Hacking the Self: Are Life Hacking and QS Perfectionist Self-Sabotage or Superhuman Self-Realization?

When joining a gym, I measured myself up. I stepped on an InBody body composition analyzer; it looked pretty much like a scale except that it also had a handle that I was supposed to hold in the front of me for a moment while staying perfectly still. A small current of electricity was sent through my body, and bioimpedance levels revealed the amount of fat – which conducts electricity poorly – in my body. In a minute, I was shown my fat and muscle percentages with what appeared to be an astounding accuracy.

I was hooked. Soon, I was spending a great deal of my time online, researching everything from supplementation to optimal excercise regimes. I was determined to see a difference each time I stepped on the machine. Still, a part of me was wondering: whatever happened to the tape measure? Why did I get such a thrill out of knowing exactly how many calories my body consumes in rest? How come we desire such detailed information about ourselves, and why do we want to optimize results when, in the olden days, amateur sports were about having fun? Why does the whole western world seem to have an OCD, and why am I loving it?

The attention for detail isn’t sports-specific, though. I’m one of the many people who have been positively swept away by the new wave of efficiency romanticism. We populate our smartphones with apps like Evernote to remind us to keep productive. We try to get more done every day, in the hopes of getting further towards our dreams. Dreams of shorter workweeks keep us looking for more efficient work and study methods – and researching them effectively takes up whatever free time we had in the first place. We read blogs like Lifehacker, promising us tips and tricks on organizing our lives into perfection. And those of us who have dived headfirst into the Quantified Self movement are sporting various self-observation gadgets in hopes of further individualizing the process of optimization. In optimizing our working hours and our household chores, we hope to gain time for self-realization. But are we really developing our unique selves, or are our individualistic plans no more than a scheme of self-deceit?

Optimizing the individual

In many ways, the social movements of life hacking and the Quantified Self are characteristic of present-day Western society as a whole. Magazines and, increasingly, even newspapers feature articles on how the life of the individual can be perfected. The “helpful tips” about controlling your fat percentage, organizing your workspace, choosing colors to suit your complexion and managing weeknight meal preparation come across as ways to empower the individual to self-realization by lessening the burden of obligatory chores, increasing focus, and improving health.

Life hacking is a manifestation of the same phenomenon in an increased concentration: in the lifehacker culture, workflow acceleration – getting things done faster and better – can be applied to any regular task. Studying German while commuting or doing sit-ups while your food is in the microwave are both viable hacks, although life hacking is most easily applied to the digital workspace in the form of e-mail organization, productivity apps, and scripts.

The Quantified Self is an attempt at taking an individualized, data-based approach to optimal performance. The self-trackers making up the movement utilize technology such as wearable computing to track such data as their sleep rhytms, macronutrient intake, and mental performance, cross-referencing and analyzing it in order to gain knowledge about, for example, what behavior will correlate with increased physical performance. Like the life hacker who believes that taking a couple of hours to set up a number of useful e-mail filters will save them hundreds of hours of work in the long run, the self-quantifier will take the time to self-experiment in order to improve their self-knowledge and to use that knowledge to maximize their potential.

Tailored to fit (in?)

The hectic experience of present-day life, with phenomena to be digested and decisions to be made hurling at us at an overwhelming rate, increases these movements’ appeal. We have an increasing sense of insufficiency, and the urgency of striving to get on top of our lives gains foothold in today’s zeitgeist, as testified by the increased number of self-help books, magazine articles, and other media purporting to give us just the information that we need to gain momentum. More and more commonly, we also enlist the help of professionals to help us manage, and life coaches, therapists, professional organizers and zen teachers alike make themselves available to aid our struggle. Life hacking and the Quantified Self have a valuable asset in comparison to these: they bring the control back to the individual, and stress each person’s unique needs. They’re about customization:
tailoring one’s diet, exercise regime, computer interface and other life’s facets for maximal self-realization.

However, the movements are not without their critics. In his article, “Hidden Capitalism In Life Hacking & The Quantified Self”, Andre Klein argues that life hackers and self-quantifiers are lacking in analysis. According to Klein, the movements’ ethos is derived less from a respect for authentic individuality, and more from the protestant-capitalist ethics that drive the western workplace ethos. He argues that “the ideology of life hacking and the quantified self movement is worshiping the work ethic without having to admit its context or consequences.They are a means to an end, but the latter is shrouded by the hype about the former”.

All the talk about personal excellence and accelerated workflow, then, would have less to do with increasing your leisure time and more to do with crafting the perfectly industrious worker. Geniously, this development is outsourced to the worker herself. The complaint is not new: many have lamented the way that the modern-day worker is expected to spend their spare time grooming, keeping up with the news, and excercising, perhaps doing the occasional yoga retreat to relieve the stress of it all – all this, so that their input at the workplace would be better. But are all these techniques, as Klein argues, methods so closely tied to the ideals of a capitalist work ethics that they cannot, in fact, be used for purposes of authentic, non-market-oriented self-realization?

