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The Time Management Gospel

In the old days, we made random lists on sticky notes, forgot meetings, and preserved our sloth through completely unplanned time. But there was a brushfire of technological change and team-based productivity blowing through the land. The officers of our company were quickly converted by consultants and hucksters who terrified them with nightmarish tales of “lean, mean companies” whose ruthless speed-to-market and inhumanly efficient employees would make short work of our slow-moving operation. We were warned that the only way to save our jobs was to “reinvent” ourselves and implement a “fast-cycle-time” environment, in which all activities that “are not directly adding value that a customer will pay for” are the equivalent of “dead-time.” Clearly a day planner would be necessary to organize the demands of this new world, but not just an ordinary day planner. We needed a superior “time-management tool” imbued with a message of hope and outrageous promise to cut through the fearful atmosphere. In short, we needed Franklin Planners.

It was like receiving a Bible after a long and uncomfortable process of confirmation into a church for which we had the utmost skepticism. We had endured the brainstorm sessions and the planning meetings, the pep rallies, the rituals that were part of our company’s reorganization. At the end of it all, we were each presented with a spanking new Franklin Day Planner to initiate our newly productive, streamlined lives.

At first, we couldn’t believe that our penny-pinching company would buy us such an elaborate assemblage. We were given two large binders—one for daily use, and one for “storage”—hundreds of pages with various calendars and graphs, a hardcover book entitled Time Management, and an audiotape on “How to Use Your Franklin Planner.” My company did not go so far as to send us all to one of the day-long Franklin time management seminars ($195.00 per person), but we were strongly urged to study the Franklin literature in order to learn the principles and habits of the Franklin system, which promises productivity increases of as much as 29% (although the exact nature of the improvement is not specified).

Time Management, by Franklin Quest cofounder Richard Winwood, lays out the theory behind the revolution, fusing aspects of the self-help, inspirational, and business genres, and declaring time-management and self-esteem to be the keys to personal fulfillment and skyrocketing profits—as if the two were somehow interchangeable. The ideal man that emerges from its pages is one of exquisite mediocrity, despite Winwood’s claim that the Franklin philosophy is the key to the realization of idealistic dreams. Our hero is lucky to live in such a convenient century in which all sorts of calendars and digital instruments are available for measuring time, because these things help him produce more. But in fact he’s not much different from other men who have lived before him, even in ancient times. They too, being capitalists at heart, simply wanted to produce more, “to get more done,” and thus, began to study the heavens and the seasons with an eye toward profit.

But his mind and soul are a grab-bag of vague philosophies and desires. This is his problem. He has no definition, no control. He’s settling for less, which, for an American, is virtually a sin against nature. Gradually, however, with the help of the Franklin system, he can put his mind in order. First, he can prioritize each of his values, and then mold them into affirmations: “I am productive,” “I love my family,” “I serve others,” “I am frugal,” “I love God,” “I am physically fit,” etc. Being of rather dull and conventional character, the Productive Man has no problem selecting the most important values (presumably passed on to him by his parents, school, and church), and writing them in his Franklin Planner, where they will provide the basis for his newly emerging mind. Luckily, none of his values contradict one another.

His new mind—a “productivity pyramid”—assumes the simple shape of a triangle. It is an aerodynamic mind. Uncluttered by passion or confusion, it is driven like a missile to achieve its goals. The Productive Man documents specific long-term and short-term goals in his Planner, and from these he formulates the pointed tip of his consciousness—his Daily Task List. This will give his existence structure, direction, and meaning.

Something quintessentially American—simultaneously wholesome and insane.

Luckily, the goals he has selected for himself are in perfect harmony with his company’s goals, although it is unclear what his job actually is from his “Daily Record of Events,” which serves as an example in Time Management. “New procedure for handling petty cash; B-phase prototype on sched.; Inventory of alum. back plates in question; Mentioned dislike of Paul’s attitude at mtg.” His “Daily Task Lists” are a combination of business and household chores: “Reading—20 minutes; Clear in-drawer; Do expense summary; Prod. committee mtg.; Take in dry cleaning; call mom re. dinner; Clean hall closet.” From various examples, we gather that he has a wealth of basements and closets to organize, and being the nice, clean sort of person he is, he keeps himself busy with these nagging tasks rather than dallying with the devil’s handiwork. Occasionally, he even spends some time with the kids: “Talked with Julie tonite re. basketball et al.”

Once in control, our hero is on the lookout for the “dysfunctional interruptions” and “time robbers” that will attempt to lure him away from the achievement of his daily objectives. He skirts ingeniously around “lengthy, unproductive social calls” with a “cheerful, outgoing greeting” calculated to make his co-workers get directly to the point without the unnecessary exchange of language formerly known as conversation. (“Hi Lynn. I’m trying to finish this report for the finance committee. What can I do for you?”) His thought processes are governed by “return on investment” analysis that determine the priorities that structure his life. In this way, he remains in control, which elevates his self-esteem, which in turn increases his productivity. Higher productivity means he feels even better about himself. While his psychological profile increasingly resembles an addict’s, he has confined his addiction to the legal drug of time management.

The tape-recorded voice of Franklin CEO and Chairman Hyrum Smith surges and wanes like a televised sermon throughout his seminar on “How to Use the Franklin Planner.” The rhetoric of power and control dominate the seminar: “[With the Franklin method] you’ll not only scare yourself, you’ll intimidate everyone on your block!” He chides an employee who earns $600,000 with the comment, “Well, if you ever got organized, you’d really be dangerous.” While clichéd appeals to aggression flood the business world, Smith’s power rhetoric is remarkable in its pettiness. “[What] gives you power,” he drones, is “knowing where the information is [in your Planner].” Forget charisma and daring; the Franklin system extols the robotic—mindless efficiency, synchronization, and precision.

In one example of what he apparently considers to be an impressive managerial show of force, Smith suggests that a supervisor could “stun” an employee by successfully following through on a promise to call him in ten days at exactly 8:43. “Will you be thinking about that call for the next ten days? No way. It’ll resurface in the Planner,” he says. Smith takes a slightly sadistic pleasure in the ability to annoy people with perfection. “Actually, you’ll start to drive people crazy,” he says cheerfully. “You won’t forget anything.”

Not one to risk being accused of neurosis or compulsion, Smith reluctantly admits that sometimes “we need to vegetate for an hour or two,” although he blithely assumes that “we’re constantly fighting the emotion of guilt all the time we’re doing it.” Fortunately, the Franklin Planner also provides absolution for time management transgressions. Witness the case of the executive who arrives home after a long day at work only to discover a family crisis that demands his undivided attention. What a dilemma! He had several tasks already planned for that evening! What to do? Not to worry, says Smith. “The first thing you do is go to the planner and move the tasks [to another day] . . . . You’re still in control.” By forwarding tasks to another day in the Planner, he claims, “the guilt goes away.”

Like the frenzied “soul gathering” crusades, Franklin Quest spreads the good word about time management.

As I completed Time Management and Hyrum Smith’s seminar, the feeling of induction into an unconvincing religion became overwhelming. There is something familiar yet bizarre in the combination of capitalism, traditional family values, and idealism that pervades Franklin Quest. Something quintessentially American—simultaneously wholesome and insane. The company’s rhetoric evokes a world of maternal secretaries with perfect nails, serenely separating their boss’s appointments from those of their children with different colored ink in their pristine Franklin Planners; of men with names like Tom Green and Bob Garf landing great deals on expensive cars and trying to squeeze in a bit more time for “the wife and kids” in their Planners. It depicts a world of church picnics and corporate takeovers; of Donny and Marie and Senator Orrin Hatch. Not surprisingly, the Americana, the “traditional values,” and the doctrines of unlimited profit and growth promoted by Franklin Quest bear a distinct resemblance to the culture of America’s best-known home-grown religion.

A great-great-grandnephew of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Franklin CEO Hyrum Smith is well-versed in the corporate savvy that plays an essential, even exalted, role in the Mormon Church. In contrast with the cultish and blasphemous image that dogged its tumultuous beginnings, today the Church of Latter Day Saints enjoys a conventional, nonthreatening, all-American reputation. But beneath its bland surface, many assert, the Church aggressively pursues economic and political power. The theological basis for this materialism is the Church’s post-millennial doctrine, which holds that the Second Coming is quickly approaching, but that the Mormon Church must first prepare the world—economically and politically, as well as spiritually for the arrival of Christ, and the subsequent establishment of a theocracy.

