The best-selling author, Tim Ferriss, promises to teach you how to cut your working week down to just four hours, using a careful combination of Indian virtual assistants, the 80/20 principle and automatic email responders.

But Ferriss has nothing on us. If your goal is to help others, then you can cut your entire working year down to just four hours.

Suppose your mission in life is to fight HIV/AIDS. Consider two charities.

  1. The first prevents deaths due to AIDS by handing out antiretroviral therapy to people infected with the virus.

  2. The second prevents deaths due to AIDS by educating people about the need for contraception through television shows.

Which one should you work for?

Both are producing massive benefits for others, but the second measure is cheap and preventative, so intuitively it looks like it might work better. To find out, let’s look at the latest cost-effectiveness research.

According to the Disease Control Priorities Second Report, $500 used on antiretroviral therapy allows one person to live an extra year of healthy life. This is a great deal, working out at only 6c per hour. The same resources used on mass media education, however, allows about 500 people to live an extra year of healthy life[^1].

If both charities are roughly the same size, and you can make the same kind of contribution at each, then it seems like you can do about 500 times as much to fight AIDS at the mass media charity. For instance, suppose you make the charity more efficient, so that it has lower costs. Or you help them to fundraise more. Or you help them recruit another great employee who does either of these. In each case, the extra resources go 500 times as far at the second charity.

A year of work is about 2000 hours. So, an afternoon’s work at the mass education charity does as much to fight HIV/AIDs as one long year of full-time work at the antiretrovial therapy charity.

It turns out that both of these charities exist. The American Foundation for Children with AIDS gives out antiretroviral therapy. Development Media International (which we’re proud to say includes a member of 80,000 Hours among its Directors) creates mass media campaigns in the developing world aimed at preventing sexually transmitted disases. We’re faced with choices like these all the time.

A four hour work week is 200 hours per year. So there you have it. Since we’re focused on helping others, we’ve managed to be 50 times better than Ferriss.

In fact, we can go even further. We’ve focused on a very narrow area: HIV/AIDS. The differences become even larger when we look at the entire range of ways to fight global poverty. Indeed, even in the areas we can’t as easily quantify, we should expect these huge differences will still exist. And finally, notice that although our estimate is very rough, the difference between the two options is so large that it’s good enough.

What does this mean?

  • You can have a huge impact. Raising $100,000 for the mass media charity (an easy amount for a charity fundraiser) could mean preventing an entire large village worth of people dying from AIDS.
  • But you need to think about how best to go about it. Making some rough estimates could let you make hundreds of times more impact.

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[1]: DCP2, Chapter 18: Using a disability-weighting for HIV of 0.135, it costs $500 to avert one DALY for antiretroviral therapy, but about $1 for mass media education.