The other day I was perusing a book by Mason Currey called “Daily Rituals-How Artists work.” Its pages are devoted to the daily rituals of 161 inspiring minds, including many well known novelists, poets, playwrights, mathematicians, painters, philosophers and scientists. Each had his/her obstacles to overcome and each utilized subtle maneuvers to succeed in the work that they did. Amidst the dozen or so names that I read through, one man’s ritual stood out to me. That of Benjamin Franklin. Famous scientist, inventor, author, postmaster and politician. Why? I saw his to be a simple and practical way of forming good habits.
In his early twenties, Franklin began his pursuit of moral perfection. He developed 13 virtues, which he deemed practical and desirable to him and his world at the time, and sought to acquire the habitude of each virtue. Among them, temperance, cleanliness, order, humility, etc. Franklin believed it would be wise not to attempt mastery of all 13 virtues at once, but to approach one at a time and proceed to the next after creating a habit of the previous.
He developed a chart with 13 rows, one for each virtue, and 7 columns, one for each day of the week. He would therefore devote a weeks strict attention to each of the virtues successively, marking any faults with black dots under that day. If he could keep his first row clear of faults then the habit of that virtue would be strengthened, its opposite weakened, and he could move onto the next virtue.
I thought this was a great way to initiate the habit forming process and to track progress. While Franklin admitted that he never arrived at moral perfection, he did however become a happier and better man simply by attempting the endeavor.
Modern Day Implementation
1.) Instead of your typical New Year’s resolution, resolve to make a habit chart. Sometimes the simple act of writing something down is enough to begin a path towards success. Find a chalk board to hang on the wall and a notebook to keep in your car or office. Use red chalk or ink to make the chart, and black to mark any faults (as Ben Franklin did). You could also spend a few minutes in a word processing program to create a spreadsheet.
2.) Choose habits to include on the chart. Make sure these are rituals you WANT to incorporate into your daily routine. Positive habits that will enrich your life. Whether you come up with 2 or 13 it doesn’t matter. You’ll be tackling them one at a time.
3.) Be specific. If reading is something you want to do more of, don’t just write “Read More” in the virtue column. Start small and decide where and when this habit can fit into your daily routine. “Read 5 pages before bed” would be an attainable, specific goal that, after a specific period of time, your brain would gladly include in its autonomous operation. And maybe most nights you would read more than 5 pages?!!
4.) If you want or need to devote longer than a weeks time to ingraining a certain habit before moving on to the next, this is O.K. It took me about two weeks diligence to make flossing an autopilot habit. Just sayin.
5.) Sticking to habits can be hard. Consistently remind yourself of the long term benefit of your chosen virtue. If your brain reverts back to its primitive pleasure seeking ways, then by all means include a small reward to stay on track. Fear of pain can also be a motivator. Get creative if you choose to use pain as part of your habit forming plan. Share your ideas and I’ll post them in the comments section!!
Human beings are creatures of habit. Whether good or bad, these rituals slowly become part of our daily routine until we’re executing them without even thinking. Our brains are hardwired this way. For New Year’s, develop a Ben Franklin style chart to begin the process of creating good habits. Be persistent and you’ll find the repetition will make them easier and easier over time. This is your brain growing and strengthening the nerve connections responsible for whatever you’re choosing to do. The stronger the connection, the easier the habit. As for those pesky bad habits, the more of the good you have on autopilot, the less time you’ll have for the bad ones.