Sunday, January 15, 2012

Not All Hours Are Billable

Back when I worked as a litigation lawyer, keeping up with my "billable hours" was a big part of  my everyday life.  It's not exactly a natural part of your life, but it's hammered into you that it's going to be a very important part of your bank-wall-grey-suited life.  Think about it.  Every time you make a phone call, even if you only leave a message, you must remember to enter the client's name and code and assign a time value to the call, usually one-tenth of an hour for a phone message.  And you do that for every single task you perform that day.  Every letter, every snippet of research, every paragraph drafted, every phone call made, every e-mail read, much less returned - all of these must be assigned to a client and billed for.

Crazy making.  But that's how lawyers bill.  (By the way, flat fees are the way to go.  That way, you only pay once and you know exactly how much it is.  Just sayin'.)

The problem is that once you get that mindset in your head, it's darned hard to get it out.  And not all hours are (or should be) billable.

It's hard for me.  I have a job that I really, really enjoy, but I've learned - slowly and painfully - that I'm better at it when I build in breaks and time off from it.  I'm good with deadlines, but my brain also needs time to let ideas percolate.  The trick is building in "percolation time."  My regular course load requires me to teach five classes per semester, plus two in the summer.  That's five classes worth of papers, tests, speech presentations, journals, outlines, and various smaller assignments to collect, comment on, and grade.  That's five classes worth of student e-mails, excuses for missed classes, student appointments, and assorted student problems, on top of committee assignments, book orders, faculty and divisional meetings, reports, professional development, portfolio composition, and adjunct wrangling to handle - all without the prospect of tenure.  It's a loaded plate and, for the most part, I love it.  Seriously - I do.  Furthermore, I think I'm pretty good at it.

Education isn't widget-building, no matter what the business folks say.  You can't run a school like a business; not entirely.  This is because you're dealing with people rather than interchangeable parts.  I need to be chipper and upbeat and encouraging with everyone who crosses my threshold and that's not easy.  And that's a task that takes way more than a single approach.

That's why you'll see bottles of soap bubbles when you visit my office.  There are also cartoons on the wall and sock puppets in a basket.  There's a plastic raygun that makes a loud "whizz, whizz, whizz" noise when you pull the trigger and also a miniature Zen water fountain for quiet.  In the window are plants that need sunshine and water to remind me that we all need those things.  There's a copy of Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go and sometimes you'll find me reading that.  Sometimes you'll find me reading a copy of a journal that has an article describing an idea I want to try out.  And sometimes you'll see a sign that says, "On walking track" stuck on my door - generally speaking, movement clears my head better than just sitting.

Sometimes, you need to be hunched over a keyboard, researching or drafting or grading or planning.  But sometimes you need to be elsewhere, dreaming or thinking or holding an idea up to the light to look at it from a different perspective.  And all those times are important.

Even if they're not all billable.