Obsessive improvement

Andre Kibbe, a life hacker, sets out to formulate the underlying theory of life hacks. Rather than discussing its relevance to the economy or the workplace, Kibbe compares life hacking to japanese spirituality. In a blog post entitled “On Productivity Tips: Towards a Unified Theory of Life Hacks”, Kibbe asserts that the point of life hacking is simply in looking at the various tasks of life from a broader, systems-oriented point of view. By looking at patterns and repeated tasks in one’s life and reconfiguring them, it’s possible to eliminate unnecessary strain, thereby creating avenues for personal improvement. “Life hacks are instances of an ethos the Japanese call Kaizen: the focus on continuous, methodical improvement by viewing all resources and processes that contribute to a desired outcome as aspects that can be tweaked, measured or reconsidered — variables like tools, schedules, environment, relationships and methods”, he argues.

According to Kibbe, this tweaking can be applied to any aspect of life, and life hackers in general seem to agree: in the prominent Lifehacker blog, writers encourage readers to “Upgrade Your Sleep This Weekend” , or to “Call Your Mom (Or Another Loved One) For a Quick Energy Boost” . Looking for perfection on all areas of life sounds great, but when life hackers go as far as to endorse making use of “The Most Productive Ways To Spend 30 Seconds of Down Time” , one starts to wonder whether the life hacker is actually setting herself up for a continuous feeling of inadequacy. Won’t their mood, self-confidence and relationships suffer? But Kibbe ensures his reader that the problem is not in the abundance of tips, but in the end user: “Without the right mindset, consuming advice is unproductive, but having a clear purpose for seeking out and implementing advice changes the ethos of life hacking fundamentally.”

The problem is, finding, and keeping, a clear purpose is increasingly hard, when we’re being bombarded by expectations of perfection on all areas of life. The strain is especially hard on young females. According to psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, “Trying desperately to shine academically, juggle hectic extracurricular activities, become popular, look great, and get into elite colleges, teenage girls feel compelled to hide their distress from the ones they want to please—and often become disconnected from their true selves in the process.”

While Cohen-Sandler’s research focuses on girls, the problems of overachieving are similar regardless of demographics. Ali Barrett , a self-confessed overachiever, comments on Cohen-Sandler’s book with a list of common-sense strategies for relieving the pressure. Number three on the list: “Don’t scrutinize over little things.” But a whole lot of the lifehacking and Quantified Self phenomena appear to be just that – scrutinizing over little things, ad infinitum. Kibbe’s “methodical improvement” may be about a maintained focus, but it’s hard not to imagine the lifehacks-as-Kaizen devotee as obsessive.

Geekiness Is Next To Godliness

Kibbe calls life hackers geeks, in a fond way. That is no misnomer, as the movement did start with the IT oriented. However, in expanding to a larger demographic, the movement – along with its self-quantifying counterpart – is losing a key factor of what made life hacking such a great thing in the first place. That factor is the actual geekiness.

Unlike the typical overachiever, who strives for perfection on all areas of their life, the geek is obsessed – and here I join Kibbe in observing obsession as a positive factor. This is because the geek’s obsession is often monomanic, or, at least, directed towards a limited number of goals. The geek makes no pretense to excel in everything. She will willingly admit to, stereotypically speaking, incompetence on areas such as self-promotion, grooming and cooking, and rather focus her perfectionist impulses to such things as coding, gaming, and science. Here’s the gist: aiming for perfection on one or two areas is not neurotic. Subjecting your entire life to scrutiny and “tweaking” may easily be, and will most likely lead to burnout, sabotaging whatever results you may have been gaining before you crash.

The geek maintains balance by maintaining focus. That’s why she ends up places, unlike the generic overachiever, who will gather too many projects to keep up with any of them. What’s hard, though, is keeping a clear vision of yourself in the face of the myriad options available. Perfection is enticing. We look up to our seemingly flawless role models with the adoration that the ancients had for their mythic heroes. The image of perfection, and freedom through it, carries connotations of the numinous. Of ascension, sometimes even salvation. Rising above the everyday life by squeezing the chores into as little time as possible. Saving your marriage and your career by creating a smooth workflow from which you emerge with a beautifully zen mindset. We love the OCD zeitgeist because it promises us self-improvement, self-realization. And it promises to give it through tips and tricks, little hacks, gadgetry and apps, instead of the arduous life-long path of self-discovery that the self-help philosophies of past decades advocated. Godliness never was so few clicks away.

Measuring the Vision

And so, having gulped down my creatine-laced protein shakes, and having periodically done my squats and deadlifts, I step back on the body composition analyzer, holding the handlebar perfectly still in front of me. I’m excited. Expectant. Nervous, as if on a first date with my new, improved self.

The results are merciless: I’ve only made a tiny bit of progress. I realize the transformation I was looking for is going to take dedication and time. This sparks a number of questions. Am I willing to spend the time necessary to get all the muscle I crave? Or would I rather alter my goals? What is my purpose in working out, anyway? What is my vision? Is my sudden work-out inspiration simply a desire to conform, to look like the people I look up to? Or does it, after all, have to do with realizing my unique full potential?

I have no resolve, nor am I craving one – except, perhaps, on those lonely nights when a dramatic full stop to a story or essay is as appealing as a box of chocolates with a bottle of wine. As with wine and chocolate, resolve is an indulgence best kept occasional. I’d rather keep a watchful eye on my aspirations, evaluating and re-evaluating them in terms of to what extent they reflect my very own response to the enviroment I exist in. Because perhaps, while the self-quantifiers keep a keen eye on their blood pressure and sleep cycles, they should rather be monitoring their goals, seeing how they measure up, and how their visions of themselves develop over time. And that is hard to quantify.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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