Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?

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.

150 thoughts on “Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?

  1. Pingback: People All Think The Same - My blog

  2. D_Alex

    How about “Learning a Second Language”, most importantly English if you are from a non-English speaking background?

    Since you are American, this probably could not have occurred to you… 🙂

  3. Davis

    I nominate Stoicism, though it’s a little sophisticated/complex to be a “life hack.” Hand washing also seems like a strong contender.

  4. Rob

    One that comes to mind:

    “If you’re doing work that your sleeves might get caught in or get messy etc, pulling your sleeves up isn’t much good because they fall down again. But if you *roll them* back to your elbows, friction and the bend of the elbow means they won’t fall down”

  5. Luke

    I haven’t read all the comments, so somebody probably already said this, but…

    Different things work for different people and it’s very hard to figure out what will work for you specifically or someone-else specifically, aka Beware of Other-Optimizing.

    But then, it seems like “Try lots of different things and lots of different contexts” should be a reliably useful lifehack, and yet it doesn’t seem to have remotely reached fixation after thousands of years.

  6. Benny

    Would tooth brushing/dental care count? It’s always been basically around, but couldn’t really grow until toothpaste and brush came along.

  7. ThrustVectoring

    Mise-en-place has reached fixation in pretty much every kitchen that does a lot of cooking. I mean, there’s the personal touch for each one, but the basic concept of “get all the ingredients together that you need to cook something before you go cook it” is pretty well universal among those who take cooking seriously. And to someone who’s never heard of the concept and makes meals by running around like a headless chicken, it’d qualify as a “life hack”.

    1. Multiheaded

      I kinda came upon that one completely by myself. My parents seem to cook just fine without doing it, though.

    2. Andy

      I started doing it with my first bits of cooking, but I didn’t know it had a name. It mostly came from my habit of playing strategy games by massing all my units in one place and then rolling them over all opposition, so my kitchen counter became my staging area.
      …it’s possible I’m a bit odd. 😛

  8. Karl Narveson

    Diatonic music with harmonic progressions is only a few centuries old, but has been so widely adopted that by now you almost have to be a musicologist to realize that there was ever any other kind of music.

  9. Bruno Coelho

    A lot of tips are just solutions to 21 century lifestyle:brushing teeth to sugar, moving stuff to bad ergonomics, drinking coffee to work well. Almost all are not just that good to call a big improvement, but old habits.

  10. Michael Dickens

    > 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.

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. A meme that reaches fixation does so because it is good at propagating itself, not because it is instrumentally valuable. To take an example close to our hearts, doge is an effective meme because it’s good at propagating itself. Life hacks, on the other hand, don’t necessarily follow the same model of natural selection.

    That said, we expect people to adopt practices that make their life easier, so a useful life hack should still spread, all else being equal. It just doesn’t spread due to selection forces in the same way that good genes do.

  11. Damien

    “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.”

    Alphabetize or otherwise sort your books/spices/CDs so you can find them more easily.
    Keep your forks/spoons/knives in separate slots.
    Keep perishable food in a fridge.
    Look both ways before crossing a street.
    Wash your hands to minimize getting sick.
    Use alcohol sanitizer to save time washing your hands.
    Floss and brush your teeth.
    Get vaccinated.

  12. Michael Mouse

    For a large-scale example: Project management. It’s now near-ubiquitous for any large-ish project, and most medium-sized ones. It includes lots of small-scaler life hacks, like Gantt charts. Gantt charts were invented about 100 years ago; project management as a discipline about 60 years ago. I’d guess they’d reached fixation by the 1990s or so.

    I also want to support those who’ve already mentioned “not smoking”, and “not drinking and driving”. I’d also add wearing a seatbelt when in a car. (Airbags are good too, but these days they’re not really a matter of individual choice.) These are all things that have entirely switched “weirdo” polarity in my lifetime, and they all have excellent evidence that they add expected lifespan.

  13. Army1987

    EDIT: @mjdominus on Twitter proposes caffeine. That sounds right to me.

    Dammit! What I was going to type at this point was “6. Hacks that reach fixations are no longer called hacks. Would you call drinking coffee a hack?”

  14. Kaminiwa

    Thinking in terms of major categories since I’m not sure how many of these you’d agree with. I think the big issue is that we don’t think of something as a life hack if it’s widely accepted and works.

    Drugs: Caffeine, nicotine, to a lesser degree alcohol (not really that helpful) and marijuana (not really that accepted).

    Pretty much all liberal advances in society: No, really, society will be a BETTER place if we treat women/blacks/gays/etc. as people. I’d have to assume that sort of behavior has to start out as a localized “hack” and slowly spread to become widespread.

    Speaking of localized hacks that spread: Public schooling. Pretty much all social support programs. The scientific method. The 40 hour work week. All of them make society better, and didn’t exist a few hundred years ago.

    Religion: I know you’re excluding it, but how ELSE would you spread a life hack back then? Don’t eat pork, you can get sick that way.

    Local hacks: Don’t drink the tap water in Mexico, you’ll get sick. How to navigate traffic in New York. How not to get mugged in Detroit. They never “go global” because there’s not necessarily a ton of advice that’s really applicable to EVERYONE (just like different areas encourage different genetics)

    “Life Skills”: How to balance a check book; how to handle debt; how to take care of your car; Basic public schooling; How to do laundry; How to shower; Actually doing these things on a regular basis.

    Specialization / operating on larger organizational levels: Literacy, the Industrial Revolution, the concept of specialization of labor, modern economics, a pretty substantial reduction in war.

    It’s for your own damn good and we *still* have to force people: Floridation of public water; Vaccination

    Washing your hands; Not eating raw meat; germ theory in general
    In short, it seems like the lifehacks that reach “fixation” are the ones that have both proof that they work, and rely on some novel aspect of the world. Or, in other words, we shouldn’t expect low hanging fruit unless you’re exploring a previously undiscovered part of the garden (“How to drive” comes naturally from inventing cars. “Wash your hands” comes naturally from inventing germ theory)

    This seems pretty much what I’d expect, really: If there was something that people could have EASILY been doing 6,000 years ago, and gained a huge benefit from, it’d be awfully odd if they WEREN’T doing that 🙂

  15. Qiaochu Yuan

    I think #5 accounts for a lot of the difficulty, but some additional possible hypotheses:

    – life hacks depend delicately on features of the social / technological environment, and this changes a lot over time (and space!), making it hard for them to persist. A very silly example: any life hack involving doing clever things to make it easier to chisel stone tablets would be rendered irrelevant by paper.

    – life hacks mostly improve outcomes in expectation, with a lot of noise mixed in with the signal, and it’s hard to see these improvements just looking at individuals (e.g. a life hack that makes a person somewhat more energetic is hard to distinguish, from his friends’ perspective, from him just being somewhat more energetic than they had previously thought). This is the same sort of thing that makes it hard to learn how to play poker well: better poker strategies only improve your game in expectation. With cell phones, on the other hand, it’s very obvious when people around you are using them and gaining value from using them.

