What is a LifeHack or Lifehacking?

Originally published: 08/2005 by J Wynia

In more than one pingback/trackback to articles posted here, I noticed that people's reaction to the term "lifehack" was one of confusion. My aim with this posting is to try to define it as I understand it.

The term "lifehack" is derived (if a term still in its infancy needs derivation) from the technical hacks that programmers and other geeks have set up for themselves to make their lives easier. This usually means methods of organizing data, little utilities to synchronize files, one-off scripts that automate daily tasks, etc. These things are all personal, often suited entirely to the situation and not shared with anyone. The term surfaced when there was a suggestion to share these and see if others could benefit from these "life hacks".

The term, being more generic than the original derivation, was expanded to a broader definition as the meme spread. Today, lifehacks are basically anything that is a solution to an everyday problem, frustration, etc. As a result, we're seeing the term used to describe solutions to getting organized, losing weight, public speaking, doing your professional job better, time management, etc. As such, the current useage probably more accurately reflects the term itself.

"Life" is a generic term we all use to describe pretty much everything other than the thing we're primarily paid for or really dedicated to. We often ask people how work and life are going and mean pretty much everything in that person's "life".

The terms "hack", "hacking" and "hacker" have a long (and troubled) history in the computing and geek communities, particularly within the open source crowds. Like many other truly useful terms, outright definitions are difficult because "hack" is just the right word for the concepts involved. However, according to the Jargon File (typically the authority on the term), the quickest summary is "an appropriate application of ingenuity" to a problem.

Lifehacks generally apply to the secondary stuff in our lives. However, as what's "secondary" is different for just about everyone, they can apply anywhere. For instance, as a web developer, while a quick Javascript or PHP hack directly related to my professional work would be a hack, it wouldn't be a lifehack. However, a quick tool written to keep track of my home movie collection would be a lifehack as my primary business isn't organizing movies. Similarly, I'm paid to write code, not keep my desk clean or my filing organized. Those things are secondary to my primary job. However, when those secondary things are humming along, I do my primary job better. This extends beyond our occupation to anything we really take seriously as well. For instance, a REALLY serious amateur photographer will laugh at many of the photo-related lifehacks, similar to how the paid photographer will as being crude.

Lifehacks do tend to emerge mostly on the fat part of the bell curve as far as the way the lifehacker views the problem. What that means is that a good lifehack is really useful solution to a problem for lots of people, but not for people who experience the problem at a level other than the "normal" level of the problem. For people who view the problem as not being a problem at all, the lifehack is overkill. For those who deal with the problem on a large scale or professional level, the hack is inadequate. However, for the rest in the middle (the majority of us), the hack hits the sweet spot. It's just enough to solve the problem without being the industrial/professional/enterprise solution that the pro's need. It's going to be obvious to the professional and overkill to the outsider.

This is exemplified in the reaction to my grocery lifehack article. For many, they just don't cook enough, it was WAY too much work (though the goal of that technique is specifically to do as little work as possible as with many lifehacks). Still others thought that it needed a full-blown software solution or ways to even more elaborately plan out meals and found my solution to be inadequate.

Spam filtering is another prime example. Though dwindling, there is a group who gets so few emails that spam isn't a problem. Their email is just used for work, never shared outside and the 1 spam message they get in a week is easily deleted. For them, ANY effort spent on filtering it would be overkill. For some of us (myself included), the thousands of messages per day that go though our email include hundreds or thousands of spam messages alone preclude many of the simple email lifehacks. More industrial solutions are required for that end of the spectrum. However, for the vast majority in between, there are quite a few decent hacks that will eliminate most of the spam problem.

So, a good lifehack solves a problem in your life that is in need of an ingenious solution, but cheaper and quicker than the "right" solution, while simultaneously giving the extra pleasure of having solved the problem uniquely.

