Life Hacking

This is a fairly comprehensive snapshot of
how I run my life and what I’m doing to improve it.
For everything else I work on, see Impact Projects.
Last updated December 2016.

Introduction


Start Here

Present-day Alex is very different than the Alex of ten years ago. I’m more organized, healthy, productive, and active than I’ve ever been. Though, of course, many improvements remain.

This page contains a fairly comprehensive snapshot of how I run my life. There is a lot of compressed material. Many of these topics are things I’ve wanted to write blog posts about, but my lack of posting shows that I failed to do that.

Hopefully you find something useful here. (And if you do, let me know!) I’ve tried hard to only include items that I’m actually, regularly using. Though, of course, the exact tools I use at any given time are in a state of flux.

Acknowledgements

Nothing here is original. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I attribute where possible, but it’s been such a slow, gradual growth process that I often can’t recall where I first heard of a particular idea, tool, or technique.

Disclaimers

This page does not use affiliate links. This page does not contain any medical advice. Exercise caution. Nutrition, in particular, is extremely complicated. Just don’t do anything stupid, okay?

Outline

This page is organized as follows:

Goals – Laying the groundwork.

Sleep, Fuel, and Exercise – Covering health basics, setting the stage, increasing energy levels, etc. Basically, squeezing out any obvious life-improving stuff.

Subjective Well-Being – Taking care of mental health, emotions, and energy levels.

Money & Finances – Money can be a huge source of stress in life. Being on top of your finances feels great.

Productivity and Organization – Tools for being more productive and organized.

Some Important Principles

The following are general principles I try to follow at all times, and heavily influence most of what’s on this page.

  • Protect attention – Attention is a ridiculously valuable resource and should be treated as such. Reduce cognitive load, reduce distractions, reduce mental clutter, etc.
  • Keep it simple – Directly related to attention, simplicity is extremely important.
  • Use habits – Habits are “free” behavior. As in, a solid habit is executed effortlessly. People who have a deep exercise habit don’t need willpower to exercise, it just happens.
  • Busyness is a lack of priorities – Busyness is a choice. Usually, busyness is completely unnecessary and is simply a failure to prioritize.

Goals


Overview

Where to start? At the beginning!

I periodically step back and think about why I do what I do, and what I want to do. Not just high-level, big-picture stuff, but all the way down to the mundane like what I eat for breakfast, what I do on my ‘breaks’, how much time I spend reading, etc.

Before you life hack you have to know what you want to do and why you want to do it.

A word of caution: I think people are very bad at setting goals, for a variety of reasons. If you’re going to explicitly set goals and try real hard to achieve them, make sure they’re things you actually want. Consider all of the consequences of pursuing and achieving your goals.

Tools

Reviews – Every year I perform a thorough review of my life and make plans for the upcoming year. See my 8,760 Hours guide for more details. Every quarter I do a shorter, less formal review.

Descriptive, Normative, and Prescriptive Questions – My preferred method of setting general life goals is to explicitly ask three important questions in all areas of my life:

  • Descriptive – Where do you stand right now?
  • Normative – What do you want? What does your ideal life look like?
  • Prescriptive – What do you need to do to move from the present reality toward where you want to be?
This is basically what my 8,760 Hours guide attempts to do.

Set CSI Approach Goals1 – When getting a bit more granular and defining specific projects, good goals are:

  • Challenging – Not too easy, and not impossible.
  • Specific – You know exactly what you have to do, and what “done” looks like.
  • Immediate – You can take action on them right now.
  • Approach – They’re things you’re drawn to do, as opposed to avoidance goals, which are things you don’t want to do.2

Tracking Goals

I use several tools for tracking my goals and life in general.

Mindmaps – I have a Life Overview mindmap with my general life goals, my ~5 year focus, my current year’s focus, and my current main projects.

Evernote – I have several notebooks: Projects (Active), Projects (Next), Projects (Sandbox), and Projects (Archive). This is mostly a dumping-ground for ideas that come to mind that I want to save somewhere, but it’s not where I do my project management.

OmniFocus – This is my general task-management tool.

Current Life Status spreadsheet – I use a Google Spreadsheet to track around 150 life metrics. I use as many concrete metrics as possible, though these are still mostly subjective ratings like “My workspace is uncluttered (rating: 6/7)”. These metrics, sorted by life area, give me an overall “life score”, as well as scores by area, which is especially useful for identifying areas that need the most attention.3

Sleep


Overview

Sleep is by far one of my most important things to hack, given how much energy levels affect quality of life, and given how much time is spent asleep.

Shaving an hour off your sleep requirements gains you 365 hours a year to do stuff. Improving the quality of existing sleep can turn a thousand tired, unproductive hours into fun, energetic, productive hours.

