Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

On Productivity Tips: Towards a Unified Theory of Life Hacks

by Andre · 15 Comments

Hacking Life It has become customary over the last year to dismiss life hacks as a fad. Most of the criticisms are as vague as the arguments in favor of life hacks. One valid criticism, usually not very well articulated, is that hacks focus on techniques rather than principles. But techniques are many, and principles are few, making it hard to churn out blog posts that focus on fundamentals on a daily basis.

The critique is well intended but misdirected. The problem lies with the end user, not the best practices or tips and tricks given, nor on the software and gadgets being fetishized. Without the right mindset, consuming advice is unproductive, but having a clear purpose for seeking out and implementing advice changes the ethos of life hacking fundamentally.

Personal Kaizen

Let’s shift the focus from life hacks to life hackers, or geeks, and contrast them to “regular people.” Normally a person experiencing a problem will solve that problem on a just-in-time basis without classifying it, therefore increasing the odds of repeating it. A geek takes a more architectonic approach by classifying the problem and looking for a systemic fix, asking two implicit but fundamental questions:

  • What are the predictable roots of this problem?
  • What are the best practices for solving, removing or reducing its occurrence?

Instead of leaving ice cream in the freezer when starting a diet, then trying to resist temptation, a life hacker throws the ice cream out, knowing that removing unproductive options is more reliable than appealing to discipline. A life hacker working on a spreadsheet understands that taking five minutes to find a function, macro or shortcut key in Excel will recovers hours of wasted time working on a repetitive task manually in the long run. A normal worker is too preoccupied with getting the assigned task done to stop and reexamine the strategy behind the task.

Yesterday, for the second day in a row, I forgot to bring the magnetic ID badge that allows me elevator access to the floor of my office — the badge was in a coat I left at home. The conventional reaction would have been resolving to remember to bring the badge next time. Instead, I took the badge out of the plastic lanyard holder and put it in my wallet. Now I just place my wallet next to the security sensor when I take the elevator, and I never have to worry about remembering to bring the badge. The focus wasn’t on overcoming the problem, but on removing it.

The individual example is trivial, but the same frame of mind can be applied to much more significant examples. Instead of haphazardly trying to control one’s spending each month, a life hacker will set up automatic payroll deductions with her bank for savings, investing and bill payment, knowing that whatever funds remain are discretionary.

Life hacks are instances of an ethos the Japanese call Kaizen: the focus on continuous, methodical improvement by viewing all resources and processes that contribute to a desired outcome as aspects that can be tweaked, measured or reconsidered — variables like tools, schedules, environment, relationships and methods. The same philosophy can and should be applied not only to production, but to life. Recipes by themselves won’t make a great chef, riffs by themselves won’t make a great musician, source code alone won’t make a great programmer. It’s the initiative and interest — the fascination — of the chef, the musician, the programmer, the life hacker, that integrates disparate information into a sum that exceeds its parts.

Better Problems

While we can’t be free of problems, we can always strive to have better problems. For years, I wondered why my coworkers received so much more email than I did. Part of this was due to their comfortable threshold for how many emails they would allow to sit in their inbox, but I recently realized that it had more to do with my threshold for many times I’m willing to delete the same type of email: twice.

As soon as I see the same type of email that I would delete again, I don’t hit the Delete key; I take an the extra minute to create a filter for it. So if I get a promotional offer from eBay, I set a filter to delete any subsequent messages of the same type with their unique identifier (e.g. “% off” in the Subject line). Having a two-minute rule to set filters as part of my daily email processing does two things: it prevents repetitive messages from irritating me into finally taking action on them, and it has the cumulative effect of reducing the size of my inbox over time. Having hundreds (yes, hundreds) of filters prevents me from getting hundreds of messages a day. Messages from whitelisted senders are similarly filtered to be automatically labeled and sorted above other messages in my inbox.

