Life, more than being hacked down to a set of quick fixes, is about living fulfilled - even with all its complexities.
Rush hour in the centre of the world’s financial capital, London. Lockdown commands the streets and trains with a welcome absence of the usual stiff kneed of corporate lawyers, drab accountants and manic bankers rushing home to desperately catch whatever hours they have before another intense working day.
Given the more relaxed atmosphere on the sparsely occupied underground, the few passengers seem a little less tense. Regardless, the commuters’ darkly circled puffy eyes, premature grey hairs, fidgety itches and burdened postures, reveal a snapshot of a universal truth more clearly than words: modern life is tough and takes its toll on all of us.
In search of easier lives, many around the world are attracted by the phenomenon of life hacking.
In 2004, tech writer Danny O’ Brien spoke at a tech conference seminar in California about how techniques used by computer hackers to improve the efficiency of computing could also be used by people from all other walks of life to do more in less time and with less effort.
“Hacks are often a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix,” he said in an interview shortly afterwards.
Sixteen years later, and life hacking tips now cascade from every corner of the digital world. There are Youtube videos, listicles and apps telling you how to hack relationship problems, easily set up a passive income business or store your food more efficiently.
Joseph Reagle, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and author of the 2019 book Hacking Life argues: “Some hackers want a quick fix to simple problems but there is a hacker ethos that is a little broader. He says one should start off seeking increased productivity. A growing desire to achieve contentment will lead to discovering a deeper meaning in life."
In essence, life hacking is self-help for the 21st century. Self-help has evolved: in the US, it was once provided by religion in the early twentieth century, before passing on to industrialists like Andrew Carnegie in the 1920s, and then life coaches and motivational speakers, like Tony Robbins from the 1980s onwards. It is now being provided by a philosophy developed by technologists.
Like a dog chasing its own tail
Reagle warns that as tempting as it is to follow the media hype of life hacking to achieve your goals - be they practical, financial or philosophical- it simply cannot work for everyone. “It often works for a small number of people, particularly programmers, systematic thinkers and Silicon Valley types: fairly homogenous and privileged.”
Those who are more intuitive than systematic might be better off following their own unique paths however messy that may seem to the culturally dominant hyper-rationalised mindset. “Life hackers want to optimise everything but there are dangers when you look at life as just something to be optimised.”
One person who says life hacking works well is ex-Goldman Sachs banker Jimmy Naraine. He has used it to run his own business, creating personal development courses and travelled the world for 8 years full-time working from his laptop.
“Life hacking allows people to take more ownership of their lives,” he argues. “It is about continuously questioning the status quo and making a conscious effort to find better ways of doing things.”
He understands Reagle’s reservations and warns of an illusory aspect of the practice: “Many people get trapped in the idea they will only be happy after they achieve their goals then try to achieve them through constant optimisation of the processes and tasks to get there.”
These people are, he said, “like a dog chasing its own tail.”
"Before attempting to hack life, people shouldn’t just set an end goal but should also ask themselves how they want to feel on a daily basis. If people aren’t happy with what they are doing daily they won’t succeed. Most people don’t have this self-awareness. It’s hard to pause and reflect when you are bombarded with so much stimuli everyday.”
There are countless blog posts detailing how this new way of life has failed many who have tried it. This isn’t surprising for Reagle: “It is individualistic, systematising and rational. It doesn’t speak to the bigger questions: Where are you going in life? Even if the way you are getting there is efficient, is it effective? Is the value of efficiency the only one you should concern yourself with?”
There are, however, popular advocates. Ryan Holiday offers ways of applying classical philosophies such as Stoicism- a Greek and Roman tradition which teaches how to live virtuously –to face the challenges of modern life. Yet he’s widely criticised for oversimplifying this deep, wisdom based tradition and re-branding it as a diluted hack for advantages in business.
“The commodified pop-psychology of the 'stoicism' of today with its 3 minute videos on career development cannot help the masses address the deeper issues afflicting us today. Its ethics are shaped by and perpetuate the problems traditional Stoicism sought to overcome,” says Zulfiqar Awan, a teacher of classical Roman and Greek texts and Director of Dallas Academy Asia, in Malaysia.
Regardless, practitioners and advocates like Naraine think the practical future of life hacking is bright. He believes the Covid-19 lockdown has created a massive cultural shift that has brought quick and easy fixes to the fore. “So many companies now have people working for them remotely and many don’t want their employees back in the office because their employees are more productive at home.”
In a fast-changing, unpredictable world, it is not surprising we have countless books, articles and social media posts teaching us about the latest form of self-help. While it has its benefits and drawbacks, with its focus on the non-obvious, it risks missing the most obvious: that life, more than being hacked down to a set of quick fixes, is about living fulfilled - even with all its complexities. The question about the value of life hacking depends, then, not on whether to use such a philosophy, but how to use it.