Trying to Hack Life Was Making Me Miserable

Ryan Fan

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Life hacks have been the rage of my Google searches over the course of a couple of years. But they were especially prevalent when I was a freshman in college. I tried all sorts of life hacks to help myself get through the day. I needed life hacks to get through my job, my studying, my role as an athlete, and more.

I clung to all these life hacks as if they were a panacea to make me superman and give me everything I wanted — a 4.0 GPA, an ability to barrel through the day on no sleep, the ability to run a 30 minute 10k.

The worst part is these life hacks worked — temporarily. They were shortcuts I’d discovered that everyone else hadn’t. As you can imagine, everything came crashing down, one life hack at a time.

The first I can recall is drinking a ton of water. I constantly found headlines like “I Stayed Hydrated for Two Weeks and It Changed My Life” and would drink gallons of water per day, much more than the daily recommended limit. I could concentrate better when I was studying for organic chemistry, and some workouts I would run better.

However, there is such a thing as drinking too much water, which leads to hyponatremia. And the consequences manifested themselves while I was running — I would start to feel light-headed and paces that normally felt easy would suddenly feel like I was carrying the weight of the world. I recall the only race I dropped out of in college was one I drank gallons of water beforehand.

The thing was I wasn’t listening to myself or my body. Yes, conventional wisdom of “drink water when you’re thirsty” is a bit misguided, but I was going well past that. I would fill my water bottle and chug three bottles even when I wasn’t thirsty.

This was one of many life hacks I tried to embrace that year — another one was not blinking. It sounds very strange to describe it, but I was convinced I could stay awake longer and concentrate better by focusing on my blinking and not blink for long periods of time.

As you can imagine, this was another misguided life hack. Nothing in my life improved by unnaturally stopping my ability to blink.

Other life hacks that popped up over the years included the Pomodoro Technique and taking random 20-minute power naps throughout the day. Again, these may have worked temporarily, but they didn’t change my life and they didn’t lead to substantive change.

What I realized was constantly seeking life hacks and not having them deliver was making me miserable. I was trying to put a band-aid on all my stress and everything I had going on through small fixes that might manifest themselves in big changes. And none of them worked.

Here’s what worked instead

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Well, I found Jesus. That’s a conversation for another time, but 99% of my daily life was still pretty much the same.

What worked for me was not seeking shortcuts and not seeking hacks anymore. What worked for me was allowing myself to live my life.

I originally found the idea of “hacking” when I was playing MMORPGs as a kid. Hackers could fly across your screen, level up much faster than anyone else, and conjure money out of thin air. I didn’t have the technical skills at 10 years old to know how to hack the games, but I wanted to be one of them.

Looking back on that time in my life, I realize something about those hackers: how is the game any fun when you suddenly found a shortcut to make it super easy? Yes, hackers could get to my preferred destination sooner rather than later, but I wouldn’t see them on the game that long — the game got really boring.

For me, the moment I stopped hacking life was the time I started living it. That might sound cliche, but giving up life hacks was an act that made me realize I couldn’t handle everything on my own, that the expectations I set for myself were unsustainable, that I had to actually prioritize rest and taking care of myself over an extra hour of studying or trying to conquer the world.

I still have fantasies of taking over the world in one hour of work — don’t get me wrong. But I have to come back to reality and realize there are much more important things than achievement and productivity.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve your life. But trying to hack it comes with a different connotation. It’s looking for a shortcut, tinkering with yourself as if you were a piece of technology or line of code.

I have struggled with my thoughts towards self-help recently. There’s a backlash to the prevalence of “life hacking” and self-help advice on the Internet, which I largely agree with.

“To my mind, “self-help” meant books and programs that promised to help the afflicted transform self-defeating emotional patterns into psychologically healthier ones. Such claims struck me as sketchy, too sweeping and soupily defined to ever deliver palpable results,” Laura Miller says at Slate.

But I realize not all self-help advice like “stop comparing yourself to others” and “embrace failure” is bad — it’s that we’re overexposed to them. The first time you see a Marcus Aurelius quote on the Internet, you nod and think “the man has a point,” but the 17th time you see the same quote makes you cringe because it becomes cliche, out of touch, and overpromising.

What life hacking did for me was allowing me to be the superman vision of myself I always wanted to be — for two hours. And when it all came crashing down, I was back to reality, back to the person I was with human limits and constraints, someone who needed to eat, needed human connection, and needed to see a therapist for underlying issues.

The problem with drinking more water wasn’t that I didn’t need to drink more water — it’s that I saw it as a solution to all my life’s problems when they were obviously more complex than the switch of a button. And they couldn’t sustainably be solved by a single lifestyle change.

If I could pinpoint things that actually changed my life, it was my friends and my daily interactions with them. It was becoming close enough to people that I was comfortable sharing some of the darkest traumas and secrets of my life with them. It was the moments that won’t go on my resume, the atrociously played pickup basketball or soccer games, the times gathered in a room watching the latest episode of a TV show.

Life hacking didn’t change my life. It didn’t make it better. It was only a band-aid that stopped me from actually living.

Originally published on August 20, 2021 on Mind Cafe

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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