Tempus Fugit

This Latin phrase is usually translated to English as “Time Flies” or “Time is fleeting.” Wikipedia tells me that the earliest recorded version of the phrase is in the poet Virgil’s Georgics, where it appears as fugit inreparabile tempus: “it escapes, irretrievable time.”

Some people have said that I am obsessed with time.

I have a small collection of ten vintage twentieth-century men’s wristwatches. These are not watches of the $10,000 variety, no Rolex or Patek Philippe among them. Nine watches are manual wind clockwork with leather bands; one, a 1990 Skagen, with a quartz movement and metal band and needs a battery right now, which shows how infrequently I wear it.  I like all the little anachronisms about wearing a wristwatch, winding, rotating my wrist when asked the time. I don’t even mind going to the watchmaker when they inevitably break.

Time is a Resource

I don’t think I am obsessed with time exactly, but I did earn my living as a consultant for thirty-seven years. I was paid based upon billable hours. At my first consulting job, I resisted filling out timesheets. It seemed like busywork to me. Then my project manager made me responsible for preparing client bills and I found myself chasing other consultants: “Get me your hours,” I plaintively pleaded with people who were senior to me.

I finally got time-tracking the first time I worked for myself as an independent consultant.  I got very good at it so I could get paid and became a true believer in the concept of spending time on only what is most important.

I once observed a client leadership team meeting where they discussed the building of a bicycle shed, a $400 expense, for ninety minutes, leaving only fifteen minutes to discuss the next year’s strategy and budget worth several million dollars. I became fixed in my view that meetings should have agendas with time allotted to topics based upon importance.

People in my family talk about “being productive” a lot. This probably comes from our parents. My mother Nan was a computer programmer with a firm grasp on the order of tasks. My father always had an index card in his shirt pocket with “to-do” tasks listed on it.

I admit to being a believer in “to-do lists.” Sometimes I put too much on my list. My wife laughs at how I always have about three weeks of work listed on “my two hours on Saturday morning” to-do list. I’ve learned to recognize that, and sometimes label things “A, B, or C priorities.” (I’m still working on the discipline of getting to C priorities.)

Sometimes I do something that isn’t on my list and I immediately write it down so I can cross it off. I’m all about the checkmark.

Time Horizons

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day minutia that fills up a to-do list and miss the big picture or long term.

How often have you seen a family with high school-age children buy a bigger house “so the kids have more space,” only to see the parents stuck in a big house two years later when the kids leave.

The summer I was fifteen, my mother decided that I needed a tennis backboard and basketball hoop in the back yard because I was spending a lot of time at the local park. My father and I spent the summer building it.

In September, I did occasionally hit some tennis balls and shoot some baskets. In October I got my driver’s license on my sixteenth birthday. By February, I had put my first car on the road. The huge backyard backboard monstrosity gradually succumbed to entropy, deteriorating until the person who bought my parents’ house thirty years later bulldozed it. During the intervening years, my parents called the construction “Nan’s folly.”

I used to tell my clients that planning should be done over multiple time horizons. Today’s goals and activities needed to segue to tomorrow’s goals, to next year’s, to five to ten years from then.

Time is past, present, and future. We learn from the past and dream of the future but we can only act today. This is summarized by the phrase I heard from an older consulting colleague years ago, “Spare me the history and daydreams, what are you going to do today?”

The danger of too much “present focus” is that we may fail to learn from the past or to anticipate the future.

Unintended Consequences

When we manage time over multiple time horizons we confront uncertainty. We don’t know how others will react to our actions. Part of planning our use of time is to anticipate what might happen as a consequence of our actions.

Imagine what might be possible if businesses (or even nations) looked at potential unintended consequences over a fifty- or one-hundred-year time horizon.

Some Sayings about Time

I often find that there is a certain wisdom in the sayings that grow up around a subject.

“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” – Theophrastus

“I have a lot of time for him.”

“A stitch in time saves nine.” – the watchword of proactive preventative maintenance

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“When you are young a year seems forever. When you are old it is gone in the blink of an eye.”

“Time flies when you are having fun.”

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” Bill Keane, The Family Circus cartoonist

This is where I end up on the subject of Time. We all have the same amount, but there never seems to be enough.

I expected that time would change for me in retirement. I even crafted a joke about it to be read with a thick New York accent: Retirement? Tempus Fugitaboutit.

But I have lived long enough to watch friends and family die. Consequently, I am determined to make the most of the time I have.

Once I saw Virgil’s saying “Tempus Fugit” in a mosaic embedded in a Roman tile floor; the picture was in a magazine article about an archeological excavation of Pompeii.

There were many other pictures of everyday people frozen for all time as sculpture, encased in falling Vesuvius volcanic ash. The article also had a picture of another message written in tile: Carpe Diem.

Tempus Fugit – time is fleeting. Carpe Diem – seize the day. Act as if today might be your last. It just might be.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. Great post. This topic is too often underestimated.
    Seneca said::”The stupidity of men is such that we feel indebted for insignificant things and worthless, always countervailable, while no one feels in debt for the time that he/she often removes to the others; yet, the time is the only thing that even the most grateful cannot return”.
    Time is nothing but the stuff of which each one has made his/her lives and wasting it actually means wasting own existence. It’s time to get our time back. Optimizing time means primarily to understand where we are wasting our most important resource (mistakes, useless activities, but that make it easy and give us that illusory sense of security and tranquility, pathological perfectionism, etc.).
    The complexity of the present time, changes in the labor market, individual desires and family needs oblige us to find suitable solutions to avoid turning our life into an obstacle course. The difficulty in reconciling work time and life time (so much so as to influence the personal and family planning horizon) make this theme a priority

    • Aldo Thanks so much for the wonderful comment.
      I especially liked the Seneca quote “. . .the time is the only thing that even the most grateful cannot return”.

      They say “if you want something done give it to a busy person,” presumeably because the busy person has learned to manage the “obstacle course.”

  2. Great post with great memories and lessons for life brother Alan.
    You wrote “Time is past, present, and future. We learn from the past and dream of the future but we can only act today.”. So, I am in the present and acted now by sharing your post on Twitter and commenting.

    I want to say that in my post earlier today here on @BIZCATALYST I mentioned time and elaborated in it that the main source of time is lost time.
    I agree with you in full.

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