Most of us, I’m guessing, have recently had days where we didn’t really know where to begin — much less, how to realize the highest level of productivity.

This past weekend, while enjoying Ann Handley’s new book, Everybody Writes, I was reminded of the daily schedule of one of America’s most productive and innovative historic figures.

(A quick side note — you should add Ann’s book to your list of must-reads. It is one of the best, most practical guides to effective writing for business that I have ever read. It is, as you’d suspect, well written.)

But back to our point. Somewhere along the line — probably in some management class I attended — Benjamin Franklin’s template for daily productivity was cited as the quintessential example of the kind of organization that facilitates productivity and progress.

Franklin’s blueprint, however, failed to turn me into a productive genius; but it quickly became clear that the model wasn’t the problem. I tried at least a dozen “systems” — all the popular brands…all the super-organized notebooks, notecards and tools, all the new apps. None resolved my allergy to organizing. None made me as productive as I wanted to be.

Missing The Point

It took a while. But eventually I came to understand that at least part of the problem was that my definition of productivity was, to be clinical, screwed up.

My focus was on making a list, and checking things off — calls, meetings, administrative duties, project milestones.

Shortening the list meant progress.

In the process (tell me if this sounds familiar), on many days it felt as though I accomplished little of real consequence. Frustration doubled on days dominated by the need to react to the unexpected, meaning the to-do list got longer.

The Missing Ingredient

Turns out I was pretty much ignoring two things that make Franklin’s an approach that is genius — one that transcends even the best daily planner action list.

The first is its simplicity. 

With a day broken into just six blocks, there is structure, yet the schedule remains flexible enough to accommodate leisure, distraction, a real lunch break and the unpredictable.

This simplicity is big; but the second ingredient is the real game-changer.

A Guiding Principle

Embedded in Franklin’s personal template for each day are bookend questions:

    • Morning question — “what good shall I do today?”
    • Evening Question, as if to hold himself accountable — what good have I done today?”

These questions are the missing link — a guiding principle for each day.

Direction For These Days

As what we had come to think of as normal days continue to be disrupted…as we wrestle with unease or even a measure of fear…as we question how we should respond and what we should do today, maybe there is value in bookending our days with these questions.

Coming days are almost certain to present new challenges. Maybe We can zero in on direction if we’ll begin by asking, what good shall I do today?.