  16. a person

    I think a lot of people are giving examples of things that aren’t life hacks, and are instead giving either examples of products that everyone now uses, which are more properly called inventions (cell phones, cars, bras) or cultural institutions that evolved over time and would not work if only one person was participating in them (marriage, language, religion). And then there are obvious things that it would be weird if people didn’t do, like “saving money” or “wear warmer clothes in the winter”. A life hack is something that you could have been doing all along but haven’t been. Turning ketchup bottles upside down is a good example – clearly at some point someone realized it made sense and it caught on and is now institutionalized with ketchup bottles printing the label upside down.

    My examples:

    New Years’ resolutions
    “Counting sheep” to go to sleep
    Using lotion to jack off with
    Not letting your kids watch all the TV they want

    1. a person

      Oh, and mnemonics like “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” or “King Phillip Came Over For Great Soup”.

  17. Doug S.

    Here’s one: “networking” as a strategy for job seekers. It’s a fairly new idea, but it’s now taken for granted as something you should be doing when you’re unemployed. (Or such is my impression.)

      1. Anthony

        Deliberately going out to *create* those connections is, somewhat. Using those connections to bypass gatekeepers who are incentivized to prevent you from getting a job even when a job is available is also new, as are that particular flavor of gatekeeper.

  18. Cyan

    The method of loci seems like a life-hack that was widespread at one time but then was successfully suppressed for religious reasons. It’s made some appearances in pop culture over the years, but even now it does not appear to be widely known.

    (Very briefly, the method of loci makes rapid memorization of large amounts of information possible by taking advantage of two features of human memory: (i) that it is optimized for spatial learning; and (ii) that incongruous, bizarre, and pornographic images and scenes are easily remembered.)

      1. Cyan

        The incongruous, bizarre, and pornographic images that are most effective were deemed problematic from a protestant perspective that put a lot of emphasis on religiously correct beliefs and habits of thought.

  19. Doug S.

    “Look both ways before crossing the street.”

    “Don’t drink and drive.”

    “Just f—ing Google it.”

  20. Sid

    I can think of a few:

    1. Don’t smoke cigarettes. This will reach almost total fixation in a few decades.
    2. Use deodorant. Almost fixated among adults.
    3. In the US: own a car.
    4. If you are in a position of some authority: don’t fidget; keep your head still; speak in a slow, steady voice and in complete sentences without fillers; make steady eye-contact and adopt expansive body language.
    5. In rich countries: get teeth braces if your teeth are unruly, especially for kids.
    6. I suspect laser surgery and contact lenses might reach fixation in a few decades.
    7. Among programmers: use 2 screens.

    1. a person

      Why are contact lenses a life hack to you? I think I look slightly better without glasses and I care about my appearance fairly highly, but contact lenses are just too much of a pain in the ass for me.

      EDIT: Great post, though. I’m very impressed by your ability to provide multiple good examples while most commentors seem to be struggling to find one.

        1. anon1

          Another life hack for women: wear pants to save the time you’d otherwise spend shaving your legs, while getting the same benefit of people not making rude remarks. Bonus: never have stubble again.

    2. Randy M

      Having good public speaking skills, regardless of your position or if your professional goal seems like it wouldn’t require it, is a good one for people to adopt to get a leg up before it spreads more broadly.

  21. Morendil

    The one hack that’s transformed my life enough that it’s still something of a puzzle why it hasn’t fixated (but my money is on #4) – Ask For What You Want.

    (The “meme-ish” version of this is called the Rejection Game: I offer this as evidence of a fit to the template you’ve sketched.)

    Recent example: a few weeks ago I was asked to travel to a corporate conference to give a 1-hour speech. I asked for what I thought was a fairly ridiculous amount of money (two days of my highest consulting rate, because that’s how much of my time would actually be taken up, plus travel expenses), and that was accepted without discussion.

    Next time, I’ll know to ask for double that. 🙂

    But this actually takes work. Not sweaty-work, to be sure, but the rather more formidable work of introspecting and asking yourself why you’re not getting what you want.

    By Kahneman’s Substitution Heuristic, your brain will *instantly* come up with plausible-feeling answers to different questions (e.g. “why do others have so much more” – “because the world is unfair and there’s nothing I can do about that”) instead of generating a sensible hypothesis, specifically “because you’re not asking for it”.

    The first-cut hypothesis might need some elaboration, for instance in my case “you’re not asking often enough to get good at asking without simultaneously sending reject-me-I’m-unworthy signals”. That’s work, too.

      1. Joachim Schipper

        Programmers are generally (economically) privileged white (and Asian?) males who are nonetheless famously bad at this. Women who do negotiate don’t, I believe, get worse results than those who don’t (on average). “It wouldn’t work” is not a sufficient explanation, I think.

        1. naath

          It is hard psychological work to overcome the patterns of behavior that are taught to very young children, to girls more than to boys, that asking for things is *rude*.

          Especially if you live in a society where declining requests is considered rude; because then you are basically demanding that the askee either give you everything you want or do the difficult psychological work of telling you “no” (possibly repeatedly).

  22. ari

    So, basically: Things that people do that benefit them that are more recent than behavioral modernity, and aren’t obviously describable as either a technology or a business idea?

    Maintain hygiene: Don’t put your waste in the river that other people drink from. Wash your hands, brush your teeth. Stay away from people with contagious diseases, and if you are infected yourself, don’t needlessly expose others.

    Plan your family. Don’t have more children than you can raise. In appropriate places and times, do have enough children that they will take care of you when you’re old.

    Agree upon rules for behavior in your community and enforce them informally. If the community grows too large for our social hardware, formalise the rules and enforce them with officers of the law.

    Look at rituals in your life that are painful, expensive or take a lot of time, and get rid of them. (For instance not having a proper adulthood ritual is pretty definitely fixated in the west; how much of a good thing this is might need to be more widely argued, and maybe we’ll go back in a more ritual direction in the future. Weddings haven’t gone away at least yet, though.)

    It does get difficult to see the distinction between technology and lifehack, though. If a knife is a technology, can cutting up food with a sharp object still be a lifehack?

  23. Emile

    Put money aside for a rainy day (actually, this seems more like a genuine life-hack-that-got-around-because-it-worked compared to most of the rest of my list, so I’ll move it to the top).

    Say “please” and “thank you” to people.

    Wash your hands before eating.

    Put warmer clothes in winter than in summer.

    Buy things in advance even if you don’t need them right away.


    Get a home near where other people live so it’s easier to buy/exchange things and get help.

    Give some money to a bureaucrat if you want something done (not prevalent in your society or mine, but in some others yes).

    Beat up people (especially weak or unpopular targets) to get a reputation of someone you don’t want to mess with (again, not prevalent in our societies, but may be much more prevalent in other times and places).

