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The conundrum of hourly knowledge work


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This is a note. Notes are work-in-progress thoughts and ponderings that I choose to share “out loud”, subject to change and revision.

Some of the best solutions I’ve come up with for problems I’ve solved in my projects have often come when I’m not at my computer. That’s a common fact every knowledge worker can relate to. Our brain doesn’t operate on a timer and it often keeps working the problem even when we’re not officially at work or at our desk.

In fact, when I’m working a difficult problem, I know the best way to surface a valuable insight is to deeply understand the problem and then walk away and do something else – or sleep on it, and at some point while doing the dishes, taking a shower, or admiring the sunset, an idea will come to mind and lead to a breakthrough. It happens time and time again.

But when you work hourly, how do you account for this work you did that wasn’t “at work“? You can’t really, it’s very difficult to quantify.

This past year, I found myself in a situation where my knowledge work was attached to a timer and I was essentially paid on an hourly basis according to the time I tracked. So I would toil away at my computer, sometimes stuck and frustrated but still there because I was working, and that had to be at my desk with the damn timer on. I didn’t realize how intensely this impacted my creativity and ability to produce great work until I stepped away from that situation and did work off a timer again.

Is development/coding knowledge work?

I wear many hats but the easiest hat to describe is one of being a developer. I know there’s a lot of perspectives on whether coding is creative or not, an art or not, etc. But I firmly live in the camp that coding is a creative act – at least at the level I do it, where I’m doing a lot of strategic functional work.

Knowledge work is non-physical work where you cannot correlate productivity with something specifically quantifiable. Coding is knowledge work – creative work – because contrary to what some people might think, the number of lines you write doesn’t reflect your productivity at all. There are days where I write barely any code but my productivity is very high and I’ve accomplished something important and vital.

The role of value-based pricing in knowledge work.

I’m not saying that tracking your hours is a bad thing or not useful in knowledge work. It definitely is. And there is a lot of room for deep work which you can actively track and time. But that’s not the whole picture.

That’s why value based pricing has always worked well for me as an independent consultant/developer. The kind of equivalent when you’re employed is a salary, I suppose? I’m not sure and I don’t have a clear answer.

It can be hard to quantify knowledge work.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s really hard to quantify the knowledge work we do because it doesn’t just happen at an appointed time. And it doesn’t always look like “work” in a traditional sense, it doesn’t always happen at a desk. 🤷🏽‍♀️

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