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Franklin Quest is one of many multi-million dollar success stories that contribute to the Mormon corporate empire. Although all its donations to the Church are made on a private, individual basis, they are known to be enormous. And as corporate theory became more evangelical in recent years, Hyrum Smith was poised to make millions. Like the frenzied “soul gathering” crusades that used to sweep through the states of the northeast, Franklin Quest spreads the good word about time management, appealing at once to the uncertain identity, greed, and superficial morality of the business community.

As the central role model and marketing image for the Franklin Quest Company, Benjamin Franklin is both an appropriate and ironic choice. The Franklin promotional literature proclaims, “The same powerful principles and techniques that made Franklin one of the most productive and respected men of his time can now help you reach your goals and achieve success and fulfillment in your own life.” The supposed principles and techniques in question originate from a brief section of Franklin’s Autobiography in which he relates a youthful “quest for moral perfection,” and describes his plan to keep a “little book” in which he employed an elaborate system to record his daily success or failure to maintain the “virtues” of Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. Franklin’s many subsequent allusions to his various in discretions, though, give the lie to the Franklin Institute’s suggestion that Franklin succeeded to any degree in upholding the virtues he advocated for himself. Franklin was a notorious flirt, for example, especially during the years when he served as emissary to the French court. Furthermore, while it is true that Franklin carried a “little book” in his pocket in which he made appointments, it is unclear whether he in fact arrived at his engagements on time. During his political mission in Paris, he was reputed to be punctual only for dinner invitations. Pierre-Georges Cabanis, a French physician who became a close friend to Franklin, observed: “[Franklin] would eat, sleep, work whenever he saw fit, according to his needs, so that there never was a more leisurely man…. [His house] was always open for all visitors, he always had an hour for you.”

While Franklin’s exhortations to industry and frugality in such publications as Poor Richard’s Almanack may have had an important influence on American identity, the Franklin Institute’s rather priggish Benjamin Franklin bears only a shadowy resemblance to the highly paradoxical man. In addition to historical inaccuracy, the marketing image of Benjamin Franklin promotes a superficial and dehumanized conception of what it means to be a “successful” American. Franklin’s respect for productivity is deified, while the philosophical inquiry, experimentation, humanism, inspiration, and lack of regimentation that characterized his life are ignored.

It has become a very different world at my company since our initial baptism into the world of Franklin Planners. As far as I can tell, most people don’t spend any time with the sections on values and goals, but their daily task lists are full of notes attempting to structure their ever-increasing work loads. There’s less “meaningless” conversation and more stress, but this unites us in rueful sympathy and co-dependency. A typical exchange in elevators and hallways: “How are you doin’?” “I’m so busy!” “I know, I’m so fried!”

I begin each work day in quiet meditation with my Franklin Planner, the all-important “planning period,” during which tasks for the day are listed and prioritized in detail. After establishing the most important work to be done, I typically begin with what I most feel like doing—a definite violation of the system, which is designed specifically to encourage the hard logic of business priorities and ambitions to supersede the soft lethargy of human moods. My “Daily Record of Events” is a combination of industrial jargon and inappropriate outbursts, which, along with my non-work-related “values and goals” make it imperative that my Franklin Planner never falls into the hands of a co-worker.

In the world of fast-cycle time, the Franklin Planner becomes a savior, or at least a security blanket. Many of my co-workers believe that they would be completely lost without it. One employee, describing her habit of hiding the Planner in her car to protect it from potential kidnappers, commented, a bit too seriously, “I would have to commit suicide if I ever lost my Planner!”

When the unthinkable happens, and a Franklin Planner actually does depart from its corporate home, there is much grieving and a generous extension of sympathy. Great emotion is vented, in contrast with the nervous and tentative office apologies that follow the death of grandparents and other relatives: “Oh my God! You poor thing! I would be so lost without my Franklin!”