June 15, 2010

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, because much 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:

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 it so that you can

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

And it’s a useful skill to have. 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.:

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 recover-ing 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.

Disclaimer: I’ve learned/cribbed all of this from the aforementioned book, Merlin Mann, and other sources I can’t remember well 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.

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