Neutral hours: a tool for valuing time

by owencb1 min read4th Mar 20159 comments

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Time (value of)
Personal Blog

Prioritisation is mostly about working out how to trade different resources off against one another. Prioritisation problems come at different scales: for individuals, for companies or organisations, for the world at large. At the Global Priorities Project we’re mostly interested in the large-scale questions. But we sometimes have something to say about smaller scale problems, too.

I’ve just tidied and released old research notes (mostly from 2013) on the personal prioritisation problem of how to value time spent on different activities. This is primarily of use for individuals making decisions about how to spend their time, money, and mental energy.

Abstract: We get lots of opportunities to convert between time and money, and it’s hard to know which ones to take, since they use up other mental resources. I introduce the neutral hour as a tool for thinking about how to make these comparisons. A neutral hour is an hour spent where your mental energy is the same level at the start and the end. I work through some examples of how to use this tool, look at implications for some common scenarios, and explore the theory behind them.

There may be benefits for broader prioritisation questions. Since societies are comprised of individuals, it could help to know how to value time savings or costs to individuals when performing cost-benefit analysis on larger projects. And there may be techniques for comparing between different resources that we could usefully apply in wider contexts. However we think these benefits are secondary. We’re releasing this work now to let others take advantage of it: either for personal benefit; or to build on it and release easier-to-use guidance or tools.

You can find the full document here. I'm happy to answer questions and I'd love to know if people have thoughts on this material.

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Thanks for sharing this, Owen! I appreciate that you frequently publish your work on LW and the EA forums.

I feel that formalizing the concept of neutral time cost (the number of neutral hours needed to complete an activity) helped me to think about comparative and absolute advantages in a new and helpful way.

Specifically, let's imagine that Alice and Bob are freelance report writers who have control over how much time they spend working every week, and who tend to produce reports of equal quality. If Alice can write reports slightly faster than Bob, but Alice hates writing, and needs much more time to recuperate after an hour of writing than Bob does, then Bob could be thought of as having an absolute advantage in report-writing.

I like this application. I'd thought about the intra-personal version where I should allocate tasks for myself in time according to mental state and current NTC of the task, but the inter-personal version may be even more natural.

Thanks Owen, really helpful article. Fluttershy - helpful comment, thanks!

Another potential application: developing a set of heuristics based on this to help people manage their chronic health conditions?

This is a great formalization of a three-resource model - time, money and mental energy - which clearly gives much better answers than a two-resource model of only time and money in cases where mental energy is a relevant resource, which is often true.

Despite that, it still feels woefully incomplete/simplified, given how important it is to get something like this right. One of these is that there are lots of resources (N is large) and trading is not cost-less between them; you have to draw the line somewhere, however, and can draw it as needed by a given exercise. I think more importantly than that, it comes down to the fact that while money is fungible and savable, time and mental energy (and many other key resources) aren't. Resources that are use-it-or-lose-it, but vital to pretty much everything, like time, have highly variable marginal value, which makes the calculations very different than described in the paper. I'm going to try and expand/formalize this concept more.

Thanks, I'd love to see what you come up.

I agree that it is a big simplification, but I don't know how much of a practical problem that is, given that a lot of people can get things wrong that would be fixable even by the two-resource model. Still, I fully support having a range of different models of different complexities!

I put down the first of my thoughts here: http://tinyurl.com/ok3loj7. If I get things where I want them I may post it to LW or turn it into a sequence.

Thanks. I wasn't entirely sure whether you were aiming at improving decision-making or at game design, but it was interesting either way!

By the way, your link is doubly(!) broken. This should work.

Could you post the actual article? I think far fewer people will read it if they have to suffer the trivial inconvenience of clicking the link.

I wonder about this. I agree that fewer people will read it, but it's not clear that's that's bad -- they will presumably tend to be the people who were less interested in it. In general there's a lot of good content on the internet, and I view the scenario where everyone tries to maximise readership of their content as a defecting strategy. I'd rather give the best information so that people can decide whether to read it.

I'm really not sure about this, though -- maybe enough of the those who pass would benefit from it that it's worth trying to maximise readership at least among people here.

Another reason not to post it is that it's 14 pages.