The Instrumental Value of Your Own Time

What is your time worth? Economists generally assume that your time is accurately valued by the market, because time can be converted into money (via wage labor) and back again (by hiring people to, e.g, do your chores for you).  In this article, I argue that the economists are wrong, and that, as a result, we have some important questions to ask ourselves about the value of time:

(1) How would a rational person measure the value of an hour of her time?

(2) Can time invested now be meaningfully traded off against time available later?

(3) How much of your time should be spent assessing whether you are spending your time well?

Executive Summary (tl;dr)

The economists are wrong because, on the supply side, it's difficult to supply extra paid labor on a timescale of weeks or months; and, on the demand side, there are practical and aesthetic limits to how much extra time you can buy for yourself.  Thus, a rational person will not assume that her time is worth what the market says it is worth; your time is usually more valuable (to you) than it is to the market, because there is a market failure for medium-sized chunks of your time.  One way to get a sense of what your time is worth to you is to measure your ability to achieve goals or satisfy desires, but not all time is created equal -- an hour that you spend programming code may be implicitly supported by several hours of sleeping, eating, desk-cleaning, and other homeostatic tasks. Attempting to normalize the value of your time against a hypothetical "maximum productivity" level might yield more accurate information than simply checking your brain's cached value for how satisfying an experience was in hindsight, because memory focuses on events associated with intense emotions and thus often fails to adequately account for the cost of wasted time. People who spend essentially no time computing their ability to achieve their ultimate goals are probably wasting a lot of time, but the cost (in time) of evaluating your own productivity is computationally intractable; ignorance about ignorance is recursive and cannot easily be eliminated from complex chaotic systems like your life.

When Time Isn't Money

Basic models of labor economics tend to treat a person's decision about how many hours to work each week as a scalar variable; Bob could work 39 hours this week, or 40 hours, or 50.3 hours, and would be paid accordingly.  There are several reasons why this assumption might not hold. 

Among professionals, many people are not paid on an hourly basis at all, and must simply hope that increased work put in over a period of months or years will lead to promotions and higher annual salaries in the distant future.  This might not pan out if, e.g., one's industry collapses, one's company collapses, one's immediate supervisor is vindictive, or life circumstances require a geographical move or leave of absence.  To the extent that promotions are based on networking, politics, perseverance, and/or luck, professionals have no ability at all to trade off leisure for money at their primary jobs. Professionals usually have only a minimal ability to increase their income by taking on a second job, because each professional job usually takes in excess of 50 hours a week, and working 100+ hours a week is often unsustainable or undesirable.  Professionals can moonlight as unskilled or semi-skilled workers, but this usually involves a severe pay cut; if you earn the equivalent of $50 an hour as a programmer, and you could earn $10 an hour as a barista, it's difficult to say that you can transform time into money efficiently enough for money to serve as an accurate valuation of your time.  For example, if we really think that you value your time at $10/hour, and you usually have good self-control, we might be surprised at your decision to pay $20 for a taxi that saves you an unpleasant 1-hour walk.  The solution to this trivial paradox is that the marginal price of your time differs from the marginal value of your time -- there is a market failure for small-to- medium-sized chunks of your time.

Among wage laborers, many people are specifically prohibited from working overtime, or are not assigned tasks that are expected to take more than a set number of hours per week.  Working more than one full-time job at a time can be made more difficult by standard business hours; there are far more jobs available, e.g, between 9 am and 5 pm than there are between 6 pm and 2 am.  Inflexible start times and long commutes can make working multiple jobs logistically impossible even where one is able to find jobs that do not literally overlap.  One's ability to work may be limited by the strength and depth of her informal support system; e.g., if your parents are willing to babysit their grandkids for 10 hours a day but not for 14, then working an additional 4 hours would require paying for childcare, which could eat up much of the gains of additional wage labor.  Your ability to work long hours may also be limited by your ability to spend a long time away from your kitchen; if you have a long commute and little storage space at work, then you may have to return home every so often in order to prepare your groceries, or else spend a significant fraction of your extra wages on eating out.  For anyone lucky enough to be unfamiliar with these problems, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is a good place to start.

On the demand side, there is a soft limit to the conveniences that money can buy.  Although fabulously wealthy people may be able to afford private planes or helicopters, most upper-class people are still stuck commuting in relatively suboptimal conditions at the speed of a car or train.  Flexibly priced toll roads are still in their infancy; it is very difficult to double your transportation budget so as to halve your transportation time.  Similarly, first-class train compartments do not run on smoother tracks than the coach seats.  If you like, you can pay higher rent or invest in pricier real estate to reduce your commute time, but if you don't like living in the city, you may not *want* to move downtown.  Likewise, you can pay someone else to clean your bathroom, but you might not want to pay someone else to cook for you -- there's a point where delegating all of the tasks that contribute to your personal maintenance can be disempowering and dehumanizing.  If you exist only as a specialist in fluid mechanics and a consumer of other people's wage labor, who are you?  More prosaically, if you pay a personal assistant to organize your filing cabinet, you may be unable to quickly locate your files unless you also pay him to tell you where your files are: some tasks can't be delegated in neat little chunks.

