I was there when “lifehacking” was born. It was the 11th of February, 2004, at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, held in a giant conference hotel in San Diego. I was on the committee for ETech (as we called it) and I had lobbied hard for the inclusion of a talk called “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks” by Danny O’Brien, a technology columnist and former standup comedian who is also a good friend (I am now godfather to his daughter, Ada). I’d watched Danny compiling his research for the talk and I knew it would be a great one.
I liveblogged his presentation, because this was before lifehacking, but after liveblogging (if only barely). Danny described a research project in which he interviewed “overprolific” tech workers who had a reputation for doing a lot of things at once, and reported on their commonalities. My notes on the talk are still live at <www.craphound.com/lifehacksetcon04.txt>, but the long and short of them was that all of these super-nerds were really good at one or two flexible tools (ranging from Excel spreadsheets to the programming language Python), and they used those tools to automate many of the processes in their life. They also all used some kind of master, monster to-do list and file-of-useful-pasted-snippets.
I recognized some of my own working habits in the description, and, more importantly, acquired some useful tips. After all, I was one of those really techie people who did a lot of different things at the same time: writing novels, working for an activist group, editing a blog, sometimes even having a life. One intriguing takeaway from the talk was a recommendation to read David Allen’s 2001 book Getting Things Done, an instant classic in the “personal productivity” genre (this was after the productivity genre, but still before lifehacking).
Allen’s book is a fantastic and inspiring read. The core of his philosophy is to recognize that there are more things in the world that you want to do than you could do, and that, in the absence of a deliberate approach to this conundrum, you are likely to default to doing things that are easy to scratch off your to-do list, which are also the most trivial. After a lifetime of this, you’ll have accomplished a lot of very little.
Allen counsels deliberate, mindful prioritization of this list, jettisoning things on the basis that they are less satisfying or important than the other things you’d like to do – even if those other things are harder, more time consuming and less likely to result in a satisfying chance to scratch an item off the list.
This resonated with me and, by 2004, I’d bought and given away half a dozen copies of Getting Things Done and put its method in place. I even had a chance to sit down with Allen in 2007 and talk about how the web fit into his method.
It’s been more than a decade since I took up Allen’s method and started lifehacking (as the kids say), and I have a report from the field.
The past 14 years have regularly featured junctures where I had to get rid of something I liked doing so I could do something I liked doing more. Some of that was low-hanging fruit (I haven’t watched TV regularly in more than a decade), but after getting rid of the empty calories in my activity diet, I had to start making hard choices.
In retrospect, I observe that the biggest predictor of whether an activity surviving winnowing is whether it paid off in two or more of the aspects of my life and career. If something made me a better blogger – but not a better novelist and activist – it went. The more parts of my life were implicated in an activity, the more likely I was to keep the activity in my daily round.
Some of these choices were tough. I have all but given up on re-reading books, despite the undeniable pleasure and value to understanding the authors’ craft, which is easier to unpick on subsequent readings. But I have more than 20 linear feet of books I’ve promised to read for blurbs and reviews, and reading those books also teaches me something about the craft, also brings me pleasure, also makes me a better reviewer, and also makes me a better citizen of science fiction, who contributes to the success of worthy new books.
Some social media tools – like Facebook – make for fun (if problematic) socializing, and all social media pays some dividend to authors who are hoping to sell books and activists who are hoping to win support, but Twitter also teaches me to be a better writer by making me think about brevity and sentence structure in very rigorous ways (and from an activist perspective, Twitter is a better choice because it, unlike Facebook, doesn’t want the web to die and be replaced by its walled garden) – so Twitter is in, and Facebook is out.
There are some unexpected outcomes from this process, albeit ones that are obvious in hindsight.
The first is that it has gotten progressively harder to tease apart the different kinds of work I do. People often ask, “How much of your day do you spend writing, and how much being an activist, and how much on journalism?” The answer has always been that it’s hard to cleanly separate these activities, because they overlap – writing a blog post is a way to think through and track an idea that might show up in a story, and also a way to raise alarm at a political affair.
But today, thanks to a vicious Darwinian winnowing process, the only activities left in my day serve double- and triple-duty. There is virtually no moment in my working day that can cleanly be billed to only one ledger.
The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.
And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.
That presents a paradox: if the purpose of lifehacking is to mindfully choose your priorities, what can you do when that process leads you to a position where no more choices are possible?
I’ll let you know if I figure it out. In the meantime, let this be a warning to anyone who wants to do it all.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
This review and more like it in the November 2017 issue of Locus.