Why do we have such a fascination with systematizing the every day, the mundane? We seem to be in a societal shift where we all fall into a caffeinated haze and ponder how we can trick our brains into doing something it doesn’t want to (your’s truly included).

And although it sounds trite, there is validity to the idea. Welcome to the life well hacked.

Finding time

Brian Lovin is experimenting with what’s possible in terms of sleep. He’s shooting for 4 hours a day. This is a perfect example of this shift in thinking in our comfortable western culture. In the abundance of more things to do than time to do them, people are looking for more time. In this case, we gain time by cutting out sleep.

Again, I’m also guilty of this. A few years back, after the birth of our 4th child, I experimented with my sleep as well. How much does someone actually need? For me, it turns out more than 5 hours a night … go figure!

I highly doubt my ability to get by on 4 hours of sleep as Mr. Lovin is attempting. But I could see myself adopting a biphasic pattern where my sleep occurs in two large chunks. Something like this would fit well with my current habits:

  • in bed at 9-9:30pm (we’re already early to bed, early to rise people)
  • up at 2:30am
  • get in some writing, reading, and meditation
  • back to bed for a long nap, 4-6am

As described in the myth of the eight hour sleep, this type of pattern can be common and fighting it in order to sleep normally may actually be causing problems for some:

The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.

The article discusses the possibilities of how people passed the nights in centuries past. Although there is a lack of references in high volume, there is enough to suggest that a period of wakefulness in the night was the norm:

Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

Looking back even further, there may be more evidence. I’ve often thought of how the habits listed in many of the Psalms could be real. King David himself often wrote about the night watches

My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches


I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; My heart also instructs me in the night seasons

I’m purely speculating here, but I’ve wondered what these phrases indicated about the culture of David’s time.

Overall, this type of pattern I listed above would still result in 7 hours of sleep and is not such a stretch from the habits of most people. Besides, I often find myself awaking in the hours of 2-4am and it takes a while to get back to sleep.

Might as well put some of that time to good use.

The routines: making the most of the time

A second aspect of our culture’s fascination with time is the systematizing of how we use it. We love to think about how to best structure our time, schedule our days, build habits, and essentially, hack our brains.

This is the reason why sites like My Morning Routine exist.

But once again, although it can be tempting to poke fun at our collective navel gazing, there is good reason for our fascination. Primarily because mindfulness can bring change. Shawn Blanc sums this up well as he describes how a couple of small changes resulted in a huge increase in his primary creative outlet.

Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.

His change? Write for 30 minutes at the beginning of every day. Every day.

Sounds simple, right? But he — and you and I — have built up other habits that have to be replaced with the new one. For Shawn, that meant not checking stats, Twitter, and the like until the writing was completed.

Weeks later, the effects of the change are evident. So while it’s certainly true that we can waste the time away constantly reviewing our workflow, this does not mean reflection is not helpful. A healthy, balanced amount of reflection, when paired with intention and discipline, can be a good thing.

GTD: the beginning?

As someone who once focused his energies on productivity and the systemization of how we work (enter in the dreaded three letter acronym from hell aka GTD), I can’t help but wonder if this all started because Merlin Mann shared all his hacks about his hipster PDA on 43 Folders. Those of us in the apple, design, blogging world have been thinking about this type of topic for quite some time.

Was our desire to tinker with notebooks and applications the gateway drug to bigger things? Now instead of folders, pens, and egg timers, we’re prone to tinker with the essentials (sleep now, food next, then what? Oxygen intake?).

And although I spend far less time writing and thinking about productivity, and relatedly, tinkering, I'm still prone to snap my head around whenever someone mutters the word, "System". Is this focus a problem of how we view our self worth? Is our identity so tied to what we accomplish that it leads to a focus on how to do more? Some think so, especially after spending time in other cultures.

So the question to ask is not whether this is all useful. Rather, the question to ask yourself is this: how much of all this is useful for me? Like most things, it’s a matter of moderation. The dose is the poison. If you find yourself spending more time reading about life hacks than making change, you’ve gone too far.

As alluded to at the top, a part of this fascination is simple luxury. We have so much extra time and resources that we’ve constructed a society that teaches you to fill each waking hour. So much so that we all feel the strain of more to do than time to do it. In other cultures, survival can be where humans put all their energy … and people in these situations often strike me as more content and satisfied with life than us life hackers.

Nevertheless, I find myself pondering the question: can I put my time to better use? We all have the same amount of time each day, but whether we spend it creating, sleeping, or meditating on deep things is up to each of us. Whatever hacks or tricks we employ, if they result in a wiser use of the great equalizer, time, we’re better off for it.

As long as action is a result.