    Have a name.

    Walk on the side of the road, where there are no cars.

    … I guess a big chunk of what goes under “culture” could be described as “life hacks that got popular”.

  24. Alrenous

    My personal definition of a lifehack is a habit or technique that is not instinctual or otherwise automatic and that an individual can implement unilaterally. (E.g. if knowing smile == happy is not instinctual, learning its meaning is instinctual. A convenience store can’t be unilaterally implemented.) If it uses technology, it must use existing technology, not require specialized or new artifacts.

    Marriage. Cooking.

    Hand washing in general. (Not just for surgery.)

    For contrast, consider not drinking before the evening, and not drinking alone. These basically reached local fixation but haven’t yet reached fixation in novel populations. Certainly an edge-case lifehack, but they should have come up in your sweep.

    Why are most good lifehacks so old? Off topic.

    Natural philosophical / scientific epistemology. Ye Olde habits of thought were just alien. More alien than xenomorph morphology, and ours are better. Can’t say I understand them, though, since they’re alien, which means it’s hard to say what the exact differences are.

  25. Aaron

    I think “culture” is basically what we call almost invisible widespread lifehacks.

    For instance, there’s a lot of stuff that’s associated with the internet that’s pretty recent, but people just think of as just being modern.

    Have an online identity which is pretty easily but non-trivially traced to your real identity. Meet friends on the internet. Get your entertainment through the internet, rather than the TV or Radio. Watch music videos on youtube rather than a channel. Buy individual songs rather than albums, unless you like the album.

    Some more mundane ones: Rolling luggage and storing your ketchup upside-down.

    Sometimes, the issue is that the hacks are sufficiently nitty-gritty that they just don’t get noticed. For instance, the material composition of our clothing has been changing in ways that result in things that are warmer, lighter, etc., in a way that makes life better, but which also sort of gets upgraded all at the same time and gradually enough that people don’t notice.

    “Eat healthy and exercise” has also been changing, as our notions of what is and isn’t healthy food or effective exercise change. People in the 70’s used to eat a lot of margarine.

  26. jaimeastorga2000

    Farming seems like a big one. You could argue that it was bad for the median individual, at least in the short term, but the productivity gains on the scale of communities ensured that sedentary civilizations out-competed hunting-gathering bands and achieved global fixation (and speaking of prisoner’s dilemmas which lead us away from happy equilibriums, I’m pretty sure that if farming belongs in that category then cellphones and the internet belong there too).

    Brushing teeth? Cooking food? Showering? Wearing clothes? Literacy? Arithmetic? Money? Bank accounts? Specialization with positive sum trades? Car usege?

  27. Daniel Speyer

    Things most people do today that would seem like weird life-hacks to people a few centuries ago, as I envision them based on historical fiction…

    Clearly distinguish when you’re speaking as yourself from when you’re speaking on behalf of an organization.

    If you have a conflict of interest, don’t try to be fair, just recuse yourself and let someone without a conflict handle it.

    Similarly, double-blind your experiments.

    Write formal bylaws for any organization that will hold money.

    Begin descriptive documents with a one-paragraph summary that explains what you know and why we should care in broad terms while leaving out details and how you know (call it an “abstract”, “executive summary” or “tl;dr” depending on audience).

    If you want to investigate something, find a way to refer to it with a number. Preferably an objective way (even if it gets convoluted), but failing that a way which is blinded against systematic bias. Once you have numbers, you can do math on them.

    When you have a large building, number the rooms in order of where they appear in the hallways so people can find them easily.

    If the arrangement of hallways is too complicated for that, put up little signs with the names (or numbers) of the rooms and arrows indicating which way to go.

    If you’re trying to co-ordinate a fleet of ships (and you don’t have radio), take scraps of brightly colored cloth, agree ahead of time to use a different, easily-seen pattern for each letter, and run them as a string from the mast.

  28. @johnwbh

    I think part of the difference is a lot of these things are passed generationally within families rather than horizontally through the population the way technologies are. For example I know various minor cooking “hacks” that my mother taught me, (e.g. wait until oil is hot before adding things or they’ll soak it up and be greasy) which I use continuously but feel no particular need to evangelise, on occasion if I was cooking with someone else we might compare techniques, but that happens only rarely.

    I suspect that the benefits of sharing a lifehack with someone else are fairly low, as opposed to technologies you can profit off.

    Aside, a lot of what we now consider standard hygiene is actually a fairly recently spread hack, while you can function in human society without brushing your teeth or washing your hands it makes things more difficult.

  29. moridinamael

    Forgive me if I’m getting you wrong, but for me, the most critical feature of a lifehack is the advantage or gain it affords me. Additionally, it’s not really a lifehack if it costs me so much that it’s practically unobtainable; it has to be sufficiently low-hanging. In other words, the cost-benefit ratio needs to be sufficiently low.

    To rephrase, finding a good lifehack needs to feel to me like a neolithic man would feel finding a handgun. So this is one reason why “cellphone” doesn’t really cut it. The word “hack” to me implies necessary connotations of cleverness and willingness to do possibly unsavory or at least uncomfortable things. Owning a cellphone in 2014 requires none of that. In 2014, not owning a cellphone is a lifehack.

    If we’re calling “anything that makes your life better and can be obtained easily” a lifehack, then I’ll happily add:

    – using a rice cooker for things other than rice
    – wearing scarves
    – Evernote
    – Snap Ware

  30. Gunlord

    When I hear the term “Lifehack,” I think mainly of stuff like what you’d find here:

    Some of these seem pretty useful, but if you asked me why they were considered “lifehacks” rather than something everybody does…hmm. I’d say it’s because most of them rely on re-using stuff you’d otherwise throw out, and I think most people have a natural aversion to doing that. ;o

  31. Carolyn G

    When I try to think of more life hacks, I try to think of things that fit the “try this one weird trick” description. Caffeine was the first thing to come to mind. I’d also propose that drinking willow bark tea would have been considered a life hack, when it was a thing that was done.

    More ideas:
    – Wearing a bra (“This one weird garment makes you look nice and makes it easier to move around!”)
    – Wearing makeup (“This one weird powder makes your face look nicer!”)
    – Drinking hot liquids as a digestive aid (“This one hot drink makes it easier to go!”)

    1. houseboatonstyx

      As for food items, a list of the symptoms we know as Vitamin C deficiency, plus the claim that all these can be prevented/cured by the juice of “some of these here little green fruits right in my barrow, yes sir “, might seem suspicious. But it worked, and the practice quickly became common on vessels sailed by Limeys.

      Does it count as part of the hack, that we went on to identify other sources of Vitamin C, so now it’s used world-wide?

    2. anon1

      Wearing a bra: “This one weird garment will make you sweatier, itchier, and generally less comfortable, but since everyone else is wearing one they’ll look at you funny if you don’t too.”

