How much for a slice of time?

When I was fifteen, I did some work experience at a law firm.

The solicitor I shadowed kept a little notebook by his phone – there were no snazzy laptops or mobiles back in the days of yore – which he’d scribble in every time he finished a call.

I asked him what the notebook was for, and he told me that every minute he spent at work had to be allocated and charged to a client. 

This included calls in which he didn’t speak to the client in question, but spoke to someone else about them, and calls that involved him leaving a quick message on an answer phone.

“Time is a valuable commodity,” I remember him telling me back then.  

(I didn’t ask who he billed when he went to the toilet, but I wish I had.)

He was right about time being a valuable commodity.  But in an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to work from a dust-and-leather-scented office lined with gold-rimmed legal tomes for other people to agree.

As a freelance writer, I’m regularly asked ‘how much for your time’-type questions.  Often, they will take the form of a polite invitation to combat.  

Most recently, a would-be client asked if I intended to charge him for “looking through the background information I’ve just given you.” 

He asked this question with a furrowed brow that signalled he wasn’t expecting a yes, even though said background information totalled around 20 front-and-back pages of his hastily hand-scribbled notes.  

My job wouldn’t involve casually “looking through” the information either; more carefully reading and painstakingly assimilating it into the resulting content, of which it would form the foundation.  

“I haven’t got time to do all this myself,” he’d sighed earlier in our conversation.  

Well, quite.

Saying no would mean accepting that his time was more valuable than mine.   It would also mean that the free minutes and hours I frittered away on that work would be mixed with a glug of resentment, and a potent dash of self-hatred.  That’s a sickening cocktail I try to avoid sipping (no matter how pretty that little paper parasol marked ‘…but it’s great experience, right?’ happens to look.)

I think it’s strange how often the most time-consuming bit of a job is also the bit people assume will cost the least.  

No-one likes paying delivery charges, for example.  But the person dropping off that box of novelty marshmallows spent more time bringing it to you than you spent choosing it, plus they saved you time because you didn’t have to go and get it yourself.  

The productivity expert Cal Newport mentioned on a recent episode of his Deep Questions podcast that when we’re at work, we should “give every minute a job.”  

In other words, don’t take the value of your time for granted, and don't let others do the same.

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