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The fight to be more productive isn’t a new one – people have been trying to get more done in their day since time immemorial.

In this post, we look at examples from history and from important thinkers, to see if the evolution of time-management can shed some light on the challenges of the digital age.

A monk’s routine


Medieval monks based their daily practices around ‘The Book of Hours’ (shown in the picture above). The monks started their day at 2am and retired at 6pm, according to the book’s strictly scheduled routine of daily practices, which split the day into eight segments, marked by prayers and religious services. In the breaks between prayer, the monks filled their time productively with a wide range of activities, including study, copying manuscripts, farming, cooking, wine-making and brewing, and providing education and medical care for the local community. You may find that writing down a schedule, prioritising your most important tasks and building in time for different kinds of activity can help you achieve more, with less effort.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is renowned for the sheer scale of his achievements, as an artist, architect, inventor, engineer, anatomist, writer and more. Despite the daunting number of tasks he set his hand to, the fact remains that he had 24 hours in a day, just like the rest of us. He famously said: “Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it,” reminding us of our personal responsibility for our productivity.

The impact of early technology


During the 17th century, clocks and timepieces started to make their way into people’s homes and businesses, which, along with the minute hand becoming a standard part of the clock face, changed how people perceived time, and a new era of precision took hold.


Benjamin Franklin


As well as being a founding father of the US, Benjamin Franklin was a prolific inventor. The page from his diary in 1786 illustrated here shows his rigidly-arranged schedule of activities, including “address powerful goodness” and “prosecute the present study”. With the admirable goal to “live without committing any fault at any time”, Franklin also penned a list of 13 virtues to live by. Among these virtues were:

  • Industry – “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  • Order – “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  • Resolution – “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”







Letts diary


Published in 1816, “Letts’s Diary or Bills Owed Book & Almanack” was the first commercially available day-planner. It was designed to help merchants keep track of their activities, but became popular with a far wider audience and revolutionised the way people thought about tracking their time. In many ways this led to the widespread adoption of modern business as we know it, from the 9-5 work day, to the scheduling of business meetings with colleagues.



Thomas Edison


Another fascinating period example is inventor Thomas Edison’s to-do list from 1888; an incredibly dense five page of “things doing and to be done” including “Hand-Turning Phonograph”, “Artificial Silk” and “Box Balancing System”.

With modern technology and a virtual renaissance in the way we work, it is easy to become go off track. A combination of too much freedom and too much choice makes it difficult to know what’s right for you. But by concentrating on the most important aspects of a robust working day revealed and revised by generations – routine, precision, reflection, and forethought as outlined above you can take the core ideals and design the perfect working day for you.

More than anything else, what we can learn from these examples is that many of the most successful figures throughout history had two things in common: a committed desire for refinement and an understanding of what worked best for them.

This is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with the latest ideas on productivity, collaboration and technology adoption. To download our latest ebook on designing your day, visit

Image credits: Wikimedia, Wikimedia.