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The End of Life Hacking

Once upon a time, gurus promised we could burn through the inefficiencies that plagued us. What did my search for ultimate productivity get me?


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In the mid-2000s I spent so much time reordering the nested lists of bookmarks in my browser’s toolbar. Should the news sites I looked at first thing in the morning stand to the farthermost left, or should that prime spot be reserved for the sites I checked most frequently during the day? (This was before social media became the dominant force in telling me what to read online.) Cute Overload (now defunct), my go-to destination when I felt stressed out by working a full-time job while trying to write a book, got heavy traffic from me. But almost as often I visited a collection of sites I grouped under the header “Productivity.” First among them was Lifehacker.com, a scrolling blog of tips, tricks, and methods that promised to teach its readers how to do everything better, with an emphasis on technological solutions.

The first decade of the 21st century was the heyday of life hacking, according to Joseph M. Reagle, a professor at Northeastern and the author of Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents. Reagle’s other books include a history of Wikipedia and 2015’s Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, which makes him the de facto historian of the subjects that I and every journalist I knew once talked about obsessively. These days, most of us know better than to read the comments, and treating Wikipedia like a research tool provokes little soul-searching about its authoritativeness. Likewise, I rarely visit Lifehacker anymore, unless I’m looking for a particular piece of advice, such as which voodoo rituals I need to perform to get iTunes to perform any of the tasks it’s supposed to do. It’s not that Lifehacker has lost its luster; it’s that I’ve lost faith in the concept of life hacking itself, the idea that my days could reach an apotheosis of efficiency and effectiveness and finally feel under control.

Reagle defines life hacking as an approach to getting things done arising from “a systematizing mind-set, willingness to experiment, and fondness for tech.” The concept was first named in 2004, at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, an annual event frequented by what were then called the digerati. One session, organized by the writer Danny O’Brien, called for “alpha geek” participants to share “the little scripts they run, the habits they’ve adopted, the hacks they perform to get them through the day.” A hack, as O’Brien aptly defined it, is a “way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.” If household hints can be considered life hacks (and why not?) then a good analogue example might be cleaning a blender jar not by taking it apart and washing each individual piece but by using the motor to blend hot soapy water, turning the appliance into its own mini-dishwasher.

The notion of hacking “life” arose during a period when technology was achieving one minor marvel after another, and “disruption” could still be touted as an unalloyed good. Yes, a tech bubble had burst at the beginning of the decade, but that was viewed as a failure of business models, not the tech itself. (No matter how wondrous the user interface, having someone deliver a candy bar to your Manhattan apartment for free turned out to be, surprisingly enough, unsustainable.) Smartphones seemed almost magical in their ability to iron the hassles and uncertainty out of everyday activities. You no longer had to give people directions to your house, rustle up a newspaper to find out where the movie you wanted to see was playing, or pick a restaurant with no idea what other diners thought about it.

People who wrote code were the wizards who had given us all this. They were also famed for their intense if eccentric work ethic and for turning clever new ideas into hefty fortunes. They specialized in finagling the interlocking systems of an increasingly networked world. Productivity methods had existed long before the rise of Silicon Valley—people once swore by their Filofaxes—but the tech industry, in its boundless hubris, believed that it could do productivity, as well as everything else, so much better.

Reagle groups a series of trends (hobbies? cults?) under the rubric of life hacking, each one reflecting another facet of the mindset that British media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron labeled “the Californian Ideology”:  “a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism.” This ethos is highly individualistic and mistrustful of institutions. Life hacking has roots in the group of Bay Area hippies who, in 1968, put together The Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of tools, that as Reagle writes, were selected to be “useful, further self-sufficiency, provide good value,” and to be “little known but easily purchased by mail.” The frisson of feeling you’re part of a select few who have mastered the problems that bedevil the bovine masses is part of life hacking’s DNA.

Much later, the life hacking mentality manifested in such seemingly unrelated phenomena as the pickup-artist scene. I’ll confess, the inclusion of such louche practices in Hacking Life baffled me at first. At no point during my own quest for the ultimate productivity system did it occur to me to try hacking other people’s behavior. But, as Reagle explains, PUAs are the natural product of a subculture invested in the belief that all human activities can be “optimized” through the application of systematic processes and formulae like workflows and algorithms. Life hackers started out analyzing and streamlining their to-do lists, and many of them ended up trying to hack their own intimate relationships.

While I never pegged it as such in the mid-2000s, Reagle regards life hacking as a species of American self-help. To my mind, “self-help” meant books and programs that promised to help the afflicted transform self-defeating emotional patterns into psychologically healthier ones. Such claims struck me as sketchy, too sweeping and soupily defined to ever deliver palpable results. No book or seminar could make a neurotic person serene or turn a shy fellow into a Rotarian-club backslapper. Life hacking, on the other hand, was practical, concrete, and evidence-based. You could DIY an “attractive charging station” and you’d end up with a charging station, exactly as advertised. Once you figured out how to defrag your hard drive, it was … defragged. See? Results!

