Remember, you will die.
A week ago, I went for a walk through a graveyard. It was kind of an accident. I was in the historic part of Dublin, California, waiting for my bank to open and had some time to kill, so to speak. When I visit that branch, I often look over at the neighboring Dublin Heritage Park and Museums. The visible part of the park is a big old barn with some picnic tables. Turns out that’s the Kolb Sunday School Barn.
All of the exciting parts are behind the barn. The Murray Schoolhouse (1856), Old Saint Raymond’s Church (1859), and Dublin Pioneer Cemetery. The first occupant of the cemetery was Tom Donlon, who died while helping to construct the church. He fell off of the roof, and that was that. He was in his twenties.
Others include prominent families with names that are easily recognizable to anyone who lives in the Tri-Valley region. For instance, the Dougherty family, whose plot is one of the most prominent, also have a valley, road, and high school named after them. Poor Donlon got his own school, in a manner of speaking. The Fallon family got a shopping mall and residential area built out in their name.
History buffs would be thrilled to spend an hour or so checking out the tomb stones and placards. You can get a glimpse of what life was like, how many early settlers came from Ireland (it’s not a coincidence that the city is named Dublin), and what a struggle life must have been. What stood out for me was the proportion of people who died young, at least younger than I am now.
For instance, Mr. Dougherty died at 42. At the time, that was probably considered to be a ripe old age. He literally made a name for himself and completed his successful life journey in a tad over 4 decades. Here I stand at 47 thinking I have at least half of my life before me.
Of course, one never knows how much time is left. But the odds are in my favor of having at least a few more decades at this point. Gotta remember to stay off of my roof.
What Are They?
That brings me to today’s topic, life hacks. As a software engineer, the word “hack” is emotionally charged. On one hand, the classic hacker carries a sense of intrigue, a certain panache. (That’s a fun word meaning “flamboyant confidence of style or manner.” You’re welcome.) A glorified, rogue programmer who slips in and out of computers undetected, acting as a vigilante, righting the wrongs of society or starting revolutions.
Think of the Matrix, where the ultimate hacker literally frees the world. At least for a while.
Or consider the protagonist in Mr. Robot going up against Evil Corp.
In a darker form, hackers are known to wear black hats, sit in poorly lit rooms, steal information or your identity, and influence elections. Hackers and hacks don’t often work for the forces of good.
Life hacks involve adjusting your behavior so that you might be able to extract more enjoyment out of life or even have more life to enjoy.
For example, remembering that you will die is a kind of life hack. This is the essence of stoicism. It’s also the basis for giving thanks to your maker, especially as you get older. Simply realizing that today is a gift helps you focus on the positive aspects of your day, which makes your experience better than if you spend all day griping and fussing over petty details.
Life hacks are a way to optimize the life experience. Optimization means trade-offs. You have to give a little to get a little. The trick is in turning trade-offs into trade-ups, where you exchange, say, suffering that you can tolerate for an outcome that you have been dreaming of.
For example, I decided in December to optimize my time by eliminating my daily commute to the office, saving up to 3 hours per day. In exchange, I merely had to quit my stable, well-paying job. That’s a trade-off: more time at the cost of some anxiety.
The anxiety comes from the worry that I will run out of money and never be able to get another job because of the “gap in my resume.” While I could have spent my time fretting and imaging doom and gloom scenarios, I used meditation and positive imagery to suppress my concerns. Those life hacks allowed myself the freedom to work on my favorite software projects without not having to suffer (much).
Notably, on days when I skip my morning meditation, my anxiety rises a little. Changing behavior takes effort because old habits return in moments of weakness. Life hacking requires conscious time and attention until the hacks become part of your identity. At that point, you won’t have to think about them any more.
Then you can find more areas to hack. Or simply enjoy your improved lifestyle.
Finding Hacks to Try
Knowing what to hack is a matter of learning what others have tried and personal experimentation. At best, you can find a way to improve your life without making unsustainable trade-offs. At worst, well, you’re going to die anyway at some point, so the downside is limited. (*removes tongue from cheek*)
Somewhere in the middle, you can drive yourself a bit nutty in an attempt to layer on too many new behaviors at once. Life hacks are often in conflict with each other. Should I start the day with a full breakfast? Or is it better to skip breakfast? Or just delay breakfast? Eat only two meals per day, or nibble on small snacks throughout the day?
