Pressed for time? Blame those Benedictine Monks.

February 24, 2011

     It is among the principal reasons candidates tell us they are open to consider a change in employers. They are tethered to it, yet somehow it still flees. It is time, the most precious of resources, and for many harried executives they want some of it back.

     Though their relationship with time may be strained, it is worth pointing out that it was not always this way. In his fascinating book Time Wars, Jeremy Rifkin chronicles the evolution of our modern relationship with time. He points out that in traditional agrarian and pastoral cultures, time was a very naturalistic notion maintained in cyclical, repetitive, biological and even sacred terms. The ‘passing of time’ was cued via the changing seasons, biological lifecycles and lunar patterns and thus, the cadence and tempo of those societies were finely tuned to the cyclical rhythms of their physical environments. As he states, “Our early ancestors coveted the circle, perceiving time as eternal return, a ceaseless repetition of an endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth”. Since these cyclical rhythms could neither be accelerated, nor altered, the cadence of these societies’ was natural and harmonious.

     The middle ages brought about a new time ordering system, the calendar, which created new reference points by which group activity could be shared and religious events respected. But it was the introduction of schedules and later, the clock, both innovations of the Benedictine monks, which set in motion our present time orientation. The monks viewed time as a precious commodity, one belonging solely to God, and they believed it had to be honored and meted out with efficiency and the utmost of respect. They associated continual activity and the elimination of idleness, with the promise of eternal salvation, and thus they carefully organized and scheduled every moment of their day and night. The invention of the mechanical clock promised unprecedented precision of scheduling and became a cherished tool. The merchant class subsequently recognized the power of the clock for scheduling work, as well as the lives of workers, and it became an important enabler for the industrial era. Time, efficiency and productivity eventually mated and society became inextricably tied to the clock, so much so that the ‘gold watch’, which recognized years of punctuality, became the retirement symbol of excellence for generations.

     Schedules and clocks began a long, one-way trend towards dissociating time from natural events. Clocks, and subsequently computers, provided the means by which our culture gradually shifted from the naturalistic and cyclical to the linear and present-oriented. With the introduction of each subsequent timing device, mankind isolated itself further and further from a rhythmic view of life. As Rifkin says, “time was snatched away from its biological and environmental moorings and locked up inside the gears of an automated machine that now parceled it out in steady, nondescript beats”. In becoming, ‘regular like clockwork’ we increasingly abstracted time and surrendered to a new artificial, linear beat. In the process, our focus shifted to optimizing the present and immediate future. As Rifkin says, “to be modern was to be punctual, disciplined, fast-paced and future directed. Spontaneity, irregularity, and the unhurried ease that accompanied a less materialistic, more traditional medieval culture was abandoned in favor of a restless, driving Promethean vision”. We ceased dwelling on the past, and increasingly began to focus on the present while driving relentlessly towards our immediate future. By moving from a circular to a linear view of time, the past’s relationship to the future was severed, as was the perceived need to reflect on how that past informs the future. Revisiting the past, in effect, serves only to slow down the realization of our future.

     While it was not uncommon at one time to hear discussions pertaining to the joys of savoring or even passing time, today we obsess with being judicious with its expenditure. Time has become synonymous with money and thus a limited, precious resource. We spend time, waste time, make time, and even sell time. Pizza arrives in 30 minutes or it is free. Drive through convenience windows and ATMs ‘save time’. Even Starbucks, that much ballyhooed ‘third place’, that oasis of community, continues to increase the number of its drive through locations. People complain they have ‘no’ time to indulge in the simple pleasures of life. Harried working parents refer to time with their children as ‘quality time’ and we long for ‘down time’. Status and compensation are awarded based on the belief that some people’s time has greater value than that of others.

     Our lives are now compartmentalized into discrete, time-based, rather than event-based, allocations. Using time more efficiently affords us the privilege of engaging in more activities, and getting more done, and thus “time” has become a key productivity variable. This economic notion of time so dominates corporately that any time not spent ‘productively’ in the workplace is devalued and discouraged. ‘Productive’ time is measured by its impact on output and profitability and is heavily biased towards ‘doing’. Selling, designing, and manufacturing are all valued, measurable activities for which corporations, and their employees, are rewarded. If its value cannot be measured, it cannot be managed, and thus it is of questionable merit. If an activity is deemed valuable, employees are encouraged to engage in it and rewarded for doing it well. If an employee is not measured or rewarded for doing it he or she is expected to refrain from doing it at work (think learning, developing, mentoring and yes, even resting). Do more valuable things, more often and you will move up the career ladder. Move up the ladder, adding responsibilities and pay along the way, and you will be expected to do more. If doing more requires more time you are encouraged to become more efficient. And on and on and on……

     And that is why more and more people feel estranged in their relationship with time and why they are taking our calls in the hope that maybe, just maybe, we have alternative to offer.

About the author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.