It’ll take about three minutes to learn this column. Whether or not it’s price three minutes is determined by me, in fact. I’ll do my finest. But it surely additionally is determined by you, in your angle to time and, maybe, in your occupation.
Twenty years in the past, M Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of regulation and theology, started an article with the commentary that “Many attorneys are very sad, notably attorneys who work in large corporations. They might be wealthy, and getting even richer, however they’re additionally depressing, or so they are saying.” Was this unhappy state of affairs attributable to lengthy hours or demanding work? Maybe.
However Kaveny recognized a extra particular perpetrator: the “billable hour” — or much more exactly, the billable six-minute increment. By accounting for each second of their working lives, and defining every second as both “billable” or, regrettably, “non-billable”, attorneys had been being tugged inexorably in the direction of an sad, unhealthy angle to the way in which they spent their time. Not all attorneys, in fact. And never solely attorneys, both.
Kaveny had a number of issues. She famous that attorneys would deal with slender short-term objectives quite than broader or deeper values resembling sustaining expertise, mentoring younger colleagues, or residing as much as the very best beliefs of the regulation. She frightened concerning the express commodification of time.
However maybe extra related right now than ever is that the billable hour encourages us to view all time as fungible. If time is cash, that’s as true for 6am on Christmas morning as it’s for 2pm on Friday the twenty ninth of April.
“No time is inherently sacred and even particular,” writes Kaveny. In case you invoice £1,000 an hour, as some senior attorneys do, then any specific six-minute increment of time is on the market to be become £100. Can you actually afford an hour within the gymnasium? Can you actually afford to name your mom or learn a bedtime story to your little one? The purpose just isn’t that attorneys by no means name their moms. It’s that the entire framework of the billable hour makes it really feel naggingly costly to do something non-billable.
As Oliver Burkeman laments in his wonderful guide 4 Thousand Weeks, the logical conclusion is that “an hour not bought is robotically an hour wasted”. If attorneys are educated to think about time in billable six-minute increments, what about different professions?
Evaluate the lawyer with, say, a dairy farmer. The dairy farmer works lengthy and gruelling hours, and, sometimes, for a lot much less cash than the lawyer. However a big distinction between the 2 jobs is that point isn’t fungible in the identical approach. The cows have to be milked after they have to be milked. And having milked them earlier than breakfast, there is no such thing as a temptation to take advantage of them once more after breakfast.
These lengthy, non-negotiable hours can’t be straightforward and, simply as a lawyer could also be disturbed by a late-night name from a shopper, a dairy farmer could need to rise after midnight to assist a cow in labour. However I don’t assume I’m over-romanticising to counsel that simply as there’s something psychologically corrosive about the truth that the lawyer can all the time invoice one other six minutes, there’s something psychologically wholesome about the truth that the farmer can generally relaxation assured that there’s nothing helpful to be carried out till the morning.
I don’t imply to moralise, merely to watch that there’s a distinction right here that goes past earnings or hours. These totally different vocations have a distinct angle to time baked into them. So do others. We journalists, for instance, are inclined to assume by way of deadlines. Once I was beginning out, a buddy suggested that the key to journalism was “usable copy, on time”. That will get to the center of issues: journalists wish to ship agenda-setting interviews, earth-shaking scoops and tear-jerking prose, however the deadline is absolute. All the things else should pressure to suit.
Deadline stress is acute quite than continual, and so many individuals (myself included) discover it stimulating, satisfying and wholesome. Whether or not you’ve performed a blinder or muddled by means of, you possibly can file your copy and begin with a clear slate within the morning. This isn’t such a nasty angle to work, however it runs in opposition to the grain of some careers, and with the grain of journalism.
Whereas a journalist may watch a deadline approaching with a burst of adrenaline-fuelled productiveness, for somebody working fastened hours, the ticking of the clock in the direction of 5pm may mark sluggish and tedious minutes that have to be endured.
It’s tempting to supply some typology of various professions and their attitudes to time. But I believe the categories are starting to blur. In 1992, the economist Peter Sassone coined the phrase “the regulation of diminishing specialisation”. Thirty years later, it’s astonishing how a lot data work is dealt with utilizing the identical instruments and workflow — a workflow that more and more includes no fastened hours and no fastened location. We’re all, just like the attorneys, in a position to do some bit of additional work earlier than bedtime, even when not all of us can cost £1,000 an hour for it.
And whereas the “billable hour” is usually a psychological entice, it does train us one useful lesson: there’s a distinction between working and never working. It’s a distinction price sustaining.
Written for and first printed within the Monetary Instances on 29 April 2022.