December 2019: Using Ben Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart in a Modern Context

A few weeks ago, I visited Philadelphia for the first real time. As we followed our Free Tours by Foot guide from one historical landmark to the next in the Old City, my wife had to be direct with me at one point and tell me to “please stop talking about Benjamin Franklin so much.” I couldn’t help it- here was his print shop and there was his house and there was his filled-in privy pit, and did you know X, and isn’t it amazing that Y, and so on.

She was right of course, but it was hard for me to be anything less than super excited while in the presence of the actual physical remnants of Franklin’s life. Although I didn’t always recognize it, Franklin has had a tremendous impact on my life. I first read his autobiography in Michelle Kohler’s undergraduate Early American Literature class at Tulane (the same class in which I first read Whitman), and I remember being genuinely inspired by Franklin’s narration of his own industry, virtue, and self-improvement.

As it happens, this was also around the same time that I had started to keep a food and exercise journal. A year and a half earlier, in January 2006, Discovery Health was giving out free fitness and nutrition journals at the mall, and (it already being January, the month of fitness resolutions), I decided to give it a go. The chart worked really well for a while, holding me accountable for my actions (or lack thereof) and giving me a sense of pride when I wrote in my accomplishments. But, like most New Year’s resolutions, I eventually got distracted and “fell too far behind to catch up” and…well, you know how it goes.

Day #2 as an 18-year old outdoes my fittest day as a now-year-old.

But the next year, when I trained for my first marathon, I remembered this little booklet, and I came back to it. It was a great tool now that I had a long-term goal, and I used it until I ran out of space. After that, I decided to design my own, based on this one but slightly tailored to my needs and wishes (and home-printer conveniences).

The week of my first half-marathon

This turned out to be a great system for training for a race- it kept me focused on daily and weekly goals, conscious of my intake of food and output of energy, aware of patterns in my diet and exercise (if my running suffered, I might look back to see if I was eating too little or too much), etc. It was a good system, but I didn’t think of it beyond goal-oriented training.

And then, about five months after that first marathon, I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography in that class at Tulane. Possibly because of my own history of holding myself accountable in a daily charts and also possibly because of my Catholic upbringing, I connected with its ethos of rigorous self-discipline and self-improvement. Here’s a passage from Chapter 9 of Franklin’s autobiography:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. 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.

So what did he do? He created a daily chart to track his accomplishments and shortcomings of virtue.

Conceiving then, that… daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

 

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Chart

The result, Franklin reports, was great: “I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

The idea was fascinating to me. One could quantify and pin down and track and strategize his/her successes and shortcomings, rather than letting them float about uncharted in the nebulous ethers of the mind, where it’s so easy for thoughts to get lost, delayed, forgotten, etc. I revised my chart again to jettison some unnecessary things (like blood pressure, which I’d check at the free blood pressure stand at Target twice a year) and to alter the format to match my needs again. Most of all, though, I picked up the chart again not just for races (although it was crucial for my success with marathons and Ironmans) but for general well-being and self-improvement.

This became especially important as a doctoral student, when stress, lots of reading and writing and stationary (in-)activity, and an all around unusual lifestyle can significantly affect one’s health. I had put the chart down for a few years, but about three years into my Ph.D. I picked it back up, this time for a serious, long-term commitment. The chart helped me work off weight that I had gained at the beginning of my doctoral studies, and it has helped me maintain a steady weight and health ever since. It has helped me track stress, injuries, and, most of all, my work. It was during my dissertation work that I began using the chart not just as a food and exercise tracker, but as a research tracker, recording the articles or chapters I read that day, the proposals I wrote, the presentations I designed, the applications I submitted, how many pages or words I composed, etc. I took notes on my sleep habits and was able to connect that with patterns in productivity. I set goals for myself in the notes section, and I checked them off with pride. The accountability of writing down a success or leaving a space empty for a shortcoming has been a tremendous source of motivation for me. I’ll also say that I’ve learned self-forgiveness through this, because nobody can possibly be perfect all the time (as Franklin himself admitted). While one may think that this system breeds self-hate or unhealthy self-pressure, it’s actually helped me moderate the demands that I put on myself, because I know that in the past I’ve come up short and turned out fine, and I also know that it will do no good to place five articles on tomorrow’s agenda when I realistically won’t get through more than two or three.

Ah, and one other thing: the system has been fantastic for remembering what doctor I went to for X injury, and what I ordered the last time we went to Y restaurant, and what I did each day on Z vacation.

In 2019, I got tired of always printing out 2-3 double-sided sheets of paper and folding them over into little booklets that would get beat up everywhere they went, so I created a little bound booklet using the same format.

Now, heading into 2020, I decided to make a few more changes. Reflecting on my little Moleskin book in which I recorded sudden thoughts and notes during my first year at Tulane (yes, the same year I read Franklin), I added “Notes” pages to the back of the 2020 booklet. I also changed the formatting so that the open book will display one week per verso/recto, and it now includes a space for weekly strategy- a good spot for weekly goals, reflections, considerations, priorities, etc. Since it’s not just a food and exercise journal anymore, but now more a life tracker, I’ve renamed it a “Personal Almanac,” which may upset purists but to me it seems fitting. And, inspired by the Library of America’s ribbon marker, I added one into this booklet as well- a classy touch!

I’m proud to say that today is Day # 1,482 of keeping this journal, and I have no plans to stop using it and revising it any time soon. For now, I guess the only things it lacks are some Franklinesque aphorisms. I guess I’ll find some of those tomorrow, but then again:

Have you somewhat to do to-morrow; do it to-day.

1 thought on “December 2019: Using Ben Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart in a Modern Context

  1. Impressive self-discipline. I’ve generally used lists of virtues (and their corresponding sins) as a sort of personal “choose your own adventure” story. I suppose trying to follow them as guidelines is a healthier option.

    Thanks for writing this. Don’t let my silliness keep you from thinking my admiration is sincere.

    Like

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