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?