An hour of hard critical thinking can be worth more than a month of hard work. — Tim Ferriss

Network administrators have one of the few jobs where talent is demonstrated by working less. A good sysadmin automates as much of their work as possible by finding or writing shell scripts that keep things running with an absolute minimum of manual intervention. A Danny O’Brien pointed out in his presentation, Life Hacks — Tech Secrets of Over Prolific Alpha Geeks, a geek will spend 10 hours writing a script to accomplish an 11-hour task. They do this mainly because the process fascinates them more than the result, but that initial 10 hours is amortized each time the script needs to be run again — so the “Just Do It” reaction that’s typical of non-geeks is a false economy. The geek addresses the system rather than the symptom.

Many processes in other domains of work an life can be similarly automated with the right mindset. It requires disciplined self-examination, identifying repetitive decisions, documenting them, finding ways to streamline, automate, eliminate, or delegate them to others. Always set aside time from projects to focus on process.

(Photo credit: mwilkie)

Tags: Lifestyle Design

Comments

  • Sid SavaraNo Gravatar // Mar 6, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    You know, I don’ know if you have seen it but Merlin Mann recently gave a talk where he discusses creativity – and how he wants to move away from talking about doing things, to doing things. I think it was at Mac World.

    I too create loads of filters and actually have been meaning to write about that. At last count, I had 140 filters – I get some 300-400 email a day, and barely 30 make it to my inbox.

    (Ok, that last part was bragging, but I figure we’re friends here and both on the same page ;) )

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    @Sid: Walking the walk seems to be the gist of most of Merlin’s posts lately. It reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he keeps reiterating that you can’t just talk about revolution. After talking over the point for a couple of minutes, the irony is manifest.

    I get about the same number of raw incoming messages, with about the same post-filtered amount landing in my inbox, but I have 415 filters. You’re probably better at regular expressions :)

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Mar 6, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I’m not a geek but I am organized and efficient. I think people who are naturally efficient are good at doing exactly what you suggest – constantly thinking about ways to simplify and streamline and automating their routine as much as possible.

    Gadgets and applications are not needed, though. It can be as simple as my friend, who is also very organized, telling me how she moved her weekly grocery shopping day to Wednesdays, because she has an hour to kill in downtown anyway while her kids are in piano lesson.

    I find this article absolutely brilliant and easier for non-geeks to read than previous articles of yours.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    @Vered: Let’s face it. The pioneer life hackers were housewives and mothers, who are naturally productive by necessity. Same thinking strategies as technologists, different domains. I used to love interviews with Joyce Carol Oates describing how she learned to be prolific by watching her grandmother (who had an “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” mentality) seize every idle moment to get something done, developing clever strategies to do so.

  • Catherine Cantieri, SortedNo Gravatar // Mar 8, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    “While we can’t be free of problems, we can always strive to have better problems.” I *love* this. I’m going to start approaching problem-solving with the idea of how to improve the problem, before I go any further. Great post!

  • TravelerNo Gravatar // Mar 8, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I like this post. Identifying and automating recurring tasks/processes is really one of the great keys to progress. Many people just don’t think to apply it outside the workplace, in their daily lives, as much as they should. Thanks for the reminders!

    One tangent: “Life hacks are instances of an ethos the Japanese call Kaizen: the focus on continuous, methodical improvement…”

    If you’d welcome a small correction, the above is an instance of the modern “kaizen” myth. For the record, that’s not what the Japanese word means, and there is no such “Japanese ethos”. For the real story:
    http://www.homejapan.com/2009/03/debunked-kaizen

    (That’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time; thanks for providing impetus. Another small improvement chalked up!)

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 8, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    @Traveler: I didn’t describe “kaizen” as a Japanese ethos; but an ethos described by that word in (my misunderstood) Japanese. I could say that an extended afternoon break is what the Spanish call a siesta, but that doesn’t make it a specifically “Spanish” break.

