“What good have I done today?”

Time management has been on my mind lately after I got my monthly leave report and discovered that I had not taken a vacation in almost two years.  Sure, I’ll take a day off here and there, but there is always another report to write, another meeting to plan or another set of grant applications to review.

I’ve tried all sorts of different systems to structure my days and weeks to be the most efficient and effective, but all it takes is an urgent request from a fundholder or the opportunity to connect with a local nonprofit to turn my schedule inside out.  Despite the disruption of my carefully considered timetable, I thrive on these unexpected requests and encounters because I always learn something new, but I admit to flashes of regret when I return to the piles of files.

The solution to my time management challenges seemed elusive until I came across a simple, yet elegant approach more than 200 years old.  During an electronic expedition in pursuit of more information about statistical visualization (displaying statistics graphically so they make sense to more people), I came across a striking image.

Nick Bilton had posted a page from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (now in the public domain) on Flickr.  The page showed Franklin’s daily schedule broken down by hour. 

Benjamin Franklin started each day by considering “The morning question: what good shall I do this day?”  He would then “rise, wash . . . contrive the day’s business and present study. . . and breakfast.”  Instead of listing every task he intended to accomplish, the rest of his day was divided between work, dining, more work, and then “put[ting] things in their places, . . . examination of the day.”

Before sleeping, Franklin would then consider the “Evening question: what good have I done today?”

That’s it.  No time matrix, no task allocation grid, no discussion of coping skills.

“What good have I done today?”  Now I understand that if I begin each day with the intention of doing good, and end it by accomplishing this one task, regardless of form, then I have managed my time very, very well.

(Here’s the complete text of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.)