Epistemic Status: An idea I thought of a few days ago and wrote up quickly. 

I often hear EAs and rationalists making Time-Money tradeoffs. The general idea is that money can often be exchanged for time (e.g., buying an Uber to save 30 minutes), and time can be exchanged for money (e.g., spending an hour to earn $X). 

For example, let’s suppose Alice values her time at $50 per hour. Alice is willing to turn her money into ways of freeing up their time (by paying other people to do work for her for less than $50 per hour, for paying for services that save her an hour for less than $50, etc.) or by knowing how much money she’d take to lose time (by only working only pay $50+, etc.). 

I recently thought of another kind of tradeoff that I’ve been finding useful: Time-Time tradeoffs. The idea here is that present time can often be exchanged for future time (and vice-versa). 

The idea here is that not all hours are equally valuable. A standard case might involve thinking about which hours of your day tend to be most productive. Let’s suppose that Alice “peaks” around 12PM: she tends to be 2X more productive from 12PM-1PM than any other hour of her day.

But Alice also benefits from eating lunch at some point in the afternoon. By default, Alice had been eating lunch at 12PM each day. But Alice realizes that she can push her lunch break back to 2PM. She is effectively making a trade: 12PM Alice gains an hour in exchange for an hour from 2PM Alice.

Time-time trades also relate to time-money trades. For example, if Alice values a “normal hour” of her time at $100/hour, she should be willing to pay $200 to save the hour from 12-1PM. 

Additionally, time-time trades don’t have to be 1:1. I noticed this when I was at EAGxOxford. A marginal hour of my time spent on community-building (networking, coming up with ideas, etc) at EAGxOxford was at least 3X as valuable as a marginal hour of “regular” community-building. In order to maximize especially impactful time, it would be worthwhile to sacrifice a greater number of hours of less impactful time. For example, if Alice's 12-1PM is twice as effective as her usual hour, she should be willing to trade 90 minutes of “non-peak Alice time” in order to gain 60 minutes of “peak Alice time.”

After thinking about Time-Time trades, I intend to spend more time completing tasks before or after conferences, even if it takes more time overall. This allows “EAG Akash” to borrow time from “Past Akash.” 

I think there are also examples in which “EAG Akash” would want to borrow time from "Future Akash." For example, suppose it’s the last day of EAG:

  • Last-day-of-EAG Akash: Sorry, but I think I should stay up until 2AM and wake up at 7AM in order to maximize the number of great conversations that I have.
  • Next day Akash: But that’s going to make me tired, so it’ll take me twice as long for me to write a blog post and send follow-up emails!
  • Last-day-of-EAG Akash: True. But although it’ll make you ½ as productive for 10 hours, I’d say my time is 4X as valuable as yours, and I’d save 4 hours. So you lose 5 productivity-adjusted hours, but I gain 16! As an added bonus, the conversations might help me come up with blog post ideas that are 2X as good as the ones I would write about without these conversations.
  • Next day Akash: Ah, okay. I’ll take one for the team!

The examples are meant to be purely illustrative. For some people, it will not make sense to get 5 hours of sleep or to move their lunch to 2PM. I encourage you to consider how time-time tradeoffs might be useful in your life. 

A few guiding questions:

  • What hours of the day are you most productive? (e.g., 12-1PM)
  • Where do you notice progress happening the most? (e.g., at an EAGx; at a co-working space)
  • Are there ways you can trade less effective hours for more effective hours?

Note: I would be shocked if I was the first person who thought about this, and I don’t claim that this is novel. If you know others who have written about this, feel free to leave this in the comments!

Note: I am grateful to Aris Richardson for being a writing fairy (listening to me talk about an idea, writing up a first draft, and then helping me edit/refine it. Writing fairies will be the subject of a future post). I am also grateful to Olivia Jimenez and Miranda Zhang for reviewing a draft.

58

6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:41 PM
New Comment

Since you published this on April 1, I read the headline, thought it was satire, and laughed out loud, but it turns out this is a great post! Big fan of time-time tradeoffs.

I like this. I touched on some similar themes in these old notes on "neutral hours" around different energy levels being more or less productive for different kinds of work, but I didn't really get to the "value of time varies a lot with opportunities", and I think you're right that that's an important part of the puzzle.

Thanks for writing this, Akash! :) I’ve been following a similar paradigm for quite a while, some things I did:

  • Meetings only in the afternoon - the less important/demanding the further into the evening
  • Focused work time is scarce and, therefore my morning time is a resource to protect
  • Taking my location into consideration. As you outline, when I'm already somewhere I should make use of it.
  • Stopping to work when I feel like I don't make progress. Trading this time against my future "leisure time" where I'll hopefully be more energetic.

I was fully expecting this to be an April Fools post based on the title, and became more and more confused as the article progressed, since you were making excellent points throughout!

One thing I'd like to add is that our brains treat scarce time as more valuable and act accordingly. This is my completely-unsubstantiated theory for why many people work better under a deadline. Not just "better" as in "more focused", but "better" as in "I spent 12 hours scrambling to put this together today, and this somehow turned out better than I would have done if I spent two hours a day for a week."

A strategy I have occasionally used when I have difficulty motivating myself to work is to actually limit the amount of work I do on that day. "Okay Jay, you've gotten no real work done on this tough problem, and it's 1 pm now. Here's the deal - you're only allowed to work on this problem until 4pm. After that, not only can you stop, I'm insisting that you do. If you want to get some progress done, you'd best get started."

And you know, it often works. So I think that there's a second dimension to time value not mentioned in the article - one being "opportunity" (Such as being at an EAG conference) and another being scarcity. These two often go hand-in-hand, but not always. EAG time is both high opportunity and high scarcity. Gym time is high opportunity for exercising, but less scarce since you can always just go again tomorrow.

Yes. Classic example for me is doing tasks that don't require much mental energy when I'm tired & reminding myself to do this (even though I sometimes can't be bothered) because it saves me having to do these tasks at a later time when I could be doing more cognition-heavy things.

This is SO good! Thanks for writing so clearly; I'll definitely be incorporating this into my scheduling patterns :)