None of this is to argue that time has no value as money, that money cannot save you time, or that, in the long-term, people are unable to shape their lifestyles so as to better approximate their demand for money and leisure.  The point is that, given current conditions, money is a deeply flawed measurement of the value of time, and that, as rationalists, we may be able to significantly improve upon it.

Alternative Measurements

If not money, then what should we use to measure the value of time? If you have Something to Protect, then you might try to measure changes in your expected probability that you will successfully protect [your sister, the ecosystem, the collected works of Gilbert & Sullivan, etc].  Many people around here seem to think that achieving Friendly AI is the most important instrumental goal of our generation by several orders of magnitude; if you really believe that, then why not ask, "Will action X increase or decrease the probability of fAI? By how much?"

If your values don't all converge on a single goal, you might ask a series of questions like "How much fun am I having? Will action X be fun? More fun than the alternatives? Will it help steer me into a future where I have more fun?"

This sounds both simplistic and un-workably vague, but consider the possibility that we might routinely fail to optimize our use of time even by such simple measures.  If you're an SIAI-shipper, did you floss your teeth today? E-mail your aunt? Change the oil in your car? Write your Congressman? Did any of those things actually increase the likelihood that fAI gets invented in time to save us all? By an amount even remotely comparable to, say, volunteering to translate an SIAI article into Spanish? Or, suppose you're a Fun Theorist.  Did you have fun today? More fun than yesterday? Do you know why or why not? What are you going to do about that tomorrow?  I find that I rarely ask myself these questions.  I am much more likely to ask much less relevant questions, such as "Which way is the Post Office?" or "Which element comes after tin again?" or "Do I approve of the consumer reform legislation?" The process of solving these questions sometimes either is a little bit fun or results in a marginal increase in fun, but not nearly as much fun as I could easily get by putting 5 minutes worth of thought into daily fun-optimization.

What about you? Do you ask yourself any questions like these? Do you answer yourself? Can you think of a fourth category of time-measurements (besides money, fAI-success, and fun) that might be even more useful? Of the categories, which do you think is most useful?

The Hidden Costs (in Time) of Spending Time

[Note: this section is re-posted and plagiarized from my earlier comment on an Open Thread.  I feel like it might be OK to post it twice because it got 9 points and only 1 comment; the commenter basically said that he didn't know how to answer the questions in this section but that he was curious.]

Any given goal that I have tends to require an enormous amount of "administrative support" in the form of homeostasis, chores, transportation, and relationship maintenance. I estimate that the ratio may be as high as 7:1 in favor of what my conscious mind experiences as administrative bullshit, even for relatively simple tasks.

For example, suppose I want to go kayaking with friends. My desire to go kayaking is not strong enough to override my desire for food, water, or comfortable clothing, so I will usually make sure to acquire and pack enough of these things to keep me in good supply while I'm out and about. I might be out of snack bars, so I bike to the store to get more. Some of the clothing I want is probably dirty, so I have to clean it. I have to drive to the nearest river; this means I have to book a Zipcar and walk to the Zipcar first. If I didn't rent, I'd have to spend some time on car maintenance. When I get to the river, I have to rent a kayak; again, if I didn't rent, I'd have to spend some time loading and unloading and cleaning the kayak. After I wait in line and rent the kayak, I have to ride upstream in a bus to get to the drop-off point.

Of course, I don't want to go alone; I want to go with friends. So I have to call or e-mail people till I find someone who likes kayaking and has some free time that matches up with mine and isn't on crutches or sick at the moment. Knowing who likes kayaking and who has free time when -- or at least knowing it well enough to do an intelligent search that doesn't take all day -- requires checking in with lots of acquaintances on a regular basis to see how they're doing.

There are certainly moments of pleasure involved in all of these tasks; clean water tastes good; it feels nice to check in on a friend's health; there might be a pretty view from the bumpy bus ride upstream. But what I wanted to do, mostly, was go kayaking with friends. It might take me 4-7 hours to get ready to kayak for 1-2 hours. Some of the chores can be streamlined or routinized, but if it costs me effort to be sure to do the same chore at the same time every week, then it's not clear exactly how much I'm saving in terms of time and energy.

I have the same problem at work; although, by mainstream society's standards, I am a reasonably successful professional, I can't really sit down and write a great essay when I'm too hot, or, at least, it seems like I would be more productive if I stopped writing for 5 minutes and cranked up the A/C or changed into shorts. An hour later, it seems like I would be more productive if I stopped writing for 20 minutes and ate lunch. Later that afternoon, it seems like I would be more productive if I stopped for a few minutes and read an interesting article on general science. These things happen even in an ideal working environment, when I'm by myself in a place I'm familiar with. If I have coworkers, or if I'm in a new town, there are even more distractions. If I have to learn who to ask for help with learning to use the new software so that I can research the data that I need to write a report, then I might spend 6 hours preparing to spend 1 hour writing a report.

