What Ben Franklin Teaches us about Productivity

A few years ago I earned an executive masters in the neuroscience of leadership and one of my primary profs was a super smart (and really nice) Ph.D., Josh Davis who wrote the book Two Awesome Hours. You can learn more about his book here. If you want to up your productivity game, this is the book to read. Josh is my guest writer today and you’ll enjoy his story below about Ben Franklin’s productivity.

There’s probably no one more famous for his industriousness than Benjamin Franklin. People the world over agree he was a model of effectiveness and productivity. He was frustratingly capable. His list of accomplishments is absurd: author, inventor, scientist, printer, philosopher, politician, postmaster, diplomat, and more. How can any human being do this much in a lifetime? A quick look at his rise as a printer and publisher—his primary profession—sheds some light on the way he worked and, in the process, reveals a lot about what we are doing right and what we are not.

By 1724, at the age of eighteen, Ben Franklin had already apprenticed in a printing house in Boston, worked independently in a printing house in Philadelphia, and published a handful of widely read articles. That year he left for England, where he would learn the printing trade from the best, such as Samuel Palmer, a well-established printer. Not bad for a poor kid with sixteen siblings.

While working at Palmer’s, Franklin quickly annoyed and impressed those around him with his work ethic and cleverness. His coworkers drank beer from morning to night; he drank water so he could have the physical stamina to outperform them and save a little money. You might say it was easier to have a competitive advantage in those days, but Franklin gets credit for seeing the opportunity, taking the risk, and following through. Ultimately, he was promoted and he moved to an even better firm.

When he returned to Philadelphia a couple of years later, he was willing to do what it took to establish himself. After working for another printer for a few years, he took on debt to set up his own business. With a print shop at his disposal, and in need of cash, he identified another opportunity: publishing his own material. There was only one newspaper in town, which Franklin considered “a paltry thing, wretchedly manag’d, no way entertaining.” He knew he was the only printer in the area who also had the ability to write well, so he tried his hand at publishing newspapers and eventually Poor Richard’s Almanack. Almanacs have space to fill, apart from their noteworthy dates. Franklin filled the empty spaces with his (now famous) proverbs, making his almanac more entertaining and much easier to sell. Poor Richard’s Almanack was a hit.

In order to secure the success of his printing business, he also took on the position of clerk of the General Assembly, which allowed him to meet plenty of people who had a say in where government printing (things like ballots and money) was done, and he eventually landed the job of postmaster in Philadelphia, which helped him circulate his newspaper. These positions offered small pay and meant extra work, but they also allowed his printing business to take off, helping him become a man of some status in town.

Benjamin Franklin was and still remains a beautiful example of productivity and achievement. Work hard, take on more and more, and success will follow. Today, everyone thinks they have to be like Franklin to achieve some success. They have to do more than what seems possible. But the truth is, not even Franklin was like Franklin. As it turns out, beyond taking care of his finances, he was anything but focused on work.

We seldom talk about this other Franklin, hardly the live-for-your-job icon we sometimes think of. But I didn’t have to look hard to find out more about him: it’s in his autobiography. He loved to think and create. He spent huge amounts of time on hobbies and with friends when he could have been working at his moneymaking career as a printer. In fact, the very interests that took him away from his primary profession led to so many of the wonderful things he’s known for, like inventing the Franklin stove and the lightning rod.

To understand the secret to his success, I believe it’s crucial to look at how he spent his downtime and just how much of it he had.

One of his main hobbies as a young man was hanging out every Friday with a group of guys who were seriously into books and talking about ideas. The group would agree on a topic to discuss at the next meeting, and each would read what he could on the subject so he could come back prepared to argue. Books, however, were hard to come by in Philadelphia back then; many needed to be ordered from England. Franklin’s group realized it would be nice to keep all their books in one place so they could check one another’s references easily—a concept that led eventually to the great and historic public library now called the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Franklin did not found the library when he was around age twenty-five to make money for his printing business, nor was it part of a government position he held. He simply put time into founding this library because he enjoyed talking about ideas, especially ideas that would lead to improving himself and the world around him. He loved literature and art. He even wrote some music for his wife. And, famously, he was an incurable flirt, spending a great deal of time wrapped in that pursuit after his wife’s death. He was also the original American self-help junkie. He tried vegetarianism briefly because he’d read about it in a book—and loved all the money he saved. Plus, he poured tons of time and energy into developing a plan to practice his now famous thirteen virtues. Of those thirteen virtues, one jumps out as seemingly relevant for anyone trying to pack in as much work in a day as possible: the virtue of Order (i.e., being organized). Franklin claimed he never really got good at that one, writing in his autobiography, “In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it.”

He earned a reputation for enjoying the many pleasures of life—from learning to socializing to flirting to creating. It seems dazzling that he could do so much work professionally and still enjoy so much hobby, leisure, and social time. So how did he do it?

Every day he created the mental and biological conditions for peak effectiveness, and in those periods of effectiveness, he accomplished extraordinary things. He did not cram tasks related to his printing business into every available hour. In fact, in a plan he drew up for how to spend his days he included time for a two-hour break for lunch and other things, time in the evening for “music or diversion, or conversation,” and a full night’s sleep. It was probably because he made time for pleasure, learning, creativity, entertainment, physical health, family, and social connection that he was so successful in his moneymaking work, rather than in spite of it.

Devoting all of his time to his printing business rather than his other interests would have been the most efficient use of his time. But imagine how little we would know of him had he done so, had he never reserved the mental space and energy for his many inventions, for his philanthropy, and perhaps even for his printing empire.

Which Benjamin Franklin do you want to be: the one who carved out time for his hobbies and social pastimes, jumping from interest to interest? Or the one who outperformed his competitors to become a productive, well-regarded, and wealthy businessman? These days, it seems there isn’t enough time for both, so we must choose to either enjoy life or succeed. The good news is that this is a false choice. We feel pressured to choose when we mistakenly assume that productivity depends on finding enough hours in the day.

Permission granted from Dr. Josh Davis to use this excerpt. Learn more about his book here.

Related posts:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.