Confessions of a recovering lifehacker


I used to be a lifehacking addict, and in some ways I still am. I have a perverse love of systems and efficiency: analyzing, configuring, optmizing, categorizing, defining, and parameter-setting. (I’m the son of two librarians, one of whom also worked as an unofficial programmer/sysadmin. I guess it’s genetic.) I loved my first Palm Pilot, I read “Getting Things Done” over a Christmas break for fun, and I took a dickish kind of pride in replacing whatever corporate email solution a job might foist upon me with my own selfishly optimized system (damn the consequences for company security).

There was always a better way to do almost anything.

But sometime over the last couple years (around the time I turned 30, not coincidentally), it has begun to dawn on me: Maybe all the time I spend looking for better ways to do things is keeping me from, well, doing things.

It’s like running on a treadmill: you might get in really good shape, I guess, but you never actually go anywhere.

This isn’t some unique epiphany. In fact, the Head-Shaolin-Monk-For-Life of Lifehacking, Merlin Mann, said it first and probably best. But I’m writing my version because it’s, well, mine — and because it’s finally starting to sink in, in an actual, real-world, “changing the way I live” kind of way. And maybe you’ll get something out of it, like I did from Merlin’s.

What are you REALLY hacking?

They call it “lifehacking” and it’s a damn catchy term. But it’s also a misnomer in 9 out of 10 cases.

That’s because most of the stuff that pours out of these sites isn’t really about hacking your life. It’s about constantly fiddling around with all the bullshit that too often gets in the way of your life:

  • Email
  • Paying bills
  • Troubleshooting
  • Syncing all your crap with all your other crap
  • Remembering things that you tend to forget because they’re boring/tedious/annoying in the first place

The “life-” part comes from the assumption that in our modern world, all this bullshit is a given — that you have to put up with it in large quantities. The “-hacking” part is there to assert that since you’re going to spend a lot of your life putting up with this un-opt-outable bullshit anyway, you may as well fiddle around with said bullshit so that you can

  • give yourself some feeling of agency over its inescapable presence in your life, and
  • maybe, if you’re lucky, make it all stink a little less.

Kind of like how the Game Genie let you “hack” your boring old Nintendo cartridges back in the day so you wouldn’t have to beat Worlds 1-1 through 8-3 all over again, every day, in exactly the same way every time you played. You could do it slightly differently (or faster, or “better”) from time to time and that would make it all feel new again and you could feel kind of engaged again, even though it wasn’t, really, and you weren’t, really.

Essentially, this kind of “hacking” is all about trying to make the best of something that is

  • handed to you without your necessarily asking for it, and
  • designed by someone else for someone else’s benefit.
And it’s a useful skill to have, no doubt. Hell if I’m gonna be stuck with what some corporate IT guy tells me I “have to” use for my email.

But is that really the way you want to think about your life?

Tweaking your GTD system is easier than deciding what the hell you want to do with your life

A lot of super-smart, talented folks really go down the rabbit hole with this lifehacking stuff. Why?

Maybe (like me) they just have a proclivity for that kind of thinking. (I won’t deny that it’s a lot of fun sometimes — like playing with a Rubik’s cube.) Maybe they actually, truly find meaning in it, and in helping other people to find meaning in it (rare, I think, but possible). But in a lot of cases — also like mine — I think lifehacking is so seductive because it’s simply easier than asking some bigger, harder, more important questions about where your time and attention go.

To return to the “hacking” analogy: it’s just plain easier to tinker and tweak something you assume you’re stuck with, for better or worse, than it is to design something better from scratch. It’s less tiring. It’s less frustrating. It’s less frightening. It takes less commitment. There aren’t any unknown unknowns. The failures are less painful and the successes are more frequent.

In short, the stakes are low. E.g.:

  • If you don’t conquer your inbox, it’ll still be an annoyance that sort of stresses you out, but whatever — you’re used to it, and hell, everyone else has the same problem, right?
  • If you DO, hey, bonus! That aspect of the bullshit you have to deal with is a bit less annoying and stressful — for now, anyway — and you probably enjoyed a little morsel-feeling of control and satisfaction to boot. Maybe if you read that productivity blog more often, you’ll get to have that feeling again.

No harm, no foul. Nice hack.

Meanwhile, here are the bigger questions you successfully avoided asking/answering:

  1. Why do I get so much email in the first place?
  2. How important is all that email to what I’m doing?
  3. What AM I doing?

