The Ben Franklin Daytimer, and keeping odd hours…

It was not very long ago that I finally got around to reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Now this was in many ways an exercise in abject envy of one of history’s most effective people. The man was an unstoppable productivity machine. It seemed every one of his setbacks suited him just fine and he made them into great opportunities instead. But this kind of positivity I believed stemmed from the man’s ability to shelve what he could not do and focus cleanly and purposefully on his at-hand tasks. Which brings me to the real subject I’ve set out to write about today: Benjamin Franklin’s Daytimer.

One of the more difficult bits of maintaining my personal creative momentum has been guilt. Yes, guilt. Above the endless distractions of the internet and competing projects and planning trips and making tea and a mountain of reading I have mostly resolved is never getting done, guilt keeps me from maintaining my momentum. Now, doesn’t this seem illogical coming from a man who believes that the best way to motivate one’s self to their important creative work is by acknowledging it is their social responsibility? Yes, I admit it seems a little backward. But in truth the biggest problem is focus that falls apart. For me, I do not lose focus (I don’t misplace it), nor does it slip from one task to another. Instead it is as if I’ve fitted the wrench of my focus onto it’s bolt and its handle promptly resolves into sand. But what does that have to do with my guilt? 

There are certain ambient pressures of the world that enter into my thinking on focus and productivity. The first is the rampant and destructive glorification of “busy”. Working late nights and early mornings and all through the weekends is supposed to mean you’re doing something right. But Benjamin Franklin didn’t say “Toiling late and early to rise.” And more pointedly, that famous mantra, “Early to bed early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” doesn’t just promise that you’ll get a lot done. The promises of health and wisdom are probably more important than the wealth that always seems to catch our eyes first. So my guilt over not having accomplished enough during the day leads me to diminishing health and wisdom. After all, when I’m late to bed it usually means I’m bleary eyed and exhausted when I get there. This is never a state in which I feel healthier or more wise. 

Now I’m no neurologist but I do have some neurons of my own and I can say with some confidence that attempting to overcome chemistry by force of will is a losing battle. But with this revelation in mind one sees a way out. Some time ago I came across an exercise in “Write” by Karen E. Peterson Ph.D. which suggested allowing your more intuitive side guide you in structuring your day. The exercise asks you to carry a chart of the hours of the day with you on a daily basis along with a box of colored pencils, and to fill in the hours with whatever color occurs to you allowing your mood to be reflected by the color choices you make. After doing this for some time you’ll discover a pattern as to what parts of your day are your most active and creative or most relaxed and least apprehensive. This understanding goes a long way in building an effective routine, which brings me back to old Mr.Franklin. 

In the autobiography one notices in several places Franklin’s proclivity for forming routines. It seems every new location or undertaking is accompanied by a description of its day to day, down to what kind of roll to be bought for a daily walk about town, whether it should be buttered, how much should be paid for it, and how it might affect the afternoon’s swimming. There is a section in the book which outlines the broader blocks of Franklin’s time each day, breaking out a 3 hour Rise, Wash, and Breakfast period, from two 4 hour work periods split by a 2 hour lunch, and a 4 hour evening for socializing and relaxation. Did you catch that? BENJAMIN FRANKLIN took 2 HOURS for lunch! It is at this point that we should all give ourselves license to quit feeling lazy about not spitting turkey sandwiches all over our computer screens during our half hour “breaks” and start getting serious about the effective use of our time. Guilt trip over, its time to fix the problem.

I have been playing with what I’m going to be calling the Ben Franklin Daytimer for a couple of weeks now. Essentially I am combining Franklin’s idea of an 8 hour workday in two 4 hour blocks separated by a generous break with the Pomodorino system to bolster the effectiveness of those work periods. If you’re unfamiliar with Pomodorino time management, do a little google searching and you’ll find a great many descriptions and best practices. Its a simple method of dedicating short blocks of time to a specific task using a basic kitchen timer, and then taking short breaks between those work periods. I don’t actually use a kitchen timer, instead I use a great Mac App called ChronoSlider which makes setting timers and even recurring alarms a really smooth and incredibly quick process, if you’re a mac user, check it out. As a person obsessed with organizing my projects it can be a challenge to put those things out of mind and the security of knowing that the bell will ring in a half hour makes it much easier and allows me to focus with greater intensity. But there is the even greater obstacle of having focus that will not dissolve to sand when you try to use it, and this I believe is where routine becomes important.

Early to bed. Sleep is hugely important to whether I can focus and think and be creative. I made mention above of chemistry and as I understand it nothing is quite as important to the chemistry of productivity as the time you spend asleep. This is another place where guilt shows up. After all, when you are uncomfortable about not having done enough, or you want to wear your sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, you are not likely to sleep well. Again, we need to think more about the ways we really do our best work and not use the hours and stress we put in as a measure of our commitment. I’ve personally been having the most trouble with this bit, the regularity of my routine. This is for several reasons (including my part time jobs with inconsistent schedules) but most frustratingly because of the nature of the work I’ve been doing. When you come right down to it, you’ve got to show up. And for me that has meant not just being at my computer and ready to do some post processing and writing but also being several hours drive from my home at sunrise to photograph seascapes. Breaking my routine has been detrimental to my sleep cycle and to my focus, but the pictures are coming out great, and thats the most energizing part of my day.

Not all challenges are trouble, just take them as they are, set your timer, and dive in. If you’re like me, or like Franklin, you probably have more stuff on the back burner than you care to admit. So if there’s a block in your way, don’t spend too much energy regretting it, instead just pull something else to the burner thats working and set your timer. And if you’ll excuse me, its time to get up and stretch.

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