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Chapter 4: Hacking Motivation

We live in a culture in which the creative class is expected to be self-reliant but in a moment in which distraction is omnipresent. Motivation hacking is offered as a solution, as a means of coping or even excelling. We’ll see just how much work managing the self can be.

Published onApr 03, 2019
Chapter 4: Hacking Motivation

On a lovely summer day, I headed to San Francisco’s Presidio Park for a picnic unlike any other I have attended. The small gathering was for fans of the motivation app Beeminder, and Nick Winter, author of The Motivation Hacker, was the special guest. Winter is the “founder/hacker” behind Skritter, an app for learning Chinese characters, and CodeCombat, a platform that gamifies learning to code. It’s clear that despite being someone who sometimes spends many hours in front of a computer, like Ferriss and Tynan, he isn’t content with the skinny-nerd stereotype. Winter’s webpage features a picture of him doing a single-arm handstand: he’s wearing a Google T-shirt, thin-soled “five-finger” shoes—also preferred by Tynan—and a surprisingly serene expression for someone who is upside down (figure 4.1). When I met at him at the picnic, he was wearing the same nonshoes and tossing a Frisbee.

Nick Winter doing a handstand, 2013, Used with permission.

The Motivation Hacker is a lab report of self-experimentation and a tutorial on how to maximize motivation. Winter’s goal had been to write the book in three months “while simultaneously attempting seventeen other missions.” Among other things, he wanted to learn to skateboard, try skydiving, learn three thousand new Chinese characters, go on ten romantic dates with his girlfriend, hang out with a hundred people, run a four-hour marathon, and “increase happiness from 6.3 to 7.3 out of 10.” Most importantly, he had to finish developing Skritter.1 Winter was inspired to take on these challenges after reading a post on LessWrong, a community blog dedicated to “refining human rationality.”

The LessWrong post was itself a summary of Piers Steel’s The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.2 Steel is a professor of organizational dynamics who suggests that the extent of our motivation can be understood as an equation:

That is, if you want to motivate yourself, make sure your goal is achievable and of value while minimizing distractions and the delay before receiving a reward. For example, imagine you want to motivate yourself to start work on a new chapter in your novel. Begin by writing for just twenty-five minutes, followed by a five-minute break. This is achievable, and you know from experience the hardest part is getting started for the day; you will have begun what Steel called a “success spiral.” You also want to limit distractions and see an immediate reward. So you disable your network connection and reward yourself with a small treat, like a grape, at the end of the twenty-five minutes. Upon reading the LessWrong post, Winter was “excited to see if these techniques, designed to fix low motivation, could be used to hack high motivation to absurd levels.”3

It is fitting that Winter’s inspiration happened by way of an online rationality forum. It is especially galling for the rationally minded to fail to do what is in their own best interest. But failing to do the right thing has long been frustrating. The ancients called it akrasia, the Greek word for lacking self-control. And methods to overcome akrasia are as ancient as the temptations themselves. In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Odysseus had his sailors plug their own ears and bind him to his ship’s mast so he could hear the Sirens’ song. The sailors were to row past, unable to hear the bewitching call nor their captain's pleas to steer toward the deadly rocks. Accordingly, commitments, like burning a bridge so there is no retreat, are sometimes called “Ulysses pacts,” substituting Odysseus’s Roman name. Centuries later, in his letter to the Romans (7:14–17, New Life Version), Paul lamented: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” His solution was to make himself a servant of his God, rather than remain a slave to his own sinful nature.

Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate in economics, was a more recent theoretician of akrasia. Schelling is most well known for his application of game theory to global conflict and cooperation. In 1978 and 1980, he published two lesser known articles about the games people play with themselves to manage internal conflicts.

Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes. We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed. People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves.4

Schelling felt that self-control was an important subject and proposed a complementary field to economics. Just as economics comes from the Greek terms for household and management, egonomics would be the art and science of self-management. There was no shortage of cases: How do we manage our counterproductive fear, anger, sloth, addictions, and other unwanted behaviors? Just as we manage our dysfunctional scratching of poison ivy by trimming our nails and wearing mittens to bed, we need similar “tricks” for the rest of life. Much like David Allen’s use of the term tricks decades later in Getting Things Done, this was life hacking in all but name.

Amusingly, the most likely emblem of effective self-management is that of a tomato—though perhaps the Pavlok wrist zapper, discussed in the last chapter, will take its place. In the 1980s Francesco Cirillo created a workflow, the “Pomodoro Technique,” after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer he had in college. (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian.) The idea is to think about your task, work for an interval, typically twenty-five minutes, and take a short break when the time is up. If you are distracted by an errant thought (“I wonder if Sally returned my email?”), simply write it down for later and continue on task. After you do a few of these, you can take a longer break. Like a lot of productivity hacking, this seems to be about time management. But it’s actually a psychological tool, a self-management tool, an egonomics tool. Its users claim it improves focus, boosts motivation, improves the ability to estimate task duration, strengthens resolve in the face of complex tasks, and lessens anxiety about taking them on. I use a similar time-boxing method and find much of this to be true for me. As Stephen Covey wrote in 7 Habits, “‘Time management’ is really a misnomer—the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves.”5

At the book’s outset I observed that life hacking is a phenomenon of the digital age. We live in a culture in which the creative class is expected to be self-reliant but in a moment in which distraction is omnipresent. Motivation hacking is offered as a solution, as a means of coping or even excelling. We will see that some of its suggestions are useful but that many are oversold. More importantly, we’ll see just how much work managing the self can be and that it’s possible to still feel that it fails to suffice.