Hm… none of those questions be answered by installing a new browser plugin, and the mere act of asking them — much less answering them — raises the stakes rather uncomfortably. There you were harmlessly bitching about your email, and all of a sudden you’re running headlong into, like, Life Stuff!

Here be dragons. Time to hit refresh on the ol’ RSS reader and get back to safe ground. Come to think of it, I bet there’s a better RSS reader I could be using…

Lifehack recovery, starting now

So if lifehacking isn’t the answer, and in fact may be obscuring meaningful questions, whaddya do? I’m not sure. That’s why I refer to myself as a recovering lifehacker: It’s still in progress for me, too. But here’s some stuff I’ve learned that seems promising.

1. Less lifehacking, more life-designing.

This has nothing to do with being artsy. It just means: start from scratch, question assumptions, and imagine outcomes. The point is that you envision what you want to do/be/happen first — not tools, process, defaults, or “what’s possible.” It’s hard, but it clarifies what’s real right up front, when it matters most. Timothy Ferriss might come off like some unholy combination of Tony Robbins and a meth addict, but his “4-Hour Workweek” book is a pretty unimpeachable object lesson in clearing away assumptions and redesigning one’s life from first principles. But you don’t have to be that radical. Just be less passive in all those subtle ways we all are, take responsibility, stop worrying about what other people might think, and own what happens to you. It changes the whole picture — big or small.

2. The best app/tool/gadget/hack for the job is the one you have with you.

I adapted this notion from a bestselling photography book. Sound like settling? Nope. It just means keeping your tools and process in the proper perspective, namely: they are means to ends (see: #1), not ends in themselves. When you assume that what you’ve got in-hand, right now, is good enough, you stay focused on doing — not fiddling. Only when you discover that a particular tool or process is completely inadequate, or gets in your way more than it gets out of your way — and this will happen naturally, no fancy GTD system required — only then will you shift your attention to looking for a replacement. And even then, you’ll be looking for something specific and practical, as opposed to just grazing for hours on the endless, incremental, six-of-one,-half-dozen-of-the-other type stuff that most productivity blogs spew out.

3. The least possible (practical) amount of organization is best.

A good friend recently told me his whole working philosophy is based on laziness. But this guy is not lazy. He just realized that systems, categories, hierarchies, all the stuff that lifehackers nerd out on to keep chaos at bay — it all takes significant energy and attention to set up and maintain. And more often than we’d like to admit, that energy and attention doesn’t translate into being more effective. In fact, above a certain threshold, imposing more order on a system detracts from its effectiveness.

Consider a silverware drawer: I used to put knives, forks, spoons, etc. into their own separate compartments. But my wife just takes the clean silverware out of the dishwasher and dumps it into the drawer. It used to drive me nuts, until I realized her non-system didn’t make grabbing a fork out of the drawer at dinnertime any more difficult; it was actually better, because I was no longer wasting time maintaining my useless silverware-categories (and wasting energy trying to convince her they were worthwhile!). In this case, “barely any organization at all” was just the right amount. Of course, if you pulled this stunt in a restaurant kitchen, you’d be screwed, but that system probably has its OWN least-practical-level of organization. Unclench the cheeks and get a little more comfortable with chaos — perversely, your life will get simpler.

4. You are very important, but only to certain people. Make sure you identify them correctly.

Why do I check my inbox, twitter feed, smartphone notifications, and blog stats like a crack fiend? Because I really like feeling important. I like getting messages instantly because their manufactured urgency makes me feel like my attention is a hot commodity clamored for by thronging masses. And it’s true: my attention is a hot commodity. But not to 95% of the people behind those dings and pings. They don’t really care about me or my attention at all, other than as a means to their own ends. If I emailed them back right now, or two hours from now, tomorrow, never — it very well might make no real difference in the big picture. You know who does care about my attention? My wife. My friends (and not the Facebook variety). The family members I don’t call often enough. To them, I actually am important. Why not act accordingly?

I’m not saying you should just blow off your communication-related obligations at will, but being omni-available in “real time” should not be your default if you can help it. Let’s be honest: The consequences of ignoring or deferring incoming messages until you’re ready to review them are abstract and vastly overestimated, while the consequences of being that asshole who keeps checking his iPhone at dinner are very real. Yes, certain people should have the authority to interrupt you at will. But do consider this possibility: if the people to whom you’ve extended this privilege invoke it primarily via “things that ding,” your priorities may be seriously fucked.

