Future Tense

Down With Lifehacking!

It doesn’t make life better—it just makes us work more.

A man sleeps on a bench in a park during a heat wave in Brussels.
This guy might look like he’s sleeping, but he’s actually hacking.

Photo by Eric Vidal/Reuters

Buzzwords that emerge from Silicon Valley are usually vapid and imprecise. (Let’s just agree that “the sharing economy” must become “user-centric,” OK?) Lifehacking, in contrast, has always had provocative, even emancipating connotations. Coined by the technology journalist Danny O’Brien in 2004, the term life hack quickly became staple of techspeak. In 2011 life hack—defined as “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way”—was even added to Oxford Dictionaries Online, a first step toward mainstream recognition. (O’Brien himself hardly looks the part of a modern-day Frederick Winslow Taylor; his blog is called Oblomovka, an homage to Oblomov, the most famous slacker in all of Russian literature.)

The original thinking behind “lifehacking” was intriguing. Why not use technology to get things done more effectively and have more time for oneself? The 4-Hour Workweek, the 2007 best-seller by Timothy Ferriss, pushed this logic to its limits (“Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” promises its subtitle) and made Ferriss a hero in many cubicles around the globe. “Bob”—the office worker who, to much international fanfare, recently got fired for outsourcing his tasks to China to spend more time with his favorite cat videos—is a “lifehacker” par excellence!

In practice, of course, things are more complicated. 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. 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?

Two new books offer some curious, if indirect, perspectives on lifehacking. Autopilot by Andrew Smart surveys some recent research in neuroscience (particularly the puzzling discovery that our brains seem to be doing a lot of previously undetected work while at rest) to argue that dedicating time to do nothing—literally sitting still and daydreaming—is absolutely necessary if we are to use our mental faculties and stumble upon new and original insights.

To innovate, argues Smart, we must learn how to be idle—at a time when most corporations see idleness as a vice. By Smart’s logic, one way to subvert modern capitalism is to simply get as busy as possible: Your creativity will suffer— and you’ll be not much better than a robot, only far less productive. (It’s also a sure way to get fired!) “Business destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social,” he argues, as he sets out on a quest to “offer bullet-proof scientific excuses for laziness.”

Smart’s celebration of idleness might seem like a perfect fit with the spirit of the “lifehacking” movement, as both seek to free up some time in our already busy days. Instead, he argues that “technology, for all its advantages, is actually taking away our leisure time” and complains that “we are now wired 24/7.” He also lambastes David Allen, the author of  Getting Things Done and a lifehacking role model, for rarely, if ever, asking the obvious question: What if we need so many productivity apps simply because we have far too much to do—and not because we are naturally born slackers?

From Smart’s perspective, lifehacking is far too utilitarian. A faithful lifehacker would use technology to avoid dead time and move on to the entertaining, more gratifying activities as soon as possible. Smart, in contrast, demands more dead time. He does want you to “hack your life”—but in a way that smacks less of Taylorism and more of Buddhist contemplation. Instead of “doing more with more,” we must “do less with less.” Intriguingly, if Smart’s science is correct, doing less might actually be the best way to accomplish more.

Another thinker concerned with the 24/7 lifestyle is Jonathan Crary, a distinguished art historian at Columbia University who has just published a book titled, well, 24/7. Crary sees sleep as one of the few remaining areas that have resisted colonization by the ominous forces of that faceless chimera, neoliberalism. “The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism,” he writes. (Yes, Crary’s prose can be sleep-inducing. In his defense, it’s a book about the virtues of sleep!)

Many fascinating anecdotes and statistics follow. The Pentagon, always in the vanguard of innovation, is spending millions to free soldiers from the burden of sleep altogether. We are almost there anyway: According to Crary, today the average North American adult sleeps approximately six and a half hours a night, compared with eight hours a generation ago and 10 hours a century ago. What’s not to like about Crary’s message? Yes, even you can subvert modern capitalism: by sleeping more! #Occupythebedroom.

Oddly, Crary says nothing about lifehacking—a glaring omission, when one of its many branches, “sleep hacking,” is specifically dedicated to tinkering with one’s sleep. A common goal for many “sleep hackers” is to spend less time in a phase known as “light sleep,” shifting it to high-quality phrases such as “deep sleep” or “rapid eye movement sleep.” (The staying-awake phase right before you fall asleep is prized by Crary but apparently dreaded by many “sleep hackers.”)

Sleephackers go to bed with sensors on their wrists and foreheads and maintain detailed electronic sleep diaries, which they often share online. To shift between sleep phases, sleephackers experiment with various diets, room and body temperatures, and kinds of pre-sleep physical exercise. For example, Ferriss also wrote The 4-Hour Body, in which he offers plenty of advice on getting high-quality sleep—and faster. A typical nugget reads: “Consumed within three hours of getting under the sheets, meals of at least 800 milligrams of cholesterol (four or more large whole eggs) and 40 grams of protein produced dramatically faster time-to-sleep scores than meals of lower volume or lower protein and fat.”

Crary is correct to note that “within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers”—especially if Timothy Ferriss, munching eggs on his way to the bedroom, is the paragon of success—but he seems unaware of just how quantification and self-tracking, often in their most aggressive, Taylorist mode, have already invaded our bedrooms. This space is no longer as pristine as Crary claims. Researching this column, I stumbled upon a blog post—a typical one, it turned out—by one of the keen practitioners of sleephacking. It features as many graphs and percentage points as a PowerPoint from McKinsey. Reflecting on a sleep experience that totaled 7.27 hours—of which 52 percent was spent on light sleep, 29 percent on REM sleep, and 19 percent on deep sleep—the author calls this “inefficient sleep” and complains that it “contains a lot of wasted time.”

At first—as is the case with most lifehacking endeavors—sleephacking sounds wonderful: Why not improve the quality of your sleep with sophisticated sensors and scrupulous tracking? After all, most of us have accepted the comfort that comes with fancy mattresses. The problem— as the title of Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body indicates— is that once you accept the argument that “quality sleep is not about quantity,” it is tempting to use that knowledge to cut on out sleep altogether. And once the tools and techniques for sleephacking are cheap and universally accessible, how could you explain your irresponsible insistence on sleeping longer rather than, well, “better” either to yourself or to your boss? Why have six hours of mediocre sleep if you can get the same numbers from three hours of good sleep?

Time for a lifehacking revolution, perhaps? What we want, to paraphrase Marx, is to “lifehack in the morning—in order to nap in the afternoon and criticize after dinner.” What we get right now—to “lifehack the morning—in order to skip naps in the afternoon and work after dinner”—is a raw deal. “Get busy—or get bed to bed”—now, that is a fitting slogan for a modern-day revolutionary movement.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.