Living by The Book

Inside the cult of the Franklin Planner -- where organization equals salvation.

By Julie Caniglia

Published March 11, 1998 6:55PM (EST)

Can you really "have it all" simply by having it all in your planner? That's what I tried to find out by chucking my battered Filofax and submitting to the rigors of the Franklin Day Planner -- "the ultimate lifestyle management tool."

I was partly motivated by journalistic curiosity about how something so trivial as a day planner inspires such fervent devotion in its users -- who get hooked on a "System" that, to everyone else, seems shrouded in cultish mystery. At the same time, I was reluctantly (and furtively) wondering if maybe there was a better way to be organized -- something more than confetti showers of Post-Its, or legal pads covered with dense, secret-code-like scribbles.

The Franklin Planner is the best-known product from Franklin Covey Company, formed out of the merger last year between Franklin Quest and the Covey Leadership Center (the latter's namesake, Stephen Covey, is the author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"). Even before the merger, Franklin Quest was a big corporate success story. The company now has 121 retail stores and projects $550 million in revenue for fiscal 1998. It trains 750,000 people each year and estimates that there are a total of 5 million Planner users.

In addition to the Planners, Franklin Covey offers a host of "professional services" and "product solutions": books, tapes, CD-ROMs and seminars that make up a self-help/training/management-consulting empire along the lines of Anthony "Awaken the Giant Within" Robbins. Franklin Covey claims a long list of Fortune 500 mega-corporations among its clients; indeed, most Franklin fans are introduced to it through their workplaces, where they're often standard-issue office equipment, along with desks and computers.

Franklinites can rely on low-tech paper notebooks or ramp up as far as they like on the high-tech spectrum, using Ascend software to extend the Franklin method to their PCs, Macs and PalmPilots. But whatever technology you adopt, the Franklin Planner requires some learning before it starts working miracles. "Until you've had some instruction on it, you'll find that the Planner is really nothing more than an oversized date book organizer," says Franklin Covey CEO Hyrum W. Smith on an audiotape that comes with each Planner. "There is a great deal more to the Franklin Day Planner than just keeping track of appointments," he promises, in a voice as folksy as his name.

Indeed, if used as intended, the Planner becomes the hub of one's entire life. Its pages contain all activities, as well as relationships, thoughts, beliefs, dreams, desires and plans for five or six years into the future. More than a mere organizer, it's close to a religion. In the Franklin Covey faith, organization is a means to salvation.

Hyrum Smith developed the first Planners in 1984, meaning that nobody has yet grown up with one (although, like cigarette companies, they're working to get kids hooked with specially designed agendas). Therefore, becoming a Franklinite means tossing out dearly held bad habits and exposing oneself to a new "system." For many, the first step toward that conversion is the strongly recommended eight-hour "TimeQuest" seminar ($199). A couple of months ago, I took the plunge.

I showed up at 8:30 a.m., prompt but bleary-eyed, at a midtown Manhattan hotel -- me and a couple dozen other perennially disorganized people, ready to be initiated into the Franklin way by an instructor named Montie Horton. Energetic but not hyper, cheerful without being a cheerleader, her demeanor was carefully calibrated to appeal to and motivate a wide range of personalities. She's a professional people-knower, the kind who remembers names and professions.

Throughout the day, Horton took us through our TimeQuest workbooks, in which we took notes and inscribed the "Natural Laws" she dictated -- the first being that "successful managers of time are willing to do that which unsuccessful people do not do." In other words, we were already better than the other schlubs who are not willing to go on a TimeQuest.

We learned how to establish Governing Values, from which Long-Range Goals and the Intermediate Steps to achieve them are derived: These all go in the back of the Planner, behind a "Values and Goals" tab. The idea is that they will filter up into the front of the book to shape Prioritized Daily Task Lists and monthly Master Task Lists. Why? Because you look at them each day and plan them into your life.

Toward the end of the seminar, Horton urged us to follow the day's lessons diligently for 21 days -- which, as some of the smarter go-getters knew, is how long it takes to acquire a habit. As we were packing up, she called out gaily, "Make sure that elements that denote success surface regularly in your Planner!" I think this was the Franklinite way of saying "Have fun!"

