Hacking Life: How helpful are strategies that promise to help us improve our productivity and efficiency?

Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern, dropped by News@Northeastern to discuss the pros and cons of life hacks. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
joseph reagle headshot
Joseph Reagle, Associate Professor of Communications Studies. Photo by Mariah Tauger/Northeastern University

From dating to diets, saving money or doing chores, it seems there’s a life hack for everything these days, but how helpful are strategies that promise to help us improve our productivity and efficiency? In his new book, Hacking Life, Joseph Reagle suggests that employing clever shortcuts or methods can often come at a cost.

Reagle, an associate professor of communications studies at Northeastern, stopped by News@Northeastern on Wednesday to discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of life hacking.

You draw a distinction between “nominal” and “optimal” hacking. Can you explain the difference?

Nominal hacking is trying to restore something. It’s sort of therapeutic. One of the first life hacks I can think of is from the early 1990s. A person wrote The Hacker’s Diet. That was an engineer’s approach to losing some weight because that’s what he wanted to do. But he wasn’t trying to be a world-class athlete or to get super, super skinny or whatever it might be.

Then there’s the optimal hacks and those are the people who are trying to really be at the leading edge. They’re pushing their edge and maybe putting themselves at risk. One of the ways where things can get dangerous is when people are optimize-hacking. They might be optimizing the wrong thing; they might be pushing themselves too far; they might be optimizing one facet of their life at the expense of everything else.

I like to distinguish between the geeks and the gurus. The geeks are ordinary geeky folks who are trying to improve their lives and that makes a lot of sense. And then there’s the gurus. They’re the people telling you this approach might work really well for you or maybe you should take these supplements. Again the danger there is they’re not necessarily acting in your best interest. They’re selling themselves as a purveyor of sometimes quacky remedies and we need to be a little bit skeptical of that.

It sounds like just about anything can be hacked if one tries hard enough—even dating and relationships. It worked for the futurist, Amy Webb, didn’t it?

Amy Webb is famous. She had a very popular TED talk, and she also wrote a book. She was facing the conundrum that she was, she felt, getting a little bit older, and she wanted to start a family, and have kids. She tracked out how long it takes to find someone and then date them and be steady and be engaged, then get married. And she realized she was under the gun. She had to move relatively quickly, but dating was not working well for her. She went on some awful dates and she also realized her profile wasn’t great; she just copied and pasted from her resume. So she decided she was going to hack dating.

One of the ways she did that, and was very clever is that she tried to figure out how to make her profile more compelling. So what she did is she created profile—fake profiles—of the sort of men that she would want to date and then see who spoke to those men. She wasn’t catfishing them; she just wanted to see what kind of women would be attracted to those kind of men so she would get a sense of her competition and what worked well for them. And she realized her relatively frumpy photos and copying and pasting from a resume wasn’t the thing to do.

Some of the insights she gained is show a little bit of neck or shoulder, be happy, have your profile be relatively spare—you know, don’t have thousands and thousands of words. As a smart person she’s prone to that, but she got a bunch of these tips from this type of analysis and she ended up having one of the most popular profiles on that particular site and she eventually met her husband-to-be and they got a child, so it had a very happy ending.

I understand that you’re not categorically opposed to hacking. When does it make sense to employ life hacking techniques in our everyday lives or to accomplish a goal?

When we understand some of the distinctions between the fads of gurus, and the sincere practices and willingness to share among geeks. When we distinguish between minimal hacking and maximizing hacking, between nominal and optimal. And also when we better appreciate some of the ethics involved. I think there’s various shades of gray in the hacking world, both in the computer and security world, and in the life hacking world.

I think you need to ask yourself sometimes: Who is this hack benefiting and is it only benefiting me? One of the ethics that I would like to apply to life hacking is to ask yourself a couple of questions: Who does this benefit, and if everyone did this would the world be a better place? If your hacking is all about how to undercut your peers or bend the rules so that you can cut in line, that would not be a better place.

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