Hacking Life

Joseph Reagle

Hacking Life: The Quest for an Optimized Life

Joseph Reagle, Northeastern University


Life hacking

“I am a life hacker”

Hacker Stock Photo

To an ordinary person, this might seem like a confession of lifelong criminality.

Yes, hackers often have a technical affinity.

And they do like to understand and explore systems.

Santiago, Chile, Sept-2013

But for most, a hack means a clever improvement or fix.


Life hacking is the application of geeky, hackish ways of thinking: enthusiastic and systematic

Gina Trapani with Bre Pettis' robot's first creation

a sort of clever shortcut, or way to get something done, or systematic way to get something done in your life, whether that’s on your computer (it’s often on your computer) or just doing your laundry or folding your socks (TrapaniDaoud (2010)).


life hacking is a colonizing discourse. (Thomas (2015), p. 22)

  • mind hacks
  • bio hacks
  • food hacks
  • productivity hacks
  • learning hacks
    • ProfHacker
    • GradHacker
    • HackCollege

I’m geeky/hackerish

  • I like to explore and learn
  • I think systematically
  • I believe things can be improved

Two Questions about Lifehacking

Q1. Is it cognitive?

Cognitive style

cognitive style
a stable personal attribute seen in patterns of thinking (e.g., mental models) and behavior (e.g. making decisions)


tend to look for patterns and apply rule-based thinking
tend towards a larger, holistic view and rely upon the integration of intuition, feelings, and context


DrBorka from nl

Systematic thinkers improved at playing the game Sudoku because they “used past experience to discover rules, which they then applied to enhance their performance in subsequent tasks” (SagivEtal (2013), p. 414).

(Experience had no effect on intuitive performance, nor was style alone significant.)

Rational-Experiential Inventory (REI-10, short)

  1. I prefer to do something that challenges my thinking abilities rather than something that requires little thought.
  2. I prefer complex to simple problems.
  3. Thinking hard and for a long time about something gives me little satisfaction.
  4. I believe in trusting my hunches.
  5. My initial impressions of people are almost always right.
  6. I can usually feel when a person is right or wrong even if I can’t explain how I know. (EpsteinEtal (1996))

Cogn. Reflection Test

  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
  1. 1.05 + .05 = 1.10
  2. 5 minutes
  3. 47th day


A sample of new computer-systems students showed “higher than average tendencies towards analytical cognitive styles”: 43.34 (CS) > 41.64 (other) (MooreOMaidinMcelligott2002csc, p. 54).

A sample of ShmooCon 2008 hackers preferred rational thinking styles over intuitive approaches, complex problems over simple ones, and demonstrated “high confidence in their ability to reach optimal decisions through a rational deliberation process” (Bachmann (2010), p. 652).

In a 1993 Wired article, Steve Silberman characterized autism as the “geek syndrome” (Silberman (1993)).

Is it simply a systemic approach to life?


Q2. How far is too far?



PUA Lingo

Field reports will often read, “got to HB8 blond school girl to go back to my place” as an indication of the level of her physical beauty. (Lin (2010))

What’s too far?




Macaca nigra self-portrait

Media credits

Media are linked to their sources in slides, except for the following:

Gina Trapani with Bre Pettis' robot's first creation

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