Words by Hettie O'Brien.
If you can hack a computer’s software, can you hack a person’s life? During the first part of the 21st century, a wave of optimistic tech geeks thought so, proclaiming that the way to increase productivity—from sleeping efficiently to removing household stains—was to find and exploit shortcuts in the way we “code” daily life. Hettie O’Brien charts the rise and eventual mutation of an early internet philosophy.
Wake up. Make your bed before drinking a cup of “titanium tea” mixed from two varieties of leaf, a tablespoon of coconut oil, grass-fed butter and a pinch of turmeric. Meditate for 20 minutes, followed by a two-minute decompression period. Complete 20 minutes of light exercise and spend five minutes committing your thoughts to the pages of a journal. You are now ready—finally—to begin the day. This may all sound excessive, but these instructions form the morning routine of a prominent member of the “life hacking” community, whose net worth is reportedly $100 million, and who claims his most productive working hours are between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.
For some, the challenge of being constantly productive in an increasingly demanding world is akin to rewriting a piece of software to make it run more reliably. And just as computer programmers learn the rules of a system and then exploit “hacks” to subvert its mainframe, the emergence of a movement of life hackers in the early 21st century applied the same approach to life off-screen. Life hackers see the world as a system with two sets of rules: the rules that everyone else follows, and the real rules. Hackers believe that they are able to discern this underlying set of rules and exploit them for their own ends, short-circuiting a switchboard to simplify the route from A to B. Computer programmers might use techniques to manage projects at work; life hackers bring them home. If every generation gets the self-help philosophy it deserves, life hacking reflects a world where work exceeds the boundaries of a nine-to-five schedule and many of us submit to being captured, optimized and appropriated by technology platforms.
The recent history of life hacking dates back to 2004, when the writer Danny O’Brien introduced the term in a presentation at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. O’Brien sent questionnaires to numerous “over-prolific alpha geeks,” asking how they managed to accomplish so much while avoiding technological distraction. His contention was that these pointy-heads had found strategies for working effectively in an endlessly distracting world. Fifteen years later, the term has evolved in a more banal direction. Googling “life hacks” today pulls up an array of mundane (and occasionally revelatory) domestic tips, including removing toilet stains with Coca-Cola, waterproofing shoes with a layer of beeswax and rubbing your skin with oranges to neutralize the smell of sweat.
The heyday of life hacking was in the early years of this century, when people were still enamored with technology and “disruption” was seen in a purely positive light. Computer programmers and “tech bros” were the new prophets of this digital age, famed for their alleged genius, ferocious work ethic and ability to reap boundless fortunes. Many of the original exponents of life hacking now eschew the term: Some turned to new trends like “digital minimalism,” an ethos that involves zealously decluttering your life, Marie Kondo–style, while others dropped out of the life hacking scene altogether, denouncing its obsession with productivity. Although we no longer look to Silicon Valley as a beacon of self-help, the idea that life could be approached like an operating system still endures today—and reflects our troubling passion for extracting productivity from every waking moment.
“Life hackers see the world as a system with two sets of rules:
the rules that everyone else follows, and the real rules.”
“Self-help, when you look at its history, reoccurs every 10, 20 or 30 years. Every new generation that appears in the workplace is like, ‘Okay, how do I find my way—and what do I do?’” Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and author of a brief history of the life-hacking movement, Hacking Life, tells me.
One of the most significant effects of having workplace managers in the 20th century was the dramatic increase in the productivity of manual workers. But what happens when you’re your own manager—when work no longer takes place in the office, and the office can be a bed or coffee shop? For many professionals and freelancers with varying degrees of security, the boundary between work and leisure is increasingly porous: They can make money during every waking moment, and they spend their free time promoting their personal brand on social media. Time becomes a prized resource, and productivity is a way of measuring value.
Though Reagle thinks life hacking can be a helpful tool, he admits that it has limitations: “You’re inherently blocking out the periphery underfoot, and you might not be appreciating the bigger picture, the system you’re in, the people you’re elbowing aside,” he says.
Indeed, the results of this mindset can be darker than they first appear. Take an example that was widely reported by news outlets in 2013: “Bob”—an employee of US telecom company Verizon, outsourced his job as a computer programmer to a worker in the Chinese city of Shenyang. Bob paid the worker one-fifth of his six-figure salary, and over several years received excellent performance reviews for his “clean, well written” coding (he was also named “the best developer in the building,” according to Verizon). While at work, Bob spent hours surfing Reddit, watching cat videos on YouTube and chatting with people on Facebook. Was this a “hack”—or an exploitative lie that exposed the kinks in our economy?
Outsourcing is common among committed life hackers, and many don’t see a problem with contracting underpaid workers to do the tasks they don’t have the time to undertake. For instance, Maneesh Sethi, a self-proclaimed life hacker and founder of a wearables company, reportedly paid a Filipino worker to remind him to floss. If life hacking is a “philosophy,” the idea of outsourcing tasks to the gig economy seems a far cry from the mantra that we should treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
Life hacking is “kind of like horse blinkers,” Reagle says. This analogy was brought to life by Japanese tech giant Toshiba, which prototyped a set of noise-canceling blinkers that it previewed last year at South by Southwest, an annual festival in Texas popular with tech employees. “You could put this cubicle on your head while your spouse was playing with your kid in order to focus on your work. I just found it deliciously ironic,” Reagle adds.
Blinkering ourselves to the world can distract us from what matters. As the writer and artist Jenny Odell describes in her book, How to Do Nothing, resisting the constant lure of productivity leads to more meaningful understandings of happiness and political engagement. Rather than recommending a digital detox retreat or mindfulness course, though, Odell sees “doing nothing” as “an active process of listening” and focusing our attention on the details of our environment. She likens this rejection of productivity to bird-watching, or being out in nature and focusing one’s gaze deeply on the minute changes in a landscape. “What amazed and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which had been pretty ‘low-res,’” she writes. The effects of this change in perception can be profound. “When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world.”
Life hacking reflects an obsession with making every moment productive. But philosophers have long argued that unproductive time is an important part of being human. The German thinker Friedrich Schiller thought what he called the “play drive” was intrinsic to human creativity. “If you have a domain that is separated from the normal demands of everyday life, and it’s meant to be inconsequential—in the sense that there aren’t heavy penalties or consequences—that is precisely something that can liberate creative thinking,” John Tasioulas, a professor of philosophy at King’s College London who has written on the importance of play, tells me.
Tasioulas argues that our productivity-fixated society risks occluding the importance of leisure and play—things that should exist for their own sake. “We’re not just material beings constantly engaged in economic activity; there has to be space for something else… another kind of value, which threatens to be crowded out if we’re constantly in a productive, economic, work-focused mode.” In an era when our attention is the most valuable and overspent resource, resisting the siren call of productivity may prove far more radical than any hack.