Beneath the bits and bytes that shape the character of Silicon Valley, there's a booming digital subculture committed to the art of self-improvement, geek style. It's known as life hacking, and it's all about sweating out the best ways to crank through e-mail, sabotage spam, boost productivity and in general be happier. British tech guru Danny O'Brien coined the term at a 2004 technology conference after studying how programmers come up with "hacks," or shortcut solutions for routine but time-consuming problems. The trick, he says, is not to worry about the entire problem but to find a small fix to get through the task at hand. He describes his approach as a sort of "Seven Habits of Super Effective Geeks." The movement has since spread faster than an e-mail virus, inspiring a slew of popular blogs, such as 43 Folders, LifeHacker and Lifehack.org Taking it a step further this year are a spate of podcasts and even new books on the subject, including Gina Trapani's LifeHacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day.
Life-hacking communities focus not just on efficiency but also on making life more satisfying. "Self-help books tend to be about lofty ideas, whereas life hacks are about getting things done and solving life's problems with modest solutions," says Merlin Mann, whose 43 Folders blog is one of the most popular life-hacking hubs. In contrast to tomes of lengthy analyses and rambling prose, life hacking boils down self-help to actionable nuggets on subjects that range from workplace negotiations to travel planning. Typical tips? To halve the length of meetings, have people stand, because they won't waste as much time on digressions if they're not seated. Check e-mail hourly at most to preserve your concentration. Keep your packing list taped inside your suitcase to avoid losing it or having to regularly redraft it. Jot down or text-message yourself about each day's happiest moments so you'll have a detailed record to review and savor.
Life hacks are often about speed. If you can shave two seconds off four tasks you perform 20 times a day, Trapani says, you'll save about 11 hours a year, or a full day for fun. "LifeHacker is about working more efficiently so you can play more, not just get more things done," she says. Trapani's Saturdays are computer-free. "I'm a big fan of being away from the keyboard, staring into space and letting the mind wander," she says. That Zen mind-set seems to have allure: LifeHacker's readership has tripled over the past year to 15 million page views a month.
Some life-hacking fans get so wrapped up in reading about efficiency that the sites become, ironically, another procrastination crutch. "We don't need to overwhelm people with useless tips on how to put on a hat faster," Mann says. One hack he advocates is what he calls 10+2x5. Rather than starting work only to be sucked into time-wasting websites, set a timer for 10 minutes and focus exclusively on a task for that interval. Then give yourself two minutes for whatever frivolity you crave. Repeat that process five times, and you'll have gotten 50 productive minutes out of a work hour that typically yields much less.
Hip as life hacking is in the digital sphere, it's arguably a geekified iteration of an age-old American obsession with life improvement and personal reinvention. And while much of the subculture centers on technology, devotees like Mann and Trapani are keen on a surprising tool: paper. They each carry around a stack of index cards instead of a digital organizer. The simplest solutions can be the savviest. *