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Future Sense and the Rise of Time Management: Part I

The Rise of Time Management | Judith Kolberg,

I’m writing this blog in three parts because I feel the new, exciting developments in time management that I really want to write about deserve a historical context. If you hate history, you’ll find Part I a bore. Click here for Part II and Part III!

In prehistoric society, tomorrow always came, though not everybody survived to see it. An occasional eclipse would shake everyone’s faith about whether the sun would ever shine again, but a few hundred human sacrifices would set everything right. Slowly, a kind of involuntary shaping of the homo-sapien sub-conscious was taking place: a subliminal, rudimentary path towards planning based on future-sense. “As an inherent force in nature and within human beings, planning assumes great significance. It may be the most effective force … and among the most basic compulsions in man,” writes Melville Branch, author of The Planning Imperative in Human Behavior. Future-sense became hard-wired into human beings.

The To-Do List

The organizing skill of planning, and the tools that go with it, the calendar, the schedule and the unsung hero of time management, the to-do list, took their place in history. Amenemhat, the great clerk of the Pharaohs, would use a calendar to chart the phases of the moon and the passage of seasons. But the calendar was past-oriented, commemorating events of the past that tended to repeat. Humans’ mental ability to plan, and their faith in the future, gave rise to a revolutionary planning instrument, the to-do list. No longer did humans merely record, track, or tally events of the past and present. They represented actions to be accomplished in the future.

The Schedule

Agrarian society still had most of us awake with the sun and asleep at sunset in accordance with our circadian rhythms. By the Middle Ages, quality of life improved (unless you were a debtor, a Jew, or had the Black Plague.) Increasingly, people needed to know what time it was. Peasants and farmers could still divide their day by the passage of the sun, but priests and monks who played an active role in village life were responsible for performing daily rituals and communal prayer. This was no small deed. Entire villages had to come together to pray at various times of the day and the monks themselves needed to gather for prayer seven times a day between midnight and lights-out at 9 PM. The to-do list was a beautiful thing but sixth century Benedictine monks would trump it by inventing the schedule.

Much of the scheduling of village and pastoral life was accompanied by bell ringing. Gradually, the schedule seeped out of the monastery and into secular society. The rising merchant class lent itself well to scheduling. There were schedules for ship departures and arrivals, schedules of loading times, schedules for the shifts of labor, schedules for payments due, and schedules for hanging people who missed that deadline.

Clock Time

Life synchronized to bells soon translated nicely into clock-time. Monastic communities kept track of the time by various means including water clocks, sundials, astrolabes, and well-trained body clocks from years of practice. The great race to mechanize timekeeping was on. The first truly mechanical clock appeared late in the thirteenth century and just fifty years later most towns boasted a clock in the town square to regiment church services, regulate working hours, and allow craftsmen to bill by the hour. Time was not yet money because the medieval economy was still 85% subsistence agriculture, but the historical connection between time and money was emerging.

The Great Synchronization

Quality of life at the dawn of America’s Industrial Revolution improved by leaps and bounds. Food production soared, the spread of childhood diseases lessened and as a result, the population exploded. Huge numbers of people needed to be absorbed into the economy. The mass production conducted in factories and mills fit the bill. That infernal bell ringing of the medieval towns and honed clock-time enabled what historian Lewis Mumford called “the great synchronization,” the beat of labor to the tempo of the assembly line. Eli Whitney’s musket assembly line used standardized and interchangeable parts, an innovation that became the gold standard for economizing time until a man named Henry Ford raised the efficiency bar even higher.

Taylorism (Frederick, not Harold)

Frederick Winslow Taylor, meanwhile, figured out how to squeeze every last bit of productivity out of Americans. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, took getting organized to new heights. “Conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency, the great loss which the whole country is suffering through inefficiency in almost all of our daily acts,” Taylor maintained. “Efficiency experts” with a stopwatch and clipboard standardized every movement of the factory workers to achieve maximize output. Taylor’s principles of scientific management were applied to parenting, home management, government and many areas of life. But Taylorism pushed efficiency too far. Maximizing effect and minimizing effort was a sound goal, but humans are not machines. People revolted against the dehumanizing nature of scientific management which eventually gave rise to labor unions. Nonetheless, scientific management left a great legacy to the history of getting organized including documenting processes, improving the transfer of knowledge among workers, and the evolution of what became known as “best practices.”

The period from World War I through the Roaring Twenties was an era marked by unprecedented industrial growth and modernization. The San Francisco 1915 World’s Fair featured a small model of Henry Ford’s assembly line that turned out one car every 10 minutes for three hours every afternoon. At home the vacuum cleaner, electric iron, and refrigerator helped to economize time. Routines were common: fish dinners on Friday, laundry day on Wednesday, and spring cleaning always began May 1st, regardless of the official start of the season. Although it would not become the law of the land until 1938, many employers were beginning to observe the 40-hour work week based on research that productivity actually declined after 40 hours. Leisure time was now official!

In the next post, I’ll finish off clock-time and then talk about post-clock time theories of time management.

If you want to learn more about how our world has changed into one full of infinite information, constant distractions and boundless stuff, I recommend my book Getting Organized in the Era of Endless: What to Do When Information, Interruption, Work and Stuff are Endless But Time is Not.

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Judith Kolberg will present “Creating Your Digital Estate Plan”. The one-hour presentation will address how to protect your “information afterlife” including transferring digital information to your executor, accounting for digital assets in your estate, and keeping digital mischief-makers out of your stuff.

Virtual Chapter of NAPO – August 10, 2015.

Judith Kolberg will present “Creating Your Digital Estate Plan”. The one-hour presentation will address how to protect your “information afterlife” including transferring digital information to your executor, accounting for digital assets in your estate, and keeping digital mischief-makers out of your stuff.



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