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Why I Love Life Hacks and Hate Them Too

The new Better Life Lab podcast hopes to give you all the tools you need for a full and healthy life.

Busy women with cell phones and on the go.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by m-imagephotography/Getty Images, Daria Tumanova/Unsplash.

When we were thinking about how to shape the Better Life Lab podcast on the art and science of living a full and healthy life, which just debuted on Apple podcasts, I had two thoughts: first, how much I love life hacks, and second, how much I hate them. I love them, because who doesn’t want to learn some great strategies for making our time feel less frazzled? And I hate them because they so often lead us to think small, and they make us feel that making time for life is solely an individual responsibility—as if the larger environment we operate in doesn’t shape our decisions, attitudes, and behavior for what we do with our time.

So we designed the podcast with both these truths in mind. We use behavioral science principles to give listeners a better understanding of how our environment colors the water we’re swimming in, in ways we may not even realize. For instance, we take on “ideal worker” norms that automatically assume the best workers work all the time—a powerful notion that keeps workplace cultures frozen in the 1950s. We share the science that shows the best workers, instead, have well-rounded lives.

And while our goal is to shift larger workplace cultures, attitudes, and policies, we recognize that that may take time. And busy, overwhelmed people need strategies now to find ways to live fuller, healthier lives. So we tell the stories of people who are struggling to find the right balance of work, love, and play in their lives, and talk to the behavioral and social science experts who help make sense of it all. We show hopeful works in progress—count me in that group—as well as inspirational role models. And along the way, we share some pretty great life hacks.

The first season has six episodes. Check out our first episode now and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hear from a university professor who can’t understand why he feels so busy and can’t seem to put down his smartphone with its bajillion emails long enough to just drop into the moment and enjoy time with his family. Behavioral economist superstar Dan Ariely, who directs—I love this—the Center for Advanced Hindsight, explains how refrigerator design of all things can help us understand the power of the environment in shaping our choices. He shows us that busyness is a choice.

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer shares the latest research from his new book, Dying for a Paycheck, and makes the case that finding the right work-life balance for everyone is nothing short of a matter of human survival. Producer David Schulman and I venture out to a local Workaholics Anonymous meeting. We hear from a man who describes himself as a happy workaholic, even though it’s cost him personal relationships, and a woman who had to tear herself away from a stressful work-focused lifestyle in order to have a family and the kind of life, in her heart, she really wanted.

We talk to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and explore how the very American notion of the ideal worker—someone who works all hours, all the time—can, without targeted interventions, derail even the most progressive workplace policies. And we share the inspiring story of Michelle Hickox, my hero, who figured out how to do excellent work and still take summers off to spend with her daughters. She’s now one of the few women in the C-suite, making policies to help the men and women who work for her have time for both work and life. We share how she did that and the support network she still needs to make it happen.

In the end, the guiding principle behind the podcast is to give listeners the tools they need, both long and short term, to create more space for what’s most important in their lives.

We’re in the process of recording Season 2. We’d love to hear your own stories on what works and what you need for work-life balance, and get your feedback on where next to take the Better Life Lab podcast!

The podcast, a New America and Slate production and sponsored by American Express, is part of a larger project we’re working on with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and ideas42, a behavioral sciences nonprofit, to explore overwork and design science–based interventions that could not only reduce work-life conflict and stress but make work more effective and life fuller and healthier.