Lifehacking our lives away: When does efficiency become inefficient?

muffinUse a muffin tin to serve condiments at your next BBQ. Cut your cakes and cheeses with floss. Doritos make good kindling. Paint your keys with different colors of nail polish to keep track of which is which.

At its elemental level, lifehacking is unimpeachable — diverting arrays of tips designed to dispense cleverly with life’s minor imperfections. But a lot of the movement these days — or do we call it an industry? — isn’t crafty, one-time fixes so much as involved, self-helpy programs intended to tweak something deeper in how we make it through the day. The rewards are ostensibly greater than neater condiment arrangement, but then so is the time required to grok them. It’s one thing to wrap your mind around the cake/floss thing. It’s another to master the five-stage outline for making small-talk easier. Or seven ways to better manage your email. Add these up and you’re often looking at a significant time investment, all for the sake of liberating a few seconds here and there, or improving some system by half a percent.

This is the argument, more or less, made by Evgeny Morozov in his recent Slate piece, Down With Lifehacking. His critique boils down to this: In trying to make life more efficient, the ever-swelling pile of lifehacks is actually draining us of time and energy.

“As ‘lifehacking’ becomes an industry with its own blogs and book-length guides, a good chunk of the freed-up time often goes to fix, upgrade, or replace the very tools and programs that make lifehacking possible,” he writes. “Is there anything more self-defeating than using technology to free up your time — so that you can learn how to do an even better job at it?”

Morozov’s short piece led to impassioned responses, including this forum and this article, both thoughtful. (Among the criticisms: Lifehacking has helped real people solve real problems, not just niggling imperfections.) Whatever side one takes in the lifehacking wars, I’ve found myself wondering, not for the first time, why this impulse has taken hold of us in the first place.

Why the gobs of books? The countless websites? There’s even a documentary, You 2.0. (With all the time you liberate, you can watch its three-plus hours of extended interviews.) I’d venture only a fraction of us actually follow through with any of these hacks on a regular basis. Who really needs to build a concrete computer desk? Maybe if I cleverly tether my stemware in the dishwasher, it will save me time down the road, on the day my untethered stemware would’ve shattered, and I’d be on my hands and knees with the dustpan rather than out there in nature, with Thoreau. But I sort of doubt it. Something else impels us to click. We live in an era where we window shop for efficiency.

There’s a moment in the You 2.0 trailer where Merlin Mann, of 43 Folders, speaks candidly about lifehacking. “Our obsession needs to be with ‘How much less (nonsense) could we be doing today?’” he says. Couldn’t agree more. But if you’re not careful, there comes a point at which the war on (inefficiency) starts to become its own time-suck.”

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper and more for the NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Afar magazine and more. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture