Over the past ten years, life hacking has become one of the core topical areas of the Internet. We’ve become a society obsessed with trimming excess expenditures of effort and time from our daily lives, and articles on how to keep your cables organized with paper clips or how to turn chip bags into serving bowls have profited from this obsession. But what does all of this life hacking really get us? Have we become better people for it? To find out, we need to go back to the central goals of life hacking. According to Derek Clapham, of lifehacking.guru, a life hack is “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way.” If you go by this definition, a life hack is just a good idea that’s useful to someone in terms of productivity; it’s a productivity tip. As a friend of mine says in irritation, “that’s not a life hack, that’s just advice!”
The Root of “Hacking”
Going back further, you’ll see that there;s more to the idea of life hacking than just good advice. The idea comes from the world of computer programming, where a hack is a piece of code that helps someone solve a problem quickly. It’s often not polished, well-designed or broadly useful; it just works. It’s a shortcut, and it generally lets a programmer spend more time working on more pressing issues. By combining those two ideas, we get to the core of what a life hack really is (or at least purports to be): a more efficient way of getting something done; a shortcut that helps you bypass some part of a task or process so you can work on something more important. It sounds like a pretty good idea, but is it?
Rich Roll, an ultramarathoner and wellness advocate, answers that question with an emphatic “no.” In “Why You Should Stop Lifehacking and Invest in the Journey,” he puts it like this:
Consistent with our shrinking attention span, demand for immediate gratification, intolerance for hard work, rebuttal of experiential value, and general (illusory) sense of entitlement to the good life, this hack ethos is emblematic of our obsessive modern imperative for immediacy—the drive to turbocharge, accelerate, optimize, scramble, quicken, and hasten our way to maximum health, fitness, professional success, and ultimately happiness.
It’s a pretty scathing indictment of the idea that we can take shortcuts to personal fulfillment. Those shortcuts, he argues, are designed to shorten the most important part of this process, the part that actually results in personal change: the journey.
I don’t give a shit about destinations. But I care deeply about showing up and suiting up for the journey. And what I have learned about myself and others by embracing the pain, toil, failure, tears, fear, [and] mistakes that go hand in hand with the hard road less travelled is what gives everything meaning, context, and value.
Of course getting more quickly to our destination is appealing; it’s the journey that’s the hard part. It requires motivation, self-discipline, a lot of struggle and hardship, and often, repeatedly starting over. Whether your goal is to lose weight, read more books, keep your house clean or spend less money on eating out, exercising self-control and resisting temptation to veer from your path is really hard. And we often fail, which no one likes to do. Life hacking comes with the implicit promise that we’ll fail less: if you can take a shortcut through the hard part of the journey, you won’t have to deal with the difficult feelings of failure, and the even more difficult process of starting again. “Use this trick to store your pan lids more efficiently, and you’ll save yourself five minutes that can be spent on doing more self-fulfilling things.”
The Life You Want to Live
This promise is definitely implicit—nowhere on Lifehacker or Lifehack.org does it say that the time you save on daily minutiae will be well spent on doing things you love or want to do. However, that’s the underlying implication: if you can just cut enough time from your daily tasks, you’ll be able to reapportion that time to do something fulfilling, important or maybe just fun. But is that really the case? Gregory Ciotti puts it this way in a blog post: “We know that compounding interest, not individual swings, produces the most meaningful results.”
Gradual, long-term change is what will help us meet the goals we set. Consistent hard work gets you closer to the life that you want to live. Life hacks, he says, simply offer “the illusion of progress.” For most people, finding crafty ways to open up more space in their pantry isn’t going to get them closer to fulfillment. But because life hacks help people feel like they’re moving forward, they become very appealing (even when those life hacks aren’t really hacks at all, and don’t present any new information). When it comes down to it, however, those “hacks” just aren’t making a difference in people’s lives.
Habits vs. Hacks
So many of the goals for which people turn to life hacks are what Ciotti calls “solved problems,” or goals we already know how to meet. He gives weight loss as an example: to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. That’s a fact, and it’s not going to change. How you go about pursuing that goal can vary a lot, but the optimal choice will depend on what works for you. How do you figure out what works for you? Not by reading up on shortcuts, but by going through the difficult trial-and-error process.
Habits, Ciotti says, are the key to sparking personal change. You can find a hack that helps you keep from getting distracted, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying issue that you need to improve your ability to focus on the task at hand. You can download all sorts of life-hack-ish browser extensions that keep you from cruising Facebook while you’re supposed to work, but if you ever need to use your ability to focus when you’re away from your computer, that’s not going to help you. Developing focus-improving habits, however, will.
Ciotti believes that “what draws many into life-hack collecting is the misbelief that something difficult cannot also be simple,” and this is a powerful insight; “a failed personal achievement is generally not a knowledge problem, it’s a consistency problem.” For the most part, we don’t fail in our attempts at self-improvememt because we don’t know enough, but because we have difficulty putting in the hard work. Which makes sense: it’s hard. We’re supposed to have difficulty with it.
Perhaps the strongest indictment of life hacking as a “life-changing” endeavor comes from my own recent experience on Reddit. I went to the Life Hacks sub-reddit and asked how life hacking had changed people’s lives. I got two answers: one was “it hasn’t changed my life, but I learned a cool thing to do with a bag of chips to keep them from going stale” and the other was “I save everything and it helped me fix a treadmill that I bought at a garage sale.” The first “hack” is convenient, but hardly time-saving or life-changing. The second isn’t even a hack—it’s a habit. A habit of keeping things and experimenting with broken machines.
The Hard Truth
The hard truth is that life hacks aren’t life-changing. Yes, they’re fun to collect and use at opportune times, but even when one does save you a couple hours of time, it’s not going to make an appreciable difference in the quality of your life. If you’re constantly using shortcuts to take time off of the difficult things you need to accomplish, you could theoretically use that time to get closer to self-fulfillment, whether that’s spending more time with your family, learning a new skill or practicing meditation.
But in reality, life hacks don’t save that much time. We usually spend more time looking for new ones to add to our collection than we do actually using them. Life hacks are fun, there’s no denying that. They probably just won’t lead you to a better life. What will lead you to a better life is hard work, a focus on the journey and the establishment of new, better habits. It’s really difficult, and you’re going to fail. You’ll need to start over, and you’ll often need to set new goals. But that’s how you create lasting, effective, life-improving change.