All this worries me for two reasons: (1) I might be failing to actually optimize for my goals if I only spend 10-20% of my time directly performing target actions like "write essay" or "kayak with friends," and (2) even if I am successfully optimizing, it sucks that the way to achieve the results that I want is to let my attention dwell on the most efficient ways to, say, brush my teeth. I don't just want to go kayaking, I want to think about kayaking. Thinking about driving to the river seems like a waste of cognitive "time" to me.

Does anyone else have similar concerns? Anyone have insights or comments? Am I framing the issue in a useful way? Is the central problem clearly articulated? Just about any feedback at all would be appreciated.

Maximum Theoretical Productivity

Assuming you buy the analysis in the section above about the hidden costs of time, one could imagine a maximally productive hour in which all administrative and maintenance tasks had already been previously taken care of.  When you actually get on the kayak next to your friend, or actually sit down to write the essay with a comfortably full stomach and a functioning A/C, you are close to maximum efficiency.  You are efficient not in the rationalist sense of having chosen the shortest route to your terminal goal, but in the mechanical sense of moving along whatever route you have chosen at the fastest possible speed.  As you deal with more and more of your homeostatic bullshit in advance of your attempt to begin your chosen task, i.e., as you reduce wasted time to zero, you asymptotically approach your Maximum Theoretical Productivity ("MTP"). 

Note that this may be a very stupid thing to do; there is no particular reason, usually, to want to be at peak efficiency from 4 to 5 pm, even at the cost of spending all morning and afternoon getting ready for that hour of efficiency.  In fact, such a strategy would probably be a massive waste of time, and seriously lower your average productivity for the day.  Final exams and job interviews are two notable exceptions, but mostly I'm just trying to get some analytical traction going here -- I'm curious what it would mean to be at maximum efficiency for an arbitrary period of time.

If such a concept could be effectively developed, it would be very useful for certain kinds of utility-comparisons that are currently very difficult to perform.  For example, suppose I'm trying to decide which hobbies or which friends to hang on to after a move.  These are really difficult things to rationally compare...the  availability heuristic tends to make us disproportionately remember the most startling or sensually rich features of our activities, and these may not be a good guide to what is truly rewarding. I recently drove 6 hours round-trip to visit a modern art museum for 1 hour, and now, two months later, all I can remember is my strong emotional reaction to some of the artwork, plus one or two of the more interesting views from the rural highway.  What I've forgotten (at an emotional level) is the boredom and nausea of the bumpy journey.  Is it wise to rely on my heavily filtered impressions to properly weight the costs and benefits? Wouldn't I do better to focus on the experience of viewing the art, and then mentally dividing it by 7 before comparing it to other experiences, which will also need to be divided by their administrative support ratios ("ASRs")?

Another application would be figuring out how much time you could gain or lose, net of hidden costs, by changing your lifestyle. For example, at 3 am, as I write this post, I am not a very efficient typist or composer.  Writing 4000 interesting words takes me 5 hours.  Suppose I wake up at the same time every morning, and I need to go to bed at 2 am to be maximally efficient.  Had I gone to bed an hour earlier, I might have been able to type 4000 interesting words in only 3 hours.  With adequate sleep, i.e., at my MTP, I can write 4000 words in 4 hours; 3 for typing and 1 for sleeping.  So my MTP can be expressed as 1000 words/hour.  Without adequate sleep, I need 5 hours to write 4000 words, so I write at only 800 words / hour.  My decision to stay up an extra hour has created a deadweight loss of 200 words, or, equivalently, 12 minutes at my MTP.  If, on average, it takes me 3 minutes of homeostasis and maintenance for each minute of MTP, then I have wasted the equivalent of 12 * 3 = 36 real minutes of my life.  This kind of analysis can be both a motivating tool and a way of figuring out which  anti-akrasia tools are most effective.

MTP can break down when you are trying to have fun, rather than to accomplish a goal, but sometimes you can pay attention to how long you have to do something in order to get a roughly equivalent sense of satisfaction.  Sometimes I amble through an expressive but highly arbitrary series of chords on my guitar, with the intention of airing whatever emotions might be burbling under my layers of conscious thought and also of exploring a bit of music theory.  If I am overtired, or thirsty, or worried, I will be less able to focus on what I am playing, I wlll hit chords that are "wrong" in the sense of not fitting into even my loosely structured pattern more often, and it will take me longer to come up with a series of chords that actually produces catharsis and/or satisfies my musical curiosity.

Rationally Researching the Cost of Research

In order to do anything purposefully, you first have to know something about your situation; it wouldn't make any sense to take action with a perfectly blank set of Bayesian priors, because, on average, you would expect your action to have no effect.  Unfortunately, gathering information about your situation is  costly.  Worse, since you are not a perfect rationalist, gathering information about how well you are gathering information is  also costly.  So far as I can tell, this phenomenon is endlessly recursive.  There are certain well-defined situations where the cost of information is expected to converge; i.e., finding out how much you know about how much you know about how much you know will provide you with so little in the way of an increased chance of choosing the optimal action that you can safely engage in zero research (or epsilon research) at that layer of recursion and still get pretty good results.

So far as I can tell (irony not intended), these situations are  few and far-between .  No matter how accurate and complete you might think your model is, you could still be totally surprised by variables that you never expected to influence your predictions.  Take climate change, for interest.  You might correctly model the effects of CO2, dust, ash, sunspots, ocean currents, carbon dissolved in the ocean floor, albedo lost by melting ice, and geo-engineered reflectors, only to discover (too late) that a new kind of uber-popular roofing tile that happens to be pure black or pure white will dramatically change the Earth's albedo as the developing world urbanizes.  It's practically impossible to tell how many variables you need to correctly model in order to generate arbitrarily accurate predictions, because in a chaotic system, even a single rogue variable can totally throw off your results.  Or, it might not -- maybe, on balance, the more variables you consider, the more accurate your results will be.  Or maybe it just looks like adding variables increases accuracy, but then the eleventh and twelfth variable suddenly turn out to be useless.

Many aspects of our personal lives might turn out to be nearly as chaotic as the Earth's climate -- you can gather data all week about how your new productivity plan is working out, and conclude that it's time to cut down on data-gathering and start re-investing an extra 5 minutes a week in actually getting stuff done, only to be surprised by a huge bout of akrasia that you could have prevented if you'd been on guard.  You can spend hours each day gathering data on yourself all month and be pleased with your results, only to fail some crucial real-life test by a few percentage points that you could have easily passed if you'd just taken the most obvious strategy.

Are there any shortcuts at all here? Is anyone familiar with a literature on the recursive cost of information in a complex situation?

Anyway, thanks for your time, and your comments.

45 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:09 AM
Select new highlight date

This post fits a pattern of a lot of (bad) anti-econ posts. You raise a question, declare the "econ" answer to be something simple you've heard, then say that can't be right because of various considerations that occurred to you, and end with a sage "its all so very complex" without offering any alternative concrete estimate. But what you call the "econ" answer is just the first, simplest econ answer - most of the considerations you raise are known to economists, who use them to create more refined estimates. You are just reinventing the wheel here - if you really want to contribute to social progress on this issue, go learn some econ.

I'd love to learn more about what economists have to say about the value of time. So far, here's what I've done:

(1) Taken college courses in introductory micro, macro, game theory, and financial theory. (2) Asked all the econ majors and professors I know if they know how to value time (3) Read the Wikipedia articles on non-standard economics to see if there were any branches of economics that might deal more subtly with time (4) Browsed bookstores in several major cities to see if the social science sections had books about how to measure time.

For whatever it's worth, I'm not "anti-econ." Isn't economics just the study of how people should and do trade off values against each other, together with some of the more interesting consequences? I see this piece as an attempt to ask questions inside economics. It's not a rigorous question, but, then, I'm just starting out.

If you really do know some people who have asked these questions before, please, have mercy and send me a link.

Fair enough. Given that this community probably finds this topic pretty relevant, does anyone have any references on more refined economic thinking on this topic?

I think you raise a number of interesting points in this post. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about these and similar issues.

I've commented in the past about the difficulty in practice for many people of directly trading off time for money. Your criticisms of how labor economics treats the value of time are quite similar in character to the way Austrian economics approaches the problem of value generally.

Austrian economists tend to emphasize the subjective nature of value and view the value of all goods (including money) in a similar way to your discussion of the value of time. I think maintaining this perspective is important when making decisions as naively applying the convenient fictions of mainstream economics can I believe lead to sub-optimal choices at times.

On the other hand I think people sometimes underestimate the possibilities for exchanging money for time. I found The 4-Hour Workweek quite eye opening in this regard, despite its flaws. In the modern world of globalization and the Internet there are greatly expanded opportunities for outsourcing all kinds of tasks that many people wouldn't consider.

While I haven't experimented with outsourcing my life yet I do make a conscious effort to structure my life in a way to maximize opportunities for exchanging money for time. I find it helpful to think about many decisions in terms of option time value as it provides a framework for recognizing the true value of 'wasted' money that is spent to maximize such flexibility.

I see you are already a Zipcar member. Zipcar is an excellent example of unconventional outsourcing / trading money for time I believe. It allows me to outsource time consuming maintenance, idle storage / parking, insurance and tax paperwork, financing and purchase / resale. It also has high option value thanks to its pay as you go nature and flexibility in choosing different vehicles for different needs. Again, thanks in large part to the Internet, there are increasing options for services that offer this kind of time/money trade-off.