Like religious converts or recovering addicts, Franklinites are distinguished by their faith, as well as a sense of community. AA members identify themselves by asking, "Are you a friend of Bill W.?" while Franklinites are apt to spot each others' binders and observe, "Oh -- so you do the Franklin Planner?" That verb indicates a crucial difference between those who merely use a day planner and those who do the Franklin Planner. There's a "saved" aspect to them -- an ever-present consciousness of the difference between their bad, pre-Franklin selves and their new, improved selves.

At the seminar, Horton asked whether any of us had rooted around in the trash desperately searching for a scrap of paper we'd assumed was useless. Alcoholics swill mouthwash, junkies turn tricks to pay for a fix -- and the disgustingly disorganized paw through their garbage. Most of us had, in fact, degraded ourselves in this way. "Now that's not very good for your self-esteem, is it?" she chided. And just as AA meetings and a belief in a Higher Power keep recovering alcoholics from falling off the wagon, the Planner itself -- as well as, for many Franklinites, "refresher" TimeQuest seminars -- are all that stands between them and a life of dissolution and disorganization.

In fact, a lot of Franklin converts do have a crisis or epiphany that leads them to take on immaculate organizational skill. Some, after an intervention of sorts, are made to go to the seminar by their higher-ups. Gabriel Garay, a self-professed Franklin freak, went to the TimeQuest seminar against his will, on his birthday, almost a year ago. "I left there with a really bad headache," he remembers, but it didn't take long before he was a model Franklinite. "Before, I would scribble phone numbers on the edge of newspapers. I never returned calls -- people would get really mad at me." Now his Planner includes a "Phone Log" designed to eliminate that problem. "I won't listen to my answering machine without it," he says.

Ann Marie Morris has been a Franklinite since 1988, when her boss told her in no uncertain terms, "Get yourself a planner or get yourself a new job." (At that time, she was an events organizer for Merrill Lynch, and accidentally sent the COO as the guest of honor to a cocktail party intended for the CEO.) Morris became such an avid user that her current employer, Chase Manhattan, paid for her to be a certified TimeQuest instructor for her co-workers. You could say that she's an in-house evangelist for Franklin Planners.

The parallels between the daily Franklin devotions and more conventional religious practices are certainly not lost on Franklinites. "My friends all think I'm gone for this -- they admire it, but they also see it as fanaticism," says Garay. And Morris admits with a sheepish grin, "It really is kind of like a cult, it's a little weird."

Hyrum W. Smith himself, in the introductory tape, role-plays a non-Franklinite: "I'm one of those that's gonna give you a hard time about carrying this book," he warns. "They're gonna say, 'What'd you do, join a cult? You're carrying this crazy book!'"

See, one of the ground rules is to have the Planner with you always; another is to spend 10-20 minutes each day with it in "Planning and Solitude." Members of most any faith engage in prayer and solitude, often as a request for divine guidance, but planning and solitude is simply guiding yourself. Who needs God and the Good Book when you've got your Values & Goals and a Franklin Planner?

The design for Smith's "crazy book" was inspired by Benjamin Franklin and the proverbial little book he carried, in which he reminded himself of his 13 Virtues and wrote of higher pursuits and long-term plans -- a practice to which he attributed his protean accomplishments throughout his life. In the TimeQuest seminar, Franklin is covered briefly and superficially, in the manner that Americans seem to like their history: Look at how much he got done! He becomes a one-dimensional mascot for the company -- a book-toting prophet of sorts.

Franklin Covey has a more interesting, and perhaps more meaningful, tie to a real-life 19th century prophet: Hyrum W. Smith is a Mormon, his great-great grand-uncle is Joseph P. Smith, founding father of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The Mormons are the creators of a world-famous genealogical archive, and have a general "passion for accurate records," according to "The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions" -- and just what is the sum total of a Franklin Planner life, which amounts to hundreds of pages stored in specially designed binders, one for each year, if not a meticulously detailed chronicle?

One of Hyrum W. Smith's maxims is a curious mix of touchy-feeliness and executive-style pragmatism: "Inner peace is having serenity, balance and harmony in our lives achieved through the appropriate control of events." With such a self-starter approach, it's little surprise that the Franklin Planner, with its standard-issue pages of institutional pastel green, is largely geared toward business people. Throughout the Franklin Covey catalog, sample pages from Planners show countless notes on staff meetings, performance reviews, flow charts, survey results, annual reviews and memos.

