An illustration of Benjamin Franklin sitting in an 18th century library reading Image credit: Midjourney

Analog Days: Rediscovering the Franklin Planner

Exploring the roots of the Franklin Planner system and its connection to Benjamin Franklin’s methods

Dive into the history of the Franklin Planner system, a once-popular analog productivity tool, and learn how its principles are rooted in Benjamin Franklin’s methods for personal development and virtue.

I’ve always been a bit of a productivity system nerd. I’ve been fascinated by how others manage their lives, stay on top of tasks, and keep things organized. When I landed my first job out of college, I was sent to a Franklin Quest seminar where I received a vinyl-covered planner and was introduced to the world of personal and professional organization. Little did I know, it would spark a lifelong interest in productivity systems and tools.

There was a time when the Franklin Planner system, later known as Franklin-Covey, was a staple in the lives of busy professionals. Post Gen-X’ers may never know the joy of carrying around their entire planning system in a big, clunky, analog planner, but for those who lived through the era, it remains a stalwart symbol of organization and personal development.

The Franklin Planner system had its roots in Benjamin Franklin’s essays on virtue and personal development. He designed a system to cultivate 13 virtues and recorded his progress in a daily chart. This method aimed to help him become a better person by focusing on one virtue at a time and reflecting on his progress.

Thirteen Virtues

The modern-day Franklin Planner system took inspiration from Franklin’s ideas and expanded them into a comprehensive planning and organization tool. He identified twelve virtues — one to focus on for each month of the year:

  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; waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed 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 extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

For instance, one of the virtues Franklin pursued was “Order,” which he defined as, “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” This virtue emphasized the importance of organizing one’s belongings and time to maintain efficiency and productivity. Users of the Franklin Planner system could track appointments, set goals, prioritize tasks, and maintain detailed notes, aligning with the principles of “Order” and the other virtues outlined by Franklin.

(Ironically, Franklin, a prodigious ladies man, eventually scrapped “Chastity” from his original list of virtues and replaced it with “Humility.” He famously stated, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” This change serves as a reminder that personal growth is an ongoing journey, and even the great Benjamin Franklin had his own struggles and imperfections.)

The 2-page-per-day planner layout

Good old pulp: Planner binder, storage binder, and the 2-page-per-day planner layout

As Analog as It Gets

People who used the Franklin Planner system (mine would become a fancy leather-bound version after a couple of years) would often have bookshelves lined with storage binders containing their past years’ planners. If you needed to search for something from an older planner, they would have to flip through pages and pages of old notes, no search function; no Google.

The merits of the Franklin Planner system extended beyond mere organization. It encouraged users to set long-term goals and break them down into smaller, manageable tasks. This process helped people develop discipline, focus, and a sense of accomplishment as they worked through their daily, weekly, and monthly objectives.

Principles that Transcend Paper-based Productivity

Now your virtues (or, to put a modern spin on it – values) may not include temperance, silence, etc. The Franklin Covey system implored each of its adherents to do their own soul-searching; find the values that matter to you. Upon reflection, you might find that your own personal values include concepts like: Family, faith, pursuing things you enjoy like travel, or golf, or reading, or whatever. You do you. The process allows you to see the forest for the trees. It stressed the importance of stepping back and taking stock of what really matters. “Is this thing I’m toiling over day and night getting me any closer to my true needs and values?” It’s a part of the process that I still incorporate into my current productivity system today.

The popularity of the Franklin Planner system eventually waned with the rise of digital organization tools, but its legacy remains. Its connection to Benjamin Franklin’s methods for personal development and virtue highlights the timeless appeal of self-improvement and organization.

The Franklin Planner system may be a relic of the past, but it remains a testament to the enduring principles of personal development, organization, and the pursuit of virtue. As we continue to navigate our digital age, it’s worth remembering the value of slowing down and reflecting on our goals and progress, much like Benjamin Franklin did centuries ago.

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Originally published November 17, 2022
File under: productivity  franklin