productivity GTD efficiency results methodology

Rethinking life hacks

March 28th, 2008 by

“Math is hard; let’s go shopping!”

-hacked Barbie

Summary: It looks like the difficulties of measuring  productivity make people use common sense to give advice on how to improve it instead of actually attacking productivity as a hard problem that needs empirical study. But people do follow barely tested advice on productivity. They are either too busy to afford dismissing it, or too pragmatic to believe that we can reach systematic, scientific productivity techniques.

There is a current craze about productivity in many forms (sometimes disguised as personal development). At least 4 of the top 100 blogs in the blogosphere are about productivity (according 3038597_e5f95e2017_mto technorati’s authority: lifehacker #6; Zen Habits #41; #66 43 Folders #73). There’s a current craze about personal productivity and personal development. The best treatment I have read recently is Cal Newport’s Flak magazine article

In fact, lifehacking is a trend of the 21st century. The idea is to reduce the things that bother you in your life (or reduce the time it takes to complete them) while increasing the quality and quality of the experiences that you like. This is pretty intuitive, but is this a working definition of whatever personal productivity is? Hardly. Today, anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way might be called a life hack.

Hacks are by definition, unsystematic. Everything goes, as long as it works. This is the contrary to the incremental evolution of scientific thinking. Even though sometimes there are large changes in the form of paradigm shifts, most of the time progress is incremental and lineal.

The advantages are clear: one can build on the knowledge acquired by the previous generation.

But do we have the same incremental progress in personal productivity theories? If there anything remotely similar to a science of productivity? Should people follow only empirically tested advice about productivity?

Wikipedia didn’t have a definition for personal productivity; but look at this gem from the social productivity definition:

The term productivity is etymologically derived from the Latin word producere, which means “lead or bring forth, draw out” (from pro- “forth” + ducere “to bring, lead”). It connotes in a general sense, the state of being productive, fertile or efficient. It is often confused with “efficiency”, “rationalization” or “profitability”.

So for a start, it seems that there aren’t very good definitions of the kind of knowledge worker productivity that is so ‘in vogue’ in blog posts everywhere and that should be measured carefully by those organizations who care about it. Which, now that I think of it, are mostly every single organization nowadays! And the available definitions are directly imported from mechanistic approaches to physical products that are not really that useful. Whatever intellectual productivity is, it’s not related to ‘cranking widgets’.

Instead, there’s a cult-following of people who, rather than offering a rational definition of productivity, are actually masters at producing rules of thumb that work. That is, they are lifehackers. They produce hacks. The essence of a hack is that it works.  But do we know they work? How well? How easily can they be adopted? Are they all-terrain hacks? We have no idea. Most of the hacks we all use and learn from the books are essentially untested empirically; most are reported by their inventor to work well in their personal experience. What I’m trying to discuss next is, should we really worry about this? Can we test any better?

Note that the term hack may have negative meaning. In programming a hack is a brilliant solution (and a hacker is a respected member of an elite). But it’s also used as something quickly put together, barely tested, and that works only by miracle. It’s an ugly solution that may break if you really stare at it. Something you may not want to do, because code has aesthetics, and hacks are by definition aesthetically repulsive. Human languages have semantics that are really fun. As you see, the same term can have two opposite meanings. That’s why computers don’t get semantics all that well.

Here,  lifehacking is fully enjoying this dualism. Hacks are great; hacks are bad. Which one do you really mean?

Giving advice about how to improve productivity

Top lifehackers



6-months of polyphasic sleep; top 1000 blogger. Two degrees in 3 semesters (computer science, math).

Tim Ferris

Speaks 6 languages. Participated in top championships for martial arts and dance. Travels the world extensively. Wrote a best seller. Top 1000 blogger.

David Allen

Created a cult-following productivity system, GTD. Wrote a best-selling book.

Mark Forster

Created a cult-following productivity system, DIT. Wrote a best-selling book.

I have to say that I have a lot of respect for those authors  lifehackers. However, it hits me that they are not super-human in their achievements. The first two authors do feature their own lives prominently in their blogs, so the public can see what they have achieved and feel inspired.

