Self-fulfilling values of time

How much do you think your time is worth?

Let’s say you are pretty unsure, but you guess ‘hardly anything’. So when you see opportunities to turn your time into a little bit of value, you naturally jump at them. You offer to clean your friend’s car for her, because it’s a way of saving ten dollars for like an hour of your time, which would otherwise be put to a worse use. You put a lot of attention into finding good shopping deals and learning how to make cheaper meals. And in between all this, you don’t mind cutting down your work hours to enjoy life, because losing an hour of productivity is worth less than the popcorn. Sometimes you do reassess the value of your time, by thinking about your second best options for spending it. For instance, if you didn’t clean your friend’s car, what would you have been doing? Probably making your own granola, which is worth something, but doesn’t matter much. So you learn that you were right: your time is not worth much.

But let’s say instead that you guess that your time is worth a lot. You then shamelessly skip over any task that isn’t also worth a lot. You jump at opportunities to spend dollars to save minutes, and buy whatever is convenient and doesn’t get in the way of the real work. If a new opportunity appears, you compare it to the next best thing you could be doing, and since that is something awesome (or you wouldn’t be doing it), few opportunities are good enough to take. So it turns out that you were right: your time is worth a lot.

This probably shouldn’t happen to an ideal agent, but I think it probably does happen to humans. I am curious whether this is a familiar phenomenon to others.

You might think, if you guess your time is not worth much, won’t you correct it later if it is, when you see the more amazing opportunities on the table? In practice maybe not, because you (and others) partly assess which things you can do by the current value of your time (e.g. maybe I can see that it is valuable to start an awesome startup but I assume it is not an opportunity for *me* because I am usually peeling carrots or something, and am not even amazing at that). Also you don’t necessarily hear about high value opportunities if you are doing low value activities. Also, maybe you hear about fewer things altogether if you stop at the first opportunity to turn time into peanuts and turn your attention to running that process, instead of looking further. And you just see a whole different set of opportunities if you go down one path instead of another. Like if you decide to start at cleaning jobs, you then hear about other (sometimes somewhat better) cleaning-job-level things, not about important philosophy problems that need solving.

8 responses to “Self-fulfilling values of time

  1. The two scenarios you describe don’t feel symmetric to me at all (maybe they weren’t supposed to be? but you wrote them so symmetrically). If I think my time isn’t worth much but I’m wrong, I can easily see how the first paragraph might happen. But if I think my time is worth a lot and I’m wrong, at some point in the second paragraph I am going to run out of money, because nobody’s in fact paying me the salary I would need to sustain my behavior.

    I do think a lot of people I know consistently underestimate the value of their time, but I can’t name a person I would say is overestimating it.

    • Yeah, I mostly think if your time could be worth a lot you could end up going either way, as described. If it definitely isn’t, one of them won’t work. But for any particular level of skill etc you have, there should still be multiple possible outcomes—if your time isn’t worth much it will be ‘not much’ and ‘even less’.

    • “I do think a lot of people I know consistently underestimate the value of their time, but I can’t name a person I would say is overestimating it.”

      I think lots of people do overestimate the value of their time in specific situations. In my experience, most people spend too much time planning meals but not enough time choosing a house or car.

    • Yeah, there’s something wrong with the reasoning here:

      > Sometimes you do reassess the value of your time, by thinking about your second best options for spending it. For instance, if you didn’t clean your friend’s car, what would you have been doing? Probably making your own granola, which is worth something, but doesn’t matter much. So you learn that you were right: your time is not worth much. … If a new opportunity appears, you compare it to the next best thing you could be doing, and since that is something awesome (or you wouldn’t be doing it), few opportunities are good enough to take. So it turns out that you were right: your time is worth a lot.

      In the first case the agent compares to specific alternatives, and the conclusion does seem to be valid. In the second case, suddenly all specificity is gone and the comparison is merely ‘must be something awesome because otherwise one would’ve done it’. These aren’t even remotely similar kinds of reasoning despite the presentation implying symmetry. The second is such an exotic use of revealed preferences & circular reasoning while ignoring empirical rewards of one’s first-choice that it’s hard to believe anyone has ever made such an error – if only because at the end of the day, you know you spent $10000 that month on time-saving services/gadgets and accomplished… nothing.

  2. “A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.” -Borges

    To extend: our ontology is an important determinant of our life path because which dials we can fiddle with is predicated on which dials we believe exist in the first place. I think that the self-fulfilling prophecy property is one many dials have. To generalize from the example you give (time-money): fungibility between different units seems like a particularly important/upstream set of dials to tune. Propagation failure of updates often seems to be one of incompatible units. If one part cares about internet video dopamine and the other cares about sleep and they have no common currency to trade in then they simply fight each other forever, much to our own detriment.

  3. Seems like the basic insight here is that you can’t apply the efficient market hypothesis to yourself and skip over the step where you actually try to figure out what the best actions are.

  4. Pingback: Reading List for the Week ending May 26, 2017 – Reading Diet

  5. Howard Holmes

    Time has no worth. What gives us the illusion that it does have worth is the illusion that we can end up with something after the time is spent. We cannot end up with anything of value. Regardless of how the time is spent we end up with the same amount of time remaining. We cannot save time like in a bank account.
    Knowledge of the worthlessness of time should grant us more freedom in how to spend it. Making my own granola sounds like a good choice.

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