Life Hacking

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
Ernest Hemingway

Introduction


Start Here

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.)

I’m a very different person than the Alex of ten years ago. I’m more organized, healthy, productive, and active than I’ve ever been. I continue to crank the wratchet of growth, though, of course, it has much further to turn.

There is a lot of compressed material here; I could write multiple blog posts on many of these topics.1 In the spirit of “perfection is the enemy of done”, I created this page.

I hope you find this page useful. I try to only include items that I’m regularly using. Though, the exact tools and systems I use at any given time are in a state of flux.

Last updated September 2017.

Some Important Heuristics

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

  • Incremental progress – Focus on what you can do next to improve, not on how far you are from some ideal.
  • 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.

Overview


Priorities – Where to start? At the beginning! Here I lay the groundwork for everything else that follows.

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

Well-Being – Taking care of mental health and emotions.

Money – 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.

Priorities


Overview

I periodically step back and think about why I do what I do, and what I want to do, from the high-level, big-picture stuff, and all the way down to the mundane like what I eat for breakfast, what I do on my ‘breaks’, and how much time I spend reading.

You need to know what you want to do in life and why you want to do it.

A word of caution: I think people are quite bad at setting goals, for a variety of reasons. If you’re going to explicitly set goals and work 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 Goals2 – 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.3

Tracking Priorities

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

WorkFlowy – WorkFlowy is my general-purpose note taker, project tracker, and priorities organizer.

Current Life Status spreadsheet – I use a Google Spreadsheet to track around 150 life metrics.4 I use as many concrete metrics as possible, though these are still many 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.5

Sleep


Overview

Sleep is by far one of my most important things to get under control, 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 a top priority.

Sleep Goals

  1. Do all the obvious things to improve sleep quality.
  2. Eliminate the obvious things that disrupt/reduce sleep quality.
  3. In all things, experiement/track.

Ensuring Good Sleep

Avoid the Obvious Sleep Disruptors – Don’t drink a lot of alcohol, don’t eat large meals right before bed, don’t have caffeine past mid-afternoon, don’t watch super-intense movies right before bed, etc.

Melatonin – I take less than one milligram roughly a half-hour before bed. Really helps me fall asleep quickly and maintain a 24-hour sleep cycle. Unclear whether it helps me sleep better.6

Darkness – My room at night is quite dark. I unplug as many light sources as possible, and I cover up the ones I can’t avoid.7

Unwind Time – Roughly between when I take my melatonin and when I want to fall asleep, I try to unwind and relax as much as possible, usually by reading fiction on my Kindle, often in bed.

Consistent Length – I always aim for 7.5 hours of sleep, though occasionally alow longer sleep if it seems necessary.8 While I do strive for consistency in when I go to bed and wake up, I find locking in the duration of sleep better than forcing a consistent schedule.

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

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.

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.

Good Equipment – You use it every night, so spend the time to find the mattress, pillow, and sheets that work for you! I use a memory-foam pillow well-suited to the fact that I’m a side-sleeper.

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

Tracking Sleep

Spreadsheet – I use a simple spreadsheet to track the basics of my sleep schedule: when I fall asleep, when I wake up, and how long I slept.

Apple Watch – I’m currently experimenting with the AutoSleep app that combines movement data and heart-rate data from my Apple Watch to quantify the quality of my sleep.9

Fuel


Overview

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

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.

BCAAs – Shortly before, during, and after intensive exercise (usually climbing), I add some BCAAs to my water bottle. I find it very effective at reducing muscle soreness post-exercise.

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

L-Theanine – I add L-Theanine to my morning coffee. It’s a tea leaf extract that may help reduce stress and anxiety, and reduce “caffeine jitters.”

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

“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.

Specific Diets

Vegetarian – I’ve been vegetarian for over ten years. Despite being a fairly active person, and thus needing to eat more protein, I’ve never found it difficult to get enough protein.

Ketogenic Diet – I periodically do multi-week ketogenic diet sessions, which is essentially an ultra-low carb diet. While often used for weight loss or for specific medical reasons like epilepsy, I do it for the physical energy and cognitive boosts it gives me.

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.

Running – I enjoy a solid 5km run. I generally prefer going for distance rather than speed. My favorite is trail running, though that’s not as easy to make happen. Furthest I’ve run to-date is a half-marathon.

Hiking – I love a good nature hike. As with running, I enjoy trying to get far.

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

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.

Tracking Exercise

I aim to exercise three times a week, minimum, though more (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 using Beeminder:

2017
exercise in 2017

2016
exercise in 2016

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 do 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day using Headspace, which I highly recommend (the practice and the app).12

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

I find it hard to get concrete, useful assessments of well-being. Nonetheless, here are a few things that I’m currently measuring:

Beeminder – This isn’t for directly tracking well-being, but tracking things that I’m pretty sure improve my well-being. For example, I use Beeminder to track my meditation minutes and exercise.

Money


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 one’s 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 – long-term investments, emergency funds, buffer funds.
  • 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.14

Tools

You Need A Budget (YNAB) – A budgeting app. It’s only semi-automatic, so it does require some effort every month to categorize transactions. That said, I really love the budgeting implementation.

Betterment – Super-simple investing.

Credit Karma – Free weekly credit reports.

Automatic deposits – 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.

Tracking Money

YNAB is where I do most of this. I review my expenses every month and make sure I’m okay with where my money is going.

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

Deep Work – Set aside large chunks of time with zero distractions or interruptions to do focused, high-value work. For me, this usually involves waking up early and working from a coffee shop before heading into the office. See Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work for details.

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 – For me, this serves primarily as a trigger of thought 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 sometimes 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

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?

Closing


Acknowledgements

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 and be a responsible human.

Notes


  1. Don’t hold your breath! []
  2. For many great examples of CSI Approach goals, check out Nick Winter’s book The Motivation Hacker. []
  3. Ex. “Exercise 4x/week” is much better than “Don’t gain 10 pounds.” []
  4. Most of which are relatively stable, and don’t need to be updated more than once a quarter or even once a year. []
  5. 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. []
  6. Your mileage may vary. Of the close friends of mine who’ve tried this, all of them found, confusingly, that they slept worse?! []
  7. I used to use thick light-blocking curtains, but since I tend to wake up earlier these days, I want that natural morning light to wake me up. Plus, the curtains were hell’a ugly. :P []
  8. Good reasons to sleep longer than my default target include: being sick; doing some extensive exercise, like an epic hike; feeling sleep debt, e.g. because of a few nights of bad sleep. []
  9. I used to use the Basis Peak watch, though they were unfortunately recalled and the web app shut down. []
  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. I find Headspace nice and easy to use, and the speaker’s voice is probably the best one I’ve heard for meditation walkthroughs. []
  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. 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 good book on this topic. []