We’ve all seen the eye-catching headlines and have probably fought the urge to click on them: “How to chop onions without crying.” “How to get an upgrade at a hotel.” “How to read 50 books a year.”
And we’ve all been inundated by the slew of fitness and diet fads, the apps that promise to track your sleep and help you meditate, and the lifestyle brands, which promise quick and easy ways to help us become the best, fastest, and strongest version of ourselves.
But clever shortcuts or methods that help us improve our productivity and efficiency, known as life hacks, can come at a cost, says Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern who studies online culture.
He likens a person who tries to hack life at every turn to a horse that wears blinders to block out distractions and focus on the finish line. Having a singular focus, he contends, can restrict our outlook on life.
“We need to think about [life hacking] like a lot of technology and culture related to technology in a smart way,” he says. “We need to ask questions of ‘are these good enough nominal hacks or are these optimizing at the edge hacks?’”
In his new book Hacking Life, Reagle chronicles the history of life hacking. He traces the practice back to Poor Richard’s Almanack, an annual publication written by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century to offer practical advice about farming and medicine.
Reagle suggests that life hacks today are primarily used by creative professionals, including writers, programmers, designers, and educators, who want to better manage their busy lives.
“They have lots of things on their plate and they must juggle those things,” he says. “And they must also be on-call and to be aware of emails that clients or bosses are sending them at all moments of the day. So life hacking is a self-help response to this moment in which members of the creative class have a lot of flexibility, a lot of choice, a lot of distractions. Life hacking, when you look at it, is an attempt to simplify things, to reduce things, to make things efficient.”
It’s easy to understand the allure of life hacks, says Reagle. We are stressed and worried and harried and overworked. Most of the time we’re juggling five different things while contending with a plethora of choices and distractions. So when we discover a system that promises to help us simplify our lives, get more organized, and maximize our diet, finances, sleep, and work, we tend to perk up.
Although some life hacks can be useful, Reagle says, other life hacks can be useless, and at times, even harmful. He likes the “Pomodoro Technique,” a time management method that requires him to set a timer to break down his work into 25-minute intervals.
“That really helps me with respect to motivating myself to get started in the day and to stay on topic and not be too distracted,” says Reagle, who uses the method when he’s writing.
Other life hacks perplex him. He cited an article that advised people who find it difficult to stay awake in meetings to drink a lot of water so that they would have to hold in their urine and pay attention.
“I don’t know, I think a cup of tea or coffee would be better,” Reagle says, laughing. “There’s a lot of goofy science out there that people tend to glom onto and there are lots of hype and fads.”
Life hacks can become dangerous, he says, when people strive to achieve a particularly favorable outcome rather than a more modest result. They follow unhealthy diets or try to push the limits of their endurance by holding their breath while freediving, say, or taking ice baths.
“There are dangers when people are bent on optimizing, really pushing at the edge,” he says.