Ben Franklin

Adults love to complain about teenagers. “You’ve got a teenager? …oh, they are a lot to handle.” Or, “They never listen.” When I teach my Behavioral Science for Leaders courses, some leaders will even go so far as to swear that “behavior change techniques don’t work on teens.” 

*not true, by the way.

It’s true, there are challenges in dealing with teens (and don’t we all have our challenges, after all?). 

…However, one thing that I find remarkable about teens and kids of all ages is the rate at which they can learn. I wish, in my old age, that I could still maintain the same pace of learning as our teen!

Our teen recently helped me get reacquainted with Ben Franklin’s amazing and effective self-management strategies. This is a very good lesson for leaders interested in more effective. 

There are many writings on the system that Franklin developed, you can search them for more detail, but I will lay this out in a series of steps you might follow to make Franklin’s approach your own.

If you’d like help applying this to your teams and results at work, it turns out that the 5-Step Behavior Change Process I wrote about in my recent book is mostly applicable here and overlaps a good deal with the process that Franklin followed.

Step 1. Identify the areas of your personal or work life you’d like to improve. 

Franklin picked what he called the 13 Virtues:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
    2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
    3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
    4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
    5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
    6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
    7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
    8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
    9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
    10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
    11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
    12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
    13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. 

He selected these because he knew he needed to work on them. You might need to work on other things. You can start with these and replace some, or create a whole new list for yourself.

He also chose to select 13 because it fit into the calendar year nicely – 13 * 4 = 52 weeks – so he could work on one per week and cycle through the whole list 4 times in a year. He likened the process to weeding a garden in sections that rotated over time.

Step 2. Focus your efforts.

Since he knew that it’s hard to make progress when you select too many things to focus on, he chose to focus on one virtue each week. This is the basic premise of the book, Essentialism, which is on my must-read list for leaders I coach.

In behavioral science, we call this approach ‘shaping’ – where you break down the overall goal into smaller components so as you can focus on approximations to your final goal.

Step 3. Measure your progress.

Franklin used a data sheet to measure his progress daily on the virtues. He made a mark every time he slipped up or

behaved in a way he didn’t want to. He focused on one virtue each week but tracked them all, leaving the others to occur naturally.

Step 4. Reflect. 

Franklin reportedly wrote in his journal nightly to reflect on how he did on his target virtue that day.

Step 5. Change your environment, make it more satisfying to improve.

One thing not clearly reported (to my knowledge) in Franklin’s writings was how he changed his environment to change his behavior.

…We know this is essential for behavior change, and he did make changes through self-monitoring and reflection. I would guess that he also removed barriers that made it harder for him to improve, and made other subtle changes to his schedule, daily practices, and words so that he could see better improvement in the virtues.

Some report that although Franklin thought mastering these virtues would take him a few weeks or possibly months, he worked on them for 10 years or more and never mastered them all. 

…However, by his own reports, following this process made him a better person and much happier in life.

If you’re using your own system for self-management, write to me and tell me about it by clicking here, I’d love to hear from you.

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