User's Guide

Bill Murray had it made. In the movie Groundhog Day, the comedian played a jaded, big-city weatherman doomed by a scratch in the cosmic record to repeat the same day over and over again. I use the word "doomed" because, in the filmmaker's view, this was clearly a bad thing. From where I was sitting, however, Murray looked like a guy in clover.

At first, the character stumbled along like the rest of us: making lousy decisions, wasting precious minutes. But practice eventually wrought perfection: all too soon Murray was ripping through his agenda with such manic efficiency that he had time left over to master the piano and ice carving. Thus, while Groundhog Day was ostensibly an allegory of man bested by time, I read it as the triumph of man over time (sorry if that sounds highfalutin for a movie featuring an animatronic rodent).

Time is the CEO's greatest enemy. That's ironic when you consider that business may have created our conception of time in the first place. David Sicilia, an assistant professor of business and technology history at the University of Maryland, dates the emergence of a minutely segmented system of time to the beginnings of the industrial revolution. The need to wring from those segments every last gobbet of productivity emerged when, instead of being paid for piecework in their homes, textile laborers began to collect hourly wages for work done in factories. "Premodern work habits were determined by things like religious practices and workers' preferences," says Sicilia. "When capitalists invested in textile machines, they had to keep them running constantly and to get as many yards of cloth as possible out of the workers." The spread of telegraphy and railroads later in the 19th century regimented things even more by creating both the need for and the possibility of measuring time across standardized zones. With the introduction of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought the control of work--and consequently the control of time--to its logical conclusion.

But between the era of Taylor's time-motion studies and today, some table-turning has occurred. Rather than becoming masters of time, we have let time master us. Now we are trying to retake the field, armed with pagers, cell phones, PDAs, and a host of other personal-productivity weapons. Reading John Grossmann's " Efficiency Experts," I was struck by how the CEOs profiled had developed time-maximization strategies as well thought out as any battle plan.

You would think that the 24-hour society, made possible by the Internet and other technologies, would make it easier to get things done in one's own time. But for many, the unbounded workday has become merely endless, filled with the business equivalents of ice-carving lessons. Like a gas, our workload expands to fit the available space.

Sicilia points out that technology had the same unintended impact on housework after World War II, when the introduction of vacuum cleaners and dishwashers dramatically raised standards of cleanliness. "Suddenly you had to have a floor so clean you could eat off it," says Sicilia. "So much for giving housewives greater leisure."

That's not to say that technology can't help us manage time. But technology is what got us into this mess in the first place--or we got ourselves into it when we first subjugated our work lives to the needs of the machine. Now we are investing time and money in still more technology to maximize our time and money. An hour is an hour is an hour: broken down into minutes, it's 60 individual chances to accomplish something.

So, who's master at your business? Let me know.

-- Leigh Buchanan, Editor