In an effort to get more done and be our best selves, many of us have turned to “life hacks” that we find in blogs, books, and podcasts. I’ve personally experimented with several life hacks in the past decade, and we’ve even written about some on AoM. But are there downsides to trying to hack your way through life?
My guest took a look at both the positives and negatives of life hacking in his book, Hacking Life: Systemized Living and Its Discontents. His name is Joseph Reagle, and he’s a professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. We begin our conversation with a history of the life hacking movement and how blogging in the early 2000s made this obscure cultural movement amongst computer programmers go mainstream. Joseph then discusses how he distinguishes between “nominal life hacking” and “optimal life hacking” and between “geeks” and “gurus.” We then discuss some of the beneficial productivity and motivation hacks out there, but also how there are ways they can go astray — including only working for a certain class of people and becoming too much of a focus in life. We also discuss how the minimalism movement can sometimes lead to contradictory impulses, and end our conversation talking about how using spiritual practices like meditation or Stoicism as hacks can strip them of their deeper contexts.
- Defining life hacking, and its origins
- How is life hacking different from other types of self-help?
- The difference between geeks and gurus
- How life hacking often speaks only to upper class creative types
- Nominal life hacking vs. optimal life hacking
- How your optimized morning routine can become a hurdle
- Hacks that actually work for keeping yourself productive
- Where productivity hacking can go awry
- What’s the draw of minimalism? Are there downsides?
- The moderated approach to life hacking
- The rise of the quantified self (and the possible dangers of hacking your health)
- Meditation, Stoicism, and Zen Buddhism
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Stop Hacking Your Life
- Merlin Mann
- Tim Ferris (and my first and second interviews with Tim)
- Inbox Zero
- Hipster PDA
- Oracle at the Supermarket by Steven Starker
- “Life hacking: a critical history”
- Polyphasic sleep (here’s Kramer’s attempt at it in Seinfeld)
- The Power of Morning and Evening Routines
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Put the Big Rocks in First
- The Procrastination Equation
- The Productivity Project
- My first and second interview with Charles Duhigg
- Shock Yourself Into New Habits
- China’s social credit system
- The Problem With Minimalism
- The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown (and my interview with him)
- My interview with technologist Kevin Kelly
- Ray Kurzweil
- Does Meditation Deserve the Hype?
- Panasonic’s human blinders
Connect With Joseph
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: In an effort to get more done and be our best selves, many of us have turned to life hacks that we find in blogs, books, and podcasts. I’ve personally experimented with several life hacks in the past decade, and we’ve even written about some on AOM. But are there downsides to trying to hack your way through life? My guest took a look at both the positives and negatives of life hacking in his book Hacking Life: Systemized Living and Its Discontents. His name is Joseph Reagle, and he’s a professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University.
We begin our conversation with a history of the life hacking movement, and how blogging in the early 2000s made this obscure cultural movement among computer programmers go mainstream. Joseph then discusses how he distinguishes between nominal life hacking and optimal life hacking, and between geeks and gurus. We then discuss some of the beneficial productivity and motivation hacks out there, and also how there are ways they can go astray, including only working for a certain class of people and becoming too much of a focus in life. We also discuss how the minimalism movement can sometimes lead to contradictory impulses, and we end our conversation talking about how using spiritual practices like meditation or stoicism as hacks can strip them of their deeper spiritual context. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/hackinglife. Joseph joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right, Joseph Reagle, welcome to the show.
Joseph Reagle: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: You just published a book, Hacking Life: Systemized Living and Its Discontents, and it’s a look at the life hacking movement that started in the early 2000s and has had a big influence on internet culture. It’s something that I’ve experimented with over the years and done different life hacking things. Before we get into the specifics, for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase “life hacking,” what is a life hack?
Joseph Reagle: At the simplest level, it’s a quick or clever fix that’s often systematic. Either you build up a system for taking advantage of something, or you figure out a way to maybe bend the rules of an existing system.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And where did this, the whole thing come out of? Like, what’s the history of life hacking?
Joseph Reagle: Well, since we spoke of the definition, it’s actually interesting to think about the origins of the term itself. Back in the late 1950s, believe it or not, there was a model railroad club at MIT, and they were building this huge train platform, and there was various groups in the club, and the one was like the Systems Club subcommittee, and they had this mass of wires and relays. And they really loved this system, and they were fascinated how all the interconnections worked together, and they ended up developing a lot of jargon. And one of the terms they came up with in the 1950s was “hack,” and they called it a hack as a way to avoid the standard solution. So that was the birth of this geeky term, way back in the late 1950s, and that term has continued on over the decades in the computer realm, and life hacking is really the emergence of that approach of avoiding the standard solution into all domains of life as a type of self-help.
Brett McKay: Right, so yeah, I remember hearing, even like in the ’90s, right? I heard the phrase “hacker” referring to a computer guy who was able to subvert computer systems. When did the people start putting “life” in front of “hacking”? When did that first start happening?
Joseph Reagle: That was thanks to Danny O’Brien in 2004. He’s worked at the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation; he’s been an author for O’Reilly, the technical publisher. And there was a conference happening in the West Coast, and he noted that what he called alpha geeks, really good programmers, were very, very productive and efficient, and they could stay on top of the deluge that everyone else was overwhelmed with. And so he said, “Let’s have a life hacking sort of session where we look at these alpha geeks, at these really good hackers, and ask them how they managed to do that, and to what extent that the people who are coming to this session have figured out little tips or tricks, we can share them amongst ourselves.” So that’s really where it came from, was a gathering of writers and programmers trying to figure out how they could stay on top of the information that’s just deluging all of us.
Brett McKay: It was all about… I mean, it sounds like what it was about at first was getting more done more quickly, correct?