I apply similar considerations in other aspects of my life. I choose to live in a small downtown apartment to minimize commute time (walk to work), maintenance and administrative time (largely outsourced to the building management) and housework. Living centrally in a city also offers many more options for time/money trade-offs than are available in more remote locations. I think there is sometimes a tendency for people to neglect or undervalue such considerations when making lifestyle choices. I think it is valuable to make large decisions (career, where to live, etc.) with a view to maximizing flexibility and option value.

I did a draft of an article to post here elaborating on some of these ideas but had trouble pitching it in a way that I thought would be useful/appreciated here. Perhaps I should revisit it.

Finally, I think the importance of computational and temporal limits on rationality are generally under-appreciated here, something I've mentioned before on occasion.

I did a draft of an article to post here elaborating on some of these ideas but had trouble pitching it in a way that I thought would be useful/appreciated here. Perhaps I should revisit it.

Please do! I, at least, look forward to reading it.

Chronic disease patients (in my case, CFS/ME) have a different value of their time. To us, time is health. I've been forced to accept the concept of pacing, regular napping, deliberately avoiding some tasks, and performing others at a greatly slower speed. I have to downgrade immediate productivity in favor of avoiding a health crisis. Basically, our administrative support cost is much much higher. Possibly 20:1 or 40:1.

You can spend hours each day gathering data on yourself all month and be pleased with your results, only to fail some crucial real-life test by a few percentage points that you could have easily passed if you'd just taken the most obvious strategy.

This is actually one of the foundations of pacing therapy. First, you gather information. Then your therapist will go over it to determine your average activity per day, and then work with you to make a schedule in which you try to stick to the average as closely as possible, avoiding spikes or slumps. There is some evidence (though far from conclusive) that this can allow patients to gradually increase their activity levels over time. Even if it doesn't, the improved quality of life for me from trying to avoid the push/crash cycle is worth it, even if it sacrifices productivity.

(another currency commonly used in discussion among patients and their support circle is "spoons", from this essay: http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/personal-essays/the-spoon-theory-written-by-christine-miserandino/ )

Whenever I start thinking about very unlikely hypothetical situations -- often self-glorifying to an extemely embarrassing extent -- I try to think about abstract/qualitative decision theory problems instead: things that I'm very unlikely to make any useful progress on, but are about as likely as the crazy hypothetical situation I was dreaming up before, and with much much much higher expected utility. I like thinking about such problems, too; the only reason I normally don't is because it's become so habitual throughout my life to be incredibly narcissistic. When I consciously think about e.g. game theory for superintelligence, I find the time spent much more rewarding. This has gotten to the point where I might be at a friend's house chilling by the pool and, instead of feeling bored or whatever, I'll close my eyes and remember interesting problems I've encountered and try to solve them. I'm not sure, but I think that if more really smart people picked up this habit then there would be an appreciable growth in scientific output.

More directly to the point, I think that very small hacks like the above would allow one to approach MTP towards their true goals than a very thorough analysis of exploration/exploitation in one's daily life.

I liked this post.

(No spellcheck used for this comment, I sincerely apologize for any errors.)

This reminds me of a bad habit I was able to drop pretty thoroughly almost as soon as I realized what I was doing (which took some decades). I would imagine things to be annoyed at-- what if someone said some infuriating thing, then what would my reaction be? I didn't some up with a substitute thing to think about, but I believe that just dropping that one (or cutting it off fast if it starts) has improved my quality of life somewhat.

Admittedly, that's low-hanging fruit, but just identifying and getting rid of the activities which give you nothing is a start.

And I'll put in a nice word for Sock Pro-- toothed plastic rings which mean you'll never need to sort your socks again, link from Kool Tools, the online descendant of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Here's a hard question: How do you evaluate the value of trying new things?

Once when I was with Marcello he went to Costco and bought a rather large amount of brand new socks -- all the same type, so that he didn't have to worry about mixing and matching. This made my impression of his instrumental rationality go up. (I'm sure a lot of people have different socks for different purposes, but it's something that I probably would have failed to optimize.)

Added: Thanks for linking to Kool Tools! I might travel the country for a year or two while trying to be as light as possible, and that site had a few items that seem like they would be pretty useful.

I am still mostly wearing socks from the massive online bulk order of identical boot socks I made four or five years ago..

I do this too, and my brother and I have communal socks. I hadn't thought of ordering online. Good idea.

I do this as well. Clearly this calls for a poll! How many of us avoid sock-sorting by buying bulk quantities of identical socks? (Or the alternative solution.)

I avoid sock-sorting by not buying or wearing socks, which is still more efficient.

Once when I was with Marcello he went to Costco and bought a rather large amount of brand new socks -- all the same type, so that he didn't have to worry about mixing and matching.

It's a practical move. Myself I have three roughly equal collections of socks - identical black ones, identical sports ones and assorted others (mostly either gifts or particularly high quality pairs that I use for marathons and long runs in general).

If you are serious about researching FAI, and see it as more than an idle hobby, you should put more emphasis on study of existing math, e.g. learn logic and recursion theory to graduate level.

