1791 Benjamin Franklin’s posthumous autobiography described the founding father’s system for the pursuit of "Order." In a small book of his own making, Franklin assiduously tracked each day’s activities. From 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., for instance, he would: "rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive day’s business, and take the resolute of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast." Evening would include "supper, music or diversion or conversation" followed by "examination of the day." But Franklin fretted that unpredictable claims on his time rendered his schedule ineffective.
1812 John Letts founded a stationary business in 1796 in the arcades of London’s Royal Exchange, the city’s center of commerce from 1565 to 1939, but it was almost two more decades before the company made steps to become a leader in time management products. With merchants and traders who frequently bought from the shop clamoring for a business-oriented product, Letts introduced the world’s first commercial diary. Originally used to keep track of stock movements, the commercial diary helped merchants increase efficiency day-to-day. Its wild popularity established commercial diaries as a staple in work and life by the 1820s. Today, Lett’s manufactures more than 22 million diaries, calendars, and other products to increase productivity.
1841 Catherine Beecher, advocate for women’s education (and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister), dedicated her life to the idea that women could be as effective and competent as men. Sharing her sister’s belief in the power of the written word, she published A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School in an attempt to codify domestic duties and emphasize the importance of female labor. The book, which soon became a bestseller of the era, also served as a guide for time management. Beecher’s words taught habits to avoid wasting time in favor of productive activities like education.
1908 When Henry Ford launched just under 200,000 Model T cars in fall 1908, he must have known he was changing the automobile industry forever. But he also changed the world. The introduction of the iconic automobile began the car’s transition from a luxury to a necessity by offering a more efficient manner to travel. The Model T’s invention falls at the tail end of the second industrial revolution, concluding over a century of major productivity breakthroughs and inventions from Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.
1950s BlackBerry-wielding Barack Obama wasn’t the first U.S. President whose productivity regimen inspired public fascination. More than 50 years earlier Dwight David Eisenhower observed, “The more important an item, the less likely it is urgent, and the more urgent an item, the less likely it is important.” Eisenhower’s oft-imitated system of personal time-management divided tasks into four categories. Urgent-important items were dealt with immediately. Urgent-unimportant items were delegated. Not urgent-important items were entered into a calendar. Not urgent-unimportant items were minimized or eliminated.
1966 People have prioritized since they first had to choose between building a fire for warmth and shaping a spear to bring down ravenous hyenas. In The Effective Executive Peter Drucker codified that instinct into practice. Famously, he decreed that executives must consider not only where to spend their time but also—just as importantly—where not to spend it. Ask business leaders about time management and most will respond with precepts from this book, including: Delegate. Develop action plans. Run efficient meetings. Choose what you can best contribute. (CEOs often phrase this as, “What is it that only I can do?”.)
1970 This is the year Day-Timer Inc. was registered, but almost any milestone in that company’s history is also a milestone for personal productivity. In 1952 Dorsey Printing, as Day-Timer was then called, began producing a planner customized for lawyers. Soon the company was churning out similar tools for accountants and engineers. In the 1960s it released the Day-Timer, a scheduling system for the disorganized masses. Over the next decades as new sizes and formats appeared, choosing one’s personal-planning system (desk or wall, page-a-day or page-a-week) became a year-end ritual. Even today, nothing conveys the promise of new beginnings like the crisp, blank pages of a fresh wire-bound calendar.
1989 This year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and rendered the Internet widely accessible—effectively placing the world at our fingertips. But in the ensuing two decades, has more time been saved or wasted as a result?
1990 The “Franklin” in time-management consulting firm Franklin Covey refers to Ben, for reasons noted earlier. Covey is Stephen Covey who in 1990 published The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which sold more than 10 million copies (and must be responsible for a significant rise in global GDP). With its focus on principles and renewal, “Seven Habits” at once transcends mechanistic notions of efficiency and connects those notions with a larger purpose. It also has plenty of advice: be proactive, put first things first.
1993 The term PDA (personal digital assistant) was first used by John Sculley to describe the Apple Newton at the 1993 Consumer Electronics Show. PDAs begat smartphones which begat supermarket lines full of people tapping away on iPhones and BlackBerrys (instead of thumbing through Kim Kardashian pre-wedding coverage). More-time-saved-or-wasted? The question remains.
2002 Anointed “the defining self-help business book of the decade,” Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, (shorthanded to “GTD” by millions of acolytes) lays out an elaborate program to tame creeping chaos in five steps: collect, process, organize, review, and do. Allen promises to help you strip your mind and desk of clutter. You’ll need that additional space to store your GTD books, CDs, folders, and accessories.
2007 Tim Ferris topped the best-seller list with his prescription for a stripped-down work life in The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Predictably, he suggests restricting information calories by reducing time spent on the phone and checking emails. More radical recommendations include outsourcing parts of your job to virtual overseas assistants who will do the professional equivalent of writing your term paper at very low rates.
2011 Hotmail, Microsoft's e-mail service, sponsored a competition for the best ideas for time-saving inventions. Top prize went to the "Hairwush," which allows the hurried to simultaneously wash, condition, dry, and style their hair. A combination alarm clock-coffee maker was among the other entries, and a watch that freezes time was deemed the ultimate time-saving device of the future. In an accompanying survey men voted the computer the greatest time-saver ever. Women went for the washing machine. —Leigh Buchanan and Drew Gannon