Joseph Reagle: Mm-hmm, yeah. People often turn to this idea of efficiency, that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you have too much email, the problem is necessarily to somehow be able to process your emails quicker, more efficiently, and get down to inbox zero, which was one of Merlin Mann’s ideas. He was a early life hacker too. Merlin Mann actually promoted the idea. I think he’s one of the first ones that really made a going practice of it on his blog. Merlin Mann, Danny O’Brien, and then Gina Trapani, she created the site lifehacker.com, so I think that’s when it really went mainstream. There was a website dedicated to the topic, people could go and read daily blog posts.
And then Tim Ferriss came along, and I think with his 4-Hour Workweek, he took the idea mainstream. And he doesn’t like to use the term life hacker, he prefers to call himself a guinea pig or a lifestyle designer, but you can still see the hacker ethos is very much present in Ferris’s work.
Brett McKay: And so this was around… I remember when this happened, this was like 2005, 2006, right? When Merlin Mann and Gina Trapani with the Lifehacker, that’s when that started getting going, right?
Joseph Reagle: Yes, mm-hmm
Brett McKay: Yeah, because I remember when I first discovered Lifehacker, I devoured the archives. I thought I’d discovered this just amazing well of useful knowledge to help me get… Because this was when I was in law school, and I was really worried about getting a lot done because I had a lot on my plate. And I remember Merlin Mann, uncovering him and learning about the Hipster PDA, I even made a Hipster PDA. And we’ll talk about some of the specific tactics that they talked about, but before we get a… Staying broad, staying high level, how is life hacking different from just general self-help and productivity advice that we’ve had in America and in the West for hundreds of years?
Joseph Reagle: Life hacking is a type of self-help. I call it a type of self-help for the 21st century. And if you look at the history of self-help, there’s a really nice history written by Steven Starker, and he writes that self-help is a reflection of the fears and hopes of a people in their moment in time. If you look back at that history, say you go back to the 1890s when self-help really first became a genre, you can see a lot of the self-help was predicated on the idea of being open to divine intervention, so the self-help was very kind of spiritually Christian-inflected.
And then in the 1930s, when we have the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, the self-help was kind of about how you could be like them: “Why don’t you follow their lead?” And similarly, through the subsequent decades of the 20th century, and then into the 21st century, self-help is, “Well, let’s look at the alpha geeks and see what they do, and then we’ll follow their lead.” So life hacking is a type of self-help. It’s not different at all. It’s just self-help for our current moment.
Brett McKay: And that current moment is coming… A lot of the culture that we have in business is coming out of Silicon Valley, so what’s going on there influences what life hacking is.
Joseph Reagle: Right. Life hacking is a response to a world in which other people are both… We’re a bit alienated from them, but they’re also just a button click away on our phones, and it’s not even a button, it’s a swipe more often. It’s a world in which we don’t have fixed schedules so much, but we still feel like we have this bleed-over from our work lives into our personal lives. It’s a world where we can outsource. It’s a world where we’re being outsourced, and we experience, as some scholars refer to it, increasing precarity in terms of knowing who we are and how we can earn our living.
It’s also a moment in which we’re overwhelmed with choices. We now have so many choices between how we proceed in our lives, and a short-sighted way of looking at modernity in the current moment is all of this stuff is good, all these choices, all these opportunities, all these things that we can or can’t do, the flexibility we have. That should make us really, really happy, but it turns out we’re still just animals, we’re social animals, and all that choice is overwhelming us. Life hacking is a self-help for responding to that glut of information and choice and flexibility.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s responding to… I think that’s an interesting point, how the self-help genre changes based on the culture and the governing, maybe, business practice or whatever. So in the ’30s and ’40s, it was more, like you said, the Rockefeller. Maybe in the ’50s and ’60s, it was more managerial, I guess when Peter Drucker’s stuff was really popular about managing yourself. And now it’s computers, so we… The analogies we use for self-help is often very computer-based.
Joseph Reagle: Right, both the stressors are coming from this information world, and the analogies and the metaphors we use to approach and deal with those stresses is also by way of computers. And I think you can see this in the online dating world as well, particularly maybe pickup artistry. Mystery said in his book, he came up with the algorithm for seducing women. And so again, they’re using those metaphors, as you just alluded to.
Brett McKay: You make some distinctions within life hacking. The first distinction you make, there’s a difference between geeks and gurus. What’s that difference, and why is that important?
Joseph Reagle: I think it’s important to make distinctions, at least in the academic world, when people do something critical, like Matt Thomas wrote a really nice dissertation of life hacking, a critical history. And it’s important to be critical, to point out the flaws and the shortsightedness, but then you just sort of damn the whole phenomenon. And I wasn’t interested in that one, because I have a geeky, hacker-ish kind of sensibility myself. And two, people are struggling. They’re trying to figure out the best path to pursue in life. And just to say, “Well, anyone that makes use of self-help is a fool,” or a tool or something like that, isn’t very helpful at all. So the thing I am interested in is making distinctions.
One of the first distinctions I make is between geeks and gurus. I don’t want to condemn anyone and everyone that’s been interested in life hacking; that would include myself and a lot of people I know and care about. But nonetheless, there are people out there pushing some snake oil, and it begs credulity. And so I want to make a distinction between the ordinary people who are trying to cope, and who are trying to live good lives… Like, that’s not such a bad thing. We should all be aspiring to live a good life. And the people, then, who are then selling the snake oil, right? And “guru” also I don’t mean to be intentionally insulting. Gurus are people who offer you advice, and I could say there’s good gurus and bad gurus. But then, the questions that we should ask of the gurus is, is the advice that they’re giving us solid, reasoned, and how much are they charging for it? So I would ask different questions of both of those constituencies, the geeks and the gurus.
