Life Hacks: Is your calendar working for you...
...or is it the other way around? An optimal life is ruled by a schedule, we’re told. But life hacks began as an invitation to get creative, says Charles Assisi
I spent the weekend in a reverie of sorts. Cooking breakfast the way I like it. Reading whenever I felt like it. Binge-watching television with my teenage daughters. I wasn’t “life-hacking”.
Over the past two decades, life hacks have evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Optimise and be more productive, is the incessant message. How did we lose our way and get to this point? To squeeze every minute of time and put it to productive use was not the original goal. The idea was to learn how to use unstructured time in imaginative ways.
That’s the very essence of the term “hack”, which comes to us from hacker. In the worlds of software and computing, a hacker was someone who was so enthusiastic about the evolving technology that they spent hours figuring out how it works. They figured out how to do things with computers that hadn’t been done before. In that sense, hackers were like the imaginative mechanics of the early years of the industrial revolution, or like the early aviators.
As philosophical premises go, the idea of “hacking life” is a sound one. I was among the earliest to embrace it. If the “hacker” ethic of tinkering with computers could be extrapolated to life, to make life better, why not try that?
The problem is, it has since become far too entwined with monetisable activity.
From an original idea of helping people live their lives in ways that felt most fulfilling to them, it has become a philosophy that seeks to keep everyone constantly busy. The overriding message, all too often, is that we need to find ways to cram more into our already overflowing schedules.
Think about it: When was the last time you spent time doing nothing without feeling guilty about it?
The more famous productivity gurus, such as the Silicon Valley-based Tim Ferriss and David Allen, convinced us that we can all be superhuman. But the truth is that we are human beings with limited time and energy.
In his best-selling book The 4-Hour Work Week (2007), Ferriss argues that we can all achieve financial freedom and work less if we follow his system of time-management. But Ferriss’s system — he is also author of The 4-Hour Body (2010) and The 4-Hour Chef (2012) — is based on the assumption that we’re all willing to sacrifice our personal lives and relationships in order to achieve these goals.
Allen, author of Getting Things Done (2001) and now Getting Things Done for Teens (2018), builds his philosophy around the idea of “inbox zero”, a goal that must be constantly chased, and still remains unattainable for most people.
Such lives leave no room for unstructured time, and all that it brings to our lives. How do we pencil in time to appreciate beauty when we see it, laugh at something funny when it happens, or grieve over what matters? How do we schedule getting creative, or connecting with ourselves and others?
Even if we wanted to live like this, should we? Studies are showing that those who can handle unstructured time well tend to be more productive in the longer run, focus better, and find creative solutions to problems.
Contrary to the life hacks ideology as it is preached now, unstructured time is not wasted time. It is in unstructured moments that we find ourselves, explore our passions and cultivate creativity. By letting go of the constant need to optimise, we open ourselves up to new possibilities, unplanned adventures and personal growth.
Unstructured time allows us to connect with others, reflect on our lives, and find meaning beyond productivity. That is what the hacker ethic was, in its original avatar.
Talking to my daughters about this while binge-watching a teen series was liberating, and so much fun.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)