Many populations are composed of a mixture of individuals that reproduce at different times, and these times are often heritable. Under these conditions, gene flow should be limited between early and late reproducers, even within populations having a unimodal temporal distribution of reproductive activity. This temporal restriction on gene flow might be called ‘isolation by time’ (IBT) to acknowledge its analogy with isolation by distance (IBD). IBD and IBT are not exactly equivalent, however, owing to differences between dispersal in space and dispersal in time. We review empirical studies of natural populations that provide evidence for IBT based on heritabilities of reproductive time and on molecular genetic differences associated with reproductive time. When IBT is present, variation in selection through the reproductive season may lead to adaptive temporal variation in phenotypic traits [adaptation by time (ABT)]. We introduce a novel theoretical model that shows how ABT increases as (i) selection on the trait increases; (ii) environmental influences on reproductive time decrease; (iii) the heritability of reproductive time increases; and (iv) the temporal distribution of reproductive activity becomes increasingly uniform. We then review empirical studies of natural populations that provide evidence for ABT by documenting adaptive temporal clines in phenotypic traits. The best evidence for IBT and ABT currently comes from salmonid fishes and flowering plants, but we expect that future work will show these processes are more widespread.