The office man runs his ‘security pass’ through the turnstiles of the corporate building and clocks on for the day; his presence is recorded at 8.24am on a Monday.
At 9.43am, he exits the building to grab a coffee, passing through the turnstiles again, swiping his security pass across the sensor and unlocking the barrier. His ‘security pass’ logs him out of the building at 9.43am.
Since the late 1700s when the first recorded system of clocking on was imposed in the early cotton mills, the clock has regulated the rhythms of working people. The clock is a symbol of discipline and exactitude. The office man is employed on company time. Time is money and time wasted is money wasted.
Myriad books teach us how to use our time wisely: techniques to get more done in less time, how to build effective time management habits, how to defeat procrastination, or how to multitask by doing more things at the same time like eating on the way to work, or working while waiting for a plane.
In What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam relates the madcap time of mornings in her household. “On mornings when I am responsible for getting my three children fed, dressed, and in the car by 8:45am, I can be up before 7:00am and, if I’m not careful, feel like much of that time is spent dashing around. My eye is on the clock… After I drop them off at two different schools, I usually get back to my desk at around 9:15, when, instead of commencing my workday, I’m often tempted to just pour a cup of coffee and goof around online.”
Vanderkam laments spending “three to four hours a day on mindless tasks or barking at a petulant child to get in the car ‘now or we are driving off without you'” instead of on her core competencies, or what she calls “highest-value activities” including nurturing her career. She calls for more “productive times” and “times for habits”, arguing that using our time well separates achievement from madness. “Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast, the most successful people have already scored daily victories,” she writes with passion.
Vanderkam diligently studied the “time logs” of high-achieving people, many of whom, she noted, are at the gym by 6:00 am, taking advantage of the early morning quiet for setting goals. Seize your mornings because this is the only time you have for yourself, she advises.
Vanderkam’s advice is nothing new. In 1755, Rev. J. Clayton’s pamphlet titled Friendly advice to the Poor noted the importance of time thrift in industrial life. “If the sluggard hides his hands in his bosom, rather than applies them to work; if he spends his Time in Sauntring, impairs his Constitution by laziness, and dulls his Spirit by indolence… then he can expect only poverty as his reward.” Clayton complained that labourers waste the best hours of the day for the sake of observing the world around them, that the tea table is a “shameful stgourer of Time and Money” and so too are wakes, holidays and annual feasts. Like Vanderkam’s book, Clayton strictly advised against “slothful spending the Morning in Bed.” Rising early introduces an exact regularity into families, a wonderful order into their economy.
Homilies to humble workers rising early and doing good has been a recurring theme for centuries now. “In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time’,” writes E.P. Thompson in Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism. “Mature industrial societies of all varieties are marked by time-thrift and by a clear demarcation between ‘work’ and ‘life’.”
Thompson notes that the years between 1300 and 1650 saw important changes in the apprehension of time. Starting from the 14th century, many cities and market towns in Europe installed a public or church clock that chimed on the hour. In the early 19th century, clockmakers attempted to bring clocks nearer ‘to the truth’ or near-perfect accuracy; successfully-made clocks would seldom skip a second over a year or longer. The acceptance or even reverence for timekeeping stgices was integral in the industrial age where disciplined workers were needed on deck at the same time to perform synchronised tasks.
The clock or watch, a mechanised instrument with two hands, has become our timekeeper and informer. It can insist on a 6:00am start at the gym; it can ensure that children are behind school gates by 9:00am sharp to avoid a late slip being meted out; it means our work output can be quantified by the minute to measure our productivity and efficiency.
Before the mechanised clock, the measurement of time was related to daily goings-on. Fisherman and seafaring people integrated their lives with the tides and were often up all hours of the night. “The patterning of social time in the seaport follows upon the rhythms of the sea,” writes Thompson. “And this appears to be natural and comprehensible to fisherman or seamen: the compulsion is nature’s own.”
Before the clock, work and life intermixed – the working day lengthened or contracted according to seasonal fluctuations or the task at hand. In places such as Madagascar, writes Thompson, time might be measured by the time it takes for rice to cook (about half an hour) or the frying of a locust (a moment). In Burma, monks were said to rise when there was enough light to see the veins in their hands.
Before the coming of age of large-scale machine-powered industry work was irregular, tasks were varied, and work and idleness intertwined much like the behaviour of university students today, or artists and writers, who have spells of light work followed by times of almost complete engagement in the work process. Thompson argues that this is characteristic of the working patterns of people who have control over their working lives; it’s our “natural” human work rhythm.
In our natural work rhythm we work according to observed necessities. “There is a sense in which it is more humanly comprehensible than timed labour,” writes Thompson. But for those accustomed to labour timed by the clock, this attitude to work appears wasteful and lacking in urgency, he writes.
Ironically, not long ago an engraved gold watch was a common gift to employees after 50 years of disciplined service to work. The little mechanised instrument with its reliable metronome that never lost a second was shackled around the worker’s tired wrist. The gold watch was a symbol and dark reminder of those 50 years of madcap mornings when “much of that time is spent dashing around”, while “barking at a petulant child to get in the car now or we are driving off without you”, years spent racing against the manic ticking of a clock – a gadget that could measure, record, timestamp, push, push, work faster, faster, harder, harder, tick, tick, tick, go, go, go…right until the end.
This article first appeared in New Philosopher magazine, a quarterly print publication for people who like to think.
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