Lifehacking, Expanded

(Photo: left-hand)

My friend Richard recently commented to me how curious it is that people alive today know little more about how to be human than the people who came before us. It’s an interesting point. Sure, we have an increased understanding of the physical world, but there’s no state-of-the-art for how to conduct our daily activities. Collectively, we don’t seem to be progressing on this most basic front.

Enter lifehacking. A lifehacker is someone who wishes to elevate his or her basic knowledge of human existence; someone who injects reason and efficiency tricks (“hacks”) into the humblest of everyday activities.

Originally the term had a strong technological flavor, coming from the shortcuts programmers created to automate tasks and manage daily affairs, but now it’s becoming more general. Technology is a useful tool in the lifehacker’s bag, but a great deal of lifehacking requires no more technology than a pen and paper, and some, even less.

The topics lifehacking addresses are often ignored for consideration precisely because of their humility. These things seem so simple that we assume there’s nothing left to solve and no revelations to uncover. Or we find the topics so commonplace that we don’t even notice their presence, despite being in everything we do.

The lifehack approach says that we should take the analytic machinery we apply to basic problem solving (or scientific research, in the more radical case), and turn it back on our own existence. It’s the idea that we should develop and leverage systems to manage the basic things in life—often thought too basic to systemize—like productivity, sleep, goal-setting, personal development, fun & fufillment, time management, learning, human relations, etc.

By systemizing these things we can hopefully advance the state-of-the-art (if only for ourselves!) and be better at the most basic and often most important elements of human existence. Which is truly more valuable: making faster computers or making more time in your life to do what you want? Yet how much more time and energy is devoted to the former?

Lifehacking isn’t complicated. It’s an attitude of experimentation coupled with an open mind. It’s asking questions about things people don’t ask about, and sometimes testing potential answers on yourself. But it does carry the implicit suggestion that we’re not doing things optimally, that there are shortcuts, and that we can exploit them if we have the dedication and willingness to try.

I feel that we’re living in an interesting time, where a lifehacking culture is developing, because as basic as most of the topics are, they apply to all of us. There have always been lifehackers (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, experimenting with polyphasic sleep), but now there’s a growing number of people exploring life, becoming wiser about it, and sharing those discoveries with others.

Different people have vastly differing degrees of commitment to the lifehacker idea. Some may simply cherry-pick a hack or two to add to their life; perhaps an organization system or a mind-mapping methodology. Others get wrapped up in the concept of lifehacking, trying out various new ideas and becoming the originators of systems embraced by thousands.

There’s also a spectrum of generality, from the clever tricks of a particular field—which we might consider “hacks” more than “lifehacks”—to the most general of core lifehacks. I’ve leave you with some examples of these core lifehacks, techniques anyone could employ, to solidify the idea:

  • The mneumonic peg system, for memorizing any list of ten items in less than a minute, with random order recall. Here’s a great explanation and video by Tynan.
  • The tickler file, for tracking (and being reminded of) time-sensitive actions.
  • Speedreading, fairly self-explanatory. See Tim Ferris’ implementation.
  • Polyphasic sleep, the practice of sleeping multiple times per day (for less than 8 hours), exploiting the circadian rhythms to achieve more time awake each day.

The possible examples are innumerable, but that should be enough to give you the basic idea and starting building on the lifehacking concept.