We're a culture with a seemingly endless appetite for quick fixes, but could embracing the long way lead to happier, more productive lives?
Lindsey Lam considers herself Type A. Rather than shying away from challenges, she has always been determined, continually pushing herself to take on more. After graduating from the University of Alberta, where she majored in both English and women's and gender studies, Lindsey switched into high gear: She worked a full-time job, started a brand-consulting business with a friend and, if that wasn't enough, continued to volunteer as the communications chair on the board of her Rotary District. To help get through her lengthy and ever-growing to-do list, Lindsey used a few hacks to help schedule her time. Some she found helpful, like using visualization to mentally map out a stressful day; others, like using a complicated task-list app, turned out to be a bust.
Hacks (also known as shortcuts, tips or tricks) play on the idea that a wee shift in the way you do something can cause a dramatic increase in your productivity and allow you to do more with less: less energy, less time—you name it. "Hacks are fast, simple and novel ways to save time, money or effort that are fun, harmless and, at times, quite useful," says Dr. Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist in St. John's, N.L. "There's great appeal in feeling successful quickly."
The Internet certainly agrees. Lifehacker.com, for instance, a website that describes itself as "the expert guide for anyone looking to get things done," has about 22 million monthly readers worldwide. And the site is hardly the sole online source of hacks; we're talking scores of beauty blogs, career websites and even the venerable New York Times, all publishing these seemingly helpful tricks. Not bad for a concept that's really only existed since 2003, when Danny O'Brien, a tech journalist, first blogged about a new project he was undertaking to document the clever shortcuts the computer programmers he knew were using to make their lives run more smoothly.
Now, the term "life hack" has evolved well beyond O'Brien's initial tech-focused collection of planning and organizing advice. Articles regularly promise things like a new job by the weekend, instantly well-behaved children or the ability to meet any goal you set in half the time, outcomes that seem a little too good to be true. But what makes these shortcuts so compelling, when many of us instinctively recognize an unrealistic claim? It all comes down to time. We know hacks are rarely as life-changing or easy to implement as they're made out to be, but with schedules, budgets and attention spans stretched to the limit, shortcuts sometimes seem the only way to get the most out of life. Carl Honoré, author of The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed, believes this kind of thinking is a trap. "We see time as the enemy, something to be conquered and exploited to the fullest extent," he says. "We seem to think that the best way to use time is to squeeze more and more into every minute."
Honoré is a proponent of the slow movement, one that (despite its name) is not about dragging things out or being inefficient. Instead, it promotes the idea that tasks should be completed at a speed that allows the participant to enjoy, savour and learn from the experience. Honoré believes that our lives are stuck on fast-forward, to the detriment of our health, relationships and personal development.
It's hard to disagree. Studies have suggested a link between mental health issues and our constant use of smartphones, tablets and computers. Though most hacks today don't depend on computer programs, as in 2003, there is still a strong focus on technology, especially when it comes to improving our productivity at work—and with the sum of the world's knowledge at our fingertips, it's easy to get caught up in looking for quick solutions to the challenges we face, rather than taking the time to think, reflect and finally act on the best course of action. Though Dr. Hubbard can see the appeal of hacks, she, too, believes in the value of slowing down. "Engaging in problem-solving helps shape cognitive skills such as reasoning, decision- making, critical thinking and creativity," she says.
Slow living takes on many forms, but whether it's slow reading, slow parenting or slow travel (to name a few), the concept remains the same: dialing down the pace to enjoy, rather than rush through, the experience. Even the corporate world seems to be coming around to the idea; some companies are adding nap rooms to their offices, offering on-site yoga classes or limiting emails sent to employees during off-work hours. The benefits? More refreshed, productive and engaged employees.
Still, hitting the brakes isn't for everyone. Some personalities, careers and lifestyles thrive in the fast lane. And, as anyone who has managed to double the storage space in her closet can tell you, hacks can be helpful, as long as you maintain reasonable expectations about what they can actually do for you. But "they're generally not realistic for larger goals or achievements," says Dr. Hubbard.
In the end, perhaps Honoré says it best: "Whether it's a fine wine, a happy family or a successful career, the good stuff takes time and effort." It's a reminder that, ultimately, it's often what you put into something that determines what you get out of it.
Ready to slow down? Here's what to do:
Take a pass
Too much going on? Learn to focus your energy on the things that matter to you by saying no to things that don't. If you find yourself put on the spot, try multitasking maven Lindsey Lam's tip: "Rather than saying yes right away, buy time by saying, 'I'll get back to you.' " That way, you're not forced to decide under pressure whether it's something you want to commit to. And when you do reply, "be sure it's with a definitive yes or no," she says.
Change your mindset
Proud of your packed, hectic schedule? "Being crazy-busy should not be a badge of honour; it should be a warning sign that your life is spinning out of control," says author Carl Honoré, a proponent of the slow movement. Remember that life will not be extra fulfilling just because you're extra busy. Take pride in time spent well: Do things you enjoy, connect with friends or work toward your goals.
Think you're doing more? Dividing your attention makes you less efficient and more prone to errors. If something, or someone, is important enough for you to spend time on, give it the honour of your full attention.