This is water

Lifehacking is fine — I don’t mean to imply that it’s a scourge like polio that should be stamped out for the overall good of the human race, or that the people who write productivity blogs are gremlins out to sap your lifeforce. They’ve turned me on to some great tools and tricks, and maybe I’ll share them sometime. But the truth is that this kind of stuff is not going to help you figure out how to live well. And like a whole lot of other things in this world, it can actually hinder you if you’re not careful.

The best book about work and productivity I ever read wasn’t even about that, which is why you should read it if you care about this stuff. This is Water is short enough to be finished in 30 minutes, and the pedigree of its author ensures that you can read it in public without feeling like some sad-sack self-help junkie. I just re-read it myself, and here’s the gist:

Life — the only one you get — consists of what you pay attention to. There is literally nothing else. The awesome thing (which I mean in the cosmic, Hubble Deep Field sense, not the “funny viral video” sense) is that no one gets to decide what you pay attention to except you. It seems easy, banal even; it’s not. Learning how to do it — effectively,  meaningfully, and relatively unselfishly — is pretty much the most profound thing you can attempt with the time you’ve got left. And there ain’t no app for that.

DFW knows what he's talking about.

Disclaimer: I’ve learned/cribbed all of this from the aforementioned book, Merlin Mann, and other sources I can’t remember wel enough to link to. Also, just because I say I believe something is true and important doesn’t mean I’m actually skilled at living that way. Yet.
Other disclaimer: I’m aware that “hacking” has a much different, and much more positive, historical connotation among programmers than the one I’ve employed above. This is a totally different subject and I’m not out to impugn any hackers, so please don’t yell at me in the comments.


44 Responses to “Confessions of a recovering lifehacker”

  1. 1 The Wanderer

    Dude, this is one of the top blog posts I have ever read and I have read thousand and thousands…. Well done!

  2. 2 Jay

    You are on to something here. I was a bit too lazy to life hack and went another way some years ago… I highly recommend you get more into mindfulness and you will see how you can unclutter your life and reconnect to LIFE. Sounds esoteric but it is not (I’m really not into this stuff).

    Mindfulness helps you to simplify your way of dealing with your thoughts and emotions and that gives you incredible power to do and live however you want to! 🙂

  3. Hi. I can’t talk too much about this without talking about my religion, and nobody wants to be preached to online. But let me at least make some major points.

    1. It’s important to not disappear into that Void. The Void is good and clear: great art takes away the distraction, and we must try to find purpose without a destination or utopia in mind, meaning in every step that we take. But the Void must be understood as constructive as well as destructive. When I was a teenager I would say “nothing is worth anything!” and it was horribly upsetting. It took me a while to realize the sane, deep, meaningful deduction from that statement: “anything is worth everything.”

    2. One should therefore remember to Love, even to Love Wildly. Love is always transformative: it changes you, it changes your beloved. When you say “get a little more comfortable with chaos” I think of the apartment that I just moved into some months back, dirt everywhere, kitchen a mess, a dessicated shower splashing upon a rusting wash-machine which fell apart two months back, overflowing garbage bags. What such an environment needs is to be loved; it is like a child left neglected in the basement, and to see it is to see shame in its parents’ eyes.

    As you free your life of fake responsibilities, do not free your life of Love; do not stop transforming your world and those you meet; do not fall into the trap of thinking that you have all the answers; keep authentic and honest and real.

    I apologize if that was too preachy. I don’t mean it to be.
    — @_drostie

  4. 4 Valitta Jatkadulla

    Did it really take you that long to realize what a heap of rubbish that crap is!

    I laugh in your general direction. Oh well, at least you finally got it

    • 5 Rob

      Can you explain to me why you would like such a comment? It makes you seem like a jerk and a coward because you would not say that if you were sitting across the table from the author.

  5. 6 Ian Cooper

    Life-design, as you call it, is simply the evolutionary progression from life-hacking. Experience and education lead us to continuous change and improvement.

  6. I built a blog about productivity – lifehacking in general. But I am at a point where I am realizing just that. It’s not about lifehacking that I should be focusing on – I should not focus on the process of work, but on the work itself. I found myself obsessing on the process. Focus: Work. Lifehacking not. Life Design be.

  7. 8 stefan

    In short: Life-hacking is about reacting to consequences. Life-designing is about triggering desired actions and preventing unwanted ones.

  8. You are brilliant. I don’t say that lightly. There are so many phrases in here that I need to write on Post-It notes and stick all around my monitor —- especially the parts about choosing who should get my attention. Awesome.

    Oh, and the writing was fantastic! Very nice work.