  32. lmm

    The decisionmaking technique where you list reasons yes in one column and reasons no in another (my dad always claims this is a Jesuit innovation, though I’ve never checked that).

    Car-sharing clubs, though that’s more about the internet making a thing easier than about it spreading organically.

    “Call people you meet in business by their first name, it makes it seem more intimate”?

    Price-comparison websites.

    Investing in stocks as an individual.

    “No-one will notice if you haven’t ironed your drapes”?

    Tying a piece of string around your wrist to help you remember something

    “Buy a bad house in a good area and fix it up, that’s the best value for money”

    You can fit through a hole iff you can fit your head and one arm through together.

    Watering a flowerbed evenly with no effort by leaving a hose draped along it and making small holes in the hose.

    Delaying having children until later in life.

      1. nydwracu

        Ought to be. It has very much not caught on yet.

        There was a book a while back, The Millionaire Next Door, by some academics who did studies on millionaires, and found that the thing the ones who weren’t massively, fabulously, Warren Buffett-grade rich had in common was that they didn’t spend much money. (And they invested, and knew what they were doing.) This is still very surprising to people, unless they grew up in families that knew that all along.

        (Growing up in those sorts of families kind of sucks. They act like they have no money and they live in awful areas. But it’s better than the alternative.)

        1. Randy M

          The alternative being spoiled rich kids? =P

          I was kinda being sarcastic, since my impression is that average household debt is quite large. I read an article recently noting that someone was described as “richer than the bottom x% of the population”, and pointing out that his child (or dog, or whatever) was also richer than the bottom x% by virtue of not having large outstanding debt.

    1. Troy

      Agreed. Americans are incredibly wasteful with their money quite generally; they buy things they don’t need and that won’t make them happy, and they spend more than they have to on the things they do need and that will make them happy. My wife and I lived for several years on a <$20,000 graduate student salary and maintained a more or less middle class lifestyle.

      I suspect this falls under Scott's (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." As someone who grew up in a thrifty household and has low time preference, I don't find saving, budgeting, etc. to be that much work; but everything I've read (and witnessed) about money management among most people suggests to me that this is not the norm.

  33. Douglas Knight

    Be careful about that comparison to evolution!

    Genes reproduce directly. In theory, companies can expand and can propagate their business practices. But life hacks are only propagated by imitation. Babe Ruth became the most famous baseball player of all time by lifting weights, but this does not directly cause anyone else to lift weights. It took fifty years for any significant number of other players to lift weights.

    Yes, many areas of life are competitive, which means that they will select among existing variation. But that won’t directly change the next generation of variation. That will only change if people copy the winners. They didn’t copy Babe Ruth.

  34. Eric Rall

    I recommend James Burke’s “The Day the Universe Changed”. The core thesis of the series is that the emergence of modern western civilization during the renaissance and enlightenment was due to a collection of what could be termed “life hacks” becoming societal fixtures. Off the top of my head, I recall written records (universal literacy, keeping detailed records, printing, cross-indexing, etc), finance (credit, joint stock corporations, paper money, double-entry bookkeeping, etc), clocks and scheduling, water and steam power, and various scientific and mathematical techniques and ideas.

    1. James

      I really liked “The Day the Universe Changed”, and basically had the same thought despite not connecting it to the show until I saw this comment.

      Ideas, practices, and technologies supporting them are constantly evolving and reproducing (memetics!), leading to our very strange modern normal. A civilization is the sum of its past and present people’s individual lifehacking.

  35. Leo

    Eat with cutlery.

    Learn to read and write, teach your children to do same.

    Have regular stores you go to every time you need something they carry, so you already know they’re good and convenient and don’t need to search for a new one.

    Open a bank account.

    If you want to buy a house or start a business, borrow money from the bank.

    Store contact info for everyone you know in a single place.

  36. Alyssa Vance

    Not getting into violent, physical fights with people you’re angry with. This was really common throughout human history, and not doing it has basically reached fixation in the wealthier cultures within developed countries.

    Also, average people having basic reading skills.

    1. Leo

      The mysterious disappearance of violence is one of those topics that I’m curious about but can’t think of better questions to ask than “what’s up with that?”. Could you please say more words about it?

        1. Brian

          I’ve heard some bad things about Better Angels. Not familiar enough with the relevant history to evaluate them myself, though, at least not without more work than I’d like to put in.

        2. Anon

          The two main criticisms I’ve encountered of Better Angels:

          1. Population increases are responsible for the decline in per capita violence. Under this model, I guess there’s some necessary level of violence that doesn’t scale with population? I didn’t find this view very persuasive though.

          2. Pinker underestimates modern death tolls – he uses statistics from the US government to estimate how many have been killed abroad, stuff like that. I think 2 is probably true, but not so true that Pinker’s thesis is invalidated.

          I did have strong reservations about many of the more specific arguments advanced by Pinker (can’t remember them right now). But I think his main thesis is true, even if his case for it isn’t the best it could have been.

          I think there’s a general trend for historians to get mad if anyone else tries to do history than a trained historian. They look at outsiders who try to identify big patterns and accuse those people of oversimplifying, not realizing that what those people are after isn’t perfect understanding of the past but rather workable knowledge of the future. To some extent this would be a reasonable reaction, but I think there are many historians who go too far.

    2. houseboatonstyx

      Also, average people having basic reading skills.

      I was going to cite ‘literacy for a low class worker’. This was treated like a hack at some times in some places. Many people disapproved of it (including many low class workers); it was a personal choice made at some cost. It was taught informally to such individuals well before they had schools. Quite a few individuals went around promoting it as something that would “change your life”, and when an individual learned it, zie often wrote that it had.

  37. JTHM

    “Type symbols into a fancy machine to make it do large amounts of your thinking for you” (computer programming) sure sounds like an effective lifehack to me. I’m pretty sure most of us just automatically mentally tag everything obviously effective as “non-life hack” for some reason.

  38. Kevin

    “Only work 40 hours a week” is a life hack for increased productivity and decreased stress, which reached fixation in past decades but recently declined precipitously due to collective action problems.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I was under the impression that mostly worked because labor organizations got the government to legislate about it, not because companies universally discovered it was in their best interests. Is that not true?

      1. Kevin

        Labor organizations and legislation were helpful in pushing the 40-hour work week as a standard, and the increase in working hours has largely coincided with the decline of labor movements (in the US).

        However, there was a time, up through the ’60s and ’70s, when most companies were well aware of the mounds of research showing productivity dropoffs and error rate increases after 40 hours/week. There’s a well-cited article from AlterNet summarizing the research: Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity. An excerpt:

        “Throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds,” writes Robinson; “and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.”

        Modern companies have mostly chosen to neglect all of this research in favor of commitment-signaling arms races.

        1. Douglas Knight

          the increase in working hours has largely coincided with the decline of labor movements (in the US).

          True, but why do you think this coincidence is relevant? Increasing working hours are largely among jobs that were never part of unions.

        2. lambdaphage

          Modern companies have mostly chosen to neglect all of this research in favor of commitment-signaling arms races.

          Doesn’t this imply a lot of money left on the table in the form of worker output, labor costs and hiring competitiveness for a company willing to opt out of the signaling arms race? Arms races happen when unilateral de-escalation leaves the de-escalator worse off. Here, however, the story has to be that the intangible benefits of commitment-signaling are somehow way more attractive to managers than the three very tangible benefits listed above.

        3. Kevin

          Arms races happen when unilateral de-escalation leaves the de-escalator worse off.

          This is correct. However, the arms race is (mostly) not between companies, but between employees within companies. Employee 1 works an extra 10 hours/week, so Employee 2 has to do the same just to keep up. Then Employee 3 wants to do even better, so he works an extra 20 hours/week. In cutthroat labor markets, this happens very easily.

          Here, however, the story has to be that the intangible benefits of commitment-signaling are somehow way more attractive to managers than the three very tangible benefits listed above.

          Managers aren’t always (or even usually) rational. They’re influenced by the prevailing culture and driven by short-term goals. If one employee burns out, there are 5 more who can replace him. This view is terribly detrimental in the long term, but nobody is incentivized to consider the long term.

          There’s money left on the table in terms of long-term productivity and morale gains, but companies would have to climb over a mountain of short-term productivity losses (or at least the appearance of such) to get that money. The market just isn’t that efficient with its current incentive structure.

        4. Anthony

          Doesn’t this imply a lot of money left on the table in the form of worker output, labor costs and hiring competitiveness for a company willing to opt out of the signaling arms race?

          Part of the problem is that labor costs have a high fixed per-person cost and a low(er) per-hour marginal cost. Even with people paid by the hour and getting time-and-a-half, the benefits and employer-side taxes don’t rise nearly so much – 4 people working 50 hours usually costs less than 5 people working 40 hours. With salaried employees, it’s even worse for the cause of a shorter workweek.

        5. Ialdabaoth

          Part of the problem is that labor costs have a high fixed per-person cost and a low(er) per-hour marginal cost. Even with people paid by the hour and getting time-and-a-half, the benefits and employer-side taxes don’t rise nearly so much – 4 people working 50 hours usually costs less than 5 people working 40 hours. With salaried employees, it’s even worse for the cause of a shorter workweek.

          Also, the costs of hiring more people are felt up-front, whereas the benefits of increased productivity might not be felt for another quarter or more.

  39. Liron

    For something to look like a lifehack, it has to include conscious forced if-then conditional behavior, and that visible characteristic distinguishes it from established patterns.

  40. Desertopa

    “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.”

    It’s certainly not the case that even slightly beneficial mutations reach fixation with high reliability. It’s much too easy for a specimen, or a handful of specimens, with only a very small competitive advantage, to be wiped out early on. A slightly more advantageous beak shape for a seed-eating bird won’t prevent it from being killed by a hawk. In the vast majority of species (including humans for most of our evolutionary history,) most specimens for one reason or another never make it to having surviving offspring.

    Evolution doesn’t work because all the advantageous mutations get passed on, it gets by because *enough* of the advantageous mutations make it through.

    Evolution is *pretty* efficient, but not so much so that you can take it for granted that every mutation that would have been useful will already have taken place.

  41. Intrism

    I think this is really just reference class tennis on “lifehack.” Every technology in common use makes our lives better or more efficient in some way, which is the core of the “lifehack” definition; the gradations between “so many lifehacks have fixated” and “no lifehacks have fixated at all” come only from the particulars of your definition. You’re using an extremely restrictive definition, which throws out nearly everything. Basically all the commenters who disagree with you are really just arguing for a less restrictive definition.

    So, I don’t think this post is terribly useful.

  42. ozymandias

    I think most people learn a lot of social skills lifehacks as children. Lifehack: hands are for helping not hurting. Lifehack: if you want to talk to someone, initiate a conversation by saying “hi.” Lifehack: when people are happy, they will generally indicate it by doing a thing with their lips.

  43. lambdaphage

    Does non-violent civil disobedience count? On one hand, it is (a) not universally adopted, (b) not incorporable into everyday life, and (c) not relevant to “organizational ability” in the sense you probably had in mind. On the other, it is a genuinely effective yet recent social technology, and has that wacky, counterintuitive one-weird-trick-for-defeating-the-British-Empire sort of vibe that seems to distinguish “life hacks” from “merely prudent advice”.

      1. lambdaphage

        I don’t think I ever committed myself to the claim that non-violent resistance is universally applicable. In fact, I don’t think many of the canonical figures of non-violent resistance held that view either, though I can’t find a citation.

        Whether non-violent resistance against the British was advisable in India, yet inadvisable in Kenya, is a question I’ll leave to historians knowledgeable in the area. But it seems pretty difficult to dispute that a campaign of non-violent resistance was instrumental in obtaining Indian independence from Britain, hence my gloss on that affair as “defeating the British Empire”. The fact that the British Empire was not ‘defeated’ in a conventional military engagement is precisely what makes non-violence a “life hack”. So.

        1. Multiheaded

          I don’t think I ever committed myself to the claim that non-violent resistance is universally applicable. In fact, I don’t think many of the canonical figures of non-violent resistance held that view either, though I can’t find a citation.

          Ok, I appreciate the nuance.

  44. Darcey Riley

    I can think of various cooking-related things, like fermenting/salting/curing food to preserve it. Also, I learned to chop onions by first cutting them vertically in half, then putting the flat side on the cutting board and cutting in a grid. It amazed me to discover at one point that this method has not reached fixation.

    What about prayer and ritual? Those seem to resemble modern life-hacks in a lot of ways.

    1. Athrelon

      Nixtamalization is a cooking hack that white farmers planting corn didn’t ever adopt en masse, despite its use in preventing pellagra.

  45. Brandon

    Gyms. When did the first ones appear? I’d guess within the last two centuries.

    Before that, physical exercise was a necessity for work, like for farmers. Afterwards, everyone started lounging around, then someone realized that repetitive strength training (or running, etc) had physical and mental benefits.

    I mean, if nobody had ever run marathons before, or indeed run for any purpose other than quickly getting from A to B, the first person to say “Hey, guys, if I go outside and move my feet quickly for a couple miles, after weeks/months/years I have a stronger heart”, that’d be considered a lifehack. Right?

    1. Brian

      The word “gymnasium” is Latinized Greek for something close to “place of nakedness”, and as that might imply, the classical world used the word to describe places where they’d go to strip down for exercise. The nudity aspect eroded away over time; the exercise aspect didn’t.

      (These doubled as educational institutions, whence the word’s use in e.g. German for something like the English “high school”.)

      I’d speculate that you probably find spaces devoted to exercise anywhere you have a city-dwelling elite that doesn’t have to get their hands dirty with farming. And those are probably Late Neolithic in origin.

      1. Brandon

        True, but I believe those were specifically for the purposes of sport or training for sport. A small distinction (but maybe an important one) from weight/endurance training purely for the sake of physical health. You have a very good point about sport training going back very extensively, though.

        1. Brian

          I don’t know how widespread this was, but at least some of the Classical Greeks definitely exercised to improve their health and looks. There’s a famous Xenophon quote (attributed to Socrates) on the subject:

          In every demand, therefore, which can be laid upon the body it is much better that it should be in the best condition; since, even where you might imagine the claims upon the body to be slightest—in the act of reasoning—who does not know the terrible stumbles which are made through being out of health?
          It is a base thing for a man to wax old in careless self-neglect before he has lifted up his eyes and seen what manner of man he was made to be, in the full perfection of bodily strength and beauty. But these glories are withheld from him who is guilty of self-neglect, for they are not wont to blaze forth unbidden.

          (Memorabilia, Dakyns translation.)

  46. Brian

    Hygiene seems like a good candidate for a lifehack that’s reached fixation. Or any of its common subsets: bathing, brushing teeth, trimming nails, et cetera.

    “Run a split twig over your teeth for two minutes a day and they won’t fall out in a few years”: that seems like the prototypical One Weird Trick to me.

  47. JayMan

    You’re forgetting the sixth possibility: frequency dependence. One of the reasons that there is variation in human physical and behavioral traits is that certain traits start to become less adaptive beyond a certain level of prevalence. There is a sweet spot for these things, so that results in a type of balancing selection.

    In the case of “life hacks”, there may be things that cease to be useful once they become too popular. Certain status symbols may be an example. They may become more popular initially as they become more potent symbols the more they are adopted. However, if they become too widespread, they lose their value since everyone has one…

  48. Intellectual Lusts

    Wheels on suitcases.

    I’m fairly sure the technology existed to put wheels on suitcases in the 1970s, yet people were still lugging around heavy non-wheeled monstrosities until quite recently. The first person to put wheels on their suitcase was lifehacking, but the first commercial suitcase manufacturer to put wheels on their suitcases was doing something else.

    ETA: A brief Google reveals the event in action.

    1. jooyous

      I was just gonna say “transporting things on wheels”. Does that work? Wheels! They are like useful and ubiquitous and stuff.

  49. Brian

    The use of Dropbox as a file backup/sync/everything mechanism? Or maybe I’m overestimating its popular penetration.

  50. Ben

    Perhaps nowadays the majority of ‘life-hacks’ that are genuinely useful are rapidly productised and therefore don’t seem like a ‘hack’ any more. So by excluding new technologies, you are actually excluding the most useful ‘hacks’.

    For example, in the 80s it might have seemed like an eccentric life-hack for a person (who wasn’t a doctor/drug dealer) to carry a pager, so as to be contactable when they’re waiting for a delayed friend etc. But now carrying a mobile phone is normal.

    Another example is using a dating agency to find suitable romantic/sexual partners, rather than relying on meeting people in real life. Maybe that was a clever life-hack in the 80s, which gradually caught on as the ease and social stigma of adoption lowered with the internet.

    Of course, in both cases, there’s a network effect there too.

    I’m trying to think of recent widespread changes in behaviour and they all tend to be linked to a product in some way. Life-hack: use condoms alongside other forms of contraception to avoid getting HIV? Life-hack: wear a seatbelt? Life-hack: eat live yoghurt to poop better?

    1. nydwracu

      Life-hack: eat live yoghurt to poop better?

      Yes, this is one that hasn’t reached fixation yet.

      Then there’s the heavy consumption of cereal in America — pioneered by Graham and the Kelloggs to address constipation, a widespread problem at the time.

  51. Chris Hallquist

    I wonder if many productivity techniques are closer to fixation than we realize. Like, if you’re a member of a profession where time management matters hugely for success, a large majority of the successful people are using some techniques or others to improve their time management, it’s just not obvious because the techniques are subtle and varied, and people not in those professions just dismiss all the talk of “time management” as a weird quirk of corporate culture or something.

  52. Chris Hallquist

    The caffeine example occurred to me to, though AFAIK it isn’t clear whether most people’s caffeine habits are all that beneficial. Once people become dependent on caffeine, does their daily dose help them beyond their non-caffeine baseline would be?

    1. AR+

      It only takes a few days to lose caffeine tolerance. (Conversely, it only takes a few days to gain it.) As long as you interrupt your use of it with periodic withdrawal, you can maintain access to the full benefits when you need them.

      That’s how I use it, as a sailor. When scheduling permits, withdrawal from caffeine effectively allows me to “save up” wakefulness and focus by sacrificing it for a day or so (and having a bad headache).

      1. Douglas Knight

        Sure, you can get a benefit from caffeine, but how common is your strategy? 1% of the population? And maybe 10% of the population has a baseline dose plus occasional extra doses. Most people take the same dose of caffeine every day and get no benefit from it at all.

        1. David R. MacIver

          Anecdotally, drinking coffee during the work week and not on the weekend seems to be relatively common. Mostly because people don’t realise the headaches they get on the weekend as a result are due to caffeine withdrawal…

        2. misha

          That’s not quite true. Arguably the mood-lifting effect in the morning is still a benefit even if your net effectiveness is not that improved. Having a biochemical clock that tracks the day can be good I think.

        1. Douglas Knight

          I wouldn’t call that a very high dose. It’s a medium starbucks three times per day.

          I can’t speak for AR, but my claim was more about a zero-sum effect across a daily cycle than about tolerance. I have seen a study, but I don’t have a citation. Many people claim that this matches their experience, but that it is a good trade-off; but it sounds like a rationalization to me. My anecdotal claim about tolerance is that what 100mg of caffeine does for a habitual user, 10mg does for someone who never uses it.

    2. Kaj Sotala

      I used to have the problem that it was practically impossible for me to spend fewer than 12 hours in bed unless there was something that I absolutely had to get up for. If I wasn’t forced to get up, I’d just keep hitting snooze. And I hated it, because sleeping for that long only made me feel miserable.

      Then I hit upon the strategy of taking a caffeine pill when I needed to actually get up. And it worked, delivering a huge increase in my quality of life. It also eliminated most of my insomnia, which was another huge bonus – spending many hours in bed just waiting to fall asleep stopped being a thing.

      This was back in 2007, and it has kept working ever since.

    3. Army1987

      Once people become dependent on caffeine, does their daily dose help them beyond their non-caffeine baseline would be?

      IME it does to some extent.

  53. Matthew

    I think you’re letting “sleeping at night” go a little bit too easily here. Going by the evidence from the study described here (which google scholar refuses to show, although there are others by those authors), most Americans are underestimating the utility loss from slight sleep deficits (getting more than 6.5 but less than 8 hours of sleep per night).