Brett McKay: And also, the gurus, one thing is like another question you asked that I’ve started to question, is like, “Well, is this applicable to me?” It might work for you because you’re in a position where that works for you, but it might not work for average Joe who has a regular job. It might not work for them.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, and this is one of the inherent biases in self-help, is very often the people who are offering their advice is very much predicated on their own life experiences. So, one of the distinctions I make that I think is important about life hacking is it’s really self-help for the creative class. And I think there’s two constituencies in our contemporary economy. There are people that have a lot of flexibility, who have the ability to control their calendar, the ability to pursue their path in life, and again, that can be a stressful thing. But that’s very different from the person who is now working as a picker at a Amazon warehouse. They have a very regimented life. And to speak as someone, a member of the creative class, and tell a picker at a Amazon warehouse, “These very individualistic, entrepreneurial approaches that I’m using are necessarily going to help you, and if you don’t manage to help yourself through the advice that I’m giving you, it’s your fault,” I think that’s problematic.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s not helpful for sure. So another distinction you make also is different types of hacking. You say there’s nominal hacking and there’s optimal hacking. What’s the difference there?
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, the nominal is kind of an engineering word, so in a way it’s fitting, but I had people who read the book said, “You shouldn’t use the word nominal, it is too geeky.” But the temptation is, if I don’t use the term nominal, is to use the word normal, but that just tends to be overloaded. So, life hacking is a type of self enhancement, as well as a self-help; you’re improving yourself. And when you think about normal, like, what is a normal nose in a world of rhinoplasty, or in a world where a particular shape of nose is considered a better, more normal nose than other noses?
Normal is interesting and has all its own complexities and problems associated with it, but I just wanted to distinguish between the people who are trying to get back to a nominal state, a state where they’re not having migraines, a state where they’re able to maintain a relatively healthy body, and to distinguish between the people who are really pushing the leading edge, people who are trying to do extraordinary feats of athleticism and health. And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they’re two different classes of people and approaches to life, and again, I think we can ask different questions of both of them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the optimal. Maybe we can get into specifics of optimization or optimizing hacking. One would be some of these folks who do polyphasic sleep. I remember when that was a big thing, where you only sleep like a few hours a day, but you’d use these naps, so you’re able to work more. That would be an example of optimizing hacking, right?
Joseph Reagle: Yes. A nominal hack would be, “Can I get a decent seven, eight hours of sleep at night?” And the optimal hack is, “Can I get through the day by taking, say, 10-minute naps every two hours?” And when you sum that up, it’s actually very few hours indeed, and you can be so much more efficient.
And people have been experimenting with that for a period. Buckminster Fuller, the guy who did geodesic domes back in the 1960s and ’50s, he supposably lived his life like that. And I know that in The Game, Neil Strauss’s book about pickup artists, the character Herbal, who also goes… His real first name is Tynan. He’s experimented with polyphasic sleeping. The people who try it, again, it’s very individualistic, very optimizing approach to life, but people don’t stick with it very long, because they find it’s incompatible with the social world around them. Like the guy who wrote the WordPress blog did polyphasic sleeping for about a year; then he got a girlfriend and she wouldn’t… You know, she’s like, “This doesn’t work for us.”
Brett McKay: Right. Cosmo Kramer also did polyphasic sleep, I believe, in an episode of Seinfeld.
Joseph Reagle: Did he? I’m a big Seinfeld fan. I don’t know if I remember that.
Brett McKay: I think there was an episode where he did that. I’m going to have to find it. I’m going to verify, but I’m pretty sure he did that. And it didn’t work out, he just ended up falling asleep.
Joseph Reagle: Oh, that’s right. Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: But, I mean, I can see the benefit of nominal hacking, just trying to get things in order, get your life running efficiently, and so it’s not craziness all the time. But one of the dangers of optimal hacking, it’s sort of the Icarus effect. Like, you might reach too far in optimizing, like you spend a lot of money and time for very little gain. And it also might even make you more fragile in the end, because if you mess up one thing, the whole optimization just gets thrown off the track.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, there’s a lot of inherent dangers in optimization. One is that when people optimize, they tend to be naive about it. I think I could see that in some of the people that were trying to hack dating and love. One hacker went on like 250 dates in a couple of months, and it’s like, that can’t be very good. Nick Winter is another life hacker, and he wrote a book about productivity hacking, and he wanted to really maximize his productivity, work 120-hour weeks, and he used all these motivation hacks. But then he also had to create other things to track and optimize, so he said, “I want to go on 10 dates with my girlfriend, and I need to have 12 social events with my friends.”
And so the danger there is sometimes maybe you optimize the wrong thing, or you optimize one thing to the exclusion of everything else. So when people are first introduced to this, they love it, they’re like, “Okay, I can solve my problems by optimizing my productivity.” But then they realize productivity is just one piece of their life, and maybe they’ve distorted their lives by fixating on that one particular thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing I’ve seen in my own life, say, like… A big idea amongst life hackers is the idea of a morning routine or an evening routine, which can be helpful, right? To have some things you do so you set your life in order for the next day or whatever. But there comes a point where people try to optimize their routine and get it down perfectly. I found when I’ve done that, it’s like, well, if one thing gets off, I feel like the whole day’s ruined. So it’s like, well, my morning routine, my optimized morning routine is off the rails, so the rest of the day is… Psychologically, it does something to me.
Joseph Reagle: Mm-hmm, and that is, again, a lifestyle, a position where you control your morning. The kids haven’t woken up screaming, right? The traffic isn’t bad so you have to rush out the door to get to the office. So it has problems both with… for the individual who’s trying to do it, and then again, it assumes a lot about the individual’s position in life.