Right now, the term is primarily being used by geeks (where the term originated) and in the 20-something "iPod crowd" who tends to be active in blogging and have technology fairly well integrated into their lives. However, given the broad appeal of these types of solutions, I expect the demographics of people interested in lifehacking to grow considerably in the near future. Many examples of lifehacks can be found on lifehack.org (I'm a regular contributor over there), lifehacker.com and 43Folders.com.

This is just one person's take on it after watching the trend emerge over the last 18 or so months and I welcome anyone who can make the definitions more nuanced.

Comments

Dave's Imaginary Sound Space on 10/4/2005
topic category at Furl (tag). Lifehack and Lifehack.Community daily digest blog and collaborative writing community for productivity, getting things done and lifehacks. See also: http://del.icio.us/tag/lifehacks. What is a LifeHack or Lifehacking? MAKE:blog is dedicated to DIY technology articles and regularly features audio technology projects. Music Biz Academy provides how-to articles for independent musicians in the business of selling, promoting or doing music on the Internet.
Dave's Imaginary Sound Space on 8/12/2005
topic category at Furl (tag). Lifehack and Lifehack.Community daily digest blog and collaborative writing community for productivity, getting things done and lifehacks. See also: http://del.icio.us/tag/lifehacks. What is a LifeHack or Lifehacking? MAKE:blog is dedicated to DIY technology articles and regularly features audio technology projects. Music Biz Academy provides how-to articles for independent musicians in the business of selling, promoting or doing music on the Internet.
Green Dot Lifehacks on 10/12/2005
inventing new ways of organizing data or creating automation. More recently, as the meme spread across the web, lifehacks have begun to include anything that is a solution to an everyday problem. My favorite article on the subject can be found at "What is a Lifehack or Lifehacking" by J. Wynia . By taking this definition and applying it to a career as a consultant, I have built Green Dot Lifehacks. Most of the material within this site should therefore help the average IT consultant find tips, tricks, hacks and shortcuts for their specific
Dave's Imaginary Sound Space on 10/4/2005
topic category at Furl (tag). Lifehack and Lifehack.Community daily digest blog and collaborative writing community for productivity, getting things done and lifehacks. See also: http://del.icio.us/tag/lifehacks. What is a LifeHack or Lifehacking? MAKE:blog is dedicated to DIY technology articles and regularly features audio technology projects. Music Biz Academy provides how-to articles for independent musicians in the business of selling, promoting or doing music on the Internet.
LifeHacking Your Grocery List-- The Glass is Too Big - J Wynia on 10/16/2005
[...] Related posts: What is a Lifehack, Lifehack Category “The cupboards are full and there’s ‘nothing’ to eat”. Has that phrase ever echoed through your kitchen? Do you have stacks of food items that don’t really go together taking up space? Do you throw away food items in your refrigerator because you didn’t get around to making the item you bought it for or just plain forgot about it? Do you have 3 jars of peanut butter or 5 bottles of ketchup because you forgot you already bought some? Have you ever made a special trip to the store to get the items for a specific meal only to get home and realize you missed a critical ingredient? [...]
Managing with Aloha on 10/23/2005
of the articles you’ll find there from me during this inaugural month of the column. The first one today is called 5 Things Employees Need to Learn—from You. What is a Lifehack? On his blog The Glass is Too Big, J.Wynia offers the most detailed definition I’ve found, explaining that, “The term “lifehack” is derived (if a term still in its infancy needs derivation) from the technical hacks that programmers and other geeks have set up for themselves to make their lives easier.”
Blurtiang Adulsn on 11/9/2005
What is a LifeHack or Lifehacking?-- The Glass is Too Big - J Wynia What is a LifeHack or ...
Bjørn Stabell » Blog Archive » Vrooooom… on 3/11/2006
[...] Ideas on personal development and lifehacking. [...]
Bjørn Stabell » Blog Archive » Vrooooom… on 3/11/2006
[...] Ideas on personal development and lifehacking.  I’m blessed with good sense of logic, but cursed with bad long-term memory.  Without systems I just can’t deal with all the stuff thrown at me. [...]
FiveFootFlirt on 7/14/2006
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