I generally consider this priority number one.

Ensuring Good Sleep

Darkness – My room at night is pitch black. I have thick light-blocking curtains (with extra material around the edges for complete blockage), I unplug as many light sources as possible, and I cover up the ones I can’t avoid.

Melatonin – I take less than one milligram roughly one hour before bed. Definitely helps me fall asleep quickly and maintain a 24-hour sleep cycle. Unclear whether it helps me sleep better.

Target Duration – I always try to get somewhere between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep. More or less than that and I feel groggy/tired all day.

Background Noise – I have a white-noise generator that fills my room with background noise (sounds a lot like a fan) while I sleep.

F.lux – A free Mac app that takes out blue light from your display at night. I also generally try to avoid using my computer or other devices for at least the hour before I go to bed.

Alarm Clock Placement – Related to the above, I always put my alarm clock (usually the same old iPhone that’s playing background noise) on the other side of the room, so that I have to get out of bed to turn it off.

Absolutely No Snoozing – When I do use one, I avoid snoozing my alarm clock as much as humanly possible. Getting out of bed immediately when you wake up (or are woken up by an alarm clock) feels shitty at first, but always makes me feel better in the long-run.

Timed Morning Light – Since my room is pitch black at night, I use a light timer to turn on a light right around when I want to wake up, as a sort of substitute for natural sunrise light.4

Exercise – Exercise also has a big impact on sleep. See the Exercise section for details on that.

Tracking Sleep

I used to use a variety of tools to track my sleep.5 Now I use only my Basis Peak watch.6) This lets me automatically track:

  • exactly when I fall asleep and wake up,7
  • my resting heart rate while asleep,
  • my heart rate throughout the night (which has led to some interesting findings),8
  • the number of times I toss and turn while sleeping,
  • and more.9

This results in graphs like these:

basis-sample-data-patterns-heart-rate basis-sample-data-sleep

Fuel


Overview

Much like sleep, I consider what I eat to be one of the most important things to hack, given how much it affects the rest of my life, in terms of time investment, financial investment, energy levels, etc.

In general, I try to eat as healthy as possible. I enjoy cooking when I want to invest the time, but for most meals I’m fine with quick and easy. I’m also vegetarian.

Supplements10

Creatine – Good for my climbing and apparently this is especially good for vegetarian brains. More info here and here.

Microbes – I take one of these every morning. This is new, so still trying to determine whether it’s having a positive impact or not. Status: On hold until I can find a better way to measure whether these are actually doing anything.

Enzymes – I take two of these before eating certain meals, to reduce upset to my digestive system.

Liquids

Soylent – A liquid meal replacement. I usually drink Soylent for one meal a day (often breakfast). Quick, easy, and dirt cheap.

Power Smoothies – As the website says, “A simple, cheap, convenient, ethical, healthy, tasty meal.” Doesn’t get much better than that! I use a Magic Bullet with a large blender attachment (though really, any blender will do) and stockpile all the non-fresh ingredients, buying fresh ingredients on demand.

Coffee – My beverage of choice. Though, I usually limit myself to one a day. Beans sourced via a Blue Bottle subscription (previously Tonx). Ground using a Hario Skerton, made using an Aeropress.

Water – And that’s pretty much it…

Solids

MealSquares – Another meal-replacement, but this one in bar form. I eat these occasionally, usually as a snack throughout the day.

“Classic Alex” recipes – I have a few staple classic recipes, mostly for breakfast and dinner, that are quick, easy, healthy, tasty, and easy to create variety.11

Other than that there’s the occasional eating out, more inspired cooking, or dinner at a friend’s place.

Tracking Fuel

In general, I don’t track what I eat. I have systems and habits in place that ensure I eat mostly healthy food most of the time.

Occasionally I do short bursts of more detailed tracking to identify any problems. For example, I recently tracked all of my caloric intake in detail over a two-week period. Useful insight: I wasn’t eating enough given my height/weight/exercise levels.

Exercise


Overview

Exercise, like sleep and food, is extremely important. I want my exercise to be easy to do, fun, and time-efficient if at all possible. Exercise is high-priority, given how much it affect energy levels and general well-being.

What I Do

Climbing – I climb because climbing is fricken amazing and all humans should be required to try it. I love it. I revel in the fact that it also tones my body in pleasant ways, and I enjoy doing it. Feels like cheating. I aim for three indoor bouldering sessions a week.

Sprints – Two minute light jog, thirty second full-on sprint, repeat until dead. Makes me feel completely awful for half an hour, but amazing after that. Repeat two or three times a week. Super fast and easy. Bonus points if you take a post-sprint cold shower.

High-Intensity Circuit Training (HICT), i.e., 7 Minute Workouts – Occasionally—in particular when climbing or sprints aren’t happening—I squeeze in one or two seven minute high-intensity circuits. Details here.

