British technology writer Danny O’Brien, in 2003, interviewed people he considered to be the most productive folks he knew. This group included computer programmers who implemented simple and technical strategies to improve their work. For example, they would rely on text documents to remember important information, like birthdays and to-dos. They could then search for this information when they needed to access it.

The following year, O’Brien presented his findings at the O’Reilly Emerging Technologies conference in San Diego to brainstorm up-to-date tips and tricks. These secrets were called “life hacks” by O’Brien. And, we’ve been obsessed with hacking ever since.

What Makes a Clever Hack?

The thing is, when it comes to upping your productivity, there isn’t an exact science. Often, it takes patience and lots of trial and error before finding a hack that works for you. But, to get you started on the right foot, let’s first take a closer look at what constitutes a clever hack in the first place.

Inspires you to take action.

The key to any successful hack is that it motivates and inspires to take action. Yet, so many hacks do the opposite. In fact, most hacks are a huge waste of time.

Think about it. You come across an article or a YouTube video that promises that the hacks listed will make you more productive. In reality, you spend several hours either in the planning stage or attempting to make a task more efficient. Of course, this precious time could have been better spent actually doing the task.

One example would be creating a vision board. The idea is that this will help you achieve your goals. However, according to research, when you envision yourself receiving a reward, the brain feels as if you’ve reached the goal. As a result, you lose motivation to put in the work to get there.

As opposed to visualizing yourself crossing the finish line, focus on actually running the race. While it’s not always pleasant to imagine the pain and effort needed to reach your goal, the visualization will increase your chances of success.

Should alleviate frustration.

I always chuckle when I come across those ridiculous infomercials that make common tasks so overwhelming. Then, of course, there’s also the funny/ridiculous YouTube hack videos. I recently saw one where a woman hoped on a man’s shoulders. Why? Just to grab a pair of shoes that were on the top shelf — like, why didn’t she have a step stool in the closet in the first place? Clearly an easier option then, I don’t know, asking an employee for assistance?

In my opinion, this is the genesis of a clever hack. It should reduce the amount of frustration in your life, while not adding any more stress. But, that’s also become an issue with lifehacking, in particular. Nikil Saval explains, “life-hacking threatens to turn every aspect of life into a task to be managed. It enlarges the amount of work to be done…[as] we scientifically manage ourselves.”

Rather than jumping on bandwagons or hacking just for the sake of it, hone in on a specific frustration. For instance, if scheduling meetings or appointments has become the bane of your existence, a quick solution would be to download a tool like Calendar. It uses machine learning to make smart suggestions for future meetings and will even automatically schedule them for you.

Frees-up your schedule for downtime.

Hacks are designed not only to relieve the frustration of tedious tasks you aren’t a fan of, but they’re also meant to save you time so you can add beneficial additions to your lives and your well-being. Unfortunately, we often use this additional time to work even more.

“What we want…is to ‘life hack in the morning — in order to nap in the afternoon and exercise after dinner,’” explains Evgeny Morozov. “What [we’re getting] right now  is  to ‘life hack in the morning — in order to skip naps in the afternoon and work after dinner’ — is a raw deal.”

To maintain your motivation and sanity, you must use your spare time to rest and recharge. For example, you might meditate or exercise for half an hour or read a book for pleasure. Taking care of yourself mentally and physically should always be a priority.

Richard Branson, as an example, bought his own paradise, Necker Island, specifically for self-restoration. Branson writes in a Virgin blog post that while on Necker Island, he kitesurfs daily. “It’s great exercise, recreation, relaxation, and stress management.”

Obviously, a majority of us don’t have our own private hideaway. But, you could purposely block out an hour in your calendar to do whatever you desire, whether that’s riding a bike, taking a nap, or watching a TED Talk.

Focuses on the big picture.

In many cases, life hacks work at the task level and pull your focus to minute details. As a result, you could lose sight of the big picture, as well as your priorities.

The danger there is sometimes maybe you optimize…one thing to the exclusion of everything else. So when people are first introduced to [life hacking], they love it…but then they realize productivity is just one piece of their life, and maybe they’ve distorted their lives by fixating on that one particular thing. — Joseph Reagle, Art of Manliness Podcast

Again, a quality hack should at least eliminate the unnecessary from your life. As a result, you can zero in on what’s truly important. This could be something as simple as having a weekly lunch with someone who encourages you towards your goals.

It’s practical, simple, and effective.

Speaking of simplicity, hacks shouldn’t be impractical or complicated. The “problems a lot of life hacks solved could be fixed more easily with money, or time,” writes Katie Way. “Buy a rip-resistant pair of tights, pay a Task Rabbit to do the hammering, commission a baker to recreate the dinosaur cake from Pinterest.”

In fact, either a change in diet, sleep, or work schedule will suffice. For example, during the pandemic, I had a friend who went remote. His boss let his employees work whenever they want, just as long as they met certain guidelines. Since my friend is a night owl, he could finally work when he was most productive. It was just as simple as that.

Identifies your sources of resistance.

Life is all about choices. For example, work isn’t a requirement. But, you do need money not only for survival but also for leisure. So, you might pick up a side gig if you choose to backpack through Europe for two months.

To combat the hesitation that comes with changing behavior or new challenges, Calendar co-founder and CEO John Rampton wrote that you should identify your sources of resistance. Preferably, anything that’s related to those voices that say “I have to,” “I shouldn’t” or “I can’t.” Next, replace those negative voices with ones that are about choice. Examples include “I choose to do something that gets me closer to a goal. I want to accomplish things I set my mind to.”

Flexibility is key.

Tim Ferriss, for example, has developed his life hacks through self-experimentation. While these can be helpful, these hacks aren’t applicable to everyone. For example, a typical morning routine for Ferriss includes 20 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of journaling, and 20–90 minutes of exercise — sounds great, right?

For Ferriss, and many others, that’s all well and good. But, a parent with very small children may snicker at his morning routine because it’s not flexible enough for them. However, watching for hacks and applying some level of flexibility, can make most hacks work for you. Maybe you can wake up 15-minutes earlier to journal or meditate. As for your exercise? This could be playing with your children throughout the day while sticking in a little stretch here and there and an extra lift of the kid in the air while playing.

In other words, the best hacks should be able to be customized to suit your unique situation better. In your family or in business today, hacks can save you time — but they can value-add to your life and work. If you can deploy a value-add to your life — you know you’ve found a clever hack.

Image credit: rf studio; pexels; thank you!