The Centuries-Old Strategy That Turbocharged My Productivity

Photo: Nick David/Getty Images

A few years ago, I assigned Ben Franklin’s Autobiography as reading for the literature survey class I was teaching — and, well, to say my students didn’t relate very well might be putting it mildly. Among other things, Franklin’s memoir devotes a fair amount of space to explaining his daily strategy for maximum productivity, which includes a 5 a.m. wakeup, designated blocks of time for work, meals, and activities like “put[ting] things in their places”; there’s also time allotted for “diversion,” but no hour is without a designated purpose, a way of ensuring that as much time as possible is spent working toward a daily goal. In class, many of my students were vocal in their belief that his schedule was oppressive. A few of them wondered out loud why anyone would intentionally micromanage their day to such an extreme.

One possible answer: A timeline means accountability, something I learned earlier this year after resolving to get a handle on the messiness that ruled my life. Six months ago, my way of getting things done was last-minute and without a clearly defined work plan. This was especially true during periods when I had more flexibility in my schedule. Last winter break, for example, I had a solid five weeks of time that, in theory, should have been incredibly productive — I was largely freed from my daily duties of teaching, meetings, and grading, and made a long list of things that I hoped to accomplish with all my free time. Some were abstract (“Get in better shape”) and others more concrete (“Submit journal article”). I ended up accomplishing a few of them before the spring term started up, but for the most part, I just moved my goals from one to-do list to another.

A few weeks into the new semester, panic started to set in as I recognized some hard deadlines that were fast approaching. After an all-nighter grading papers that had me exhausted for days, I knew I needed to find a better way.  In a moment of desperation, I clicked on a Facebook ad for a paper planner that promised to help me “optimize my day, tackle my goals, and become happier.”

When the planner arrived at my door a few days later, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Franklin’s meticulous planning. Each page was broken down into 30-minute chunks of time, where I’d have to log everything — workouts, meals, Netflix watching. There was also space to enter a daily goal, along with the action items that would help me move closer to it.

As I sat with my pen in hand, mapping out my exact plan for the next day, I felt silly. Couldn’t I do this in Google Calendar? Was time-blocking really the thing that would push me to get things done, or did I just get duped into buying an expensive notebook? It did feel a little extreme, scribbling in the time of my spin class and writing down the exact length of an afternoon break — like I was prematurely sucking all the spontaneity, all the potential for inspiration, out of the day.

The belief voiced by my students — that productivity planning somehow stifles creative thinking or intellectual output — is widespread. But in reality, producing creative work relies on both sides of the brain, including the part controlling executive function. A recent study suggests that creative cognition involves “goal-directed, self-generated thought processes, particularly when cognition must be constrained to meet specific task demand.” And practically speaking, few of us have the luxury of producing creative work apart from the realities of daily life.

The best way to get things done, then, is almost always to make a plan — and, more specifically, to write it out. Research has shown that visually mapping out your tasks by writing engages the mind more than typing, which leaves us feeling more connected to the material (in this case, the things we need to get done). The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for writing, also controls planning and problem solving. Just the simple act of handwriting your goals, then, brings you closer to implementing them.

Over the next few weeks and months, as I made progress on my daily action items, I felt happier, calmer, like I was more in control of my time. Seeing myself move through each item I’d written down felt like a series of tiny rewards. It also gave me insight into how much time I spent on less-meaningful tasks, like commuting or responding to emails, and what times of the day were better suited to specific things. (Next long-term goal: Find a solution to those problems.)

And I saw results: I read more, I exercised more, I cooked more, I had abstracts accepted for presentations at academic conferences. My time constraints didn’t change, but I became more aware of those constraints and how to consciously work within them. In hindsight, it feels a little silly that it took me so long to figure out that Benjamin Franklin — the person who invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and flippers, among other things — may have been on to something. Now I just need to convince my students of the same.

The Centuries-Old Strategy That Turbocharged My Productivity