Walking – My target is 8,000+ steps a day, tracked using my Basis watch. This is accomplished mostly by walking to/from work and to/from the climbing gym.

Tracking Exercise

I aim to exercise three times a week, minimum, though five (if not too intense) is preferred. My goals at the moment are more about actually getting out and doing the exercise, so I only track my exercise frequency in Beeminder:

exercise

Subjective Well-Being


Overview

Subjective well-being (SWB) is a fancy way of saying “How much are you enjoying life?” I’m using it here to also generally mean things like “how is your mental clarity” or “are there always things weighing on your mind” or “are you feeling cognitive friction in your life.”

This seems important.

Tools

Meditation – I’m a fan of mindfulness meditation. Right now I’m mostly using the Headspace app, because I find it nice and easy to use, and the speaker’s voice is probably the best one I’ve heard for meditation walkthroughs.

Thoughts Log – A.k.a. a journal, implemented in an Evernote notebook. I use Zapier to create a new note at 4am every day for that day, with the date in the title. This way I simply open up the notebook and can add my thoughts with zero effort.

Awesome Log – This is my variation of a “gratitude journal.”12 This is a place to store particularly happy memories, cool thoughts, or fun photos. Similar to my Thoughts Log above, I have a new note generated every day via Zapier. This is especially useful when I want to go back over the last few days and add any missing photos or thoughts, without having to make each individual note.

Focusing – This refers to the specific concept/technique from Eugene Gendlin. I basically think of it as very intentional, structured introspection.13

Regular Brain-Dumping – I have a technique for dumping all of the current thoughts, sources of friction, sources of resistance, etc. in my mind, and then dealing with each one, one at a time, for at least five minutes. I do this in my Thoughts log, mentioned above.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy – I think CBT is great and has several useful insights/ideas, such as:

  • The way you interpret events has a huge impact on your mood and happiness.
  • It is very easy and very common to interpret events in incorrect, negative-slanted ways.
  • There are quite simple techniques for addressing these common misinterpretations.

Tracking Well-Being

It’s pretty hard to get concrete, accurate numbers on your subjective well-being. Nonetheless, here are a few things that I’m currently measuring:

MoodScope – Every morning I complete a 20-question survey on moodscope.com. I haven’t been using it for long, but I’m excited by how it’s going. I also love the affectogram graph it produces:14

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale – About once a week I fill out this form (implemented in a Google Form). See here for details on the scale.

Burns Depression Checklist – Same as above. See here for details on the checklist.

TagTime SWP pings – I was doing this for a while, but haven’t been lately, due to some annoyances with my TagTime setup, which I have yet to fix.

Beeminder – This isn’t for directly tracking well-being, but tracking things that I’m pretty sure improve my well-being. I use Beeminder to track my meditation minutes and thoughts log word count:

Money & Finances


Overview

Money troubles are a huge source of stress for many people. I try keep my finances as absolutely painless and effortless to manage as possible. Being on top of my finances feels amazing.

I keep it simple. A few heuristics are good enough for most situations:

  • Get rid of debt as quickly as possible; only take on debt if absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t spend more than you earn.
  • Live within your means.
  • Build savings.
  • Know how much a dollar is actually worth to you, and frame purchases/expenses in terms of what you could get instead with that money.15

Tools

You Need A Budget (YNAB) – A newer and (so far seems) better budgeting app.

Betterment – Super-simple investing.

Credit Karma – Free weekly credit reports.

Mint – It definitely has its flaws, but Mint.com is still good enough to be valuable. The automatic transaction categorizing is key for me. Status: Not keeping this updated while I’m trying out YNAB as a replacement.

Tracking Money

Mint.com basically does all of this for me. I don’t do any advanced budgeting or complex accounting, I simply review my expenses every month and make sure I’m okay with where my money is going.

I also have automatic investing/savings set up, so that every month after my paycheck comes in it’s immediately withdrawn from my account, so I hardly notice it.

Productivity


Overview

I can’t possibly fit all of my thoughts on productivity in this small space—I use too many small productivity techniques and hacks to list, but here are some of the key ones.

Favorite Techniques

Dashes – Start a 5 minute timer and work on the thing for five minutes.

Frog Eating – An idea from Eat That Frog. I always try to keep my eye on what my biggest ‘frogs’ are—my most important tasks that I’m likely avoiding doing, or even thinking about—and eat them as quickly as possible. This applies to both work and life stuff.

Pomodoros – I don’t use pomodoros as much as before, but still a very handy tool when used at the right time. Pick one thing to work on, sent a 25 minute timer, and work on only that thing until the timer rings.