I have found an insidious side effect of having a better life. The more time I spend in a productive flow state, in living comfortably in the now, the faster time seems to pass. Would it be better to remain idle and suffer boredom so that life would seem to go more slowly?
My answer is no. My training in physics taught me that the actual passage of time is relative to the speed you are traveling. Psychology has taught me that perceptions are not to be trusted. Armed with this knowledge, I can assume that my perception that time is moving at different rates is an illusion, since my speed is relatively constant, primarily influenced by the rotation of the Earth and other cosmic movement.
So I want to enjoy as much time as I can while I’m still here to enjoy it, even if it seems to whiz by. That’s the bottom line on my ledger of life.
With that premise, let me take you on a tour of a typical work when things are going well. As I explain my day, I will point out the life hacks that I am trying. Where I can remember, I’ll tell you where I got the ideas. And I will wrap this post in a bow with suggestions on where to find ideas to try.
A Day in the Life of Hacks
I tend to wake up without an alarm. That’s because I am pretty good at knowing the time. Even when I set an alarm, I usually wake up about a minute before it goes off. That how my simulation works.
Most days I aim to wake up at 6:00 or 6:15 AM.
Scott Adams of Dilbert fame is one of my heroes. He’s a proponent of the idea that life is a giant simulation. Since proving a negative is impossible—that is, I cannot prove that life is not a simulation—let’s say that it’s possible. Everything we are and experience could be the result of some massive computer system. That frame of reference is a useful life hack for reasoning about why things happen.
In fact, when I was a teenager, I bought a booklet by mail order that told me about “Mind Power.” The booklet espoused the notion that the brain has unlimited potential, and one could use auto-suggestion to tap into that power. The book prescribed an exercise where you would tell yourself at night to go into deep sleep and to wake up precisely at whatever time you specified. It worked, and now it’s part of what I can do!
So rather than taking credit by saying “I’m a master at waking up on time,” I’ll just say I am programmed that way. That booklet helped me program myself.
Maybe you thought “waking up” couldn’t be hacked.
Now that I am awake, it’s time for a little exercise. I like to start with a short routine that combines stretching, isometrics (push-ups, sit-ups, lunges) and karate moves (orchestrated blocking, punching, kicking).
Every part of the routine could be considered an exercise hack. Stretching is a hack against stiffness that accompanies the ripe old age of 40-something and beyond. Sit-ups and push-ups were someone’s idea for retaining muscle mass once humankind invented too many labor-saving devices. Karate is a specialized set of movement hacks for putting down attackers and defending your village.
In high school, my track coach showed us how to stretch for running. In college, I took fencing for one semester and learned to exhale while reaching to touch my toes. Now, over the course of 10 breaths, I can usually get my nose pretty close to my knee. Yoga taught me how to stretch my spine. Karate taught me to build strength and flexibility by holding bent-knee stances and moving in unnatural ways.
You have probably picked up many life hacks without realizing it.
When I started, my minimum routine included at least 20 sit-ups and 20 push-ups per day. That was all I expected of myself, so it was easy to achieve. And once I got started, it was easy to add more repetitions and more kinds of exercise.
To increase the likelihood of exercising, I might put out my shorts and t-shirt the night before.
After 15 to 20 minutes of light exercise, it’s time for 15 to 20 minutes of meditation. I put on a long, flowing robe, light some incense, and…
Okay, just kidding. What I do is very simple. I attempt to think of nothing other than a few things: my breathing, how my body feels, awareness of sounds around me, and specific calming and empowering visualizations.
I sit on the floor with my legs folded under (i.e., seiza style) and close my eyes. I try to count my breaths and get to ten without losing focus. When my thoughts stray, I simply notice and calmly return focus to my breath or the sounds around me.
Twenty minutes is a long time to consciously think of nothing. After I have my breathing in check and am settled, I will turn my attention to some form of imagery. In one form, I imagine that my breath is clearing out and energizing my body. Light comes in, exposes the crud that has built up, and it everything flows out when I exhale.