Those are not my strengths. We have a lot of really smart people working from that approach already; and they're probably going to be a lot more useful than I ever will be or would be. But I feel a lot more comfortable playing around with concepts like timeless trade than recursion theory: probably because my weaknesses are less apparent there, but still.

We have a lot of really smart people working from that approach already

We do? Like who? There are qualified people who don't work on the problem, and also a few unqualified people who do. Maybe six people I know of who are both qualified and possibly do useful work on the problem.

But I feel a lot more comfortable playing around with concepts like timeless trade than recursion theory: probably because my weaknesses are less apparent there, but still.

It's a matter of improving your sanity when thinking about conceptually difficult questions, not of narrow skill or "approach" (which is a weasel word, like "in my opinion", trying to lift responsibility). Anybody smart can study.

It's a matter of improving your sanity when thinking about conceptually difficult questions

That's an important point. That is the main reason why I will learn learn math and computer science. Also I'd like to have a better idea of what's special about ADT. ;)

I like thinking about such problems, too; the only reason I normally don't is because it's become so habitual throughout my life to be incredibly narcissistic.

Your comment here expresses uncertainty about how narcissistic you really are (relative to the norm). If your level of narcissism is common then noticing you are that narcissistic shouldn't be evidence for much of anything (including your potential to do FAI research).

Oddly enough, just yesterday I ran across a short article on the subject: Paul H. Rubin, "A Paradox Regarding the Use of Time," in Readings in Labour Economics. Just glancing over it again, the argument seems at least roughly similar: "...there is always some misallocation in consumer decision making resulting from consideration of time spent in decision making" and Rubin quickly mentions that the same issue ought to show up for firms in allocating management time. Another article in the same collection, "The Increasing Scarcity of Time," Linder, criticizes most economic models for failing to account for the time required to engage in consumption. Linder wrote The Harried Leisure Class, and I found (most of) a recent review on Questia.

Interesting sidenote: Rubin also apparently wrote a 2002 book, Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, which is about, well, evolution and politics. Yet, a quick search seems to show he hasn't come up on Less Wrong before.

One metric that one of my old bosses used was "One hour of your time costs the company twice what you're being paid." Basically, if I could find an outside service to do something for me at the cost of $40, given a salary of $20/hour, I should hire the service if I expected the task to require more than an hour of my time.

I think this could be applied to "How valuable is my time?" Each hour of work costs you an hour of homeostatis - 10 hours working/commuting and ten hours sleeping/abolutions.

At this point your time should be worth ~$10/hour (assuming a $20/hour wage), right? So you should take up that job as a Barrista during your remaining time off.

But here's the problem: for most of us, our job is little more than homeostasis; even if we enjoy it, it's not directly contributing to our goals - it's just enabling us to pursue them. That's what our remaining four hours of the day are for.

Given that, we should be demanding twice our hourly compensation out of any unpleasant tasks we perform - at $20/hour it's just barely worth my time to change my own oil (mechanic would charge $40, and it would cost me less than an hour), but performing major repairs on a clunker I don't love would be wasted effort, when I could just buy another one for $200 and 5 hours of searching (avoiding a time-cost of anything over 10 hours).

This might be a valuable rule of thumb to at least point in the right direction.

Very interesting, and very much the sort of thing I was hoping to learn by posting.

Is your math right on the new car, though? $200 of cash costs you 10 hours of wage labor plus 10 hours of sleeping/ablutions, and 5 hours of searching, billed at double our hourly compensation, adds another 10 hours, for a grand total of 30 hours. At that rate, I should be glad to do 14 hours of repair on my own time to fix it, since my 14 hours get billed at double rate for only 28 hours cost to fix it myself. Not sure where you get "a time-cost of anything over 10 hours" from.

Also, does it really help anything to double all your figures? What aren't we doubling, here?

I have to admit, I'm in the "This feels intuitively right, and I'm really frustrated that the math doesn't add up" phase. But let's see what fresh-morning Aurini has to say.

But essentially, your hours spent working/sleeping/etc - 20 Hrs/day - are a non-negotiable sunk-cost.

Everyone's goals basically boils down to achieving greater access to utilons; In a simplistic sense, this correlates to increasing one's hourly earnings (exceptions to follow). The reward/promotion prospects one can anticipate during their time at the office is minimal - especially since more successful competetiors will be investing their time more efficiently.

Spending your off hours earning a comparable wage (or adding benefits to your life valued at a comparable wage) boils down to treading water. Your goal during those precious 4 hours should be productivity worth at least twice your hourly wage for that reason, whether you're using the time to pursue hedonic pleasures, advance your education (formal or informal) or networking for a better job.

Gut instinct and observation tends to suggest that this is the mistake poor people make; they don't place a high enough value on their off time, using the four hours as a source of rocket fuel to launch themselves higher. At worst they waste it in mind-numbing unproductive activities, at best they waste it on fixing old clunkers instead of looking around for more creative solutions (such as buying a new clunker every four months).

