Albert Einstein stated that “problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Einstein, of course, was right. Sometimes our problems require more than life hacks, tips, tweaks, etc. Sometimes our lives don’t need optimization, they need to be fundamentally reconfigured.
So What are Anti-Hacks?
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for every one striking at the root.” – Henry David Thoreau
Anti-hacks attempt to solve problems by approaching them at a higher level of thinking (the prefix “anti,” by the way, can mean “instead of” as in “anti-drug,” or “anti-folk”). For example, while David Allen says that “mind like water” (piece of mind) comes from creating exhaustive to-do lists and getting everything out of your head, an anti-hack might involve meditation, because all the list-making in the world will not bring you to a meditative, mind-like-water state.
A hack might help you optimize your car’s engine so you get better gas mileage, whereas an anti-hack might involve moving near your place of employment to so you can walk or bike to work.
(By the way, creating a new word for an old idea can be a pretty pretentious thing. But I’m asking you to cut me some slack here. I’m not trying to push my own vocabulary, build a movement, or be clever; I just couldn’t think of a better term. Use whatever terms you want – I have no agenda. Still, I think the term “anti-hack” highlights a significant distinction between optimization — hacks, tweaks, tips, etc. — and reconfiguration).
Here are some of my more offensive thoughts, packaged as …
8 Random Anti-Hacks For Living
Please keep in mind some of these “anti-hacks” may not be practicable for you. These aren’t “one size fits all” solutions.
1. Embrace Your Inner Dilettante, be Flaky, and Denounce the Cult of Permanence. After college graduation, we’re allowed a couple years of experimental wiggle room. And when those years are oven we’re supposed to semi-permanently stay put. We’re supposed to stop vagabonding through life. We’re supposed to sit down and shut up.
In this day and age, staying put in one’s situation (i.e. one’s career, job, company, city, town, etc.) is how you become an expert, advance in your field, and win the respect of your peers and family. We’re fed the myth that staying put affords us dream jobs. And we want this permanence as well: we want tenure, we want seniority, we want bedrocks and sure things.
But radical and rapid-fire growth often happens when you have freedom to try new things. Rapid-fire growth doesn’t require traveling across the country, starting a new business, or flooding your senses on a daily basis, but it often requires a high level of latitude. Radical growth often requires the ability to rapidly change directions, change contexts, and change situations. Rapidfire growth often requires a dilettante-esque mobility. And if you exercise this mobility enough, other may very well perceive you as someone who hasn’t “found himself.”
The problem is that post-higher-education life just isn’t configured to encourage growth; it’s configured to reward stagnation. We’re rewarded for stagnating, for unnecessarily sticking with things.
2. Stop Hiding Behind the Comfort of Stepping Stones. So many of us live “stepping stone lives.” We spend the majority of our waking hours working for goals that are merely stepping stones to other goals. For example:
- We do well in high school so we can get into a good college.
- We do well in college so we can get hired by a good company (or get into a good graduate school).
- We do well at our jobs so we can get even better jobs and make more money.
- We join committees to pad our resumes or impress our bosses.
(Question: what would your life be like if you cut out all the stepping stones?)
We are uncomfortable going after what we want in ways that aren’t culturally or institutionally approved. But we would all do well to live courageously by directly going after what we want.
(I realize that not everyone has the luxury of avoiding stepping stones. If your dream requires a medical degree, for example, you’ll need to suck it up and stay on those stones).
3. Pursue Self-Development over Productivity. Productivity often poses as self-development, but self-development and productivity can be two very different things. What is best for us as individuals can be bad for our on-the-job productivity.
4. Get to “Mind Like Water” the Original Way (i.e. Mindfulness). There is a myth among many productivity evangelists that productivity – or a productivity system – can lead to the meditative state likened to “mind like water.
“In karate there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.
“[I]f you get seriously far out of that state–and start to feel out of control, stressed out, unfocused, bored, and stuck–do you have the ability to get yourself back into it? That’s where the methodology of [my productivity system] will have the greatest impact on your life, by showing you how to get back to “mind like water,” with all your resources and faculties functioning at a maximum level. ” - David Allen
The mind like water myth is the myth is that any productivity system can be the starting point for having “all your resources and faculties functioning at maximum level.” The myth is that a water-tight task-handling methodology, an elaborate folder system, a clockwork method for handling your inbox, a label-maker, and a set of routines come first.
The “mind like water myth” is that that productivity — or a productivity system — is the path, and that mind like water is the destination. Bruce lee once said that “all fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability” and that “the possession of anything begins in the mind.” I believe Bruce is right: possession of a “mind like water” begins in the mind. It’s not productivity first, mind like water second. It’s the other way around.
So what’s the truest, most direct, and surest path to mind like water? I believe it is mindfulness gained through meditation (or whatever other internal and inward means we take to get there).
Believing that “mind like water” results from a productivity systems that obsessively organizes our external reality only perpetuates the rat race.
