Benjamin Franklin and the ‘personal productivity’ movement

20 May 2009

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Walking in downtown San Francisco some years back, I stumbled on a FranklinCovey shop, the retail spin-off of the best-selling self-help book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Entering FranklinCovey, with its walls adorned with books about time management and its display cases filled with electronic organisers and day planners, is like entering a cultural stronghold of Protestant efficiency and sobriety.

The closest thing that FranklinCovey has to a Common Book of Prayer is the FranklinCovey Planning System. The Planning System looks like a Filofax on steroids, though the FranklinCovey people insist that this is no mere day planner. For a start, it comes with a 14–page instruction booklet and four CD-ROMs that introduce novices to the mysteries of ‘fourth-generation time-management’. This includes drafting a ‘personal mission statement’ and drawing up a detailed ‘blueprint of your life’s plans’.

According to FranklinCovey, faithful adherence to their commandments of time management will ‘save or gain an average of 3.3 hours of discretionary time each week’. With the extra time, they claim that you can make those extra calls to reach your sales target, fit in three one-hour workouts or begin that novel you’ve always meant to write.

Leafing through the Planner, with its ‘Master Task Lists’, ‘Monthly Indexes’, and ‘Prioritised Daily Task Lists’, I reckon I’d need the extra three hours a week just to keep it up to date.

Despite my misgivings, FranklinCovey insist that the Planner is based on sound principles. It’s modeled after the simple lesson set by Benjamin Franklin — the Franklin in FranklinCovey — who carried a little notebook with him to record his values and goals.

Benjamin Franklin’s achievements are not to be sniffed at. His long career included stints as a printer and publisher, a writer, diplomat, administrator, and inventor, not to mention a founding father of the United States, which earned him the honour of having his portrait printed on the US one hundred dollar bill.

The growth of Franklin’s notebook to a Bible-dwarfing tome and multimedia extravaganza with tie-in books, seminars, CDs, software, and globe-spanning retail chain is a measure of how our doubts and anxieties have grown about our place in the world, and with it, our sense of self-worth.

Sixty or seventy years ago, the measure of a good life for most people was achieving the respect of one’s peers and community and leaving behind a modest legacy. While there were overachievers they tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Their success was likely to be put down to their innate talent or their being born into the kind of family where greatness was expected.

Nowadays everybody is expected to live a life bursting with stellar achievements. Anything less seems scandalously unambitious.

It’s not just a matter of heightened expectations, though. It’s also that the once-familiar reference points that gave some indication of what the good life consists of, and in what direction it lay have slipped from view. Increasingly we’re left to our devices to come up with our own version of the good life.

This can be liberating. Few would wish for a return to a world in which cultural and religious institutions ruled people’s lives and imposed meaning on them.

However, the freedom to define who you are, freed from the constraints of community and tradition, comes at a price. In the past, the community in which one lived gave much of the structure of life. Now, increasingly, the balance has shifted. Individuals bear a greater share of the burden for supplying structure and meaning to their lives life.

Our condition is similar to that of the dangling man of Saul Bellow’s first novel of the same name. Joseph, the dangling man of the title, is unemployed and awaiting his Draft papers to come through. Supported by his wife, his aimless days are spent seeking transcendence in the great minds of the Enlightenment, seeing friends and family, most of whom he manages to alienate, and carrying on an affair which must rank among the most anemic in the history of literature.

Pondering the limbo in which he finds himself, Joseph reflects:

Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and the Church, representing God, did battle over him. He, by reason of his choice, partially decided the outcome. But whether, after life, he went to hell or to heaven, his place among other men was given. It could not be contested. But since the stage has been reset and human beings only walk on it, and, under this revision, we have, instead, history to answer to. We were important enough then for our souls to be fought over. Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness.

When his Draft papers finally arrive, Joseph finds release in the regimentation promised by military life. ‘I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom cancelled’, Joseph exclaims. ‘Hurray for regular hours! And for supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!’

Contemporary dangling men and women are more likely to find release in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. But, true to Bellow, in The Eighth Habit, his predictably-titled follow-up to the 7 Habits, Stephen R. Covey now thinks that being effective is no longer enough. The new world of work and life, he writes, ‘will require us to build on and reach beyond effectiveness. The call and need of a new era is for greatness.’ (Italics in original).

The greatness that Covey has in mind turns out to have less to do with the judgement of history, and is more in keeping with the expectations of corporate life: fulfilment, passionate execution, and significant contribution. But, as with Bellow’s dangling man, for Covey the path to greatness turns out to be regimentation: keeping a daily planner, setting goals, repeating little scripts and mantras, and cultivating particular habits, all with the aim of maintaining a positive mental outlook.

The Planning System doesn’t promise to give us back balance or meaning so much as supply us with tools with which to navigate the uncertainties and attendant anxieties that come with a more fluid life. It supplies a prefabricated template, backed up with the scientific-sounding tools of time management, into which individuals can pour the contents of their lives.

By taking control of one’s time and developing little regimes of habits, self-help gurus like FranklinCovey hold out the promise of reclaiming the anchorage points that give structure and meaning to life — family, personal projects and objective measures of success — that the seemingly free-floating world has deprived us.

Or does it? The Planning System is premised on the idea that the individual is essentially alone when it comes to defining what it means to live the good life. Once armed with some rules for effective time management, individuals can devise their own version of the good life. Which is all very well, except that who’s to know if you don’t adhere to, or attain them?

In this, the self-help gurus overlook another lesson from Benjamin Franklin’s life: that he wasn’t the sole author of his own success.

As Gordon Wood shows in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, the popular image of Franklin as the original self-made man is largely mythical. It was propagated soon after his death by early boosters of American capitalism.

Franklin’s life is more complex and interesting. He lived in a society where established social norms and structures were undergoing rapid change. Central to this change was the rise of a growing class of skilled artisans whose wealth distinguished them from other manual labourers. These people weren’t readily accepted as gentlemen since they were involved in manual labour. Gentlemen, by contrast, gave the impression (and often it wasn’t just an impression) to not work at all.

As a successful printer and author, Franklin was part of this growing class, caught between the worlds of the tradesman and the gentleman. Social mobility for such people was not undertaken lightly. Putting a foot wrong was to risk the opprobrium of those who held themselves to be socially and culturally superior, and alienation from one’s peers in the trades.

However, Franklin didn’t negotiate these changes on his own or supply his own definition of success. His rise was enabled by the aid of peers and the patronage of members of gentlemanly society who bankrolled his various business ventures. Without this assistance, it’s likely that Franklin’s considerable achievements would have been far more modest.

To some, this might appear to be nothing more than a scurrilous attack on the man and his achievements. It shouldn’t be. Far from taking away from Franklin’s achievements, Franklin’s genius wasn’t his conscientiousness in maintaining a journal or reciting positive affirmations, but his ability to gain the confidence and esteem of his peers and to work for their mutual benefit.

It’s a message that’s often overlooked by the ‘personal productivity’ crowd.