Seeming exceptions to the "mo' money, no problems" would be things like living the simple life - moving out of the big city, and getting a job in an honest trade in a small town - but even with this goal it should follow that you value your time highly. Your time off should be spent inventing a way to change your life to meet these goals, rather than working as a Barrista - the only exception being a really high paying job, one significant enough to distort your finances in a positive way - or about 2X what you're earning anyway.

Anyway, I think this is almost right, but I'm still frustrated that the numbers don't add up. There's an old Native American saying which asks "Does this grow corn?" which keeps popping into my mind. Any ideas?

Conceded. It's a series of questions, each preceded by enough context to explain why the questions might be interesting. There is no thesis, except that current analytical tools for measuring the value of time may be less satisfactory than expected.

A summary of the arguments (tl;dr version) would be nice too. I appreciate that you put the questions this leads up to at the top, but a tl;dr summary would be even better.

I beg your pardon, Silas. :-) I'd most likely be happy to put it up, but I don't know what a tl;dr is.

'too long; didn't read'.

In other words, an abstract or summary. For people who not only can't be bothered to read the article, but can't be bothered to write 'summary' either.

Don't know if you're joking, but that's an abbreviation for "too long; didn't read", and even so, not knowing that shouldn't keep you from putting a summary with the specifications I described. If you have one to put up, go for it.

Nope, wasn't joking. I'm that unhip. Anyway, I'll work on an executive summary.

EDIT: tl;dr is up.

I almost immediately thought of this koan.

Responding to your 7-hours-driving-to-museum example, I often drive my car to Ultimate tournaments. It takes about 10 hours both ways, more than playing time, but I try to enjoy every minute of it. It's a kind of meditation. I find that if the way takes longer, I'm more focused at the end and I play better.

This might be better as two posts, both of which seem valuable, and both of which need a little more detail.

The exploration of the "cost of time" is currently a little hard for me to follow, as it seems to be based on a model of time and definition of value that I don't quite get. Time isn't a resource in the same way that other valuable commodities are - you can't store it or transfer it, it just happens at the rate of one second per second. You really do not trade time for money (or anything else), you only decide to spend time on something that has higher money expectations than some alternate activity. You still get the experience of doing whatever it was that brought the money.

The second part, about the recursive cost evaluation of choosing how much time/attention/whatever to invest at what level of meta-choice is a question that is applicable to all decisions, from how much to spend on investment research to how to choose how much to practice vs compete at a sport. Of course, even for divergent situations, you have to choose, so gathering information (and meta-information like searching for strategies) forever is clearly wrong, unless "do nothing" is a likely optimum action. Putting together a simplified model and running some results of it would go a long way toward finding more specific questions to ask on various topics.

Questions: Is your terminal goal happiness? (Mine is.) Do you think maximum productivity will make you happier? At this moment I don't think so. My reasons? Many, but Dan Gilbert's talks ( http://www.ted.com/speakers/dan_gilbert.html ) and writings are an important factor.

Regarding the cost (in time) of spending time:

My take on the challenge here is that you're modeling a method of assigning value based on the causal relationship between performing an action and the direct impact of that action on the desired goal. I'll reference the above elements as processes of 1) assigning value to individual actions based on causal relationships, and 2) determining a causal relationship between performing an action and its direct impact on the world.

In this model, an efficient action is one where we can clearly determine that its rationally causal relationship with impact on the world contributes to our desired goal. More importantly, in this model it is important that the action contributes to our desired goal directly.

Consider an action that is homeostatic in nature - spending time buying food does not directly contribute to our desired goal of "engaging in the act of kayaking"; as such, it isn't valued as efficient in the above model.

We do recognize however, that buying food is a irreplaceable step in the system of actions required to "engage in the act of kayaking." To the extent that an individual action is irreplaceable in a system of actions required to accomplish a goal, that action is important and valuable [this is a premise I'll call the irreplaceability premise]. With this premise in mind, it is easier to see that the act of buying food has an impact on "engaging in the act of kayaking" that is just as important as the act of pushing the kayak into the water.

Using the directness model, we consider buying food as less valuable because it is less directly related to the happiness we experience from kayaking. If the irreplaceability premise is well-founded, then the directness model is a weak method of assigning value to actions - and thinking about irreplaceability may help resolve some of the concerns that later arise with how to most optimally spend one's time.

[As an aside, it's important to note that this application of the irreplaceability premise is founded on the notion that if the act of eating is removed, the act of pushing the kayak into the water will never take place. We can easily imagine an alternative scenario - you push the kayak into the water while hungry - so I'm supporting this irreplaceability with the sentiment contained within the statement "my desire to go kayaking is not strong enough to override my desire for food." It is in fact worth considering the function of time and our ability to delay homeostatic actions in this notion of "irreplaceability," but as an absolute definition, homeostatic actions will always be necessary and ultimately irreplaceable - it is equally easy to imagine an alternative, lengthier goal where delaying homeostatic behaviors ultimately do not reduce their necessity.]

