Heard Manton Reece, probably on the Timetable podcast, talk about how you, as a contractor, can never hit eight billable hours in a day. So that's obviously wrong, but you get his point, similar to when I talked about being suspicious of contractor hours. Eight hours working doesn't ever mean eight billable hours. There's always some overhead, like going off the clock to blog this.

What's recently occurred to me, though, was where in the day I most naturally put in long stretches of hours. As I've become a full-time indie contractor, I'm also doing more on what I'll euphemistically call "the domestic front". I usually end up running some "domestic" errand in the afternoon that ends with me, back at home, after running around town. And at that point, I don't usually start back up coding. I eat, catch up on email, read some stuff, maybe collect some gold & elixir ;^), and basically become household-man for the night.

When I worked full-time for someone, my domestic slate was clear-er. I knew that going in to contracting, because one of my goals with contracting was making sure I was precisely able to be more domestic. But when I worked for someone, I routinely had less on my plate, and more times to fall into Spolsky's Zone.

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into "flow", also known as being "in the zone", where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.


The other trouble is that it's so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers -- ESPECIALLY interruptions by coworkers -- all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you're in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.

(Sidenote: That last point, of course, is why you want to hire programmers who naturally wear headphones when coding.)

The lost night

The domestic front is going great, but, long story less long, what I've noticed is that I don't work blocks of hours into the night as often now. I've recently regained one night a week without any serious commitments, and I'm working routinely that night until seven or eight. Every other day, I'm done at 4 or 5, with maybe some decompression hacking on my own stuff (because I'm too bushed to work confidently on anyone's billable projects) from 9-midnight.

I had no idea so many of my long blocks of work happened after traditional quitting time, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. My most productive time is after I've spun things up after lunch, gotten my questions answered, and entered that relaxed zone of increasingly quiet time at work after 5. Or, perhaps more realistically, 4:45. Anywhere I've worked, though, the calm after 6 or 7 is blissful.

Anyhow, I used to wonder why I wasn't getting in what felt like my normal hours, and then the obvious finally hit me, as I found myself in the shared office space after dark for the second or third week in a row. It's nighttime.

If I want to seriously bill, I need to get my nighttimes back. That's where my 8+ hours of daily productive, no-guilt, billable work time went. But that's also exactly what I'm trading to reduce domestic debt. I just don't think I realized how 1-to-1 the nighttime tradeoff to billable hours really was.

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