But life hacking, like self-help, has always been rife with gurus and the one-true-way fanatics who follow them. David Allen, a consultant and author of the 2001 book Getting Things Done, was one early idol, despite the fact that his manifesto came in an outdated form—printed book—rather than a blog. GTD, as it is commonly called, involves breaking tasks down into pieces and sorting them by how much time they’ll take to accomplish, then allocating reminders into “tickler” files to be opened and dealt with on particular dates. The goal is to not need to remember anything you’re supposed to do; the system remembers it for you. Keeping a mental to-do list running in the back of your thoughts dissipates concentration and diverts energy from whatever you’re doing right now. The purpose of GTD is to make it possible to focus totally on a task with the ironclad conviction that it is exactly what you ought to be doing in that moment. Given the all-consuming attention coders typically devote to their work, it’s no surprise that GTD captivated Silicon Valley.

You could spend all day in the mid-2000s browsing through various small developers’ attempts to translate Allen’s original GTD system (which involved physical inboxes and file folders) into software. I know, because I sometimes did. I pored over Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders blog, which offered to assist in “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” I tinkered obsessively with Quicksilver, a utility that bound Mac OS actions to keyboard shortcuts, and I downloaded countless cheap organizational apps, experimenting with inputting every task I had to get done, fooling around with them a bit and then abandoning the whole thing when some quirk or feature rubbed me the wrong way. I was particularly intent on finding a program that could organize the copious notes I’d taken for the book I was working on, something that would allow me to magisterially summon exactly the quote I needed at a keystroke. (I actually found it: Mori. It’s great, although as far as I can tell, it is no longer being developed or even sold.)

As you’ve surely realized by now, it is possible to devote so much time to organizing your work that you never actually do any of it. As Reagle observes, several of the early champions of life hacking, include O’Brien and Mann, signed contracts to write books about how to defeat procrastination and attain Inbox Zero and then never got around to writing them. Most of them dropped out of the scene entirely, abandoning their blogs and denouncing the tech world’s preoccupation with productivity.

Others became proponents of minimalism, an ethos that involves getting rid of almost all of your stuff while becoming even more obsessed with the few things you keep. They sold their houses and moved into RVs. Like Marie Kondo on overdrive, they aimed to fit everything they owned into a single backpack. They started blogs with titles like “The 100 Thing Challenge,” chronicling how they reduced all their possessions to that number. The blogs mainly consisted of lovingly photographed and cataloged entries on each item, explaining how it was the perfect specimen of its kind. I never followed life hacking into this terrain—in no way, shape, or form does minimalism represent the way I want to live. Yet, reading Reagle’s descriptions of minimalists’ blogs and books, I found myself itching to visit them—although, like 43 Folders, and many of the productivity blogs I used to read, many of them no longer exist. Who doesn’t want to know which backpack is the one backpack to rule them all?

Of course, plenty of people live in RVs and don’t own much because they have no other option; nobody asks them to give TED talks about it. Reagle points out that minimalism has been a phenomenon of young, educated, affluent white men supposedly repudiating a middle-class materialism made possible by their careers in the tech industry and lack of family encumbrances. “Minimalism is for well-off bachelors,” as Reagle puts it, and not especially imaginative ones at that. If you make your fortune at 30 and you’re the sort of person who’s never given much thought to a purpose beyond “success,” what do you do with yourself? A common and strikingly unimaginative answer among minimalists was full-time travel. The possibility that experiences can be accumulated and consumed in just as mindless a fashion as belongings can did not occur to them.

Life hacking morphed into other forms as well. One blogger Reagle quotes recounted his quest to write a book in three months “while simultaneously attempting seventeen other missions.” According to Reagle, “he wanted to learn to skateboard, try skydiving, learn three thousand new Chinese characters, go on ten romantic dates with his girlfriend, hang out with a hundred people, run a four-hour marathon, and ‘increase happiness from 6.3 to 7.3 out of 10.’ ”

Life hacking was (and is), as Reagle explains, a pursuit of the “creative class,” a product of privilege, and sometimes a disease of it. As absurd and ultimately empty as all this box ticking sounds, I see some of myself in it. Yes, it was possible for me to write a 100,000-word book while working full time as a writer and editor, but it wasn’t something I could do in the single year I’d allotted to pull it off. Most writers don’t have more than four or five hours of top-notch work in them per day, and there simply weren’t enough waking minutes after that. Our computers are tireless, but we are not.

The past decade sometimes feels like a long hangover from the blind crush America had on technology during the peak years of the life hacking craze. Our creations have proved themselves capable of amplifying our flaws every bit as much as our virtues. The ingenuity behind so many life hacking schemes, Reagle writes, “could make one a more effective advocate for social improvement,” but more often, “life hacking’s focus is on hacking, above all, the self,” and a fairly bland and limited species of self. As one anonymous wag has observed, the vast resources of Silicon Valley have too often been applied to the problem of “what is my mother no longer doing for me?” Don’t get me wrong: I remain in the market for solid, practical tips. But life, like a palm tree or any other organic thing, can only take so much hacking before it collapses.

Laura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published June 27, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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