  9. I’m like you, I’m always trying to improve my tech devices and to find a better app for anything.
    Sometimes I thing I’m just wasting my time. In fact I know I’m wasting my time, but I continue doing that.

    It is time to stop improving my life and live my life.

  10. 11 Bob Mills

    ” I think lifehacking is so seductive because it’s simply easier than asking some bigger, harder, more important questions about where your time and attention go.”

    It’s called “hidden procrastination”. I first saw it in myself after reading this blog post:

  11. 12 Chris

    Nice post. Reading some of your questions, this book comes to mind:

  12. This is why I think the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People beats GTD. It focuses more on what really matters (Put First Things First).

    I recommend you to check out that gives you a mix of 7 habits and GTD.

  13. 14 dan

    As far as life design goes, you might want to check put permaculture, a system of integrated design. Not entirely applicable, but still full of lessons for life.

  14. 15 zawaideh

    Here’s how I see it. Everything I do has to be towards achieving a goal, whether it is to spend more quality time with friends or family, do things I enjoy, better myself, or work related. Lifehacking in itself is a useless activity unless it gets me closer to my goals, or gives me more time to achieve them.

    There is such a thing as “Too much of a good thing”

  15. Great post. Also listen to “A Talk With George”, fantastic song by Jonathan Coulton. The last two verses sum this up perfectly.

    • Great course-correction stuff for the productivity porn set.

      To set the record straight, GTD was defined out of my desire to stay focused on the meaningful stuff, and a personal proclivity for freedom and spontaneous, intuitive thinking and action. Anything that serves anything less, if not GTD.

      Great work, thanks.

      David Allen

  16. 18 wealthnerd

    Great read man. There’s so much in this post that’s subtle, yet speaks volumes. I’m of a similar lifehacking addiction, and there was always something about it that I could never put my finger on… and you just accurately put years worth of subconscious thoughts into a stream of words that actually make sense.

    Well done, sir.

    I’d love to see a follow-up at some point.

  17. 19 Bubba

    Great read… it’s so easy to get caught up in all the possible lifehacks, when actually, all I’m doing is taking time away from doing the meaningful stuff. I’m glad I found this – on Lifehacker no less.

  18. Awesome article. Am reading it a couple times per week to stay focused. 🙂 And just received This is Water and 40-Hour Work Week in the mail.

  19. 21 Paul

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. As crazy as it sounds, I was starting to believe there was something wrong with me. I was reading 10-20 productivity articles a day and was actually getting less done than before. I’m also a big fan of Merlin Mann and have learned a lot. Merlin’s great at saying things that you need to hear in his self-proclaimed douchey way. Your article, however, came from a place where I am. I was happy to see that I’m an addict…and not a failure. Haha! Thanks for the post. It’s great!

  20. 22 bobthebayesian

    I disagree very much with this post. You even start out by saying that you were a life-hacking addict. Sure, from an *addict’s* perspective it seems bad. Alcohol addicts probably don’t retrospectively think that beer is very good. It doesn’t mean beer is bad; it means it should be consumed more wisely. What you call life-designing basically encompasses a lot of what life-hacking already is. And more intensive life-hacking is a fine thing for those who get utility from the results. As an example, I’ve gotten a lot of utility from life-hacking and changing my state from disliking software development to enjoying software development.

    Any good life-hacker would first worry about her own life-hacking habits, and hack those if they aren’t optimal for your preferences. If you prefer spending less time on hacking activities, why not use life hacking approaches to reduce the amount of time you spend life hacking? This goes back to the addict thing. It’s much like the way that community members at LessWrong speak often about managing your focus on rationality. It’s not very rational to expend all your attention on “formal rationality” at the expense of basic hygiene, say. That’s actually *not* rational.

    It seems to me that what you overcame was not life-hacking, but addictive efficiency gains that could be touted in front of others. I’m glad you found a new balance that works for you, but it doesn’t diminish the usefulness of well-implemented life-hacking in the least.

  21. Truly inspiring John. I really could relate to this post on many levels.

    I’ve gone through a lot of phasing on my way to get organized and productive and life hacking was definitely a phase that I really just had to go through. Glad I came through it better than ever.

    This Is Water is also a great read, thanks for the recommendation!

  22. Thanks a lot for sharing this with all of us you actually
    understand what you’re speaking about! Bookmarked. Kindly also discuss with my website =). We can have a link exchange arrangement between us

  23. Thank you for taking some time in order to post “Confessions of a recovering lifehacker | John Pavlus”.
    Thank you so much yet again ,Gary

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