How to Become Virtuous in 7 Months

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I’ve been using Ben Franklin’s program to get rid of most of my most-persistent and vexing vices. You can do the same thing.

The idea is to work on eliminating all your bad habits at the same time — but to concentrate on getting completely rid of one per month. If, for example, you’re working on seven vices, you’re looking at a seven-month timeframe.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Create a grid, seven columns wide by (for our example) seven rows deep. The columns represent the days of the week; the rows represent the vices you are trying to eliminate.
  • You will need to create one grid for every week that you’re going to be on the program. So, for a seven-month program, you’ll need to make 30 grids. You can do this by hand or on the computer. Any size will do, but I personally prefer to use index cards — one for every week.
  • At the beginning of each week, take out one of the grids you’ve prepared. At the top of each column, indicate the date. To the left of each row, list one of your vices — starting, in Row 1, with the behavior that is your No. 1 priority.
  • At the end of every day — perhaps just before you make your daily entry in your journal — spend a few moments looking at your grid and asking yourself if (and if so, how many times) you were guilty of any one of your vices. Where you’ve “sinned” three times, make three hatch marks. Where you’ve sinned but once, a single slash will do. Where you’ve been blameless, put some icon (a star, a smiley face) to indicate perfect virtue.

Let’s take my own grid as an example: Yesterday, I was virtuous in cleanliness but sinned three times in gluttony. Of course, you don’t have to use biblical terms. In fact, you can (and should) tailor the grid to your own moral code.

I’m trying to be kinder, cleaner, more moderate, etc. So I find the corresponding vices (speaking rudely, biting my nails, overeating) and focus on them rather than on vices that either don’t apply to me or for which I don’t seem to have a weakness (envy, for instance). By designing the grid to your own liking, you ensure that the person you become has the virtues you admire.

Franklin advises that you shouldn’t try to do too much at one time. A sensible expectation, he suggests, is to eliminate one vice at a time. Focus first on the vice listed on the top row. When you have gone a complete week without a single offense, drop it to the second row and redirect your aim to your new priority. When a vice has been expunged, stop listing it. If you regress on any vice that you’ve already eliminated, put it back at the top of your grid.

In theory, if you can clean up an average of one bad habit a month, you will have rid yourself of seven unwanted vices in seven months. As each week passes, you’ll get better and better. People will take note and change the way they deal with you. Eventually, you will forget (as others will) that you ever had those vices in the first place. I’ve only just begun the program, so I can’t give you a final evaluation of it. But, based on the work I’ve done so far, I like it.