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What Was Benjamin Franklin's Daily Routine?

Jul 5, 2013 12:00 AM


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The new book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey reveals the fascinating routines of famous creative people through history. With facts about Beethoven, Jackson Pollock, Louis Armstrong, and more, it shows how mundane rituals like sleep patterns and eating habits lead to inspiration. We’re publishing excerpts from the book in a four-part, weekly series, continuing with one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin (see the last entry, on Charles Schulz, here).

In his Autobiography, Franklin famously outlined a scheme to achieve “moral perfection” according to a thirteen-week plan. Each week was devoted to a particular virtue—temperance, cleanliness, moderation, etc.—and his offenses against these virtues were tracked on a calendar. Franklin thought that if he could maintain his devotion to one virtue for an entire week, it would become a habit; then he could move on to the next virtue, successively making fewer and fewer offenses (indicated on the calendar by a black mark) until he had completely reformed himself and would thereafter need only occasional bouts of moral maintenance.

The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through just one course in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of order—“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp. Franklin was not naturally inclined to keep his papers and other possessions organized, and he found the effort so vexing that he almost quit in frustration. Moreover, the demands of his printing business meant that he couldn’t always follow the exacting daily timetable that he set for himself. That ideal schedule, also recorded in Franklin’s little book of virtues, looked like this:

This timetable was formulated before Franklin adopted a favorite habit of his later years—his daily “air bath.” At the time, baths in cold water were considered a tonic, but Franklin believed the cold was too much of a shock to the system. He wrote in a letter:I have found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bathe in another element, I mean cold air. With this view I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing. This practice is not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable; and if I return to bed afterwards, before I dress myself, as sometimes happens, I make a supplement to my night’s rest, of one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined.

Excerpted from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. Copyright © 2013 by Mason Currey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.