Brett McKay: Right. My morning routine became much more flexible once I had kids, because there’s no… You can’t control them. Like, if they’re sick, they’re throwing up, well, you can’t meditate and drink your yerba mate that day.
Joseph Reagle: Right, exactly.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s talk about the different areas that life hackers have tried to optimize. And as we said earlier, a big area that early life hackers focused on was time, getting more done in less time, being efficient. And people have various reasons for wanting to get more done, so they can have more time to do what they want, make more money, et cetera. So what are some of the different life hacks people have used and shared with one another to help individuals save more time?
Joseph Reagle: There’s a couple, and I actually think they’re quite useful. I use a couple of them myself. Pomodoro, on the cover of my book, actually, there’s a tomato timer, and that’s… The guy who came up with the idea said, instead of getting distracted, or working in bouts that then he’s exhausted at the end, why doesn’t he break up his work into like 30-minute or maybe 50-minute segments, and then take a little five-minute break, and then return to a particular task? So I approach my day very much like this. I have a typing timer that tells me after 50 minutes I should take a typing break. And that allows me to approach even big tasks by saying, “Okay, in the next 50 minutes, I just want to get a start on the big task.” And then I’ll take a break, and then maybe I’ll have something else I want to do in the next task. But if I want to continue on with that big task, I have a good start, and that’s often the hardest thing to approaching a big problem.
It also allows you to say, “Okay, I want to spend three tasks on my big project today, and then I’ll spend a 50-minute chunk of time doing email, and a 50-minute chunk prepping for a class.” Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Effective People, he said, “Don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.” And so this allows us to sit down and say, “Okay, what’s the big thing that I really want to do today?” And that’s important, because otherwise, we’re often overwhelmed, and we’re just dealing with the fires that keep emerging instead of focusing on the things that are going to sustain us and lead to our growth.
Brett McKay: Besides those, any other useful ones that you found that are actually, “Hey, this actually does something”?
Joseph Reagle: Something when I’m trying to write, I actually do keep a count of how much time I spend on task and how many words I write a day. And again, it’s not as if I’m going to be really hard on myself if I don’t hit my target, but it makes me a little bit more accountable. Nick Winter is the guy who wrote the book The Productivity Hacker, and he has a… There’s a good book by Piers Steel called The Procrastination Equation, and the question is, why do people procrastinate so much? And he had an equation in there that said, “Your motivation is determined by the expectancy times the value.” So, what’s the likelihood you’re going to be able to achieve something by how much value it is to you, divided by the impulsiveness, the degree to which you’re going to be distracted, and the delay, how long are you going to wait until you see the actual result?
And Nick Winter said about, saying, “I’m going to take this equation, and I’m going to use it not only to get rid of procrastination, but I’m going to use it to maximize my productivity.” And his book The Productivity Hacker is a wonderful engagement with all the various techniques that are out there, including maximizing that equation. So, for example, when he was trying to write some software, he was spending a lot of time fixing bugs, but he realized he didn’t have enough users yet, so if he worked on the features, then he would get the users, and then he would want to fix the bugs, because they would be more valuable to the people out there, hence they would be more valuable to him.
Other people make use of Ulysses pacts, which they’re sometimes called, which is you commit yourself to a particular course. I don’t do this myself, but some people, using apps like stickK and Beeminder, they actually… It’s a web app service where you say, “I want to do X.” Like, say I want to walk so many steps in a given day. And if you don’t do it, you forfeit money. So they actually penalize you and say, “You said you’re going to spend $10, give us $10, if you fail to do this,” and if people fail to do it, they spend the money. And the idea there is they can get you to the level that you want to be, doing the thing that you’re doing, at a reasonable price and cost, and people are happy to pay that. Like, if someone has to spend $100 to get up to that level necessary to really make them do the thing that they want to do, they seem to be happy to pay it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve used a lot of those techniques. The Pomodoro technique I use. I’ve set up my computer so that it blocks distracting websites for 45 minutes, and then I get as much work as I get done in that, and then in 15 minutes, it opens them up and I can check, you know, surf whatever I want.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, one of them’s called Freedom. I think on the Mac you can get it, and it’s called Freedom.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s been helpful for me, because again, it’s a way to deal, it’s a way to cope, right? A lot of these life hacking stories are a way to cope with the current environment we find ourselves in, and the current environment is like lots of digital distraction.
Another area we’ve talked about a little bit sort of goes hand in hand with time management, this idea of motivation, where you can hack your motivation. There’s lots of blog articles, like 10 Tips to Supercharge Your Motivation, there’s books about it. So one of the things is the Ulysses pact, that can be motivating, knowing that you’re going to be writing a check to you, don’t complete the task. That can be motivating. But there’s also other tactics you can use, so what are some of those other tactics?
Joseph Reagle: Charles Duhigg has written a couple of books on creating good habits, on being… hacking your motivation, on not procrastinating. And another idea in there that I actually think is useful is that when you specify your goals, they should be SMART, and SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic, and Time-Bound. The idea at least, then, is when you’re looking at your life, and you’re thinking about what you would like to achieve, don’t rely upon nebulous goals. Make them very specific, have some sense of, “Well, how I know when I’ve achieved that goal?” Get the people around you to buy in on it, and try to be realistic and set a reasonable time boundary too.
There’s a lot of apps out there. For instance, there’s exercise apps that take advantage of this. You set a very specific goal that you want to achieve in a day, maybe as part of a larger goal. You can measure it because you have the HealthFit sensor or your step counter or your smartphone that can keep track of that. And then even the social aspect is interesting. There are exercise apps where you can have people watching you online, kind of like a exercise buddy, or you can tell that your friends and family that you’re going to do this, and they can check it with you to see if you’re doing it.
Brett McKay: So those are things that can be useful, right, to get motivated. But where do you think motivation and productivity hacking can go awry?
