What Ben Franklin can teach execs
Let others take the credit, set goals for the workday, and don't drink rum all day. And when your time-management fails, you're still better off for the attempt.
By Justin Fox, FORTUNE editor-at-large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - You'll never catch me reading a Stephen Covey book or attending one of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" seminars.

Why not? It's a combination of misplaced snobbery, an allergy to inspirational messages, and the fear that, once I've started on somebody's failsafe program for time-management success, I'll inevitably fall off the wagon and hate myself for it.

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Now, however, I have found an acceptable alternative. It is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It's history! It's literature! It's Franklin! And yeah, it is also something of a self-help/time-management bible. But the people sitting next to me on the subway don't need to know that.

I've had the book for years, but had never gotten around to reading any of it except a brief passage about an ancestor of mine, Samuel Mickle, whom Franklin mocks for being bearish on late-1720s Philadelphia real estate. ("This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because all was going to destruction," Franklin wrote, "and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.")

But a couple of weeks ago I was editing a piece by my FORTUNE colleague Ellen McGirt on the quest to weave our way through the interruptions and increasing digital distractions of the modern workday. (It's part of a great package of articles around the theme "How I Work.") Franklin's Autobiography is often cited as an early landmark of the time-management literature. So I figured now was the time to read it.

The book is mostly, as advertised, an autobiography -- sprinkled as most good autobiographies are with the occasional life lesson. One is astounded by all that Franklin manages to do (he teaches himself French, Spanish, and Italian in the evenings after full days of running a print shop, publishing a newspaper, and busying himself with Pennsylvania politics).

There is a steady stream of advice about interpersonal relations, the common thread of which is this: You can get a lot more accomplished if you let others take the credit. Franklin also argues that you can be more productive at work if you don't drink rum or beer all day, apparently a revolutionary concept in the 18th century.

It was during a sea voyage home from London in 1726 that Franklin had time to think more deeply about what constituted effectiveness, and how to achieve it. He refined his ideas over the following couple of years into a list of virtues (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility), after which he drew up a scorecard to keep track of how he was doing on each of them. Achieving order was a particular struggle, so he devised a template for his workdays that he consulted regularly:

"THE MORNING," it began. "Question: What good shall I do this day?" Then he was to spend 5 through 7 a.m. rising, washing, and eating. More importantly, he was to "Contrive day's business, and take the resolution of the day..." In the evening, after his day's work, he was, among other things, to ask himself, "What good have I done today?"

This emphasis on setting goals for the day ahead and taking stock afterward remains a staple of time-management advice. (At least, so I'm told.) There's clearly something to it: I know that I'm far more likely to accomplish something when I have a well-defined to-do list for the day. But in a work world where conflicting, competing priorities are the norm, it's really hard to stick to such a list. Which is why most of us seldom get around to devising one.

Ben Franklin certainly didn't. As a small-businessman he had to jump at the whims of his customers. Also, his interests were so many that he struggled to keep track them all. "I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order," he admitted in the Autobiography. "But on the whole, tho' 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 ..."

This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of Franklin's time-management advice: He was an admitted failure at it, and yet that was ... okay. Which is just about the most inspirational message conceivable.

Because the copyright on the book expired ages ago, there are multiple editions of the "Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" available from booksellers and libraries. Don't be discouraged: They're all essentially the same book, just with different introductions, annotations, etc. The book is also available in its entirety online here http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/148, here http://books.eserver.org/nonfiction/franklin/, and at many other sites.


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