Hacking life

One of those terms that periodically bubbles up to the top of people’s imagination is “life hacking”. The phrase by itself may or may not make sense – actually looked at the right way, it might. However, the problem with such catchphrases is that they tend to get much abused and people start using them in contexts where they’re not appropriate (think, for example, “big data”. Similarly, I loathe to call myself an “analytics consultant” since that’s much abused. I instead use some variation of “quant management consultant” which is not yet abused).

Coming back to life hacks, the problem with life hacks is that a lot of what goes under the name of life hacking isn’t actually hacks. For example, recently the Mint newspaper (who I write for) published a series on life hacking by this guy called Charles Assisi. The three part series was extremely underwhelming and meh.

Take the first part, for example. It includes supposed “hacks” such as “find yourself” and “get things done”. While I agree that these might be useful principles to live life by, they simply don’t qualify as being hacks.

The basic definition of hacking is to rig up something on the fly. Check out the “hack” page on urban dictionary, for example. Sample some of the (more charitable) definitions of hacking:

A temporary, jury-rigged solution, especially in the fields of computer programming and engineering: the technical equivalent of chewing gum and duct tape. Compare to kludge.


 A computerized bartender that automatically mixes your drinks and debits your account? Now THAT’S a hack.

You get the drift right? A hack is something like the Indian “jugaad” – something that’s put together because a mainstream solution doesn’t work. If I buy curtains for my window it’s not a hack. If I cover it up with a bedsheet instead (like I’ve currently done in one of the rooms in my house), it’s a hack!

Coming back to the point, the problem with a lot of “life hacking” discourse is that what it speaks about cannot be classified as hacking (Assisi’s pieces are Exhibits A, B and C of this). The problem, however, is that hacking of any form doesn’t lend itself to newspaper articles, for hacking is always context sensitive.

The reason I’ve used a bedsheet as a curtain is that i have a non-standard sized window and I’m too lazy to go get custom-made curtains – notice that this is a problem unique to me, and hence I’ve hacked together a solution. This, now, cannot be translated to a newspaper piece that says “Home hacks: Use bedsheets as curtains”.

Life hacking, in its traditional form, is rather useful, but doesn’t “travel”. For example, one of the “hacks” that Assisi writes about is “choose focus”. Now, intuitively, there’s nothing “rocket science” about this. For most people, focusing on a task at times can be rather trivial, and thus doesn’t need a “hack”.

But what about people with ADHD like me, who cannot focus? I know that focusing is a wonderful thing, but I can just never get myself to focus. This is where a “hack” (to get myself to focus despite being inherently bad at it) might prove useful – and if the hack proves successful I can “productionize” it. But then, that’s my specific context, and there is no way a newspaper article can address that!

So life hacking exists. Yes, it’s a thing. But it’s a context sensitive thing. A hack that can work for you will not work for me – unless our contexts are extremely similar! Keep that in mind before you profess or import hacks!

One thought on “Hacking life”

  1. Ah well, I’ll concede “Hacking” is a much abused term. And hackers in the real sense of the term, like, say Richard Stallman or Linus Torvald, would squirm at how it is bandied about now.

    And yes, you’re right to the extent that every Tom, Dick, Harry and their uncle has a “hack” to their credit. Much like that word “jugaad”is so horribly abused!

    That said, dude, I wouldn’t go by the definition used someplace like urbandictionary to conclude. To my mind mind, a “hack” in the strictest sense means a crude blow or a very inelegant solution. If that’s what you call jugaad, then yes.

    Over time though, what used to be considered “inelegant” solutions of the kind Stallman or Torvald created, these have morphed into elegant solutions, and are now part of the mainstream.

    Interestingly though, “hackers” like Stallman or Torvald never thought their solutions inelegant. In fact, they thought mainstream thinking incompetent and part of bloatware.

    Problem with the word though is now is the mainstream has embraced it. And when something becomes part of mainstream lexicon, it is inevitable puritans who thought the word up get turned off. But that’s the curve any word in a language takes. Hack was big in the 1850s, went down, had a few ups, and is back in vogue since 2010, as graphs represented on Google Books show.

    I think I ought to end my two bit defence on why I used the word HACK. Can’t help but get into an argument given half a chance. So forgive my rant 🙂 .

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