Joseph Reagle: Yes, so there’s, again, a couple of angles there. For the actual individual, I think a lot of life hackers have encountered some disappointment in their own efforts to be productive and to be motivated. So even, within a couple of years, Merlin Mann at his blog, 43 Folders, he decided he actually wasn’t happy with what he was doing. So much of this is so alluring, you think, “This is going to solve my problem,” and then you experiment with for a while and you’re like, “This hasn’t really changed my life all that much.” And so he called it productivity porn, and he noted that life hackers are very prone to maybe fixating on, “If I only had the right pen, or the right app, or the right notebook, I would be able to deal with all the stuff that I’m confronting, all the work that I have to do,” and that they spend a lot of time browsing blogs about life hacking, about motivation, about productivity, and are not implementing it, or they’re using it to distract themself.
Heidi Waterhouse is another hacker and she wrote a… She did a really nice talk for… entitled Productivity Hacking For the Rest of Us, and she called all this process fondling. And she said something like, “If you spend more than half an hour a day working on your tools, or reading about how to be more productive and not how motivated, you’re losing.” So, for the sake of the individual, there are certain excesses people can fall into.
And then at the larger scale again, I have questions about… You know, we seem to be living in a world where everyone expects us to be more productive, more productive. And if we succeed, and we’re more productive, that just kind of raises the bar for everyone else. And to what extent, then, do the companies start expecting this of us?
So if the individual wants to go out and they want to do their job better, that’s great. But, you know, that padlock wrist zapper that zaps you if you’re not being productive, if you’ve gotten distracted, if you go on Facebook, that’s for the individual to purchase, but what happens when corporations start using tactics like that? And Amazon actually has. It’s not a zapper, but it vibrates to supposedly help pickers in their warehouse; they’ve patented that technology. China is a bit scary because they’re embracing a lot of these technologies. And there are helmets that they have train conductors wear that can tell them when they’re being distracted, and again, that’s kind of a good thing if it’s going to keep safe people being transported on trains. But they also have these gadgets that you can stick in classrooms that recognize the students’ faces and recognize when they’re paying attention, and there we’re definitely encroaching upon scary, dystopic sort of vision of society.
Brett McKay: Right, so the issue might not be a big one if you’re just imposing it upon yourself. If you decide, “I’m going to zap myself so I can be more productive,” okay, but once a corporation starts deciding, “We’re going to start using these tactics to get more out of you,” then that’s crossing a line.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, and the line, it’s a slippery slope, it’s definitely a gray area. So you choose to do it for yourself, like there’s a lot of health programs at companies, and that’s great if you want to be healthy and the individual chooses to do that, and then the company says, “We’ll give you a little bit money back if you join this program in your health insurance that you pay every month.” And that’s another step, and then maybe this step becomes that it’s required that you participate, even if you’re going to work here, and then we’re definitely in the dystopic territory.
Brett McKay: I mean, yeah, it is dystopic in China because they have that whole social credit system, which does-
Joseph Reagle: Oh, so scary.
Brett McKay: … which is doing what you’re talking about. It’s like in order to, I don’t know, just buy things or, you know, you have to have a good social credit score, and if you don’t, you’re going to get turned away from businesses or loans or whatever.
Joseph Reagle: Right, you can’t rent a car, you can’t travel. So yeah, very scary.
Brett McKay: So that’s where it could go, that’s where-
Joseph Reagle: I think so.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s where hacking motivation could get dystopic. Well, let’s talk about another one. You talk about this in the book, I think it’s interesting. There’s lots of little different subcultures and niches within life hacking, and one that popped up shortly after life hacking became mainstream was this idea of minimalism. What’s the draw of life hackers to minimalism?
Joseph Reagle: Again, we live in a world in which we have so much choice. We have plenty of possessions. Most people in America are not struggling because they don’t have enough possessions or they don’t have enough food. Obesity is more of a problem in America than malnutrition. Malnutrition’s still a problem, but obesity has actually outpaced it. And we have plenty of reality TVs about hoarders. And so we are really facing this conundrum of, maybe 100 years ago we thought, as the middle class was growing, “If people only had more food, maybe more meat to eat, if we only had more positions, if everyone had a home, and then they could fill that home with stuff, they would be happy and content.” Well, we’ve arrived at that moment, and people aren’t necessarily happy and content, and so we ask the question, “Well, what now?”
And one of those knee-jerk sort of reactions is to say, “Well, what happens if I get rid of everything?” And that makes sense. I think there’s a reason that Marie Kondo and her KonMari method is so popular and now even has a Netflix show here in the United States. And I think minimalism had a lot of reasons, and it’s addressed a number of problems of people working super-long hours to buy houses to fill them with stuff. And we don’t need all of that stuff to be happy, and I think that’s one of the insights we can learn. But again, people can go a bit too far, and the minimalism itself can become fetishized.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, and so you… What I thought was interesting about minimalism… So yeah, it’s useful, right? You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. I think we can all agree on that. That’s something that we’ve… people, human beings have been talking about for thousands of years. But yeah, there’s a point where the whole point of your life becomes minimalism, and then you… So you talk about all these blogs that popped up where people would write, like, “Oh, I just have these 10 things,” and they would just-
Joseph Reagle: You mean the 100 Thing Challenge?
Brett McKay: Yeah, the 100 Thing Challenge, “Here’s 100 things I own,” and it allows you to be location independent. But I think it’s interesting too, there’s this paradox with minimalism if you go too far with it, where you say you reject stuff, but at the same time, the stuff you keep, you hold on to, becomes super important, so stuff becomes really important to you, and you, like you said, fetishize it.
