The 100-year history of "life hacking"

Our cultural obsession with productivity dates back to the days of factory labor. Here's how we got here

Published April 17, 2019 6:23PM (EDT)


Excerpted from "Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents" by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. (MIT Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from MIT Press.

Historian E. P. Thompson argues that European history can be divided into two orientations to work, task and time. In the task orientation, people worked through a cycle of chores corresponding to periods of the day. In the morning, the farmer puts the goats to pasture and milks the cows. By the end of the day, the chickens are back in the roost. Time was not a thing to be spent or saved, and there was less of a division between “work” and “life.”

The time orientation arose with the emergence of industry: work was now piecemeal and part of a larger process. Work was dependent on the synchronization of labor, and the clock enabled the coordination of a distributed market, from the weaving of cloth to its shipment on the afternoon train. Thompson observes that it did not take long for the necessity of coordination to become an ideology of “time thrift”: “Puritanism, in its marriage of convenience with industrial capitalism, was the agent which converted people to new valuations of time; which taught children even in their infancy to improve each shining hour; and which saturated people’s minds with the equation, time is money.” To those accustomed to working on the clock, the older, task orientation, “appears to be wasteful and lacking in urgency.”

Such was the case for Frederick Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, founders of “scientific management” at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Taylor believed that managers, with the help of experts, ought to optimize the efficiency of workers with the help of a stop-watch. Famously, he optimized the routine of men carrying pig iron and tripled their output—though historians question the rigor of his methods and veracity of his claims. In turn, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth are known for their time and motion studies. In one such film strip—viewable on Youtube—a Remington typist works next to a spinning chronometer. Under the tutelage of Frank Gilbreth, the typist improved her technique and won a typing competition on behalf of her employer. Such demonstrations won Taylor and the Gilbreths influence among the management class and beyond—even as they feuded between themselves. The Gilbreths’ efficient household was even the source of the popular books "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1948) and "Belles on Their Toes" (1950), co-authored by two of their twelve children.

Today’s creative class is largely beyond the synchronization required by industrial capitalism. Yes, people do still have milestones and deadlines and sometimes make use of shared calendars and scheduling services like Doodle. Even so, accomplishing a single task in a specific moment is less important than juggling multiple tasks at all times. This leads journalist Nikil Saval, author of an extensive history of the workplace, to think of life hacking as Taylorism 2.0. Saval concedes that life hacking “started out as a somewhat earnest response to the problem of fragmented attention and overwork—an attempt to reclaim some leisure time and autonomy from the demands of boundaryless labor. But it has since become just another hectoring paradigm of self-improvement.” He grants that in life hacking there’s no one looking over our shoulders with a stop-watch. We are, ostensibly, trying to help ourselves. But something else happened along the way. Instead of control over our lives, we are subjected to “a stratum of faceless managers, in the form of apps, self-administered charts tracking the minutiae of eating habits and sleep cycles, and the books and buzzwords of gurus.” And the internalized manager isn’t really faceless; it is our own face exhorting us to be Smarter Faster Better—the title of a recent book about “the secrets of being productive in life and business.” Other critics observe that productivity gains rarely go to the workers, though they do accrue anxiety and a sense that they are somehow to blame

Yet, shouldn’t people be free to experiment with ways to improve their lives? Unlike those working in call centers and warehouses, where the vise of managerial monitoring grows ever tighter, the hacker still has some freedom of movement. If people can make an informed decision, they will no doubt realize some things work for them and some things don’t. So, how is it that self-help and life hacking suggest we boost productivity?

“Schedule Your Priorities”

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss stresses effectiveness, “doing the things that get you closer to your goals,” over efficiency, “performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible.” Of course, “Efficiency is still important, but it’s useless unless applied to the right things.” You can efficiently paddle a boat in circles, but the effective boater is efficient and purposeful. This is a powerful insight, but not novel: self-help repeats itself every couple of decades. What is novel is the systems life hackers use, borrowed from their workplace, so as to be effective and efficient.

Alan Lakein, author of the 1973 classic "How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life," asks: “please don’t call me an efficiency expert. I’m an effectiveness expert.” Why? Because “making the right choices about how you use your time is more important than doing efficiently whatever job happens to be around.” Again, much like Ferriss, he criticizes those engaged with the trappings of efficiency. The over-organized person is always making, updating, and losing lists; the over-doer is always busy and has no time to assess value; the time-nut only manages to make himself and others anxious. In this view, efficiency is only a means toward effectiveness.

How, then, can we be effective? Lakein recommends that readers carefully consider and articulate their life goals, which are then prioritized into three groups, with the bulk of the day spent pursuing the most important. Without any preamble, Lakein lists sixty-one techniques towards productivity. Some techniques focus on effectiveness: “#23 I always plan first thing in the morning and set priorities for the day.” Others focus on efficiency: “#52 I write replies to most letters right on the piece of paper.” If you replaced the word “paper” with “email” throughout his list, it would easily be recognized as a list of life hacks, thirty years before the coining of the term. And technique #47, “I delegate everything I possibly can to others,” foreshadows Ferriss’s outsourcing.

The importance of prioritizing can be traced back to the very first productivity consultant, Ivy Lee. The story goes that in 1918, Lee was summoned by Bethlehem Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab to improve the productivity of Bethlehem’s executives. Lee asked for nothing upfront. He needed only fifteen minutes with each executive and, after three months, would accept whatever Schwab thought his advice had been worth. Lee explained his approach to each executive: at the end of the day write down and prioritize tomorrow’s six most important tasks; tomorrow, work through the tasks and repeat the exercise at the end of the day. After the three months, Schwab was so satisfied that he wrote Lee a check for $25,000 (worth over $400,000 today).

Subsequent productivity self-help, including life hacking, is a series of variations on Lee. Each day (1) identify, review, and prioritize goals, (2) plan the consequent tasks, and (3) make progress on those tasks. For example, in "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey distinguishes between important and urgent priorities. Though Covey does not cite Eisenhower, the former President is famous for his quip about the problems he faced: “The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” (Another good Eisenhower quote is that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”) Covey fashions a matrix from these two variables and encourages his readers to spend more time on important but not urgent issues (quadrant IV). He agrees with Lakein on the importance of delegation, which Covey believes is “perhaps the single most powerful high-leverage activity there is.”

Turning a prioritized goal into a doable task is helped by clear specification. A classic rubric is that the goals should be SMART, meaning specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time delimited. Additionally, tasks are more likely to be done when distractions are minimized and when starting small. It also helps to have a system for staging tasks. Life hackers are especially keen on what they refer to as “workflows.” David Allen’s 2001 Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity was an inspiration to the founding life hackers. At GTD’s core is a system for processing “stuff,” which Allen defines as “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” In GTD, stuff is collected, processed, organized, reviewed, and completed; this is facilitated by moving tasks between various buckets, such as incoming, someday, now, or waiting. Allen warns that “as long as it’s still ‘stuff,’ it’s not controllable.”

As anyone who has experimented with managing their “stuff” knows, jotting it down and making a plan does help. This insight alone makes productivity self-help worthwhile, and it may be related to what is known as the Zeigarnik effect, which is the mind’s tendency to remember and return to incomplete or interrupted tasks. Legend has it that Bluma Zeigarnik’s 1927 research on this was inspired by a waiter in a cafe. The waiter had a remarkable memory for the orders of active tables, but quickly forgot them when the table was cleared. Zeigarnik took her hypothesis into the lab and found that subjects who were interrupted had a better chance of recalling a task than those who completed it. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that GTD helps reduce the Zeigarnik effect: “uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind,” and this can be stressful, especially if there are too many.

GTD isn’t the only workflow. More often than not, life hackers adopt methods they use at work. Personal Kanban was inspired by Toyota’s just-in-time production system. Tasks are written down on sticky notes and placed in one of three columns, the first of which is the To Do column. The second column is for Works in Progress (WIP), which should be limited to a few focused items. Upon completing a WIP, it’s moved to the Done column. To Do items are then reevaluated and one of them is moved to the WIP column. Similarly, folks adapt software development frameworks, like the “scrum” agile methodology, to their own lives. This, too, often entails moving sticky notes about on a white board.

Naturally, life hackers freely tweak these systems to their own tastes. Gina Trapani, founder of Lifehacker, uses a simplified GTD of three lists: next, projects, and someday/maybe. Although there are plenty of sophisticated apps for GTD, she manages it via a simple text file, synchronized via Dropbox, and edited in an app she developed calls todo.txt. To keep things really simple, entrepreneur Alexandra Cavoulacos coined the 1-3-5 rule. Like the other systems, you write down a “comprehensive list of everything you have to do.” Then, on any given day, you work to “accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things.” Before leaving work for the day “define your 1-3-5 for the next day, so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning.” This is simple, has built in prioritization, and takes advantage of the fact that it’s easier to get a good start on the day when there is a small, identified, or incomplete task awaiting you in the morning.

Life hackers’ concern with and distinction between effectiveness and efficiency is not novel. Cavoulacos’s “1-3-5” method is not very different from Ivy Lee’s a century ago. What is different is their borrowing of systems for managing technical projects at work and bringing them home.

By Joseph M. Reagle

Joseph Reagle is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern. He's been a resident fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (in 1998 and 2010), and he taught and received his Ph.D. at NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. He has published three books: "Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web" (MIT Press, 2015), "Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia" (MIT Press, 2010), and "Hacking Life: Systematized Living and its Discontents" (MIT Press, 2019)

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