Billing for Time

One of the odd notions of our society is the idea that time=money.

It’s an odd notion because it incentivizes the person getting paid to be present as opposed to being productive. It also might be the best system we have available.

Paying for output is the most fair and most ideal way to get paid. If your business is in a competition with another to sell a product with unlimited demand than incentivizing output gives your business a greater competitive advantage. If you’re merely paying for time then you’ll need to layer other incentives in order to encourage the workforce to generate more output. This is where we often see the five types of power come into play. Leaders will often develop a system that involves some combination of reward, legitimate, expert, coercive, or referent power–instead of just adjusting the payment model to pay people for their direct contributions to business value.

What is a direct contribution to business value? Not every industry knows what business value is.

Governments in particular is keen on paying it’s employees for their time. In part because payment for time appears to be the most fair. If the folks at the DMV were paid for their output they would probably look for ways to improve the speed of their processes and work with lawmakers to reduce unnecessary steps.

But to be fair, what happens when you have a government service that is under utilized or shouldn’t exist? Paying someone for output in an environment that shouldn’t have an output makes the position hard to fill and creates the impression that the system is unfair.

Entrepreneurs are in a unique situation in our current society. They get paid for the output of the system they create. They are incentivized to improve that system’s output. They may pay their workers using a time-based payment model. One reason for doing this in an entrepreneurial setting is to reduce the ability of the worker to know the profit margin of each product. If the worker learns the margin rate it can often build feelings of resentment that can lead to confrontation between management and employees in the future.

This also makes it hard to pay the ever valuable layer of local management. If they’re not directly touching the product as it gets built how would they get paid?

Daniel Pink’s book Drive talks about how people are only motivated by output when the task is mechanical.

Paying for time doesn’t appear to be the best way to incentivize output in a system, but it is a common method used across cultures in the world today, because appearances can be deceiving. Time may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we can agree upon.

A Few Thoughts On Time

Time is a very interesting concept. It has captured the attention of some of the greatest minds in history. Imagine for a moment you live in the ancient world. Today we have formal think-tanks where smart people combine their perspectives and effort to analyze and solve large problems in society. In the ancient world formal think tanks did not exist, but those with aptitude and opportunity found themselves working to improve society and tackle its largest problems.

One of those problems was the measurement of time. And one of their solutions was the water clock.

Water clock technology has been found in Egypt, Babylon, India, China, Persia, Greece/Rome, Medieval Europe & Islamic world and Korea. That’s a huge stretch of history and a huge stretch of the world. Behind each of the archaeological artifacts are a body of great thinkers and engineers.

One might think that at some point we stopped thinking about time. Surely the great minds of our era have moved on from a subject that is so well trodden. You would be wrong. Time is still a hot topic.

Today we talk about time in different terms, but it’s still a subject occupying the best minds of our generation. Some of those who’ve recently addressed the concept of time were those who created the GPS system. A large number of our devices today use that system to share their perceived time with us.

Arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th and into the 21st century was Stephen Hawking. Stephen addressed many subjects during the course of his lifetime, one of them was the study of time. His book A Brief History of Time uses time as its theme to introduce the readers to concepts that span the breadth and history of the universe.


I reviewed and wrote a lot of annual performance reviews over the years. One of the formulaic things I’d see is the classic so and so spent countless hours doing something to improve the organization. This automatically triggered a re-write by anyone who put this on my desk. Didn’t matter how late it might have been. The word countless triggered a do-over.


There’s no such thing as countless hours. Every hour of every day can be counted. Now we don’t always track our time using an app to see how much time we’ve spent on any particular thing. That would be silly. But we can calculate via estimates in retrospect. When Steve Carell’s longstanding figure in The Office leaves the show they sing a song based upon how much time he spent working there. 9,986,000 Minutes. They didn’t start counting the day he got there. They estimated based upon his tenure of service.

You’re not here for a countless amount of time on the earth. Your time is finite and at a minimum I can estimate any part of it. Countless is laziness when it comes to time.

An Incoherent System

Our system for understanding time is virtually incoherent. Why? Because it has so much history. We happen to use 60 as a base for minutes, hours and seconds. 60 is a nice round number. The ancient mathematicians weren’t constraint to think of numbers in 1-10. They didn’t think in base-10. Numbers were more abstract. 60 is a wonderful number in the abstract and physical world.

60 is evenly divisible by 1,2,3,4,5,6. Divide 60 by 2 and you have 30 minutes or a half hour. Divide it by 4 and you have 15 minutes or a quarter hour. We still use these terms today. Typically though, we don’t talk about 60 as being divisible by 3. At 41 years old I don’t remember anyone ever talking about a third of an hour–but it is entirely possible we will someday. Or it’s extremely possible I will just to see the reactions of others.

60 is good when you’re talking about time in one place and for a localized group of people. 60 doesn’t work so good when you start expanding it outward. When we do, we go from 60 minutes to 24 hours. 60 and 24 may share base numbers (1,2,3,4), but it also adds to the confusion.

Once we have the hours of the day we need a system to track days. Could anything be more weird than our current calendar? Sure, it works. But it’s so complex. February and March match as long as it’s not a leap year. 30 days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, except for Grandma. She likes pizza.

For most people that poem ends differently. In our house it ended with Grandma and pizza.

