These days we often think of bestselling decluttering expert Marie Kondo for our organizing tips – but who knew that the early American printer, author, inventor, scientist and diplomat Benjamin Franklin had so much self-help advice to offer about getting one’s home or business in order?

what can benjamin franklin teach us about home organization

Franklin, of course, was savvy and multi-talented. Among many other accomplishments, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence in addition to signing it, invented bifocal glasses, investigated electricity and math, and discovered the existence of the Gulf Stream (cutting two weeks off the sailing time from Europe to North America).

And in 1726, when he was only 20 years old, he created a “self-improvement” system. He chose 13 virtues he thought especially important, and each week he focused on one of them.

After he had gone through the 13 virtues once, he started the cycle over again, and in this way went through each one exactly four times in one year. He did this until he died at age 79.

Many of his 13 virtues apply to the art of organizing one’s life and home – although Franklin had loftier goals for the virtues. In his Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, they were part of a chapter called “Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection.”

Portrait of man dressed as Benjamin Franklin with key and kite

Adapting Franklin’s Virtues

Whether your aim is for moral perfection or home organization, here are eight of Franklin’s favorite virtues along with his short notes about what each meant to him. The list starts with making sure there is a place for everything and everything in its place (did you know that quote is from Benjamin Franklin, too?).

Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The remaining virtues are: temperance, sincerity, silence and chastity.

Tracking Progress

Franklin even created what today we would call a spreadsheet, a chart on which he tracked his progress:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

The Struggle For Order

He wrote that just like many of us, he struggled most with “Order.”

“Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extreamly difficult to acquire…. My faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect.”

He compared it to when his neighbor wanted an ax ground, so its whole surface was uniformly bright. The smith said he would grind it if the neighbor would turn the wheel.

“He turn’d, while the smith press’d the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding.

“No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.”

“Yes,” says the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.”

Take Franklin’s advice to heart – don’t cave in, allow second best or resign yourself to a speckled ax. Create a plan, stick to it, and you’ll meet your organizational goals.

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Leslie Lang
  • Ellen Delap

    Love this idea tha Ben Franklin shared so much about organizing and time management!