Divine Source, beyond myself… But I have deadlines.
I can’t wait around for a random flash of inspiration, or until I am “in the mood.” I have to sit down at the keyboard and start typing. And it turns out that the more I type, the more the creative juices start to flow.
If you’re an entrepreneur or a business owner who sets your own schedule, you may wrestle with this same problem – even if you don’t consider yourself an artist.
Establish a routine and stick to it. Schedule your work hours at the same time every day (whenever you do your best work), and eventually you will get into a rhythm. It becomes easier and easier to get “in the zone.”
Genius is perseverance. Success is a habit. No matter what you do for a living, inspiration comes when you are already hard at work. So don’t wait around – get busy!
6. Take It Easy
Happiness consists more in the small pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.
Franklin took a full two hours for lunch. He didn’t rush through his meal, he took his sweet time. He used the midday break as a time to read, relax, and recharge his batteries before returning to work. We could benefit greatly from following his example.
Too many people today treat the lunch break as a kind of necessary inconvenience. We wolf down our food like marines in the mess hall, so that we can hurry back to work as quickly as possible.
We don’t allow ourselves to slow down and savor each bite. We don’t give ourselves the chance to relax and unwind. Don’t make that mistake.
When I run out of steam at work, or I am struggling with a project, often the best thing I can do is to just walk away from it for awhile. I might pick up a book and read, like Mr. Franklin, or I might listen to music or take a walk outside. When I return, I have a clear head, renewed energy, and a fresh perspective. It works every time.
Bottom line: don’t cut your break time short. Make the most of it.
7. Make Time For Family, Friends and Fun
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
Spending time with friends and family, listening to music, having fun and enjoying life were as important a part of Franklin’s schedule as anything else. Perhaps more so. He knew that the greatest success was being happy, and that happiness was a matter of appreciating the little things in life.
Our culture places such a high value on productivity, working hard and keeping busy that constant hurry and stress has become a way of life for many. Our relationships with our friends, spouses, and even our children often take the backseat to our job and career. But what is the purpose of working hard, being successful, making money, etc. if you don’t take time to enjoy it?
When all is said and done, and we are looking back on our lives from our death bed, what will we be proud of? What will we regret? No one spends their final moments wishing they had spent more time at work, or climbed higher up the corporate ladder. Instead we wish for more time with our loved ones, and stronger, closer relationships.
That’s because family, friendship, love, laughter and connection are the most important things in life. So when you’re planning out your day, make sure you schedule accordingly.
8. Take Time to Reflect
Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.
The last thing Franklin did before retiring each night was to pause, and look back, and ask himself, “What good have I done today?” He knew that in order to learn and grow and become a better person, you have to take time to examine yourself, your decisions and behavior.
In our effort to improve ourselves and live better, happier lives, we must continuously stop and reflect, and take stock of our situation. We cannot change what we aren’t aware of. Each night before bed is the perfect time to look back on the day, to honestly review our choices and our actions, and see if we are living up to our intentions, and making progress toward our goals.
Notice that Franklin doesn’t ask himself, “What did I do wrong today?” He deliberately focused on what he did right, the work he accomplished, the progress he made. This is not a time to beat yourself up over your mistakes. This is a time to evaluate our behavior, acknowledge room for improvement, and celebrate each small step forward.
In the spirit of this piece of advice, also read How to Keep New Years Resolutions and use Ben Franklin’s lesson to your advantage next January!
After all, no matter how lofty our goals and ambitions, we can only get there one step at a time. In fact, we may never attain our ideals. No one ever reaches perfection. But we find fulfillment in continually reaching for it, and striving to better ourselves and our world. In the words of our Founding Father:
On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been, had I not attempted it.