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.
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.
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)