During tissue development, multipotent progenitors differentiate into specific cell types in characteristic spatial and temporal patterns. We address the mechanism linking progenitor identity and differentiation rate in the neural tube, where motor neuron (MN) progenitors differentiate more rapidly than other progenitors. Using single cell transcriptomics, we define the transcriptional changes associated with the transition of neural progenitors into MNs. Reconstruction of gene expression dynamics from these data indicate a pivotal role for the MN determinant Olig2 just prior to MN differentiation. Olig2 represses expression of the Notch signaling pathway effectors Hes1 and Hes5. Olig2 repression of Hes5 appears to be direct, via a conserved regulatory element within the Hes5 locus that restricts expression from MN progenitors. These findings reveal a tight coupling between the regulatory networks that control patterning and neuronal differentiation, and demonstrate how Olig2 acts as the developmental pacemaker coordinating the spatial and temporal pattern of MN generation.