I am often a little surprised at the effort it takes to clean and polish my mental image. As I do this on consecutive days, it gets easier, though I can always find some dark spots or smudges to work on.
Sometime I imagine that I am floating in white clouds. That’s one of the easiest ways I have found to clear my mind. An endless sheet of white paper, an expansive fluffy cloud, looking out on the ocean from a cliff. It helps to have something to image that is essentially a view of nothing.
When I started, I set my timer for five minutes. Over time, I increased to ten minutes, then fifteen. Now I can do twenty minutes, but I’ll dial it back to fifteen if I am in a hurry. I have heard that even ten minutes a day has life-changing effects.
I am certainly much more calm these days, though I question the wisdom of removing all stress, as I have written before. Again, it comes back to trade-offs. Humans developed anxiety for a reason. Perhaps the right balance is to be aware of dangers but not to carry around that worry. So I continue to meditate.
Then it’s time to feed the cats.
Unless you are in a depressurized cabin of an airplane, it is good to help others before you help yourself. Also, my cats are pretty direct with me about wanting to be fed. Although I make them wait until I’ve gotten my blood flowing and my brain is fully alert, they always get their breakfast before I get mine.
About three years ago, I started my day by studying Japanese. That worked well, too. I learned more kanji and vocabulary in 12 months than I learned since I first started studying 25 years ago.
The book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner offers an amazing assortment of hacks for learning languages. The best is to use variable-spaced repetition, which is a technique my grandfather taught me when I was growing up. The other key is to make your own flash cards. That way you are studying as you put together the materials you are going to study.
This is a good example of conflicting life hacks. One set of hacks said, “The first thing you should do every day while your mind is clear and attentive is study.” Another set of hacks said, “The first thing you should do every day is exercise.” Yet another said, “The first thing you should do every day is meditate.”
But I couldn’t squeeze in all three and also start my long commute on time. So I ended up dropping Japanese practice.
Later I tried picking it up again as a mid-day practice, but it wasn’t integrated well with the demands of my day. It was overwhelming, and I had to stop.
It’s all about trade-offs.
When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, breakfast usually meant cereal, milk, orange juice and toast. As kids, my sister and I rarely ate blatant sugar cereals: no Cocoa Puffs or Fruity Pebbles. Instead we ate adult forms of sugar cereals: Raisin Bran, Life, Nature Valley granola. Most Sundays, we had pancakes with syrup, or sometimes waffles or French toast. Tasty stuff.
These days, we know that carbohydrates are a poor form of nutrition. No wonder they have to fortify cereal with all of those vitamins.
When we visited my grandparents, we would have bacon and eggs with Freihofer’s boxed donuts. Plain, cinnamon or powdered sugar. Mmmm. That was a rare treat, the kind of breakfast you should only have once in a long while because bacon and eggs had been branded as “unhealthy” by the FDA.
Turns out that bacon and eggs are good for you. Donuts, not so much.
Around 2010, we dealt with a health-related emergency that forced us to rethink our diet. My wife cleverly found a book called Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which explains the history of nutritional misinformation that led to my traditional breakfast choices.
Now I stick to eggs, yogurt, fruit, peanuts, and coffee for breakfast. Sometimes bread or toast with peanut butter. Sometime a piece of cheese. In contrast with days where I skip breakfast (one of the life hacks I tried for a while) or eat a majority of carbs, the protein-based breakfast keeps me from getting hungry until lunch time.
I didn’t used to drink coffee, but I find that it boosts my creative capacity, which is perfect for my morning work routine. Two to three “cups” (scoops of ground coffee) is about right for me. More than that makes me anxious and flighty, jumping from one task to the next.
The big news here is that learned that cold showers offer a health benefit. Many people take long ice baths. Apparently, the shock to the body makes you more resilient to germs.
But cold showers are unpleasant, so I have been trying a compromise. I get into the shower before turning on the water. During the first minute or so, my head, shoulders and torso get their jolt, while I wash my hair.
Has this hack kept me from getting sick? Not entirely. I have caught a couple of colds in the past year. Other factors influence health, too. At least it wakes me up and saves water since I’m not waiting for the water to get hot.
I am lucky to have hair, so I comb it. Gel is a hack I tend to avoid. Maybe I would be a better salesman if I started using it.