To help make the irreplaceability premise more clear, consider also actions that are not homeostatic. As an undergraduate, I would often be conflicted about the directness of my actions and how to assess their value - most notably when the desired goal was something like "delivering a presentation for a class final." At some point it occurs to you that you're spending hours or even days preparing for a goal defined as a 20 minute task, and this seems like the same kind of waste mentioned above in the expression "it might take me 4-7 hours to get ready to kayak for 1-2 hours." But it is relatively easy for one to intuitively see a causal relationship between preparing slides and organizing sources as important to the end goal, so operating under the directness model our worries of wasted time are at least somewhat assuaged.

The problem is that the directness model again breaks down over lengths of time, where irreplaceable actions are not intuitively direct actors in the causal relationship between action and goal. 30 seconds of the presentation may come from ideas fostered over hours and hours of time going to class - and worse yet for directness, they may reflect the synthesis of disparate ideas captured across various chunks of time spent in lecture.

I'm not necessarily sure that the irreplaceability model is any better a tool for assigning value in our attempts to calculate efficiency (in a complex enough system it quickly becomes easy to identify every action as irreplaceable), but the above examples help illustrate the challenges of assigning value based on direct causality.

I think most of the low-wage work that people do is in doing things like driving 25 minutes to Costco or Wal-Mart to save a few bucks. Sometimes, this doesn't even come to minimum wage.

Your first point is a very old and well-analyzed one amongst Marxists, in the sense of time-as-labor, "time" being the usual approximate metric for the measure of labor. Indeed, depending on how one interprets your question, it may be that you independently stumbled upon one of the key points of Marxian analysis and the concept of surplus-value.

Perhaps with that qualification some Googling may serve as a productive use of your time.

No, no, I can't take credit. I've read The Marx-Engels Reader cover to cover, as well as some interesting neo-Marxist thoughts on time-as-labor by a guy named something-or-other Cohen.

In general, I think Marx was wrong -- his hypothesis about Life, the Universe, and Everything was just far too complex to have any serious chance of being wholly or even mostly correct, and history has been justly unkind to his predictions. As to the single point of time being a useful way to analyze labor, though, well, that's a much simpler idea, and has not been disproven, and has not received much attention lately.

That said, if you have specific suggestions for what I should Google, I'm all ears.

AFAIK, when economists want to truly measure how the price of a good has changed over time, they measure that price in terms of how much time one would have to work in order to purchase it. Matt Ridley does this through (the first 7 chapters that I've read of) The Rational Optimist

I'm not super familiar with Marxism, but I thought the key thesis about labor was the labor theory of value - picked up from Adam Smith and John Locke, among others. There are two versions of this theory - one is that the sole determinate of the price of a good (or at least the supply side for more sophisticated Marxists) is the amount of labor that went into it. The other is normative in nature, which says that people should be paid according to the amount of labor they put into their work.

Is my understanding of Marxism just wrong?

No, that sounds like a good summary to me. I think you probably have an excellent understanding of Marxism. :-)

Measuring how much time it takes to produce a commodity is a fascinating way of exploring history, but note that I'm not trying to measure the value of a product -- I'm trying to measure the value of my time. If you commoditize my labor, you might be able to calculate how much it has cost to reproduce my ability to toil in various ages of history, but I'm not trying to measure the value of my time to a capitalist facing a decentralized, bloated labor market -- I'm trying to measure the value of my time to me.

I see now. I took

As to the single point of time being a useful way to analyze labor, though, well, that's a much simpler idea, and has not been disproven, and has not received much attention lately.

To mean the labor theory of value point, not the more general point that time is a useful way to think about labor, at least for some things.

Complex is very far from what I would call Marx's objective hypotheses. Perhaps you are confusing Marx's analyses of the capitalist modus specifically, such as he did in Capital, with dialectical materialism in general; the former is naturally very complex, as it is the analysis of a subjective and transitory superstructural expression of dialectical materialism in general, the latter being, if I may take this liberty, akin to Bayes' Law in being simple in expression yet complex in result.

To put it another way, it is easy to confuse Marx's subjective analysis of a transitory form, which he did most prominently in Capital, with the broad, historical, sociological, objective principles of the materialist conception of history, dialectical materialism, which he expressed in parts throughout his writing.

Additionally I, for one, would hold that contrary to the common perception of Marx having failed at his predictions that Marx's writings on capitalism apply more to the current state of affairs than to his own.

Anyway, on reading back over your post, I'm not so sure now exactly what you are trying to do; but reading the literature on surplus labor, etc. can never hurt!

Tolerance effects, cost, decreased cognitive function, impairment of motor skills, and social disapproval make this a potentially poor course of action. That said, there may be drugs which do not have such side effects. ADD-treating drugs seem to make a lot of neurotypical people more satisfied with their life despite many being very addictive.