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Tips and tricks for better living abound, but are “hacks” really the key to a good life?

Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents

Joseph M. Reagle Jr.
MIT Press
2019
216 pp.
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In his short book Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents, Joseph Reagle provides a comprehensive look at the recent history and major personalities (also known as “the Geeks and the Gurus”) associated with the emergent phenomenon known as “life hacking.” According to the book, life hacking, a term coined in the early 2000s, is at its core a systematic and sometimes ad hoc set of tools for improving its practitioner’s life.

Reagle’s chapters each focus on a distinct aspect of life hacking—from how to manage one’s time and productivity to how to stay motivated, and from how to organize one’s personal belongings to how to optimize health, wellness, and relationships—reflecting on the factors and philosophies that drive these practices and unpacking their myriad implications.

According to Reagle, life hacking is a subset of self-help culture that is focused on understanding how things work within complex systems and exploiting that information to the benefit of its adherents. Rather than toil in perceived and accepted rules of reality, life hackers aim to take advantage of inside knowledge to make the system work for them, often through automation, outsourcing, and ingenuity.

To provide further insight into the life hacker ethos, the book presents character sketches of some of the movement’s more famous personalities. Reagle uses Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, to make the point that life hackers are not necessarily looking for efficiency but rather effectiveness. In Ferriss’s opinion, the best life hackers know when to step back, rejecting optimizations that come at the expense of their ultimate goals and priorities. Many, unfortunately, do not.

Reagle also notes that most of the well-known personalities associated with this movement seem to be wealthy, white, technically inclined individualists, with a bit of a selfish streak. Despite their socioeconomic positions, however, many life hackers focus on achieving an austere existence, aiming to be “digital nomads” who work and move around as often as they please. This minimalistic lifestyle has led some to a near obsession with comparing lists of essential gear and tools, with the unspoken assumption being that the fewer the total number of earthly possessions, the more successful the hacker.

Although some life hacking has clear benefits, many are simply procrastination techniques, often wasting more time than the purported time that would be saved. This could be as complicated as a household financial accounting system that takes days to set up and hours to maintain, only to save a couple of hours during tax season, or circling a parking lot for 20 minutes to find a parking spot that will save 5 minutes of walking.

Because some life hacking advice is based on published research, Reagle briefly discusses another sort of hacking sure to be familiar to the scientific community. “P-hacking” occurs when one trawls for results that fit a desired outcome. Such results often become the basis for the “science-y” claims that permeate the life hacking market.

Within the life hacking community itself, perhaps the closest thing to science perpetrated by practitioners are the methods used by measurement-obsessed health and wellness hackers. In contrast to minimalists, these hackers hoard stuff—namely, data. They experiment on themselves—often obsessively tracking their steps, heart rates, and other vitals—in the hope of cheating death, pushing the limitations of humanity, or sometimes simply out of curiosity or compulsion. And although their self-experimentation can lead to insight and new research questions, it need not.

Still, there are some substantial differences between this type of life hacking and science. Perhaps the most obvious deviation lies in the fact that these hackers eschew large studies in favor of anecdotal, “n = 1” studies. However, the growing pervasiveness of connected devices is enabling the amalgamation of millions of these datasets, which is actually producing some good science (1).

As life hacking becomes more popular, Reagle encourages newbies to approach it with a discriminating mindset. There have always been those selling snake oil in this realm; however, the internet is now inundated with hacks based on unsound and unreplicable science. There are even communities devoted to debunking the more dubious life hacks that have pervaded our social media feeds. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to be able to distinguish between the phony, the weak, and the rigorous science–backed hacks and to decide which (if any) will truly enrich our lives

References

  1. 1. M. P. Turakhia et al., Am. Heart J. 207, 66 (2019)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, Herzliya, Israel, and the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.