Virtuous Cycles / by Will Ringland

Virtuous cycles

I cannot stress enough Franklin's own finding regarding maintaining virtues.

Well, I mean I can but I think he summarizes it pretty well.

" While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; > > habit took the advantage of inattention> > ; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest > > to be completely virtuous> > , was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the > > contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established> > ."

In other words, going whole hog on your virtues isn't going to work because trying to do all of them, even if "all" is less than his his and my thirteen, is too hard to maintain. Since this is all about habit creation, consider how disirganized you'd be of you were trying to mind 13 virtues constantly. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great said it best.

"If you have more than three priorities, you have > > no> > priorities."

Frankly, I think I have more than 1 you're working on at any given time, you're still working fracturing your attention too much. You can probably effectively work on three priorties in a day but more than that and you're unlikely to make meanigful progress at all.

What we are ultimately doing here is establishing a habit for each virtue. And over time, we wnt to establish a habit for all the virtues which we accomplish one by one, little step by little step.

##First Step's First There are two parts to building any habit. Focus and Review.

(This is part 4 in a multipart series. See the  other posts here! )

(This is part 4 in a multipart series. See the other posts here!)

Focus Virtue

We'll discuss Franklin's method for Focus. Each virtue is taken as the Focus Virtue for any given Virtue Cycle. Now, we'll discuss a Virtue Cycle in a minute but you'll likely be able to see where this is heading pretty quickly.

This Focus Virtue becomes where you put your attention for a selected period of time. Franklin selected a week for his Focus Virtue period so each Sunday he selected his Focus and spent the rest of the week trying to be perfect at it.

Now, spending a whole week (or "only" a week, depending on your temperment) is harder than it sounds. It allows for you to get enough of a grip on the virtue without becoming too bored or too frustrated. If it is an easy week, you get through it quicker and move on. If it's a harder week, you power through. 7 days is a convenient time frame for contemporary culture.

Virtue Cycle

You, of course, needn't limit your self to a week per virtue. You could take multiple weeks or a full month in order to focus. Extending the focal period both increases the challenge while increasing opportunity for success. If, say, you have 4 precepts for a virtue and take a full month for your Focus Virtue, you could focus on one precpt for a week.

As you finish each period, you move through each virtue until you have spent that full period on each as a Focus. The benefit of Franklin's method is that a single Cycle fits tidily into a quarter of a year allowing for a nice and even four Virtue Cycles in a calendar year.

It is not enough, though, to just Focus on these virtues. You have to measure how you're doing. And that's what the grids we talked about before are for.

Review and Preview

I'm not writing it down to remember it later; I'm ewriting it down to remember it now."

  • Field Notes Brand motto

The structure of the virtue cycle matters less than you actually doing it and both REviewing and PREviewing what you've done.


At the end of every day, sit down and assess how it went. For each of your virtues, ask yourself if you were successful sticking to it. This is where having the precepts can be beneficial, especially early in the process. When I first started, I didn't have the best grasp of what "silence" meant to me and having the precepts reduced the ambiguity of success.

Get out your tracking system and find your grid for that week. Did I drink too much? No? Great, next. Did I talk over someone this day? Yes? Mark it. What's next.

This is critical for your overall success. You have to think about it and go over each day's successes and failures.

Look, just get comfortable with the idea that this is going to suck for a while. It will. Sitting down every day and taking an accounting of your personal failures is kind of a crappy way to end the day. But it will really help you in the long run. First, having the habot for it makes future introspection easier and it will help you understand your inner self better.

It is as good as therapy because it is theraputic.

You just have to get past that initial dread.

Keep the following in mind when you're marling up your grid.

Breaking A virtue does not break YOUR virtue

You are more than a single instance of failure just as you are not a single instance of success. Hold that in mind, especially when it's been a shitty week.

I've been doing this for a few years now and I still have weeks like this one from October of last year:

Screenshot 2016-10-30 19.41.51.png

Ending a Virtue Cycle

At the beginning of each new cycle - be it the next precept or a new virtue for that cycle - take the time to review where you've been. Look at your grid. Do you remember thse instances of broken virtues? I bet you will. This is where having a journal of some sort becomes invaluable. Here's what you need to do:

  1. Write down what you think went wrong.
  2. Write down where you think you could improve.
  3. Write down how you feel about both.
  4. Preview your next Virtue
  5. Review the last cycle.
    You get bonus points for reviewing more than just the last.

As you get further into it, reviewing the last cycle can show you patterns and progress even if you're just writing a few words for each of those things above.

The genius of Franklin's grids is ease with which you can see this and last cycle's progress (or lack thereof).


What is tomorrow's virtue? Tomorrow's precept? Tomorrow's goal? Looking thrugh these will keep you focused on What's Next. And even if you're in the middle of a cycle, it's useful to review your Virtue and Precepts regularly. Keeps it fresh.

Answering the questions above is only as complicated as you want to make it. For my structure, I knew what each week block was going to look like with the one Focus Virtue. I just needed to jot it down the night before somewhere that I would see it the next morning. You'd probably be un-surprised to know how easy it is to forget you're doing a thing if you don't remind yourself of that thing frequently.

The place you jot it down should be the same place you're tracking your virtue grids as discussed earlier. I cannot stress enough how important it is that all of this stuff be in one place. Remember: removing friction from your project increases your chances for success.

For me that meant in my morning work prep, I would create a task due the that day for my virtue. Since I refer to my task managment application throughout the day, I would see it right there, at the top of my list, waiting to be checked off.

If your precepts are the core of your virtue project, then that needs to go right atop your tracker too. Maybe in bold letters. Or fancy ink. Just make it easy to see.


Again, this is going to be tough at first. Before you get feeling all guilty and inadequate at the prospect of cataloguing your failures, consider a few things.

  1. No one has to see this but you.
  2. You don't have to keep every week (but I bet you'll want to)
  3. How will you know when you succeed if you don't write it down?

And again:

Breaking A virtue does not break YOUR virtue

Good people make mistakes. And look, you're already trying to get better. THat gives you quite the advantage, now doesn't it?

Next time, we'll talk more about the Review process which is easily the ardest but most important part about getting started with your own Virtue Project.