Joseph Reagle: Mm-hmm, totally. And I think in response, again, this was an interesting fad that happened about 10 years ago, people went super gung ho, and then they realized, “Huh, this isn’t making me completely happy.” A life hacker that I spoke to used a pseudonym, Rita Holt. She had been into minimalism 100%. She got rid of all of her stuff, she quit her job, she was traveling around, writing blog posts and writing eBooks. And then I went back to look at one of the sources as I writing the book, and all of her websites were gone. And so then I said, “What happened?” And she said she had just realized that it was this kind of empty life, and everyone was kind of competing to be who could be most minimalist, and it wasn’t really clear that anyone was living that much more of a satisfied life, or maybe these people were just outliers, and she scrapped it all.
So this was definitely a phenomenon of having this huge bloom of hype and fad, and then it kind of dissipated, but it never goes away forever. So even after the whole minimalism phase, Greg McKeown, who is a Silicon Valley kind of coach, he wrote a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And he never mentions minimalism, because I think it had become sufficiently tarred, for reasons that I mentioned and others, but then he just sort of shifted the term he was using and said, “Let’s focus on what is essential.” So that was an interesting turn. It’s the same thing with Marie Kondo. She says, “Don’t fixate on how much stuff you have in getting rid of stuff, instead of focus on what’s really important.” And so I think the move from minimalism to essentialism was a similar sort of focus, but still, it is very much preoccupied with stuff, the both of them.
And what intrigues me is, we might talk about this, but so much of life hacking is inspired by Zen ascetic and various mindfulness practices. And Siddhartha’s own story was one, he was born into extraordinarily wealth. His parents provided him a palace, dancing girls, parties, food. He decided that was not for him. He went out, traveled the world, learned from various masters, became very ascetic, almost starved himself to death, and then decided, “Huh, neither of those were good. I’m going to pursue the middle path, moderation.” So, though I’ve said that self-help recurs, you know, has happened throughout human history, and it speaks to the fears and hopes and wishes of the people of their moment, a lot of the insights persist decade after decade, century after century, millennia after millennia. And I think we can see Siddhartha’s story actually in the movement from productivity hackers to minimalists to essentialists.
Brett McKay: Did you notice that when you talk to these, a lot of these life hackers, like they were all in at the very beginning, just became fanatics about it, and then eventually, they just took a more moderate approach to it?
Joseph Reagle: Most of them have. Like, no one… Few people are fixating on 100 things anymore, particularly when they get kids. Rita Holt scratched it all and lives a much more moderated life. So it was a fad, and again, it’s not that it’s not helpful to think critically about, “Am I beholden to the objects, and am I worried about getting more stuff to fill my house with?” But as you said in your own blog post many years ago about this, it can become yet another preoccupation with stuff, and the whole point is to get beyond stuff.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, I mean, that’s what I know, I’ve talked about my grandfather, part of the Greatest Generation, and he tended to hoard stuff. And that was probably because he grew up in the Great Depressions, where it’s like stuff was something you could use, right?
Joseph Reagle: Mm-hmm.
Brett McKay: But what I thought was interesting about him, he was never really overly preoccupied with stuff. Like, he didn’t think too much about it. But you’ve got these MacBook minimalists that you call in the book, I thought it was a good phrase just super… Like they’re, “This is my pen. This is the greatest pen in the world. Here’s why it’s the greatest pen. And I use my Moleskine notebook, and it’s so wonderful, and it feels so good.” It’s like, “Man, you really love stuff for a person who says they don’t need stuff.”
Joseph Reagle: Right, so we need to get beyond stuff, and then there’s chapters on relationships, and even meaning or spirituality hacking.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about it in a bit. One thing I want to get to, there’s so many things we can talk about, but one I want to talk about is this Quantified Self movement that has popped up amongst life hackers, where they track their health, or not even just their physical health, maybe their psychological health, and they do that with the purpose of hopefully finding insights to optimize their life. When did that whole Quantified Self movement start?
Joseph Reagle: This was in the late aughts, the late 2000s, and a couple people were behind it, but I think one of the most notable people was Kevin Kelly. He used to be editor-in-chief at Wired Magazine, he worked on some of the Whole Earth Catalogs in the decades before, and he’s really been behind a lot of this. He helped with The WELL, which was a early digerati bulletin board system pre-internet; he worked with Stewart Brand putting together one of the early hacker conferences. He now runs the blog Cool Tools, which is kind of a reincarnation of the Whole Earth Catalog.
And the whole idea with the Quantified Self, their little motto is “self-knowledge through numbers.” And in some of his early pieces, he said that if we can quantify our lives, like how many steps we take, how many things we eat, how many hours we sleep, all kinds of things, not only will we be able to figure out how to sleep better or how to be more productive, but, “What is human? Is human nature fixed, sacred, and infinitely expandable?” I’m quoting him there. So he can be quite utopic or farsighted in terms of what he thinks this might bring about. And now we’re also moving into people who believe that one day, computer artificial intelligences are going to be sufficiently advanced that we might be able to become cyborgs, or maybe upload our own minds into computers.
