What Ben Franklin (and Mark Twain) Taught me About Productivity

I have to go to the dump. It’s my Ben Franklin.” This was my response to the Starbucks clerk’s polite “So what are you up to today?” (I know, I should just say “nothing much,” but the clerk at the drive thru is one of my five weekly social interactions in COVID times.) Needless to say, she was a bit confused. The pandemic has really eroded my conversation skills.

What is a “Ben Franklin,” you ask? Well, the short answer is that it’s my family’s shorthand for something we don’t want to do. The long answer, however, which is what blogs are for, is that it’s sort of a creed we’ve taken up. A way of life. My mom always told me Ben Franklin said that you should to do one thing you don’t want to do every day. Trusting, as all Americans do, the word of that wacky inventor, I took the maxim to heart. Just one thing, each day. Simple, but kind of revolutionary (pun 1000% intended). Call the doctor. Figure out that insurance question. Go to the dump.

This guy got stuff done. But, you know, so did my guy Twain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD-US-expired.

But here’s the kicker: Ben Franklin never said this, Mark Twain did. I know, I know, plot twist. We still call our one thing a day a “Ben Franklin,” mainly because a “Mark Twain” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But regardless of who said it, the advice still works.

Ben Franklin actually is a bit of a productivity guru in his own right–people still write about and use his block scheduling and 13 virtues. But while he’s got a lot to say on how to be productive, he doesn’t have much to say about how to motivate yourself to be productive. (This is as good as it gets: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” Cool, Ben, will do.)

Mark Twain said, “Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.” I love this, mainly because it explains how to actually build good habits. Just one thing. We can all wrap our heads around just one thing. It’s like a 10-minute exercise video–even if it’s been a day, I’ve always got 10 minutes.

This guyyyyy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD-US.

When I started college, I was very shy and had trouble speaking up in class. I went to a university where it was kind of a prerequisite to speak up in class and was even part of our grade, so this quickly became a problem. I went to one of my professors and told him I was worried about my participation grade going down because I didn’t feel comfortable giving my two cents. “I listen,” I said, “but it’s just hard to get involved in the conversation.” And he gave me Mark Twain’s advice: “Just say one thing per class. Write it down if you have to. Don’t worry about whether it’s clever or good or right. Just say one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” That’s how I know this advice works. I said one thing during each class period, and slowly, I became more comfortable with speaking up in class. And it was pretty painless. If I wasn’t feeling like speaking up, I could just say one thing, and if I wanted to, I could say more.

Now there are a lot of people who have said something similar. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Eleanor Roosevelt said “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” And that is also good advice that I’ve taken to heart. But I still go back to Twain, because it’s about building a habit and handling the everyday kind of tough stuff. It’s not necessarily about fear, it’s more about making steady progress and getting the things you’ve been putting off done. I’m not really afraid of changing my car’s oil, I just don’t want to do it. But if I make it a point to do one thing each day, the oil will get changed. And it will be pretty painless, because I just have to do the one thing.

So whether you call it a “Ben Franklin” or a “Mark Twain” or just “my one thing,” give this a shot. Start today, or tomorrow. Just pick the thing that’s been bugging you to get done and just do the one thing. And then you’re all done!

Good luck, and thanks for reading!

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