Flow – While this is less a “technique” and more a “state of being”, being able to get into a state of flow is an extremely useful skill. A skill I have not mastered, but have made significant improvements.

Don’t Be Bored – Being bored is the worst. Sometimes you have to do boring things. Usually if I just do the non-boring things first, I can ride off that success and motivate myself to do the other things as well. Try make boring things less boring by turning it into a game or into a challenge. Ex: “Finish this crap task in 15 minutes.”

Glance at my Procrastination Equation poster – To be honest, I don’t find the content on the poster all that useful these days; the poster serves, rather, as a trigger of thinking patterns like “oh, right, procrastination is a thing that I can attack with a whole bunch of techniques…”

Tracking Productivity

It’s hard to get a concrete metric that accurately captures productivity. The following methods have generally worked for me:

Percentile Feedback – I use a custom percentile feedback graph of my MIRI-related work, inspired by this and built using this. More info here and here. Here’s an example of what my graph looks like:

Tracking Pomodoros – I once tracked all my pomodoros for an entire year, hitting just over 5,000:

pomodoro-tracker

RescueTime – I’ve had RescueTime running on my computer for years now. I rarely look at the data, but occasionally it provides useful insights, such as telling me how much time I’m spending on Reddit or email.

Organization


Overview

As with productivity, I can’t possibly fit all of my thoughts on organization here, so I’ll just list some of the key ideas I find most useful.

Favorite Techniques

The Three Categories – General principle: everything is either in use, in storage, or decoration.

Digital over Physical – Everything is as digitized as possible, with multiple secure backup solutions. I’ve basically done away with all paper in my life (except for a paper notebook I occasionally use.) Physical documents that I must keep (e.g. tax forms) are stored in a GTD-style filing box.

The 30 Seconds Test – A good test of whether my life is organized or not is whether I can find anything in 30 seconds. Need a red pen, an iPhone cable, or a yearly review template? I can produce any of these in 30 seconds. Want to know the status of my current projects, where I’ll be exactly 15 days from now, or what line 23 was on last years tax return? I can answer those questions in 30 seconds. If not, it means my system is broken and something isn’t sufficiently organized, requiring investigation and correcting.

Tracking Organization

It’s hard to find concrete metrics for measuring organization. My general heuristics are things like:

  • How quickly/effortlessly can I find any bit of stored information?
  • How quickly/effortlessly can I find any tool/device/thing that I own?
  • How many “unprocessed” items do I have? (Loose papers, unscanned documents, files on my desktop.)
  • How many physical (stored) items do I have? Do I need them? Can I get rid of any of them?
  • Have I been wasting any mental cycles thinking or worrying about where stuff is, trying to find stuff, or misplacing stuff?


  1. For many great examples of CSI Approach goals, check out Nick Winter’s book The Motivation Hacker. []
  2. Ex. “Exercise 4x/week” is much better than “Don’t gain 10 pounds.” []
  3. I should note that one of the most heavily-weighted metrics I use in each area is my “general subjective rating”, since this captures any intuitions or other information I have about that life area that isn’t explicitly captured in a separate metric. []
  4. I use a Lifx light bulb, using IFTTT to trigger it slowly turning on over an hour a half-hour before my alarm is set to go off. []
  5. Such as Sleep Cycle for iOS, keeping a log of when I went to bed, etc. []
  6. I know, I know, they’ve been recalled. :( I’m in the process of figuring out what to use instead going forward. []
  7. In theory, this is awesome. Tools that require you to flip a switch or something when you go to bed are super lame. However, I’ve been finding that my Peak regularly gets confused about when I actually fell asleep when I read before bed. []
  8. E.g., any quantity of alcohol shows at least a slightly increased heart rate throughout the night. []
  9. Basis also provides a “sleep quality rating”, but in my experience this number has basically zero correlation with how rested I feel, and I’m generally skeptical of the ability of movement-sensitive devices getting an accurate picture of my sleep cycles. []
  10. I think this stuff is complicated, and I do not pretend to have high-confidence in my supplementing choices. []
  11. A bunch of people have asked about these. I’m hoping to write them up in a blog post someday. []
  12. A popular SWB-improving technique that, done the standard way (“Every day, write down three things you’re grateful for.”) has never worked well for me. []
  13. I was really confused by Focusing for the longest time, had a mini-epiphany, and now I get it. I realized that I was basically doing this all along, just not quite as structured as in the book. []
  14. I haven’t been using this for long, which is why this image isn’t complete. []
  15. For example, people will be willing to throw down $10 for a single movie ticket, but unwilling to spend $10 on a board game that could bring a dozen hours of socializing and fun. If you know how much you value a few hours of fun with friends, decisions like this are effortless. Your Money or Your Life is a very relevant book on this topic. []