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This article was published on May 19, 2020

This researcher explains what ‘life hacking’ is all about

This researcher explains what ‘life hacking’ is all about

TNW Answers is a live Q&A platform where we invite interesting people in tech who are much smarter than us to answer questions from TNW readers and editors for an hour. 

You must have heard about ‘life hacks’: pieces of actionable advice that, if followed, claim to bring about noticeable improvement in someone’s quality of life. A life hack can be something small, like a particularly efficient way of folding laundry. Or it can take the form of an elaborate process, like John Walker’s Hacker Diet that approached weight-loss as an engineering problem. From personal-finance gurus to productivity experts to ‘pick-up artists,’ the world is full of people who seem to have ‘cracked’ the system, and are eager to share the insights they’ve gained. 

Of course, the validity and caveats of each life hack needs to be examined independently. But there’s also a lot to be learned from looking at the philosophy and ethos behind ‘life hacking’ as a cultural phenomenon. The book, Hacking Life: Systematized living and its discontents, takes a deep dive into the life hacking scene and explores the life hacking movement’s many qualities. Its author, Dr. Joseph Reagle, recently hosted a TNW Answers session where he shed light on his research into the life hacking community.

What actually is ‘life hacking’?

The term ‘hacking’ emerged in MIT sixty years ago, before the advent of digital computers. The word originally referred to quick ways to fix a model railroad system. Nowadays, ‘hacking’ is used to describe a philosophy that seeks to access the ‘actual’ mechanisms behind any system, and exploit or optimize these mechanisms for one’s own benefit. While computer hacking applies this philosophy to digital networks, life hacking attempts to do the same in other areas of human activities.

“The hacker ethos is individualistic, rational, experimental, and systematizing,” answered Dr. Reagle. Life hacking, then, also applies these qualities to solving myriads of life problems. Digital minimalists like Tynan, for example, might try to optimize and minimize their material possessions to a few bare minimum essential items. Biohackers like Serge Faguet and Ray Kurzweil, on the other hand, try to optimize their biology by strictly controlling their diets, their exercise routines, and the many supplements they take. The ultimate goal in this category of biohacking is immortality. 

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A digital minimalist’s equipment

How ethical is life hacking?

When the life hacking methodology is applied to the social realm, it becomes easy to see how it can cross some ethical lines. People who claim the identity of ‘pick-up artists,’ for example, can use manipulative techniques that borders on coercion to ‘hack’ social behavior and influence the actions of others. 

“Little thought is given to the ethics of life hacking” Dr Reagle wrote in the Answers session, “Following computer hacking, we might distinguish virtuous hacks as ‘white hat’ and exploitive hacks as ‘black hat.’ Of course, there are many shades of gray between. In *Hacking Life* I argue we should ask if a hack is: self- or other-oriented, exceptional or universal, and beneficial or harmful?”

Choose our own ‘hacks’

Life hacks come with strengths and weaknesses, and each hack has its pros and cons. Out of the many hacks available, how do we decide whether something is a good fit in our lives? 

When asked about how people should make the judgement of whether to adapt a new life-hack or a self-improvement system, Dr. Reagle offered the following advice:

“Folks should obviously be wary of snake oil and understand the relative risks. When Seth Roberts started eating sticks of butter to marginally increase his arithmetic skills (and subsequently died of a heart attack), I think his risk assessment was flawed. I think the following rules serve for any self-help regime or intervention: are the purported benefits more effective and less costly than the existing standard of care?”

As for applying hacks and optimizations in his own life, Dr. Reagle shared that he uses an optimization method for productivity: dividing work into focused 50-minute chunks, and taking breaks between the chunks. Additionally, he also uses the browser tool LeechBlock NG to minimize distraction while working online. It should be noted, that different life hacks might work out differently for each person, depending on their personalities, aptitudes, and so on. In general, for those of us who are interested in picking up life hacks, Dr. Reagle encouraged us to be more cautious of how exactly we choose to optimize, and always evaluate if optimization is the best option:

“In writing the book I’ve come to learn that ‘self-optimizing can be suboptimal.’ We might optimize the wrong thing; optimize one thing at the expense of everything else; optimize for too long, especially when the context has changed; and optimize when you should do something else. I try to keep this in mind.”

You can read the whole of Dr. Reagle’s TNW Answers session here, where he answered more questions about life hacking and internet culture. You can find Dr. Reagle’s latest book, Hacking Life: Systematized living and its discontents, on MIT Press Open.

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