And things get a little bit kooky there, but this is one of those places where I think it’s useful to distinguish between the geeks and the gurus. Because I met lots of people who, for instance, suffer from migraines, really bad migraines, and they do keep very careful track of the potential triggers, like were they exposed to much light during the day, or did they eat a particular food? And so I can totally appreciate that. I have various health, trivial concerns that I would like to see improved, and I try to approach them in that way. But when people start quantifying everything without any particular cause, and then they accumulate so much data that they then start seeing ghosts in that data, they’re just looking for something to find. And so I think that speaks to some of the dangers that when we just start experimenting with everything, trying to optimize various things in a very individualistic way, there are excesses and possible dangers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and health is one where life hacking can get dangerous, because people often go beyond just nominal hacking, where you’re just like, “Okay, I’m getting enough sleep, I’m exercising enough, I’m eating a balanced diet,” where this is where you start taking supplements, or you start doing crazy things that there’s really not a lot of research about, or it might even put your health in peril.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, Serge Faguet is someone who was just in the news a month or two ago, and he has a post, and he got a lot of coverage saying that he’s spent $250,000 on his biohacking. And his blog posts are extraordinary. They’re really long, they have all these figures, and his lipid levels, and all these weird memes. And he’s taken hundreds of supplements, and just from a common-sense point of view, you’d have to wonder, if you think these supplements are actually efficacious, what about their interactions? Like, how can you take a hundred supplements, and then figure out how you’re improving, why you’re improving, if you have a side effect, what is the side effect being caused by?
So, I guess you could say in some sense, these people are maybe doing us a favor, they’re acting as guinea pigs for the rest of society, but I… Like, for instance, I don’t know how much Faguet’s findings are going to be useful to science, and he’s certainly spending a lot of money doing all this. And he hasn’t suffered yet, but there is a fellow named Aaron Treywick who was really into biohacking, and he was injecting himself at conferences with gene therapy concoctions, and he did eventually die. It doesn’t appear he died because of his gene therapy injections, but he died in a total immersion tank. He was probably on some drugs, and maybe he drowned himself. But that still was like, the idea that you have to take MDM and go into an immersion tank and float there and maybe drown, I think that is scary.
And again, I don’t think, from a self-help point of view, we should be listening to those people as gurus. That’s dangerous stuff. If they want to do it, that’s fine, but I don’t think people should look to them as “That’s the path I should be pursuing.”
Brett McKay: What’s interesting too, you note throughout the book with… I mean, a lot of these life hacker types, they’re typically computer programmers, they’re very analytical. But with a lot of them, there’s also this strain of magical thinking, like you talked about the people who want to live forever and upload their brain to a computer. There’s that Ray… How do you say his last name?
Joseph Reagle: Kurzweil?
Brett McKay: Kurzweil. Right? He works for Google, he’s a futurist, he’s the guy that coined the term “singularity,” when the computers will take over. But he’s, like, taking hundreds of supplements a day in the hopes that he can live long enough to have his brain uploaded to a computer. But that’s sort of magical to think that that’s possible, right?
Joseph Reagle: It is, and this is a difficult thing to reconcile. I haven’t gotten my head fully around it. But in some ways, these people are very, very rational, the way they approach things, but they’re also not immune to magical thinking, as you put it. An interesting side about Kurzweil, I don’t think he’s taking a hundred supplements, I think he’s honed it down a little bit. But at some point, he was taking so many supplements that he actually hired an assistant to keep track of his supplements. And again, we get back into that thing of, like, these are very wealthy people that can afford to do this sort of thing. Serge Faguet is a very wealthy person to be able to spend $250,000 on biohacking. And I can’t help but wonder like, “Boy, if you had spent some of that money maybe getting vitamin A supplements for people in India or something like that, you could have saved hundreds of lives.”
Brett McKay: But like you said, you talked to a lot of these guys, particularly with the health thing, the Quantified Self stuff, and they’d say, “Well, I just do this thing and it just works. I don’t know why, but it works.” And like, well, you could always say, “Well, it could be placebo.” Right? That could be the thing why… Like you think it works, so it works.
Joseph Reagle: Yeah. I was reading recently that there’s a couple of psychologists that are pushing this idea of a RQ as a compliment to IQ. And the research does show that intelligence does not necessarily correlate with rationality, and they have a particular test where they test against magical thinking. But in a more common sense, when we talk about life hackers and their rationality, that’s more of a cognitive style. They tend to be more analytical, but it doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the understanding of the sort of cognitive mistakes and biases we can make, even when we think we’re being analytical.
Brett McKay: Well, I think I’ve read studies about that similar, where… It’s typically really intelligent people that fall for cults.
Joseph Reagle: Yes.
Brett McKay: Because they’re able to think their way, like, “Oh, this makes sense.” They’re able to be more analytical about why it’s a good idea to join the cult, and they’re able to… When people say, “Hey, you’re in a cult,” they’re like, “Well, no, I’m not. Here are the reasons why, and blah, blah, blah, blah.” I can see something similar going on, possibly, with life hackers, like, “Well, it works for this and this reason, because I’m seeing the data and I see a pattern there.” And they’re like, “Well, no, that could be placebo.” Like, “No, really, here’s the data.” And it’s like, “Well, might not be the case.”
Joseph Reagle: Yeah, people can be very good at rationalizing, justifying what they do. And the more intelligent they are, the better at it they seem to be.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned this earlier, there’s also this strain within life hacking about hacking meaning, right? And life hackers tend to be drawn to Asian philosophy, that’s where that whole minimalism thing came out of, but also Stoicism. What do you think is the appeal there for life hackers to Stoicism and Buddhism, and other Asian philosophies besides Buddhism?
Joseph Reagle: Well, interesting, they’re the two ones that I’m most interested in. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over a decade, and I’ve been reading Seneca and other authors in Stoicism for many, many years across different translations. And what is nice is that they don’t invoke a lot of magical thinking. There’s no gods that you’re necessarily calling upon to help you change your life. They are very suitable for the individual, because it’s like, “This is your life. Things are going to happen in your life that you don’t necessarily like, and somehow, you need to cope.”
And there, they give recommendations for coping. They recommend a moderate approach to life. The Stoics, for example, have all these interesting practices where you try to be grateful for whatever it is that you have, to practice living hard so that you won’t fear when difficult things appear in your life, so you’ll be like, “Well, I’ve been through this or worse, so I can deal with it.” So I think there’s a lot of wisdom there that I try to take advantage of, and that’s available for other people. But again, given that this is life hacker, and given that people can get a bit excessive and optimize the wrong things, there are dangers.
