Benjamin Franklin’s many achievements as a statesman and scientist grew from his belief in the power of self-improvement. At the age of 20, he began an arduous project of “arriving at moral perfection,” as documented in his autobiography published posthumously in 1791. He was determined to practice 13 virtues that, rotated on a weekly basis, he believed would help him achieve success in life: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. The 13 virtues could fit into a calendar year neatly, allowing Franklin to cycle through the list four times a year.
As part of his goal of becoming more orderly, he developed a rigorous daily schedule. Franklin found that his “scheme of order” was the most challenging virtue to practice. Being in the printing business required him to have a flexible schedule and “receive people of business at their own hours.” He compared himself to a man who buys an ax and asks the smith to smooth it for him—but, being too busy, concludes, “I think I like a speckled ax best.”
Although he never arrived at the moral perfection he sought, he said that he was nevertheless “a better and happier man” for attempting it. Franklin exhibited punctuality and diligence despite not living up to his own standards. He remains perhaps the most famous historical representative of the American middle-class work ethic.
"5:00 am. Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive day’s business, and take the resolution of the day: Prosecute the present study, and breakfast."
Addressing “Powerful Goodness” refers to Franklin’s habit of spending time in contemplation and prayer to focus his mind. While he doesn’t mention it in his autobiography, in other writings, he has noted that he often started his day with exercise: taking a walk or going for a swim.
After breakfast, Franklin would make a to-do list. This would largely consist of matters regarding his printing and publishing business.
"8:00 am. Work."
Ben Franklin’s work hours were occupied with printing and publishing books, newspapers, and pamphlets. He set up a printing business with a partner in 1728 and bought the Pennsylvania Gazette with him in 1729.
"12:00 pm. Read, or overlook my accounts, and dine."
Franklin began experimenting with vegetarianism a few years before starting his moral perfection project. Though he eventually found it difficult to maintain and returned to eating meat, he would continue to experiment with vegetarianism off and on throughout his life. Some menu items he noted in his autobiography that were associated with a vegetarian meal plan include: boiled potatoes or rice, porridge, a handful of raisins or a pastry tart, and a biscuit or a slice of bread.
"2:00 pm. Work.
6:00 pm. Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day."
“Putting things in their places” referred to his habit of reviewing what he had accomplished during the day, considering shortcomings, and making plans for the next day.
Franklin played a few instruments, including harp, guitar, and violin. He also liked singing with friends.
In late 1727, he formed a social organization called “The Junto,” which was devoted to community projects and intellectual inquiry. Although his daily schedule did not mention these meetings specifically, it is known that he met with his “Junto” members on Friday evenings to talk business and debate philosophical topics.
"10:00 pm. Sleep."
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.