Another argument I’ve heard against donating is that, due to the overwhelming importance of productivity for people working directly on longtermist problems, someone like me should focus on turning money into productivity to maximise my expected impact. [...] I worry about a state of affairs where this line of thinking goes too far, and biases allow us to rationalise frivolous purchases that really aren’t going to move the needle in an impactful way.
How does an individual EA use money to become more productive? The suggestion I've heard most is to pay to skip tasks like sweeping the floors or riding the bus—in a word, chores. My guess is that, though these trades are worthwhile for some people, many others will see no noticeable change in productivity. Here’s why.
Imagine you have the option of paying to permanently skip a task that has no productive value to you. If you skip one hour of this task, the rest of your life will play out just as it would have, except shifted one hour sooner.
That’s the kind of situation Mark Xu describes in his excellent post “Your Time Might Be More Valuable Than You Think.” Though Mark doesn’t apply his model to chores, I suspect that those who advise us to skip chores are using models similar to Mark’s. And in the case of chores, those modeling assumptions might not be very good ones:
1. Chores can have productive value.
1a) Your brain might be problem-solving in the background. In fact, sometimes brains do better work on a problem when they’re not consciously trained it.
1b) Your brain might be recharging. You might be bottlenecked not on time-at-desk, but on some resource like “creative energy” that recharges while you’re away. Tasks like housekeeping might give your brain a break, allowing you to be more productive when you return.
Owen Cotton-Barratt describes one framework for thinking about these factors in his report on “neutral hours”.
2. Skipping chores might not shift the rest of your life forward.
Many people work best under deadline pressure. If you are motivated by deadlines, giving yourself more time to complete a task can make you less efficient, or even lessen your total output. For example, if you have to produce something by the end of the week, saving an hour on Monday might lead you to work less efficiently from then on. Expecting to save an hour later in the week might have the same effect.
For some people, this problem might be easy to solve. If your deadlines are self-imposed, you might be able to shorten all them all in accordance with the amount of time you plan to save. If they are imposed by a teacher or manager, you might be able to ask that person to hold you to stricter standards. Or, if you are motivated by social expectations for how much work you’ll do, you might be able to ratchet up those expectations by making sure everyone knows about your time-saving measures.
But for those with opaque internal motivations, uncontrollable deadlines (such as conferences and class schedules), or less-cooperative social circles, these measures might be difficult to implement—especially in the short-term.
Conclusion: You might want to skip chores if (A) you find they use up mental resources in a way that makes you less productive later on, or (B) your productivity is bottlenecked on hours-spent-at-desk-each-day.
Those for whom (B) is true probably need few breaks and either experience strong internal motivation or have adaptable systems to hold them accountable. Those people should indeed arrange their lives so they never have to take their fingers off their keyboards. They should think about “hiring a house cleaner or taking Ubers a lot.”
For the rest of us, skipping chores carries no clear altruistic benefit. Encouraging each other to spend more on Ubers and housecleaners is a wasted opportunity whose ill-effects are compounded by terrible optics. We’d do better to give that money away.
80,000 Hours: Bad habits among people trying to improve the world: “there’s a taboo around grad students hiring a house cleaner or taking Ubers a lot. But that might save you a lot of time.”
An EA’s Guide to Berkeley (& the bay) p. 3: “Many EAs will commonly refer to the value of their time and how it impacts their actions (ex. Ubering instead of walking).”
Or, if you prefer, the option of substituting a short task for a long one—e.g., Ubering for riding the bus, hiring a housekeeper for sweeping the floors, or studying with a private tutor for studying alone.