“Lifehacking” Is Just Another Way to Make Us Work More

What's to come?
July 29 2013 5:43 AM

Down With Lifehacking!

It doesn’t make life better—it just makes us work more.

A man sleeps on a bench in a park during a heat wave in Brussels.
This guy might look like he's sleeping, but he's actually hacking.

Photo by Eric Vidal/Reuters

Buzzwords that emerge from Silicon Valley are usually vapid and imprecise. (Let's just agree that “the sharing economy” must become “user-centric,” OK?) Lifehacking, in contrast, has always had provocative, even emancipating connotations. Coined by the technology journalist Danny O'Brien in 2004, the term life hack quickly became staple of techspeak. In 2011 life hack—defined as “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way”—was even added to Oxford Dictionaries Online, a first step toward mainstream recognition. (O'Brien himself hardly looks the part of a modern-day Frederick Winslow Taylor; his blog is called Oblomovka, an homage to Oblomov, the most famous slacker in all of Russian literature.)

The original thinking behind “lifehacking” was intriguing. Why not use technology to get things done more effectively and have more time for oneself? The 4-Hour Workweek, the 2007 best-seller by Timothy Ferriss, pushed this logic to its limits (“Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” promises its subtitle) and made Ferriss a hero in many cubicles around the globe. “Bob”—the office worker who, to much international fanfare, recently got fired for outsourcing his tasks to China to spend more time with his favorite cat videos—is a “lifehacker” par excellence!

In practice, of course, things are more complicated. As “lifehacking” becomes an industry with its own blogs and book-length guides, a good chunk of the freed-up time often goes to fix, upgrade, or replace the very tools and programs that make lifehacking possible. Is there anything more self-defeating than using technology to free up your time—so that you can learn how to do an even better job at it?

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Two new books offer some curious, if indirect, perspectives on lifehacking. Autopilot by Andrew Smart surveys some recent research in neuroscience (particularly the puzzling discovery that our brains seem to be doing a lot of previously undetected work while at rest) to argue that dedicating time to do nothing—literally sitting still and daydreaming—is absolutely necessary if we are to use our mental faculties and stumble upon new and original insights.

To innovate, argues Smart, we must learn how to be idle—at a time when most corporations see idleness as a vice. By Smart's logic, one way to subvert modern capitalism is to simply get as busy as possible: Your creativity will suffer— and you'll be not much better than a robot, only far less productive. (It's also a sure way to get fired!) “Business destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social,” he argues, as he sets out on a quest to “offer bullet-proof scientific excuses for laziness.”

Smart's celebration of idleness might seem like a perfect fit with the spirit of the “lifehacking” movement, as both seek to free up some time in our already busy days. Instead, he argues that “technology, for all its advantages, is actually taking away our leisure time” and complains that “we are now wired 24/7.” He also lambastes David Allen, the author of  Getting Things Done and a lifehacking role model, for rarely, if ever, asking the obvious question: What if we need so many productivity apps simply because we have far too much to do—and not because we are naturally born slackers?

From Smart's perspective, lifehacking is far too utilitarian. A faithful lifehacker would use technology to avoid dead time and move on to the entertaining, more gratifying activities as soon as possible. Smart, in contrast, demands more dead time. He does want you to “hack your life”—but in a way that smacks less of Taylorism and more of Buddhist contemplation. Instead of “doing more with more,” we must “do less with less.” Intriguingly, if Smart's science is correct, doing less might actually be the best way to accomplish more.

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