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Year in Review: Lifehacks, lifehack.org, and Your Changing Life

Year in Review: Lifehacks, lifehack.org, and Your Changing Life
Lifehack Year in Review

With 2007 winding down and 2008 ready to storm in, it’s a good time to look at what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same, here at lifehack.org — and in our lives in general. The idea of a “lifehack” has changed a lot since Danny O’Brien introduced the term at NotCon in 2004. For O’Brien, life hacking was about applying the lessons of computer programming — the systematic logic and habits used by committed coders — to life in general.

O’Brien’s talk inspired a wave of techies to get organized and rethink the habits they applied — or often, failed to apply — in their day-to-day lives. It also inspired a wave of bloggers, from our own Leon Ho to Merlin Mann of 43folders, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, and Gina Trapani of Lifehacker, to begin writing about productivity, organization, and general life skills from this tech-based perspective.

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The popularity of these and similar sites brought the idea of lifehacking to the world at large, well beyond the small circle of “highly prolific geeks” (to use O’Brien’s term) that originally latched onto and developed the concept. Writers, designers, corporate executives, parents, teachers, and people from all across the spectrum of today’s society started exchanging tips, advice, tricks of the trade, and all the little hacks they’d come up with to make their lives work.

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From carrying around a stack of index cards to capture ideas on to writing your cell phone number on your child’s stomach with magic marker in case you got separated at Disneyland, the ideas we call life hacks helped people get a grip on some of the very deep concerns at the core of modern life. Most of all they addressed a real shift in the way people were thinking about their jobs and careers, their homes and families, their identities and their societies.

As lifehacking moved into the mainstream, the mainstream moved into the lifehacking world, too. Merlin Mann still writes about the latest Mac app for getting things done, but he also posts about choosing a camera lens to take pictures of his new child with. Lifehacker still has Gina Trapani’s latest software release, but it also has tips on organizing your refrigerator and storing your Christmas tree lights.

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For a generation (or two) unsatisfied by the empty promises and soggy new age platitudes of mainstream self-help literature, life hacking has opened up a new field in personal development, one that is relevant to the way we work, play, and relate to each other. We may be overwhelmed by the tremendous advances in technology over the last decade, but we reject the “back to the trees” worldview and look for ways to make this new technology work for us — to help us connect with our friends and family scattered across the country or even the world, to help us organize not only our possessions but our thoughts, to help us build our own businesses and careers.

Last year, our founder Leon Ho looked back at the previous year on lifehack.org and saw a widening in the site’s focus from technological solutions to questions about living healthy, communicating more effectively, and becoming more creative. This year, lifehack.org has continued to expand its scope, adding over a dozen new writers who have written about studying more successfully, writing, designing your documents, meditating, getting and staying physically fit, the way our brains work, networking, motivating yourself, setting and achieving goals, parenting, leadership, and more. We still write about technology, but as part of our whole lives and not the entirety of our worlds.

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There are more changes ahead in 2008. A site redesign is in the works, we’ve just added a half-dozen new writers, we’ve launched a new podcast, and we have bigger projects on the horizon. What won’t change is that lifehack.org will continue to bring you interesting, useful, and relevant insights every day.

You’re a big part of that. Not only are lifehack.org’s readers the continuing inspiration for what we do, you’re an important part of the community as a whole. Your feedback helps us decide what to write about, what to look into, and what to ignore. Over the course of 2007, the average number of comments on a post has doubled, and we’d like to see it double again (and again!) in coming year. You let us know what we’re doing right — and what we’re doing wrong.

Thank you for making lifehack.org a part of your life. We look forward to another year together!

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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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