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thought time, or indirect work

As a follow-up to my previous post: usually what I need to do, when faced with an apparently stupid and pointless work task, is spend a while not doing the work, essentially letting my brain churn over the problem in the background. Eventually, when I finally force myself to sit down and focus on the task, I'll find that I've come up with some way to handle the problem that takes into account the difficulty I have with the work, a way to complete the task as thoroughly as I'm able to and also identify for the client the problems that I feel are preventing me from completing it as I think it ought to be done. And this of course is part of what I'm paid to do.

The trouble is, sometimes it can take a few hours of unfocused time avoiding the nuisance before I'm ready to deal with it. If I spend a half-hour or so in such an unfocused manner, that's one thing; I feel that's a fair part of doing the work, since it is still time I'm putting aside for the work, even though I may not appear to be doing any work. Today, though, I spent a good five hours or so on the first part of the work, that is, actually sitting and doing the work. Then I hit the stumbling block, and leaving out about two hours for dinner, I spent the better part of four hours mostly avoiding the rest of the work, with maybe a half-hour of that time actually attempting to work on the document before becoming dissatisfied with that approach. Now I've finally hit on another approach that I think will satisfy the situation, and (aside from this brief aside to write this post) should complete the rest of the work without delay.

So here's the thing: what about that four hours of, let's call it indirect work? What about thought time? Years of experience tell me that that was a part of the work process, and no one else can really tell me that it was not necessary; it's my work process, it's my mind power being put to the task, and it does result in the job being done well (as my clients' satisfaction tells me it has indeed been done well). However, even if I can claim that no one else can tell me it was not necessary, I still tend to feel it's not necessary. Look at how I've described the process above: "I need to… spend a while not doing the work," "it can take a few hours of unfocused time avoiding the nuisance," I spent the better part of four hours mostly avoiding the rest of the work." Even though I've just attempted to make an argument that thought time, indirect work, is a necessary and useful part of the working process, I'm not sure I buy my own argument.

And consequently, I've always discounted that time I've spent in thought, in indirect work, in avoidance of what feels like a stupid and pointless task. I discount it not just in the sense of feeling it's not really working but also in the sense of actually not charging my clients for that time. When I bill for the hours I worked on today's project, I won't be including that four hours of this evening when I wasn't directly and actively spending time on the document. And that's how I've always billed my time as a freelancer. (Hi, past and present clients!) I know that I have to be accountable for my time, whether or not any client ever calls into question the time I'm billing for work (and no client has, yet), and I've never felt like that thought time would be defensible if I were called to account, so I've never included it.

But now I'm wondering whether I'm shortchanging myself. Should I be including it? Perhaps including it at a discounted rate, which is to say counting half the time I actually spend indirectly on work? If it is reasonable that part of the working process may involve spending thought time, time not directly focused on the project so that my brain can work out solutions in the background, then arguably by the principle of accountability I should be making allowance for that in my billing, not only to be fair to myself but also to give the client a more accurate assessment of the time required to complete projects. 

I'll have to consider that some more. I'd be interested in hearing from others on this subject, particularly freelancers.


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