The last two best-selling book authors are remarkable in that there’s nothing in their lives that would highlight them as specially productive; At least, they do not show off their achievements publicly. They do not blog about their live achievements. But note that this does not deter people from buying their books and following their advice.

But do these techniques really work? The obvious answer is: we still don’t know. Nobody has run any systematic comparison to see whether people using these techniques are in fact more efficient or not (!). This is a very hard experiment to run, since most people won’t agree to follow certain practices just because you have assigned them to a certain treatment.

Essentially, I’m saying that the entire general public (‘the internet’) follows unproven advice. This is a bit shocking. But why? Is it that difficult to study productivity the right way?

Studying productivity with the scientific method

Psychology is no stranger to constructs that are hard to measure and define. Let’s look at a few examples. Intelligence, as much as a slippery concept as it is, has several standardized tests. Conscious awareness, a feature that may well distinguish humans from animals, is an active topic of study which has experienced a lot of progress in the recent years.

How come productivity is still a virtually empty scientific field? Productivity cannot be a harder nut to crack than intelligence or consciousness.

There are a few psychologists who care about productivity, but chances are you (who have read several months worth of productivity blog posts :) ) have never heard of them. But this would be the topic for an entire new post, so I’ll just skip it.

But the fact is that nobody knows what productivity is doesn’t prevent people from writing extensively about how to improve it. Worse, knowledge workers have a great time reading those writings and following the advice given.

Most blogs use something close to common sense to generate recommendations:

“common sense” [...] equates to the knowledge and experience which most people have, or which the person using the term believes that they do or should have.

Edw519 observes a common pattern in blog posts (Although he was referring to Paul Graham essays, which are probably a category of their own!):

Observe Something (mostly objective)

Generalize (subjective leap)

Expand (more subjective)

Conclude & Recommend (very subjective)

Let It Go (expose bullseye)

This is remarkable different from what we are taught is good practice to generate useful knowledge; it’s kind of a proto-scientific method based on just personal experience. And it’s spreading like fire on the net thanks to self-publishing being so easy.

Blogs and ‘pop-sci’ books (well, sometimes not even pop-sci but the lowest class of off-the-self, armchair philosophy, self-help books) abound. In fact, the self-help market in 2008 will move 11 billion dollars (!).

Personal productivity blogs use personal experience (that is, an n=1 experiment design) as their only source of evidence. But that doesn’t prevent tens of thousands of individual readers to follow their advice.

The fact is that productivity is a huge, tasty, cute open problem that many people will try to solve in the next few years. Here’s an attempt to promise a x10 increase in productivity without even knowing how. His point is sound:

As far as I can tell, no company in America is focusing on the heart of the productivity problem. And the software tools that are supposedly about “productivity” are really about “collaboration and goal-setting.”

So why are so many people taking advice with people who basically don’t test or test in impoverished conditions (n=1)? Well, maybe they have realized that their experience is all they have. as Terry Grossman says,  “Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. We don’t have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves.”

If that wasn’t enough of a reason, we can look at which other areas of their lives people take barely tested advice: investment, medical, career. Do we ask for a track record of a doctor healing the particular illness we have? not really, we follow the general feeling of trustworthiness he transmits and we generalize from weak evidence such as similar illnesses he has fixed that we heard by word of mouth. And don’t get me started with investment advice: people are happy to give it to you even if they make less money than you!

In fact, following thoroughly tested advice is basically the exception, not the norm. We scientists may be biased thinking that everyone should be following only knowledge that can be empirically tested. And even this assertion may be way too radical even for scientists; let’s be honest, there’s plenty of untested, but religiously followed, rules in most scientific fields. Plus you have a large proportion of so-called sciences where empirical testing is only an adornment (social sciences in some cases -as much as I hate to admit it).


Although application of the scientific method is hard, it may be worthwhile for such an in-demand area as knowledge worker productivity. If science can handle topics such as consciousness, productivity should not be scary. The current landscape is millions of readers following advice from hundreds of bloggers and book authors offering personal experience instead of replicable, tested rules. This will not change overnight even if such a science existed. In fact, following weak evidence to make important decisions is a pervasive fact in our society.

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