Why Staring At The Wall Is Billable Time

In this Internet-fuelled Age of Technology, we often perceive problems as simple inputs and solutions as the result of application processing. Humans, however are not applications.

By YJ Tso
August 7, 2013
Why Staring At The Wall Is Billable Time

In this Internet-fuelled Age of Technology, we often perceive problems as simple inputs and solutions as the result of application processing. Humans, however are not applications. Our problem-solving mechanics, although arguably more robust, are also much, much slower, more complex and indirect. We often come upon solutions after a night's sleep, or when thinking about something else entirely. "Wet-ware" is messy.

So what does this mean for our workflow? Because the way a client - any client - views your work is thus:

  1. (s)he sends a request
  2. the request is "processed"
  3. the "fix" or solution is implemented
  4. the loop is complete.

Given the "wet-ware factor" however, the actual process may look more like this:

  1. (s)he sends a request
  2. the request is evaluated
  3. the request is set aside, burning in the back of your mind
  4. you complete other tasks/requests, and doing so provides subconscious feedback to the solution
  5. you attend to some family matters or social engagement that again, lends some indirect insight to the problem at hand
  6. you go to sleep
  7. the next morning you sit at your desk and stare at the wall for an hour, not really knowing why
  8. the client emails again asking for a progress report (or demanding delivery of the solution)
  9. you focus on it again, and only with the benefit of the previous distractions are you able to come up with a "fix" within the hour

The client's perception of the above, and perhaps yours as well, is that you only worked on this problem for an hour. If the client saw an invoice for 24 hours they would have a fit. But really - and I mean "really" - at least some percentage of steps 3-7 (plus 100% of the other steps) contributed to your "rendering" of the solution and is therefore, billable.

If you (or your clients) need convincing, there's a lot of supporting science and research on the topic of "unconscious" creative thinking and problem-solving. For example:

<a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/articles/whatissleep.shtml">http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/articles/whatissleep.shtml</a><br>
<a href="http://www.livescience.com/5820-sleeping-helps.html">http://www.livescience.com/5820-sleeping-helps.html</a>
<p>I recommend following the references cited at those links as well. If you have the time, I highly suggest you read the book <a href="http://www.gladwell.com/blink/">"Blink"</a> by Malcolm Gladwell as it touches on this subject in a compelling way.</p>

But let's get down to brass tacks - how do you bill for this stuff? How do you quantify the time you spend on unconscious thought? Which of your dreams from last night were relevant to your client's problem, and how long did you take to dream them?

Don't forget, too, that your expertise and ability to solve problems is a result of your years of experience in the field. As you add these other ingredients into the billable soup, it seems more and more inaccurate and unreasonable to bill based on time.

What's the alternative? I don't have an answer yet. Maybe it's value-based pricing. Maybe it's simply working your "unconscious thought value" into your hourly rate, or adding some time to each invoice, like "project management" or "research".

We'd love to have the perfect solution to this, but as yet we don't. Consider this a call for help: if you have any ideas, please comment below. Or maybe we should all just sleep on it.