    Anecdotally, I’ve found the difference in effect on mood between getting more than 7.5 hours of sleep per night and less to be so immense that it wasn’t necessary for me to do any sophisticated tracking to notice it. But it seems most people aren’t aware of that. On the other hand, I find results like this one mind-bogglingly contrary to my own experience, so perhaps the problem with health/psychology-related life hacks is that they aren’t universally effective.

      1. Matthew

        Considering how bad human night vision is, I think the bifurcated sleep pattern is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

        It seems much more likely to me that the medieval western diet was so bad that people didn’t sleep well, or some other mediating lifestyle factor.

        1. Hainish

          It’s not as if these people were out and about at night. According to Ekirch, they would put on a fire and talk, eat, and/or have sex. He cites historical records and literature as evidence.

        2. nydwracu

          What’s the sleep pattern like of non-Western, non-modernized cultures? (‘Non-modernized’ because the argument goes that it developed during the Industrial Revolution as a way to make more wakeful time available for factory work, so for hunter-gatherers or so that shouldn’t be that much of a thing.)

          Daniel Everett says the Piraha don’t ever sleep for more than two hours at a time. It shows from his claims that he wants to be famous, but I doubt there’s all that much room to stretch things there.

          Then there’s this National Geographic article about the Hadza:

          People sleep whenever they want. Some stay up much of the night and doze during the heat of the day. Dawn and dusk are the prime hunting times; otherwise, the men often hang out in camp, straightening arrow shafts, whittling bows, making bowstrings out of the ligaments of giraffes or impalas, hammering nails into arrow­heads.

          But that article suffers from apparent inconsistency in other areas:

          Onwas joked to me that a Hadza man cannot marry until he has killed five baboons. …
          There are no wedding ceremonies. A couple that sleeps at the same fire for a while may eventually refer to themselves as married. Most of the Hadza I met, men and women alike, were serial monogamists, changing spouses every few years. Onwas is an exception; he and his wife, Mille, have been with each other all their adult lives, and they have seven living children and several grandchildren.

  54. Athrelon

    One lifehack that took a long time to reach fixation was sterile surgery. Ignaz Semmelweis showed that hand-washing empirically reduced OB/GYN infections, Louis Pasteur did basic science research showing that there was a plausible mechanism for sterile surgery being better…and it still took decades for this to become widespread. This suggests two possible mechanisms for lifehacks not to become widespread.

    1. Principal-agent problems. As a patient, you care a lot about whether you get better or not. As a surgeon, you care a lot about impressing your colleagues with your skill in performing tricky operations, and making money by doing more operations. Hand-washing is relatively costless for you, but it also doesn’t actually do your career that much good. There’s nobody with the authority to tell the surgeon to do medicine the way the patient wants it, and by the time the patient is on the table, he’s less than able to express his preferences. Lifehacks that might fall under this category are things like nootropics – some drugs might be slightly helpful, but doctors are main gatekeeper for many of these drugs and they’re incentivized to make sick people healthy, not make healthy people slightly smarter. Workplace ergonomics might also fit here: the department that purchases workplace furniture aren’t the same people who will feel the back pain 20 years later.

    2. Legibility. If the patient died because the surgeon messed up a tricky operation, that’s something that’s understandable and people had a cached thought to blame the surgeon for not being up to the job. “Patient died from wound infection,” though, is something that happened all the time, and was seen as a risk you took as part of life – the way we see the risk of dying in a car accident, for example. So a 10% more skilled surgeon is something that people were primed to see and appreciate. A surgeon whose patients died 50% less often from wound infections…well…if you take the time to point it out, it’s better than the alternative, I guess, but it’s much less interesting.

    A lot of lifehacks potentially fall into this second category. Spaced repetition: people are primed to appreciate high test scores, not long-term retention. Meditation: people are primed to appreciate getting promoted faster, not a vague sense of calm and orientation. Buy-and-hold investing: people are primed to look for fast ways to make money, not slowly doing slightly better than the noisy market year after year.

    1. Douglas Knight

      You mention Semmelweis, but I don’t think your proposals explain that story. Yes, they explain why there might be little incentive to discover incremental improvements (maybe that’s why people like Semmelweis are rare), but why did people forcefully reject his dramatic improvement? And it’s not just that his colleagues ignored him, but also he had difficulty imposing it on his subordinates.

      1. Viliam Búr

        Pasteur’s germ theory probably came too late for Dr. Semmelweis. Also, I don’t know how quickly did it spread among doctors. Even in the age of internet many doctors are not familiar with the latest reaseach.

        Without germ theory, all that Semmelweis had was: “These high-status men have hands so smelly that women literally die when they touch them!” Which is an extremely bad way to make allies. Even if you have evidence, no politically savvy person will ever look at it.

  55. Hainish

    #5: Vaccination, seatbelt wearing, airbags, pasteurization, (arguably, water fluoridation), health insurance, municipal waste disposal systems, compulsory education, “big” agriculture.
    These may be examples of Ialdabaoth’s: “Given that, I think the problem we’re going to have finding easily identifiable lifehacks is that when they work and become fixated, they quickly get subsumed by “culture”, and become part of the default mental landscape.”

    (Of course, most of these might not be “hacks” in the intended sense since they’re not voluntarily adopted by individuals, but mandated in some way.)

  56. mattp

    “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.”

    Possibility: the kinds of people that want life hacks aren’t willing to do things the standard way, and search for something easier or better. If they’re searching for something easier, then any life hack which requires work input will fail and won’t catch on. If they’re searching to optimize and don’t mind working at it, then life hacks will succeed.

    On the outside, you just see two groups: those that it worked for, and those that it didn’t. The conflict prevents the majority from adopting things entirely.

  57. Nick M

    How about: “Distinguish similar-looking cooking ingredients by keeping them in labelled containers.”

    Or maybe: “When you’re in a big group of people who are trying to talk about something all at once, have one person whose job it is to notice people trying to talk and tell them when it’s their turn.”

    Or even: “You can keep doing things after the sun goes down by keeping candles or lamps around your house, and lighting them so you can see what you’re doing!”

    1. Mary

      For the last one: “And burn more money through the oil and wax that you could possibly replace by your labor.”

      Those things aren’t cheap, especially when you’re facing famine, always.

      1. Nick M

        Poor people used tallow candles, not wax: cheaper and smellier.

        Either way, though, your point is right: lighting costs need to fall and labor productivity needs to rise significantly before “burn something so you can work longer” is economically feasible. The crossover point happened at different times for different professions, and it probably wasn’t viable for unskilled labor until the 19th century, when gas light and the industrial revolution hit around the same time.

        Still, not every activity you’d want to do at night falls under the category of economically productive labor, and by the middle ages, it wasn’t unusual for regular families to have a supply tallow candles that they’d use sparingly.

  58. Benquo

    Studying material before a test. (Or, more generally, to remember something, review it more than once.)

    Struck through because pwned:

    Want to remember it really well with almost no chance of forgetting? Write it down!