I could just imagine the ancients. Getting all the people to adopt 60 minutes/seconds must have been a huge win. Getting people to adopt the months was something that was forced on society by various governments over time. We still have some of their smear campaigns about the calendar as modern day traditions–April fools anyone?

Then someone invented time zones. It was a great idea, but we’ve seriously outgrown it. We don’t need the sunrise to match 6 am. In fact we don’t even need it to be close.

The Great Denominator

Regardless of the system or how perfect or imperfect it is we use time is still one of the great denominators. It is half of our true existence. Because of this it’s no wonder that so much attention has been spent on it throughout the course of history.

The most brilliant modern and ancient minds have looked at this subject since man became. Any discussion on time today is well-trod soil. As is the conversation on the next great denominator… Liberty.

The Two Great Denominators

Underlying everything we do is underlined by two great denominators, time and agency.

Time is interesting. Thanks to the Babylonians and other great mathematicians we time-box our time into 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute. While I say we’ve time-boxed time, in reality it cares very little about the boxes we’ve assigned to it. It runs its own course.

Agency is our second great denominator. It’s the recognition that choice is required for action. Generally I explain this using a military example. No drill sergeant ever made a private do push ups. The drill sergeant may have instructed, ordered, yelled, and profaned, but at no point did he animate the muscles of the person doing pushups. That person’s muscles were animated by themselves.

With agency and time as our two great denominators, the question then becomes, what do we do with them? What direction will you take your time and what will you do with your agency?


the thing or the measurement

I think we’ve screwed up time.

From the mathematical sense we use a combination of Base 60 and Base 12 which are both mathematically brilliant, but not at all intuitive for a species with five digits on each major appendage.

We’ve also screwed up the language we use for this topic as well. From time’s perspective, there’s no such thing as a second of time. We’ve agreed to subdivide up the experience into smaller segments, but those segments aren’t the thing.

Time doesn’t have seconds, but we treat time as if it did.

We conflate the measurement with the thing instead of just respecting the thing.

Now, I’m not disappointed that we’ve done this. As a society it’s pretty useful despite how messed up this is to at least have a common measurement. But, if we’ve done this with time what other things haven’t I noticed where we confuse the thing for the measurement?


A Mentor’s Time

Good mentors are often those individuals who can maximize impact while minimizing the number of interactions.  Sometimes they don’t even know they’re changing lives.

Some of the best mentoring moments happen in the spaces between big events on a calendar.  The year was 2000.  I was a young specialist running WF-16 inside of the V Corps Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and checking on my customers.  One of the officers around the big table recognized me from church and started a conversation.  I made sure he knew what we were doing to get his comms up and running.  He seemed impressed with my work ethic.  Then he told me how valuable a work ethic was to him as an officer.  “Some Soldiers seem to think they’re job is to go to work in a motorpool and they look for excuses to stay away from the field.”  He then told me about a few Soldiers in his unit who looked for ways to stay home and finished with a firm, “the real job of a Soldier happens outside the motorpool.”

Fast forward to 2012 and another good mentor was giving nearly the same speech prior to our unit’s deployment to Afghanistan.  Both of these leaders were addressing the same problem that can sometimes creep up in a formation.  There will be times when some part of the population doesn’t want to go and do their job.  Most Soldiers I talk to joined the Army to make a difference and I’ve covered how we’ve been doing that in previous posts.  When new Soldiers arrive one of the first things we tell them is how glad we are to have them as part of the team.  More than one person has heard me say during my in-brief, “plan on spending 90 days out of the year away from your bunk.  You joined the Army to make a difference and this is place where you can do just that.”

Sometimes we narrow our vision and try to only make a difference the way we want, instead of the way the Army needs us to.  Imagine if we took that logic to our customers and we set up our assemblage to provide NIPR access when the requirement was really for SIPR.  Would that endear us to our customers?  Would they be able to accomplish their mission?  The same logic applies to us when we try to narrow down the area reserved for us to make a difference.  We don’t always get to decide when or how we’ll make the biggest difference in our careers.  Some of that comes in the moments that happen in the spaces between big events on a calendar.

Now is always a good time to prepare to make a difference.  When you’ve got those moments between calendar events or you’re stretching out after PT, what are you doing to make a difference to those you work with?  Have you learned anything worth sharing that helps them become a better/more effective person?

It really doesn’t take much to get started, just recognize the space for mentorship exists and start a dialogue.  Ask a networking question you saw in one of your certifications.  Ask about the color coding for RJ-45.  Ask someone how they’re doing and listen to their response.  When they’re talking they’ll reveal things that are important to them and be able to give you a lead into a potentially life changing conversation. 

That V Corps officer listened to how I was working to take care of his needs and responded by showing me how valuable my work ethic was to him.  He also gave me insight about how important a Soldier’s work ethic is to an organization.  Now in command I use that insight often when recommending Soldiers for awards or promotion.  Do they have a work ethic?  Are they self motivated?  Are they applying their best creativity to innovate within their assigned job?

The lesson about work ethic has paid off in more than just my professional life.  During the summer of 2000 I started applying my work ethic to college studies and made the dean’s list.  Within a few years working nights and weekends I had my associates degree.  While working on my bachelors a disciplined work ethic allowed me to earn my University’s Man of the Year award, completed 25 semester hours in one semester, and published a paper in an academic journal.

Don’t underestimate the value of a few short minutes of mentoring.  If you’re not actively mentoring then you’re missing out on making the biggest difference of your career.