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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 7: The Joy of Lifehacking

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 7: The Joy of Lifehacking

 

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the seventh part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

    This series has been pretty serious so far – too serious. So I want to take a moment to discuss lifehacks, those little tips and tricks that lend this site its name.

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    The concept of the lifehack was born in Danny O’Brien’s now-famous Emerging Technology Conference presentation, Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks. O’Brien used the term “life hack” to refer to the application of the programming mindset to life problems – using shell scripts and filters to process email, for example. For hackers, the goal is to create logical, reproducible systems using minimal resources; a good hack is one where code written for one function can be repurposed to do another function, or where user input can be eliminated through smart automation.

    These are good principles to apply to our lives in general – the less repetitive work we have to do, the happier we are as a general rule. And multi-purposing things for several tasks is not only handy but it’s efficient. Thus a hack like Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA really appeals to a lot of people – a handful of index cards and a binder clip are instantly transformed into a pocket notebook. Great stuff!

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    Unfortunately, lifehacks have gotten a bad name for themselves. In his Alternate Productivity Manifesto, Clay Collins writes, “Hacks, tweaks, tricks, etc. have emerged from a productivity hobbyist culture, are largely insufficient at solving bigger life problems, and often do not increase productivity.” In a guest post at Lifehacker, he defined the productivity hobbyist mindset, adding “If, month after month, you continue searching for the latest tip, tweak, or hack, it may mean that your approach to solving productivity problems just isn’t working.”

    Fair enough. If you spend more time working on being productive than actually being productive, you might want to reassess some things. But I think the line between being productive and being a “productivity hobbyist” is way overdrawn. Having fun is an important part of the hacker ethic that gave birth to lifehacks in the first place.

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    It is a product of our sober, thrifty, work-loving Puritan ancestors – and their equivalents around the globe – that we’ve come to disassociate “fun” and “work” to such a strong extent. “If it was fun,” we say, “it wouldn’t be called ‘work’.” The best hackers reject that dichotomy. If it wasn’t fun, they would say, it wouldn’t be work worth doing!

    Even David Allen recognizes the importance of blending fun and work in a productive lifestyle. Consider his approach to filing: he recommends you keep a stack of filing folders and a digital label maker close at hand wherever you work. Now, handwriting your labels would be more efficient and take less time, and few of us have handwriting so bad that we’d be remotely hampered trying to find our files later. But label makers are fun, and they produce files that are aesthetically pleasing – and Allen knows that if it isn’t fun, most people won’t do any filing.

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    In many cases, lifehacks aren’t about huge gains in efficiency or speed – some of them, like setting up a version control repository to track all your documents, are downright time-consuming, and put several new steps in between us and our work on a regular basis, for a rather dubious gain in overall efficiency. But that’s not the point – for a lot of us, it’s the elegance of the new system that matters, or the learning experience of getting it going, or just the curiosity to see “what happens if I do things this way instead of that way?”

    And if that newfound elegance, knowledge, or curiosity leads to work eventually getting done that might not have – or might not have been as much fun – otherwise, then that’s damn good productivity.

    In the end, we can’t measure productivity in terms of units of output. The true measure of productivity is “happiness created” and a lot of lifehacks make the act of working one that produces more happiness. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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