Time flies when you’re doing unpaid work

I charge clients by the hour, so I record my time on an Excel spreadsheet. It’s extraordinary how often I return to my desk, enter a new start time and realise that I’ve just spent 20 minutes making a cup of tea, 25 hanging out the washing while listening to the radio or a podcast, or 40 collecting daughter #2 from school (only a five-minute bike ride away, so what happens to the remaining time?).

I enjoy my work, and I frequently find that I’ve been working hard for an hour or more without realising it, but when I get up for a break the time spent concentrating becomes apparent. My back is a bit stiff, my eyes take a while to refocus, my fingers hurt … Yet somehow an hour digging in the garden zooms past virtually unnoticed, as does an hour riding around Brunswick doing the shopping and returning library books. Despite not earning me a cracker, and giving me blistered hands or a rain-soaking or a near-miss with a delivery van, they’re fun and that makes all the difference.

Mark Twain summed up the paid-unpaid work distinction in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

 … Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and … Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. … constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

I’m not sure I’d do a great deal of editing if I wasn’t paid for it, but I certainly don’t want to be paid for my unpaid work. Would I want to be a professional cyclist, a landscape gardener or an au pair? Give me a break.

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