Web development tasks never take just 5 minutes

Whilst working at my last agency, I received an excellent piece of advice from the then Lead Developer: “A web development task never takes *just* 5 minutes”.

Why this is true

All those small jobs, like changing one line of copy on a web-page, or sending an email only take 5 minutes of your time so they’re not worth charging for.

This attitude, in a lot of cases, couldn’t be more wrong, when you stop and think about the actions you’re taking, you quickly realise that no task ever takes only 5 minutes – rather everything takes at least 20.

Hearing this nugget of wisdom instantly woke me up and made me realise I’d simply been saying ‘yes‘ to every seemingly small request because these requests appeared so minuscule but what I hadn’t realised was the impact these tasks were having on my workflow.

The parts of a small task

Let’s break a small task down so we can see what’s involved in an average ‘5 minute task’.

  1. You: busy working on your current task
  2. Client/boss: asks for a small 5 minute task to be done (that is irrelevant to your current task)
  3. You: find out about task, locate the files/FTP details/etc, make the change (takes 5 minutes), check it on the test/local site, upload the changed file via FTP and check on the live site
  4. You: inform client/boss that the work is done
  5. You: go back to previous task: realise you’ve lost your train of thought
  6. You: go and get another coffee and repeat the cycle

Sure the actual task does only take 5 minutes, it may even take less but you can easily get distracted from what you were doing and sometimes getting back on track can be harder than you expect.

The solution

The solution is to simply be a bit wiser about these small requests. Professionals in other industries don’t always take the same approach us web developers do to these trivial tasks. For example, if you had a leaky tap would you expect a plumber to come to your house immediately and fix it for free because it’s such a small task. Of course you wouldn’t, because the plumber would have to drop his other jobs, drive round to your house, fix the tap (which would only take 5 minutes) and then drive home again.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

14 responses to “Web development tasks never take just 5 minutes”

  1. I totally agree here. Have had this particular issue crop up with some past projects/clients. What amazes me about it is how much friction it can cause in a relationship with a client. Sad really.

  2. @TwItCh: I guess it all comes down to how you manage your clients – and I’m no expert.

    There are times when giving a little extra for free makes financial sense and there are times when it won’t.

  3. Finally I charge at least half an hour for every small change that actually takes me five minutes. Turning on my computer takes me sometimes at least two to five minutes untill all the programms started.

  4. Good point… I also realize that almost every 5-minute task that I do uses 20 minutes at minimal. Reality is that I don’t think about that and simply agree to do that, later realizing that it produces some kind of butterfly effect – “yes” at first, and finally you have to do big job.

  5. Yes but:
    The tasks often take me only 30 seconds, to be honest. But it took many many non-billable hours to set up a system that lets me do that. So I need to charge to offset that.
    There are times when I don’t charge for these. It’s the clients who have one little “five-minute” change every week that I make sure to bill for.

  6. @Andris: unbelievable statement! I really hope I’m just missing a joke and you’re not serious!

    Ouch. I agree to a degree, but I have to take issue with a couple of nuggets mentioned.

    I don’t give a hoot about how long it takes to boot up your computer, or if you need a coffee break afterwards, or if you have problems multi-tasking. They’re problems with you, why should the client pick up the bill?

    Fair enough, many small jobs do a big job make, but common sense has to prevail.

  7. Expand this thought and think about your email-client. You might have set it to poll for new mails every five minutes or so. Once there are new mails you tend to check – and interrupt your workflow. Well, maybe there’s a five-minute job in there ;-)

  8. I agree with the premise that these small changes can interrupt your workflow, but ultimatley I think that your level of service will reflect upon your character and worth as a contractor/employee.

    A few free mintues leads to many more paid hours IMHO.

  9. @Dave- OK if you don’t “agree” with charging for 5 minute jobs, lets put it another way. Say you offer your clients 24/7 support. You get a phone call at 2am (while you are asleep) to make a 2 minute change on a web site. Lets assume your computer is on, and the whole process only takes you 5 minutes until your back in bed. Since that client has interrupted your sleep, do you really expect to be back asleep instantly? Not to mention the build-up of sleep required to reach R.E.M. again.

  10. @Brian – perfect example of a misquote, I didn’t say I don’t “agree”, the other 4 words surrounding the word you chose to pick out made for another position altogether: “I agree to a degree”. Not quite ‘dont “agree” ‘, don’t you agree?

    Anyway, bit of a duff argument you have there anyway, sorry to be blunt. If I was daft enough to offer 24/7 support where only me, myself and I was available to provide that support, then I’d ask myself if I really made the right decision offering that service to the client. You’re example gets added to the “Turning on my computer takes me sometimes at least two to five minutes” pile of lame excuses.

    Hey, Eureka, lets change the working day to 4 hours either side of an 8 hour sleep! That way we can charge clients a 16-hour day!!! I promise to share my new-found riches with you Brian. Genius!

    Nuff said.

  11. We can bitch and moan until cows fly, but what it all comes down to is “time”…and “time” is money. Period. End of discussion.

    And we all (yes, even you reading this) have only so much “time” until they bury you in a hole and throw dirt on top of you.

    So…while you’re living…bill them for the damn time. If they don’t like it, let them go somewhere else, you don’t need nit-picky clients that need their diapers changed and binkys replaced.

    And that’s just the way it is.

  12. A few thoughts

    – Your contract with client should have standard things like – minimum 15 minutes work for anything. You are then able to say – hey that only took 5 minutes I wont bill you for it.

    – Second – 24/7 support – The client pays for you to be on call, and if they actually call they pay agreed minimum amount of time, more if you have to do something and more if you have to go on-site. This means when the idiot tech rings because they dont know how to do X/Y/Z it doesnt happen often.