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Hacking Ourselves: The Path to Personal Productivity Begins When We Pause

HackingDo you read Lifehacker? I try to resist, but their headlines and lists—their whispered promises of improvement—reel me in almost every time. I want to be more productive and efficient. I want to overcome social anxiety in three seconds, trim ego commitments, and build a wooden beer caddy. (Okay, maybe not the latter.) I want to know how to hack my life. Don’t you?

The history of hacking can be traced back to the 1200s through the etymology of the word hack. Surfacing in Old English, this word meant “to cut roughly, to cut with chopping blows.”[1] Since then, this same word has meant many things. A hack can be an amateur writer who cares more about profit than product, or a poorly executed solution. Today, hacking is often associated with cyber-crime; people imagine a solitary man sitting before multiple terminals all of which display running lines of code—glowing green characters illuminate his face. While it’s true there are hackers who seek to exploit and undermine software security, hacking has taken on a much broader meaning in the past decade. Most often the goal of hacking is to create a shortcut or to solve a common problem in an uncommon way. Hacker and maker spaces—communal areas devoted to tinkering and creating tangible objects—have begun to pop up in urban centers, sites like IKEA Hackers have become increasingly popular, and Apple’s iTunes store has a section devoted to Productivity apps.

However, some of the most effective personal productivity tools aren’t tools at all. Hacking your behavior can be more effective than downloading new apps or adopting new solutions.

Take stock. To hack a system, you have to know a system. Choose a day (or a week) to be mindful of your activities and workflows. Write down your observations. When and how often do you check email? How many windows do you keep open? Where do you store your most important files? How do you manage your calendar? Was there a situation that could have been resolved in one phone call rather than in ten emails?

Reflect. Take time to think about how your activities made you feel. Did opening your inbox increase anxiety? Was there any tightness in your body when you attended a meeting? When did you feel most productive? When did you feel as though you’d done good work? How did you feel about and manage unfinished work?

Adopt a plan that works for you. Being mindful of your strengths and weaknesses will help you to develop and adopt a plan that works for you. Productivity isn’t a one size fits all business.

  • If you’re easily distracted by websites, try a browser extension like StayFocusd or an app like Focus.
  • If constant beeps and buzzes from your smartphone derail you, switch the settings to pull rather than push, or turn on Do Not Disturb for a few hours.
  • If email overwhelms you, set aside specific hours to read and reply; then, create an automatic reply instructing recipients to phone you if they require an answer outside of the hours you’ve set. Keep your email client closed during off-hours. (For a more radical vacation solution, read about one German company’s approach.)
  • If you’ve lost track of your files, consider a solution like Mohiomap, a web app that turns your information stored in the cloud into mind maps.

Finally, JustDelete.Me, a directory created by Robb Lewis and updated by crowdsourcing, provides information about how to delete your data from a variety of web sites and services. Often, not doing things helps us to be better and more productive at what we do do. After all, some critics of lifehacking argue it’s just a way to make us work more, and as Aristotle noted: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary