“Life hacks” entered the language around a decade ago when Danny O’Brien talked about them in the context of programming. In programming a hack is “a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.” This idea has exploded in popularity and has inspired contrarians, who deride life hacking as part of a shortcut culture that can’t seem to buckle down and do real work.

To-do lists are a classic productivity tool that have inspired thousands of technological solutions, incorporating nested lists, calendar features, and the ability to add images. The iOS App Store alone has dozens — maybe hundreds (or more) — of apps for to-do lists or task management, some with enough organizing features to make to-do list management your full-time job. And yet productivity experts may recommend, as a first step, throwing away the to-do list.

Life hacks and to-do lists do help many people to be more efficient and productive, but they share a problem with such perennial publishing favorites as lists of 10,000 tips for weight loss. There are thousands, probably millions of useful ways to do almost anything a little better, but only a handful of them may apply to you, personally. Big lists have to be approached as opportunities to skim for the items that jump out at you, and not as … to-do lists, which stun us with the paradox of choice and then risk undermining us with decision fatigue.

How to Make Hacks and Lists Work for You

The key to efficiency — getting more results out of less effort — is reducing the friction of unnecessary effort, so you can save your energy for more meaningful work. Reducing the friction for good actions means making them easier to do — and making as many good behaviors (like eating nutritious food or exercising more) not only easier but routine, habitual. (You can also increase friction for actions you want to do less — the classic example is not keeping junk food in the house; another is to make treats harder to reach.)

So whenever you see a new life hack, or as you think about how you plan your day with lists, ask yourself: does this solve a problem I genuinely have? Does this make it easier for me to do something I would otherwise put off (or forget)? Does this replace a time sink with a decision that’s already been made? Scott Young offers some steps for thinking through these kinds of questions. You may not want to go the full Steve Jobs route of never wearing anything but a turtleneck and jeans, but a life with less friction will be — by definition — smoother.

Image: I took this photo at a gym that has an excellent selection of specialized equipment for strongman training. People sometimes get ridiculed for driving to the gym — or taking the escalator when they get there — and then getting on the exercise machines, but most gym workouts have a little more variety and control than walking or biking to the gym, and that short escalator ride is helping you get in the door, which can be the toughest part of a workout. Cars and escalators reduce the friction of getting in to do that variety of work, where you then “add friction” in specific ways to get a good workout.


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