Define Productive Success

Benjamin Franklin

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin did more than just sign the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution: he was also a self-improvement guru, and his ideas have been a part of everything from his Poor Richard’s Almanac to the famed Franklin planner. In honor of America’s Independence Day on Monday, I’ll be posting a two-part series applying Ben’s principles to the problem of productivity.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin details a system he created to help him become a better and more virtuous human being. He wasn’t keen on his local minister, so he created his own means of edification and improvement. By his reasoning, he knew enough to look after his own behavior.

“As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined: While my Care was employ’d in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpris’d by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. Inclination was sometimes too strong for Reason. I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was in our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping.”

Just as Ben knew it was in his best interest to be virtuous, we all know it’s in our best interest to be productive. We accomplish things that make us feel useful and we have more time to spend doing things we enjoy. But as Ben noticed, that doesn’t keep us from slipping.

The first step he took in remedying this slippery tendency was to figure out where the solid ground was. He made a list of thirteen virtues he needed to foster and defined each one carefully. He made his list with this guiding principle: “[U]se rather more Names with fewer Ideas annex’d to each, than a few Names with more Ideas.” Thus, he didn’t come up with a category called “Virtue” and leave it at that. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to figure out if you’re being productive if you define success as something other than Being Productive.

For example, Benjamin Franklin’s sixth virtue, industry, is defined this way: “Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.” Another virtue that might fall under the banner of Being Productive is his definition of resolution: “Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.” Outline what you consider Being Productive to mean. Does it mean doing something all the time? Or does it mean getting everything done for Project A while you’re at work so you don’t have to do it at home? Whatever productivity means to you, you need to define it for yourself. If you know what it is you’re trying to achieve, it’s a whole lot easier to get there.

Ben chose his virtues carefully: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. His definitions included things like “Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation” as well as “Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.” Likewise, you should choose your markers of success carefully. Are you looking for a tangible product (create this amazing deliverable before the end of the week)? Or more intangibles (spend time out of the office with family, not on work)? Whatever your end goal is, you’ll benefit from defining it carefully so you can track your progress, learn from failures, and take a little joy in your successes.

On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at Benjamin Franklin’s method for implementing his list of virtues.

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