Brett McKay: What do you think those dangers are?
Joseph Reagle: It is a very individualistic sort of approach. One of the folks I talk about in the book, he decided that he was completely dissatisfied with the life hacking world. He had gone through this whole progression of being really productive, and that didn’t work, and then being a minimalist, and that didn’t work, and then… So he said, “I’m going to do an ancient wisdom experiment. I’m going to do these experiments where I follow the practices and teachings of these various traditions that have been around for at least 500 years.” And he dabbled with a good dozen spiritual and philosophical traditions.
For instance, when he came to Buddhism, he just would sit quietly and meditate, and that is a big, important practice of some aspects of Buddhism, especially, say, Zen and mindfulness, but he did it alone. And I think the thing that he failed to recognize, and also when people do this in Stoicism, is that these were very much community and mentorship-type practices and cultures, right? We had Socrates taught Plato, taught Aristotle. In Buddhism, and particularly in Zen, there’s a tradition, a lineage that goes back 1500 years of transmission, and there’s the sangha that supports you. So I think one of the dangers with the… sometimes what is called McMindfulness is that again, it’s very individualistic, it’s very rational, you think you can figure it out, you think that you are rational, hence you might not see some of your biases and limitations.
And then again, there’s the social angle. So, one of the criticisms of McMindfulness is that maybe the reason that this has been picked up at Google under the banner of Wisdom 2.0 is that because it’s good for business. So, Meng Tan, he’s the guy that set up the Search Inside Yourself, and his book is very good, but he was a Googler that started offering meditation classes, and they really took off, and then they started having this Wisdom 2.0 conference out on the West Coast. And he actually said that… And this isn’t the only thing he has said, but still, I think it’s somewhat representative. He said, “Wisdom 2.0 is going to allow your employees to increase their emotional intelligence, and employees with higher EI are going to make you shitloads of money.” So again, we’ve gone far from some genuine insights of wisdom to something that’s been picked up by corporations to somehow make more money.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I don’t think Buddha would be down with that.
Joseph Reagle: No, I don’t think he would.
Brett McKay: No. So what’s your takeaway after doing this book? I mean, it sounds like you’re ambivalent about life hacking. Would that be a fair judgment?
Joseph Reagle: Yes, and I think it teaches us, so these distinctions we’re making between geek and guru, and nominal and optimal, and some ethical sort of distinctions we might think about, like is a particular hack, is it universal? Does it work if everyone does it, or only if you do it? And I think there are some hacks out there that are like, “I have a hack for cutting in line,” and we say, “Well, if everyone tried to cut in line, that wouldn’t be a better world.” So we can ask, is it universal, is it beneficial?
And then, interestingly enough, one of the important distinctions I pull from all of this is a Buddhist philosophical notion called near enemies. And the idea is that virtues often have an apparent enemy or opposite, so compassion and animosity, those are obvious near enemies. But there’s also near enemies, they appear to be virtues, but they’re not. So it’s very easy for people maybe to confuse pity with compassion. So compassion, yes, that’s a virtue, we want to be compassionate, but when we go out in our real lives, and we start interacting with people and we’re pitying them, it’s not quite the same thing as compassion.
So one of the insights I take away is I really think life hacking exemplifies this notion of near enemies. When we look at efficiency, our first impulse when we’re overwhelmed with work is to try to be more efficient, but that’s not the same thing as being effective. When we think about our relationships with other people, we think we could be connected, or we could go on a hundred dates, or we could have sex with dozens of women in a particular month or year, but that isn’t actually giving us connection. And similarly, Wisdom 2.0 isn’t necessarily actual, real wisdom.
Brett McKay: So, life hack, but do so thoughtfully, maybe would be the-
Joseph Reagle: Yeah. And the metaphor I ended up choosing was kind of like horse blinkers or blinders. We live in this world of distractions and choices, and it makes sense for us to want to put on the ear-canceling headphones and maybe get a cubicle for our head, and have these blinkers on, and it helps us look out into that distant vision of those goals that we want to achieve with our life. But in wearing these blinkers, we are blocking out a lot of stuff on the periphery. We’re blocking out other people that we shouldn’t be ignoring, maybe we’re trampling some people underfoot.
I actually toyed with the idea of calling this book Blinkered, but I thought that was too negative. But as I was writing the conclusion, I was still making use of this metaphor. At last year’s South by Southwest, Panasonic actually demoed, they call it Wear Space, a literal set of blinkers with noise-suppressing headphones that you stick on your head, and I really recommend people Google it and have a look at the pictures, it’s really remarkable. And Panasonic, it was just a demo, but there was a crowdsourcing in Japan, and supposedly they’re manufacturing them now. Supposably this really is the solution to the 21st century, that you put this weird thing that blocks your periphery and cancels out, drowns out all the sound around you. And that concerns me. Yes, it is going to give you some benefits, but at least you have to take that off some of the time and look at the people around you.
Brett McKay: Well, Joseph, is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Joseph Reagle: They can just Google me, Joseph Reagle. I have a website that I update sometimes. I am on Twitter, though I don’t pay a lot of attention, @jmreagle, to social media. It’s one of my own life hacks, is not to get too caught up in social media. And my email is on my webpage, so people can email me as well.
Brett McKay: All right, Joseph Reagle, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Joseph Reagle: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joseph Reagle. He’s the author of the book Hacking Life: Systemized Living and Its Discontents. It’s available amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work at his website, reagle.org. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/hackinglife, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years, including some life hack articles. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The Art of Manliness Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, use code “manliness” to sign up for a month free trial of Stitcher Premium. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The Art of Manliness Podcast.
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