I am lucky to have teeth, so I brush them. I got a free electric toothbrush when I switched dentists a few months back. I tend to daydream and brush too hard, which is rough on my poor gums. So my new toothbrush leaves things to the vibrating bristles, which is a pretty good hack for keeping my teeth clean while sparing my gums.
I am lucky to have clothes, so I put some on. Yeah, that’s not really a life hack.
Commuting to Work
I can think of two hacks I use to get to work. The first is not to go anywhere at all. Working from home is a great way to save time and have a semi-controlled environment. On the down side, it drives my wife a little batty having me around all of the time. So I started using a co-working space that’s only 20 minutes from home. All of the benefits (and distractions) of a professional office at a fraction of the cost.
The other hack is that I bought myself a Tesla last year. With semi-autonomous driving, my car removes most of the stress of stop-and-go traffic. I don’t have to worry nearly as much about the car in front of me suddenly braking because my car adjusts its speed based on distance. That takes a load off mentally.
Also, I like not having to burn fuel. The roof of my house is loaded with solar panels, so my electricity usage is net zero, straight from the sun.
The trade-off is that I picked up a significant car payment.
I suppose my work habits are full of life hacks. I will not go into them all.
Having full control over my schedule is a mixed bag. My best work days tend to happen when 80% of what I will do is on the calendar. During creative periods, I like to reserve two blocks of time in the morning for creative work. Usually that means writing prose or developing software. I might do 90 minutes of each before switching to email and errands.
Setting aside long blocks of uninterrupted time is a good hack to ensure that you achieve a state of flow. My best work tends to come out when my objectives are clear and my mind is completely immersed in the act of creation.
A complementary trick is to batch up outbound communications. On good days, I pick a couple of times per day to respond to email and make phone calls.
I have also tried work days that are unscheduled. These tend to be a disaster in terms of productivity. From time to time, I am not sure what to work on, so productivity is not really the issue. Wallow a little helps me find a threat to pick up that leads back to something productive.
Not exactly a hack. More like an anti-hack.
This review has helped me notice that my life hacks cluster toward the beginning of the day. I suppose that morning is when I have the most control over what happens. Work is driven by all kinds of changing priorities and interruptions. After work is taken by getting kids to hockey practice, having dinner, relaxing and getting ready for bed.
By the end of the day, my will power is shot. I know that I should avoid dessert most nights, but it’s so tasty. I know that I shouldn’t look at a screen 30 minutes or more before trying to fall asleep, yet Netflix is so tempting.
I learned in college how to hack my sleep. Psychology 101 taught me that our sleep cycles last roughly 90 minutes long. Waking mid-cycle is counter-productive in terms of the restorative effects of sleep.
For years, I only slept 6 hours (4 cycles) per night. While attending a concussion clinic (my kids play hockey), I volunteered to get tested as part of a demonstration of some new high-tech equipment. The idea is to gather a baseline that can be contrasted with the results after a future blow to the head. The concussion test easily exposed my sleep deprivation. That’s when I changed my sleep pattern and bumped up to 5 cycles.
So if I intend to wake at 6 AM, I need to be asleep by 10:30 PM. The older my kids get, the tougher that is to do. I’m in no hurry for them to grow up and leave. Trade-offs.
Discover Hacks for Yourself
Just about everything new that I have tried over the past 5 years comes from four or five sources.
I credit Tim Ferriss and his cast of Titans for ideas about fitness, diet, stoicism, and amped-up modes of thinking. Tim’s podcast is a virtually endless source of information. You can never cram all of the ideas into your life, so be choosy.
James Altucher teaches his daily practice of caring for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. He’s also a master at idea generation. You can learn a ton from his podcasts, too.
Scott Adams is more than a famous cartoonist. Has a sensible approach to trying and failing, as well as a masterful grasp on psychology. Now Scott offers a daily dose of psychology via Periscope using political current events as a rich source of material for discussion.
TED talks are good, though the more formulaic talks make you feel good without leading to action.
I like the Hidden Brain podcast for new thoughts on psychology.
And of course, the world is full of books written by people. Brilliant people. A majority of whom are dead. Spend some time reading and applying what you learn to make the most of the time you have left.