5. Say “No” to the Productivity Industrial Complex and Make Your OWN Way. The Productivity Industrial Complex is a marriage between corporations and an entire industry of productivity companies, gurus, consultants, and solution-makers who help corporations squeeze every ounce of productivity from their workers. Organizations like The David Allen Company, for example, make the bulk of their income from corporations looking to “maximize their employee output,” and it’s no surprise that they have a Fortune 500-studded client list which includes Lockheed Martin, Deloitte & Touche, and the U.S. Department of Defense (see here for more of his clients).
“You and your company need to get things done – lots of things[.] You have invested heavily in the human factor … but are you getting all the results from your people that you could? Are they maximizing their output?” - The David Allen Company
“Productivity” is an Industrial Era economics term that applies to factories, machines, and economies. When applied to people it often has a dehumanizing effect and negates both individual differences and unique talents. Most best-selling productivity gurus are working in the interests of large corporations and often advocate values and approaches that are not in the best interests of individuals. Increased productivity should result in greater carefree time, more vacations, and more time away from work. Most of the time, however, it does not.
The workforce is laboring for more hours and for less pay, taking fewer vacations, and generally burning out.
6. Convert Your Money Back Into Time. Since World War II, productivity in the U.S. has doubled. So we should be working 20-hour work weeks, right? Well, we’re not. We’re working more (we’ve exchanged our extra time for more money). In fact, we’re working more than medieval peasants, and the 40-hour work week hasn’t changed since 1940 even though productivity levels have been growing steadily since then.
People convert money back into time when they exchange potential income for freedom to spend their time how they wish. They do it when, for example, they decide to live simpler lives and work halftime, instead of full time. They do it when start freelancing and create more humane work schedule. They do it when they negotiate creative and unique work situations, start their own companies, etc.
7. Aggressively Remove Things From Your Life that You Don’t Want to Do. It’s common knowledge that productivity naturally emerges from passion: when we love what we’re doing, productivity becomes irrelevant. The corollary is that being unproductive often results from doing things you’d rather not do. Elaborate productivity systems have all too often become crutches for passionate living (if you hate your job, you’re probably going to need an elaborate productivity system to keep you focused and on task).
“Efficiency, which is doing things right, is irrelevant until you work on the right things.” -Peter Drucker
The direct route to productivity is being passionate about what you do. This observation, however, is largely an academic point that doesn’t do much to help the problem. Very few people hear that passion will make them productive and then-out of a dedication to productivity-immediately proceed to follow their dreams and become more productive. So, instead of talking about how passion will make you more productive, I’d like to re-frame the conversation by saying this: unwanted tasks are the the #1 cause of your productivity problems.
If you only did things you wanted to do, you’d probably be the most productive person in the world.
Q: What’s the solution?
A: To the extent possible, stop doing things you don’t want to do.
OK, so we have to pay taxes, we have to take care of our children (hopefully this is a joy), etc. The problem is that most people are very bad at differentiating between these very real non-negotiables and fictional non-negotiables.
If you want ultimate productivity you might want to think about aggressively removing everything you don’t want to do from your life. Declutter your headspace. If you really want to live passionately, you’ll need to consider leaving nearly everything you’re not passionate about. I want to emphasize that it’s not quitting things and being flaky that will make you productive, it’s the aggressive elimination of everything that doesn’t make you come alive.
8. Realize that Perspective is often the Best Solution to your Problems. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote that “[e]verything has [already] been said [and] all our knowledge is essentially banal.” And he’s right. If you read the profound thoughts of any great teacher or leader, you’ll likely find no new knowledge. What you will find, however, is heaps of timeless perspective. You’ll find knowledge deeply rooted in perspective and amplified by perspective.
Great thinkers and teachers are great because their perspective forces you to take a second glance at the knowledge you already have. And their perspective is so compelling because it couldn’t have come from anywhere except direct experience.
When workaholics give up their minds each workday in devotion to balancing spreadsheets, selling widgets, arguing cases, etc. it’s not knowledge they’re missing out on. It’s perspective. The kind of perspective that requires variety, and discursive thinking, and morning runs during sunrise. The kind of perspective that requires new experiences, reflection, and carefree conversations with friends.
We desperately lack perspective because we are a society of workaholics, and workaholism is like kryptonite to perspective. (It’s often said that highly intelligent people lack common sense; but I believe they really lack is perspective as a result of handing an unhealthy amount of their brainpower to their bosses).
And the thing about perspective is that you just can’t “hack” it.
There are no perspective hacks. None. You just have to suck it up, live a little, and wallow in the mud of life. You have to get your hands dirty with this beautiful business of living. You have to question, meditate, and fail often. You simply have to make space for perspective and hope that it will come eventually. You have to spend time in a manner that would seem self-indulgent to most.
In my view, perspective is the king of all anti-hacks
“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” - Howard Thurman