How Benjamin Franklin Stayed Focused on What’s Important, Every Day

image Benjamin Franklin was a man who got a lot done. He was “a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat” — in addition to being one of America’s founding fathers.

But early in life, Franklin was just another guy who struggled with time management. At age twenty in July of 1726, on a sea voyage home to Philadelphia from London, Franklin began to think more about what productivity really meant and how to achieve it.

What was important to Franklin was not the external goals of making money or being famous. It was about the type of man he wanted to be. Out of that thinking, Franklin developed his thirteen virtues, a list of character traits to live by.

Nevertheless, like the rest of us, Franklin still found it a huge challenge to practice his virtues. Every day we’re bombarded with conflicting interests and distractions so that it’s incredibly difficult to focus on what’s important. Franklin even devised a scorecard and other techniques to keep him on track, but one of the most powerful tricks he used was also his simplest.

Every night before bed, Franklin would ask himself, “What good have I done today?” 


While Franklin’s question focused on what “good” he did everyday because he was trying to become a more virtuous human being, the frame of reflecting on the good of your day is a neat mental trick to ensure that you’re always considering whether you’re moving forward rather than just moving.

On days when he succeeded, the question would be a chance for him to recognize and acknowledge his wins. On days when he fell short, the question was a nudge to reflect on what’s important and how he could get back on the right path.

What this wasn’t, though, was a way for Franklin to achieve perfection. In his words, “[T]ho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of attaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and happier man.”

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Franklin image: Wikimedia Commons


    I’ve seen this before, it’s very interesting. For a while I even had a reference list setup in (my task management tool) to ask myself some morning questions each day.

    I worked for a while, but I never felt like I got a lot out of the expeirence. Perhaps I didn’t stick to it long enough.

    Have you tried the technique?

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I celebrate my victories in a leather-bound booklet – and didn’t realize, until I read this, that I need to do it a lot more, and for tinier things. So easy to just check them off the list – and forget them.

    But the recording of things you put your heart and work into sounds like a much better way to use the fact that you got something done than merely eliminating its name on a list.

    Thanks! I get a lot of things done that are hard – and don’t take the reward. Seems so obvious – but it is NOT obvious.