    It’s true that the “continuous” aspect of the word’s mythology stems from its use around the Toyota Production System, but that’s an exception that illustrates the theme of this post: identifying needed changes to patterns, not instances. When a defect happens the manufacturing of widgets, the operations manager looks for the process that lead to the defect rather than treating the defect as an anomaly. Forgetting my ID badge could have been an anomaly, but treating “remembering to bring the badge” as a recurring pattern opens the possibility of making a change in that pattern. “Systemic progress” expresses mindset here with less baggage than kaizen.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 8, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    @Catherine: It may have been Robert McNamara who said, “Don’t answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you would like to have been asked.” There’s more room for renegotiating and reframing problems than most people realize.

  • TravelerNo Gravatar // Mar 9, 2009 at 2:40 am

    @Andre: No argument with the article’s points; kaizen etymology is a trivial tangent. I just want to clarify that “…an ethos the Japanese call Kaizen…” isn’t quite right; what they call kaizen is just generic “improvement”, no different from the English word.

    That said, some people – in Toyota and elsewhere in the world – do label the ethos you describe as Kaizen, for lack of a more appropriate, pre-existing name.

    In short, “Life hacks are instances of an ethos some people call Kaizen…” would be a problem-free statement.

    Anyway, a fine post. Looking forward to more!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 9, 2009 at 8:37 am

    @Traveler: That said, some people – in Toyota and elsewhere in the world – do label the ethos you describe as Kaizen, for lack of a more appropriate, pre-existing name.

    In short, “Life hacks are instances of an ethos some people call Kaizen…” would be a problem-free statement.

    That makes sense. Correction accepted ;)

  • CharlieNo Gravatar // Mar 11, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Brilliant post, Andre!

    As one who often beats up on lifehacks, I really loved your call to be more clear about my objections. Actually, your presence in my reader, on PF, and as what I’d like to call a friend calls me to be more clear about most of what I do.

    My struggle with lifehacks as we know it is that I see too many lifehack-ey suggestions that add additional techniques or solutions that don’t address the root cause of the problem. Rather than looking at how to do something thirteen different ways, it’s often better to increase core competency in the main way you experience or interact with something.

    But real lifehacks eliminate the problems or give us a better way (as opposed to a different way) of dealing with the problem. I have no beef with those kinds of solutions and have a standing meta-process that helps me come up with them.

    So my critique of “lifehacks” is much like my critique of “productivity”; it’s placed at how we’ve missed the point, which is true, but it does it an a way that’s not nearly fine-grained as it needs to be. Thanks for pushing me.

    I love this post – if I can get to it before I head to SxSW, I’ll continue the discussion on PF. Stumbled, Reddited, Tagged, and Tweeted!

  • Sid SavaraNo Gravatar // Mar 11, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    @Andre

    Well, the first 10 filters catch 50%, right? ;) And the next 10 catch 10%, and the next 10 catch 5%, and then after that I have all these filters that are used maybe once a week or once a month. I’ll catch up to your 415 filters yet! Hehe.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 11, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    @Charlie: My struggle with lifehacks as we know it is that I see too many lifehack-ey suggestions that add additional techniques or solutions that don’t address the root cause of the problem. Rather than looking at how to do something thirteen different ways, it’s often better to increase core competency in the main way you experience or interact with something.

    That aligns perfectly with O’Brien’s observations of productive hackers. Instead of using a dozen different apps to get work done, they master their text editor and use it for everything from writing memos and To Do lists to shell scripts.

    Hacks are to productivity what recipes are to cooking. You have to come to the kitchen with the basic skill set already in place for them to be useful.

    So my critique of “lifehacks” is much like my critique of “productivity”; it’s placed at how we’ve missed the point, which is true, but it does it an a way that’s not nearly fine-grained as it needs to be.

    This is a discourse that goes in cycles. In the eighties it was fashionable to talk about productivity (“effectiveness”) in overly broad terms — “be proactive,” “synergize” — that weren’t very actionable. This decade the pendulum has swung from “capital letter nouns,” as Merlin Mann would call them, to “hacks,” which are more actionable but often more superficial.

    No system is going to equally emphasize the balance of vision, strategy, methods and techniques necessary to be consistently productive. Any time you make a point, you’re also not making another point.

    I’m jealous that you’re going to SXSW. Have fun, and thanks for the bookmarking love!

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