Essays on Technology and Culture

Lifehacking and the Quantified Soul

An article by Evgeny Morozov for Slate on how “lifehacking is just another way to make us work more” has been making the rounds. It caught my attention as I’ve been, if not an adherent of lifehacking, at least an occasional visitor to its church. [1] I also picked up on Morozov’s reference to the book Autopilot by Andrew Smart, which is on the to-read list of my friend Patrick Rhone—a pretty winning endorsement. Finally, it reminded me of a piece of my own, on “The Un-Quantified Self” and the limits of what the QS movement can do. There’s plenty of overlap between Quantified Self-ers, and lifehackers for this to make sense.

Morozov notes early on that “[t]he original thinking behind ‘lifehacking’ was intriguing. Why not use technology to get things done more effectively and have more time for oneself?” If that was how it ended up working out, however, we wouldn’t have this article, of course. Case in point:

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?

First off, it’s not becoming an industry—it’s been one, which is part of why Merlin gave up most of the productivity crap five years ago, and (part of) why he quit the Inbox Zero book. [2] Lifehacking and related areas are big among nerds who already suffer a host of various issues resulting from being a-neurotypical—myself included. Any potential solution is going to be latched onto by us slightly broken weirdos if we think it’ll help us function like normal human beings, and the crazy thing is that for many of us, a lot of this stuff actually works. The parts that do work vary from person to person, but we can’t just throw out the baby with the bathwater here.

Second, and more importantly, if you’re using all your free time from your lifehacking to get better at lifehacking, you’re missing the entire point. [3] Thankfully, it seems Morozov and I agree on this. “What we want, to paraphrase Marx, is to ‘lifehack in the morning—in order to nap in the afternoon and criticize after dinner.’ What we get right now—to ‘“’lifehack the morning—in order to skip naps in the afternoon and work after dinner’—is a raw deal.” I just don’t think that a polarizing polemic against lifehacking as a practice or concept is the right way to get the point across.

I haven’t read Autopilot yet, so I’ll save any potential criticisms of that for when I have some. From Patrick and Evgeny’s descriptions of it, I don’t think I’ll have many. I’ve also not read 24/7, the other book Morozov talks about in the article, but I don’t know if the critique of “sleep hacking” holds water here. As someone who sleeps quite poorly, I’d happily trade my eight hours of crap sleep (including the hour or so I spend tossing around in bed) for six hours of quality sleep if I knew how to get it. I don’t know how well Morozov sleeps, but knowing people who’ve suffered with sleeping difficulties that put mine to shame, if something offered you a guarantee of x good hours of rest, you’d take it too. There’s nothing Taylorist about it.

Ultimately, though, Morozov and I are on the same page, though different sides of it. If you’re lifehacking because out of a genuine desire to improve your life: have more free time, sleep better, improve your health and your happiness, you’re fine. If you’re lifehacking because you are an over-achiever who wants to constantly live at your maximum potential, you may be making things worse for yourself in the long run. Like any tool, the applications of our lifehacks, and our use of the data from all our crazy Quantified Self are all in how we apply them. Even if we can’t quantify the effects, we know if we’re really happy. That’s the only measurement that matters.

  1. For values of church equal to Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders, one of the Ur-productivity blogs.  ↩

  2. To say nothing about how “Inbox Zero” has been misinterpreted by people.  ↩

  3. Here’s an explanation of that video.  ↩