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Benjamin Franklin’s Habit Tracker

Chapter 8 of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography recounts how his desire for self-improvement wasn’t in itself enough to beat the force of habit:

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. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.

He realizes that “mere speculative conviction” about what would be the right thing to do isn’t enough, and that “the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established” in order to live his ideal life.

So Franklin developed a method that continues to be adopted and adapted by many people today, including Gretchen Rubin, whose Happiness Project I reviewed a few weeks ago; Merlin Mann of 43 Folders; and Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

Define your Values

First, Franklin went through a process of clarifying the underlying values (or virtues, in his language) that he wants to express in his life by changing his habits. Because existing authorities differ in their language, he chooses to write his own definitions: “I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.” Thus for each of his 13 virtues he creates a specific explanation:

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

For someone else, the reminder to give up resentment might go under a heading of forgiveness or charity, but for Franklin it’s part of his guiding value of moderation. The important point here is that setting personal goals is, well, personal. Taking the time to reflect upon and investigate your underlying values will ensure that your project of instilling new habits will not only be more successful, but more effective in creating the change you want.

Franklin organized his virtues by priority, believing that starting with Temperance would then provide him with a foundation that would make developing the other virtues easier.

Track Your Progress

Each of the precepts or explanations Franklin wrote for his 13 virtues served as a benchmark for his behavior. Knowing that it is difficult to concentrate on more than one new habit at a time, Franklin set up a system to work through his 13 virtues sequentially and to track his progress using a daily scorecard.

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.

Although at the end of each day Franklin would review his list of virtues and mark “little black spots” for any faults that he committed, he set a particular focus for each week in turn:

Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day. Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T, clear of spots, I suppos’d the habit of that virtue so much strengthen’d and its opposite weaken’d, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next…

His hope is that in repeatedly going through the sequence of 13 virtues, he might eventually have a little book “clear of spots.” Although he eventually stopped focusing on particular virtues for each week, he kept up the practice of nightly self-examination throughout his life, finding that this practice helped him focus on his virtues and bring his conduct in better alignment with his values.

Find the Tool that Suits You

There are lots of ways to emulate Franklin’s scorecard: five minutes in a spreadsheet or word processing program will give you a template you can print out to use. (Here’s an example of an Excel version.) You can also use the DIY Planner’s Franklin add-on.

Over time, Franklin realized that paper books wouldn’t hold up to constant use and so he switched to using ivory memorandum books like this one, which could be written on and erased multiple times.

If you’re drawn to paperless record-keeping, try Joe’s Goals or GoalHappy, which are free online habit trackers that can be accessed from your computer or smartphone. There are also plenty of Android and iPhone apps. Find a notebook, printout, or digital tool that you like and you’ll be much more likely to stick with the practice of tracking your behavior over time.

It’s worth noting that many modern-day adaptations of Franklin’s method recommend tracking the positive days — the days you did well — rather than the days you did poorly, so as to boost the positive reinforcement you get from looking at your tracking chart.

Have you ever tracked a new habit using a similar method? Let us know in the comments!

[all images from The Library Company of Philadelphia's exhibit Benjamin Franklin Writer and Printer]

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