Friday, October 28, 2005
Meet the Life Hackers
For Mark and Czerwinski, these piecemeal efforts at coping pointed to ways that our high-tech tools could be engineered to be less distracting. When Czerwinski walked around the Microsoft campus, she noticed that many people had attached two or three monitors to their computers. They placed their applications on different screens -- the e-mail far off on the right side, a Web browser on the left and their main work project right in the middle -- so that each application was ''glanceable.'' When the ding on their e-mail program went off, they could quickly peek over at their in-boxes to see what had arrived.
The workers swore that this arrangement made them feel calmer. But did more screen area actually help with cognition? To find out, Czerwinski's team conducted another experiment. The researchers took 15 volunteers, sat each one in front of a regular-size 15-inch monitor and had them complete a variety of tasks designed to challenge their powers of concentration -- like a Web search, some cutting and pasting and memorizing a seven-digit phone number. Then the volunteers repeated these same tasks, this time using a computer with a massive 42-inch screen, as big as a plasma TV.
The results? On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly -- and some as much as 44 percent more quickly. They were also more likely to remember the seven-digit number, which showed that the multitasking was clearly less taxing on their brains. Some of the volunteers were so enthralled with the huge screen that they begged to take it home. In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user's productivity. The clearer your screen, she found, the calmer your mind. So her group began devising tools that maximized screen space by grouping documents and programs together -- making it possible to easily spy them out of the corner of your eye, ensuring that you would never forget them in the fog of your interruptions. Another experiment created a tiny round window that floats on one side of the screen; moving dots represent information you need to monitor, like the size of your in-box or an approaching meeting. It looks precisely like the radar screen in a military cockpit.
In late 2003, the technology writer Danny O'Brien decided he was fed up with not getting enough done at work. So he sat down and made a list of 70 of the most ''sickeningly overprolific'' people he knew, most of whom were software engineers of one kind or another. O'Brien wrote a questionnaire asking them to explain how, precisely, they managed such awesome output. Over the next few weeks they e-mailed their replies, and one night O'Brien sat down at his dining-room table to look for clues. He was hoping that the self-described geeks all shared some common tricks.
He was correct. But their suggestions were surprisingly low-tech. None of them used complex technology to manage their to-do lists: no Palm Pilots, no day-planner software. Instead, they all preferred to find one extremely simple application and shove their entire lives into it. Some of O'Brien's correspondents said they opened up a single document in a word-processing program and used it as an extra brain, dumping in everything they needed to remember -- addresses, to-do lists, birthdays -- and then just searched through that file when they needed a piece of information. Others used e-mail -- mailing themselves a reminder of every task, reasoning that their in-boxes were the one thing they were certain to look at all day long.
In essence, the geeks were approaching their frazzled high-tech lives as engineering problems -- and they were not waiting for solutions to emerge from on high, from Microsoft or computer firms. Instead they ginned up a multitude of small-bore fixes to reduce the complexities of life, one at a time, in a rather Martha Stewart-esque fashion.
Many of O'Brien's correspondents, it turned out, were also devotees of ''Getting Things Done,'' a system developed by David Allen, a personal-productivity guru who consults with Fortune 500 corporations and whose seminars fill Silicon Valley auditoriums with anxious worker bees. At the core of Allen's system is the very concept of memory that Mark and Czerwinski hit upon: unless the task you're doing is visible right in front of you, you will half-forget about it when you get distracted, and it will nag at you from your subconscious. Thus, as soon as you are interrupted, Allen says, you need either to quickly deal with the interruption or -- if it's going to take longer than two minutes -- to faithfully add the new task to your constantly updated to-do list. Once the interruption is over, you immediately check your to-do list and go back to whatever is at the top.
''David Allen essentially offers a program that you can run like software in your head and follow automatically,'' O'Brien explains. ''If this happens, then do this. You behave like a robot, which of course really appeals to geeks.''
O'Brien summed up his research in a speech called ''Life Hacks,'' which he delivered in February 2004 at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. Five hundred conference-goers tried to cram into his session, desperate for tips on managing info chaos. When O'Brien repeated the talk the next year, it was mobbed again. By the summer of 2005, the ''life hacks'' meme had turned into a full-fledged grass-roots movement. Dozens of ''life hacking'' Web sites now exist, where followers of the movement trade suggestions on how to reduce chaos. The ideas are often quite clever: O'Brien wrote for himself a program that, whenever he's surfing the Web, pops up a message every 10 minutes demanding to know whether he's procrastinating. It turns out that a certain amount of life-hacking is simply cultivating a monklike ability to say no.
''In fairness, I think we bring some of this on ourselves,'' says Merlin Mann, the founder of the popular life-hacking site 43folders.com. ''We'd rather die than be bored for a few minutes, so we just surround ourselves with distractions. We've got 20,000 digital photos instead of 10 we treasure. We have more TV Tivo'd than we'll ever see.'' In the last year, Mann has embarked on a 12-step-like triage: he canceled his Netflix account, trimmed his instant-messaging ''buddy list'' so only close friends can contact him and set his e-mail program to bother him only once an hour. (''Unless you're working in a Korean missile silo, you don't need to check e-mail every two minutes,'' he argues.)
Mann's most famous hack emerged when he decided to ditch his Palm Pilot and embrace a much simpler organizing style. He bought a deck of 3-by-5-inch index cards, clipped them together with a binder clip and dubbed it ''The Hipster P.D.A.'' -- an ultra-low-fi organizer, running on the oldest memory technology around: paper.