    Want to meet your friend/business partner/etc. without hanging around all day in the public square? Get some clocks and schedule a meeting!

  59. AlexC

    I think the concept of a “lifehack” is a bit too fuzzy here. Would technologies like a “bicycle” count? It’s not really what I’d think of as a “lifehack”, but it has health and productivity benefits (especially here in Cambridge which is really hostile to cars), I’m sure it was seen as pretty kooky when it first started, and it’s very popular among a certain category of people.

    When I think of “lifehacks” I picture those imgur albums of 20 photos of clever ways to use everyday items in unintended ways. Those could only acquire fixation once the everyday items are ubiquitious enough… but once the marketers of those everyday items realise people want to use them in this new way, they’ll start recommending it themselves and… does it cease to be a lifehack at that point? When Blu-Tack explicitly tell you on the packet you can use it to clean keyboards and to hide keys, does that stop it being a lifehack to do so? Or is the lifehack just “buy Blu-Tack” at that point?

    “Keeping a personal calendar” might fit your categories a bit better. Seems to me that’s something that most people in the middle ages wouldn’t have done because there was no need; it’s only as industrialisation and (sub)urbanisation increased the diversity of things to do and the precision of time at which we can do them that it became a relevant thing to do. I imagine many people would have still tried to keep them all in their heads, so “writing stuff down” is the uber-idea here, but I think that’s too general, more a broad category of lifehacks than one itself.

    1. Gareth Rees

      I too thought of cycling as a “lifehack”. But it’s not just “ride a bike”, it’s “don’t own a car; ride a bike instead and use the money saved to live in a better location (plus, you get free exercise)”. But this is easier said than done, and the dominance of the car is such that few people are in a position to attempt it.

      The great era of bicycling (at least in western Europe) had run its course by the end of the 1950s, and most people abandoned the bicycle as soon as they could afford to buy and operate cars. So it was really “owning a car” that was the “lifehack” that ran to fixation.

    2. Thomas M

      I’m also a little confused about what separates a lifehack from, say, an invention, or other kinds of spreadable meme. If part of the definition is the draw of being an ‘insider trader,’ then lifehacks are mostly going to be things that work at the individual level– that is, one guy in isolation has to be capable of doing it, and it should still give him an advantage even if he’s the only one. But that restriction is going to cut out all kinds of useful things. For instance, ‘Make money by mining platinum from asteroids’ isn’t a lifehack, because no one person can be the insider trader that pulls this one off before everybody else knows about it. And ‘put a teensy quantity of iodine in your salt and you’ll never get a goiter’ isn’t a lifehack, because while one person could do this in isolation, the lifehack becomes more effective on a group level– the salt provider just has to drop a few mL of iodine into the salt-barrel. (Or whatever container large amounts of salt get delivered in.)

      But using iodized salt must have started out as something like a lifehack– for a while, only a few people must have known, and those people had a small but discernable advantage. That counts, right? And now, iodized salt is, if not fixated, than at least very common all around the world. But by the time it had spread that far, it wasn’t a lifehack anymore, becuase it’s not a decision that individuals make, but a policy decided upon by public health organizations.

      I guess what I’m proposing is that the really useful lifehacks wouldn’t tend to reach fixation. Instead, they’d mutate into social norms or public policy or religious doctrine or something, and only then would they really take off.

  60. Mary

    “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.”

    Adult lactose tolerance. It hit about a thousand years after dairying started and spread like crazy — to about a third of the human population.

    That’s somewhat less than all, and it’s been a lot of generations.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Not that many generations, from an evolutionary point of view. It’s a relatively recent mutation and its spread got interrupted by the rise of civilization.

      The very fact that you chose something from less than ten thousand years ago, when humans have been evolving for two million years just in the hominid lineage, suggests that recency has to be the important factor here.

        1. Damien

          Citation needed for it having stopped, as opposed to still being in the process of spreading.

          Of course, it doesn’t given an advantage if there’s no milk to drink; it may well be near fixation in the pre-20th century population that had exposure to milk.

  61. Caleb Neufeld

    How about language? That seems to have reached fixation, and is a behavioral, rather than a genetic, phenomenon (albeit with certain adapatations along the way).

  62. Ialdabaoth

    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”.

    Forest-for-trees moment: you’re talking about marketing. I.e., the process of systemizing the human habit of telling your neighbors about some cool new thing you found.

    It’s a lifehack. The default is “do a thing, talk to people about it, wait for it to catch on.” At a certain point, intense and modularized division-of-labor is a lifehack for groups rather than individuals, but mass-marketing is a specific and somewhat recent example.

    Given that, I think the problem we’re going to have finding easily identifiable lifehacks is that when they work and become fixated, they quickly get subsumed by “culture”, and become part of the default mental landscape. And since most of these lifehacks will be layered on top of each other going back for hundreds of generations, it will be difficult to extract them into discrete units for discussion and analysis.

  63. ckp

    “Drinking animal milk” is a lifehack that started in the Neolithic and still hasn’t reached fixation because of the slow speed of evolution.

    1. Andy

      Also, because not every of many, many, many cultures had milk-giving animals around. See: the Mayans and Aztecs, for example.

  64. Dave

    So, when I first started reading this article, my reaction was “Nonsense! What about… um… er…”

    So now you’ve got me wondering.

    There are lots of things that I have discovered over time work for me, but which were definitely discoveries rather than things everyone knows. Like abdominal breathing rather than chest breathing to reduce anxiety, for example, or keeping lists (not really to-do lists, which irritate me, but “want to get to at some point” lists, so I can stop thinking about them), or getting enough sleep (which I spent my twenties and thirties not doing).

    So why didn’t I do them at 20, or at 10? It’s not because I didn’t know about them, certainly.

    Mostly I think it’s because I didn’t have to, any more than I developed decent study skills in high school. Technique seems to be what I develop only after brute force proves inadequate; I satisfy rather than optimize.

    I don’t know how universal that is.

  65. Anon

    It seems to me that meditation is in the process of doing this currently. I think in several decades we’ll even reach the point where it’s commonly taught at school. This has already begun…

    Another life hack that might take off eventually: journaling. Not organization through writing, but writing about one’s experiences to give them meaning. No studies immediately come to mind, but it seems like I’m seeing them everywhere nowadays so you’ll probably stumble across one pretty soon anyway, if you already haven’t. But I’ve seen journaling connected to better mood, better self control, and better interpersonal relationships.

    No idea why it hasn’t taken off yet. Maybe our high school English classes all accidentally taught us to hate what should have been a healthy and enjoyable experience.

    Actually, now that I think about it, journaling used to be really common, especially among successful thinkers. Maybe journaling is a life-hack that died somehow?

    1. Kaj Sotala

      Seems to odd to say that journaling used to be pretty common without saying anything about the prevalence of blogs these days. (Or mini-blogs, like Facebook status updates, though these might admittedly no longer qualify as journaling.)

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