Ann Marie Morris told me that the key to the Planner's success is in "how it creates balance in life by keeping the personal and the professional in one place." In other words, Franklinites conceive of everything in their lives, work and non-work, within the brisk, businesslike format of the Planner -- writing down dreams and desires along with notes from benefits meetings and lunches with project leaders. Franklin Covey has keyed into and capitalized on this fluid relationship between the individual and the corporation, this blurring of lines between the professional and the private. In the seminar, the process of identifying, prioritizing and clarifying your governing values is seen as creating a personal variation on a corporate "mission statement."

Horton showed us how life can be pictured as a pie chart, just like a budget or a survey, with slices for health, family, career, spiritual, community, education, finances and emotions. To live life, apparently, is to efficiently manage all those slices, just like a profitable and productive business.

The fundamental equation on which the Planner is built, we learned, is that more control equals less stress equals more productivity equals more self-esteem. That end "product," if you will, taps into a predominant concept in business (and the larger culture) in recent years. Of course, the real bottom line is the third element, individual productivity, which also happens to enhance corporate productivity. The self-esteem bit is just so much gravy -- but it sure does makes employers look concerned, which is always a good thing. Moreover, it's not so surprising that Franklin Planners and other productivity boosters have become so popular in an era of corporate downsizing, in which it's a matter of course to urge employees to work "smarter" (i.e., do more with less).

In the '50s, that golden age of economic expansion, social thinkers wondered if individualism was getting swallowed up by the corporation; now the individual is to be modeled after the corporation. He is the CEO of his own "highly effective" self -- or, as suggested in "Brand You," an article in Fast Company magazine last year, a valuable product with his own unique brand.

My misgiving about the Franklin Planner is that, if used as directed, it seems that you put so much of your life into it that there's not much left in you. You don't live your life, you live your "life plan" -- or rather, you conduct business as a microcorporation whose product is a "full life experience." And maybe the fact that you're so organized and achievement-oriented makes you more focused on the organization and achievement than on yourself and those around you. Maybe you plan yourself into a well-regulated, highly effective stupor. Maybe the Franklin Planner becomes like lithium, your highs and lows brought into line with the little kick you get from checking off a successfully completed task. Even if there's a family crisis, Hyrum Smith soothingly tells you, on the tape, how to deal with it so that "you're still in control. The bottom line of the use of this book is control."

And so your life is parsed into the days of the Planner, days in which you wisely fill all your time, yet without things getting frantic or out of control -- or rather, things might get out of control, but you don't. You create a systematized history in the Planner, transferring your memory to it; in fact, according to Smith, you don't have to remember anything, because it's in your Planner. After using it for 21 days, he promises, "You'll not only scare yourself, you'll intimidate everybody on your block!" (Picture the neighbors, chatting over the back fence: "That son-of-a-gun Joe, he's so organized it makes your head spin!")

After using the Planner for the rest of your life, you might not recall what you did -- but you'll have shelves lined with fat, leather-look binders, filled with hundreds of carefully cross-referenced pages, that can tell you what you can't. I wonder if the children of dearly departed Franklinites will save these archives.

As for my own Planner pages, they're now tucked into my battered old
Filofax -- a somewhat lame disguise that indicates my ongoing ambivalence
about the System. I was not a 21-day convert, nor have I established a set
of Governing Values and Long-Term Goals .

That's not to say that the Planner hasn't been quite handy in other respects: As a freelance writer, I found it helped in writing this very story and managing the busywork involved with getting other stories done as well. But some of my days have big chunks of white space reserved for "working" -- which, as any freelancer will confirm, involves significant amounts of procrastination. How do you plan for that?

The true Franklin acolytes have a solution for this and probably for every other excuse I could come up with for my slack planning skills. I've heard several, and don't want to hear any more. But I'm wary of getting too close to the System. When I start to scare myself, as Smith puts it, then I'll know my addiction to control is getting out of control.

Julie Caniglia

Julie Caniglia is a freelance writer in New York.

MORE FROM Julie Caniglia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------