In Searching For One-Sided Tradeoffs, I argued that people’s “life hacks” probably occupy a restricted range. If the life hack had nothing going for it, it would never become popular and you wouldn’t hear about it. If the hack had everything going for it, you would have heard more about it. If there were something that really doubled energy levels and increased IQ and cured shyness and made you lose ten pounds, the front page of the New York Times would be “Man Discovers Amazing Life Hack”, and it would be all over the medical journals and the talk shows and so on. It wouldn’t have to be pushed by some guy with a blog who says it “changed his life”.
…except that then I tried looking for examples of such and came up blank. The example I ended up giving, “sleeping at night”, was a biological imperative that was never really “discovered”, per se.
Compare to genetics. If there’s a mutation that gives even a small benefit, it predictably reaches fixation in the population (where every single organism has it) after a certain number of generations.
Compare also to other kinds of ideas, like technology. When a new technology (let’s say the cell phone) is invented, it starts with a group of early adopters. As the technology gradually gets better and cheaper, and people notice that cell phone users have a big advantage over non-users, new people buy cell phones. Eventually it reaches the point where the cell-phone-less are at a big disadvantage, and even the grumpy old holdouts like myself are forced to purchase them. Even if we never reach literal fixation because of the Amish, the indigent, etc, there’s still a point in which having a cell phone seems to become the default state.
The same is true in the economy. One business gets a bright idea, like outsourcing to China or something, they get rich and outcompete their rivals, their rivals pick up on the idea, and eventually businesses-that-don’t-outsource-to-China gets reduced to a weird niche market.
This should be able to work with lifehacks. Whether it’s students trying to get the best grade, workers trying to be most productive, or suitors trying to appear most attractive, people compete with each other all the time. If there were some meme that consistently offered its users an advantage in productivity or energy or even mood, it ought to reach fixation as surely as new technologies or business practices.
And I can’t think of any that have.
Some possible explanations:
1. There are no exceptionally good life hacks. The human body and brain are optimized really really well, or else have really really strong tendencies to return to equilibrium after a disruption.
2. Life hacks, as a category, have some characteristic that makes fixation an unreasonable goal for them. Maybe there is so much variation in people that no lifehack can ever improve more than a small percent of them. This seems like a less bleak version of (1) – the stuff everyone has in common is optimized really really well, but there are some individualized flaws you can pick off on a person-by-person basis.
3. Life hacks as a category didn’t exist until kind of recently, or it if did they weren’t as good as modern life hacks. Even though there are some great ones out there now, they haven’t existed long enough to achieve fixation.
4. All the genuinely useful life hacks take work, and people are really bad at doing work, so nothing that takes work can ever achieve fixation. The level of work it takes to understand a cell phone or computer doesn’t count; these life hacks take more work, or different kinds of work.
5. Some life hacks have totally reached fixation and I’m just too stupid to think of them. Or – life hacks that reach fixation become so entrenched that it’s very hard to think of them as lifehacks any more. Compare the genetics student who says “No mutations have ever reached fixation in the human population, and I know this because most of the people I see aren’t mutants.”
The last explanation seems most promising, which means I should probably look harder for fixated life hacks.
There are some things I want to exclude right away. New technologies like the cell phone can reach fixation, but I don’t think I’d want to call them life hacks; I’d rather limit the term to non-medical interventions or at least technologies specifically related to health and productivity. Certain ideas like religion have reached fixation in their populations, and it would be fascinating to think of in what senses those are life hacks, but I don’t think that’s where we’re going here. I’m looking specifically at things that act directly to raise energy levels, intelligence, social skills, or organizational ability.
I will grudgingly accept three-ring binders, to-do lists, calendars, and filing cabinets as sort of examples – even though I don’t use a calendar or to-do list and it doesn’t seem to have left me unable to compete with the rest of humanity, and even though these all fall into a sort of general “keep organized by writing things down and sorting them” category.
I will grudgingly accept backpacks, briefcases, and the like, even though “things that hold other things” seems to be a pretty basic human invention and if we have to go back to the Paleolithic before getting a genuinely useful life hack we are doing very poorly indeed. This might also be a piece of technology which escapes that category only through the cheap trick of going so far back that it doesn’t seem like a technology anymore.
I will grudgingly accept “diet and exercise”, since even people who are bad at diet and exercise probably eat better and exercise more than they would if they were unaware that diet and exercise were things they should do. But I don’t know if this was ever really “discovered” or if it got a lot of help from a biological imperative.
I will grudgingly accept “take a deep breath and count to ten in order to not get angry”, since everyone seems to know about it.
But none of these seem to fall into classical life hack categories like “thing that a man with slick hair teaches a class on, telling you that it will change your life”, or “thing that you can buy at the Sharper Image”. And they all seem pretty old. Cell phones took like fifteen years to achieve fixation; how come for life hacks we have to look all the way back to whichever caveman first realized you could carry tools in a sack made of animal skin?
EDIT: @mjdominus on Twitter proposes caffeine. That sounds right to me.