The Science of Motivation

Life hackers drink from the well of popular science. They read best sellers and watch TED talks about the behavioral basis of willpower and good habits. This coincides with the boom in social-science-based self-help since 2010, including Steel’s The Procrastination Equation. The term egonomics never caught on, but Schelling’s questions have—in a big way.

In the last chapter we met Roy Baumeister, the prominent social psychologist who suggested a connection between GTD and the Zeigarnik effect. He’s best known for his “ego depletion” theory, popularized in the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. His theory is that we have a limited reservoir of willpower, which is linked to blood sugar: “As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat—which is bad news for people hoping to use their self-control to avoid sweets.”6 Because willpower can be fickle, Baumeister and his coauthor suggest that a good way to resist temptation is to structure your life to avoid it in the first place.

The motivation hacker also needs to build constructive habits. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business suggests that to create a habit, you need a cue (to trigger the brain), routine (to make it automatic), and reward (to establish those routines). Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, by the same author, suggests you make use of SMART goals (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time delimited), but within the frame of a larger “stretch” goal, otherwise you might suffice with trivial goals.7 Coming up with effective goals is also a topic of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.8 As is common with this genre, the best seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was complemented by a popular TED talk.9

All of this popular social science is further complemented by the hype of gamification, which applies game design elements, like scores, leaderboards, and achievement levels, to things like learning and fitness. And the self isn’t the only target of this literature. So-called growth hackers make use of the same techniques to increase sales of their products and services. In one book, a former game designer suggests hooking consumers on products by employing the same cycle of cues, routines, and rewards used in building personal habits.10

These are the works that life hackers take lessons from. They use the motivation equation, set smart goals, develop good habits, persevere, and gamify. They then add their systematization and fondness for technology. These influences are manifest in Winter’s attempt to hack his “motivation to absurd levels” when completing his Skritter app.

In The Motivation Hacker, Winter writes of a moment when his work on the app had stalled: “I want desperately to finish the app, but I couldn’t make myself do the work. I had more bugs than ever … and I could see that the iPhone app was many months away. Expectancy and Value were low, Impulsiveness and Delay were high, and my motivation was gone.”11 He realized that if he wanted to finish, he would have to design an approach using the motivation equation. He began with success spirals, setting an easily achievable number of hours dedicated to working on the app every day. Early successes increased the expectancy that he could achieve his goals. Importantly, he specified these goals in terms of effort, not outcome. To do otherwise courts failure because we have little control over what happens in the world. Focusing on inputs rather than outputs lessens disappointment, and the motivation hacker is primed to try again.

Winter also realized he had been spending too much time fixing bugs, which was a low-value task. He knew that he’d “like fixing bugs more” when it helped users, so he focused on completing the features so he could do the initial “alpha release” to users; this was higher in value and decreased the perceived delay to the next milestone. Finally, to limit his impulsiveness he reserved his most productive time in the morning for app development and otherwise time-boxed email and other distractions (e.g., check email only after lunch).

Winter’s motivation hacking worked. He tracked the time spent on task and made a game of beating his running daily average. He was getting “more done per hour, and had more fun doing it” the longer he worked each day. So he decided to be ambitious and see how many hours he could work in a single week. In the previous two months, he had averaged nine hours a day, but in this concentrated week, he managed twelve, yielding 87.3 hours in total. To further lessen his impulsiveness, Winter recorded and posted a time-lapse video of both his screen and his face. By telling his friends he was going to do this, he created a commitment that he did not want to fail. It also curbed his impulsiveness, since he didn’t want others to see him wasting time visiting distracting websites. In doing this, he achieved absurd levels of productivity while not losing track of his other goals. In addition to working 87 hours, he had been social five times, averaged 125 pull-ups a day, and was sweet to his girlfriend 100 percent of the days tracked. Subsequently, he conducted the same weeklong experiment with his CodeCombat project and “clocked in at 120.75 hours.”12

Productivity Porn

When I read Winter’s post about working 120 hours in a week, I was dismayed and intrigued. My dismay was shared by the first commenter to the post: “What, are you an idiot? My goal this week is to see if I can go five days without urinating. What kind of sense does this make? There are surely better things you can do than see if you can work yourself to death, no?”13 I was intrigued because Winter so clearly relished the experiment. He averaged 17.25 hours of work a day, with 6.38 hours for sleep and 22 minutes for eating. Yet the well-being indicators he assiduously tracks had been high: his average happiness was 7.03/10 (“awesome!”), his energy was 6.64 (“high for me”), and his health was 5.33 (“5 is ‘okay’”). The other handful of commenters appreciated the experiment and insights gained. Programming can be meditative, and you can do a lot with focus and motivation. They asked questions about his approach and how he made the video. Winter was also warned to “enjoy it while it lasts”; such focus becomes more difficult with age, especially with children. (He has since had two children, something I return to in a subsequent chapter.)

Winter has clearly hacked his productivity, but others are rarely—if ever—so successful. Lesser hackers wonder if their tinkering is just another type of procrastination. And we ought to ask, How much of this is based on sound science?

Many a life hacker is fond of the aphorism, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.” There is little evidence that Lincoln said this, but Lifehacker echoed the claim in 2011:

Lincoln, who was a skilled woodcutter before becoming one of the most important presidents in US history, probably meant this both literally and figuratively. Inefficient tools waste your energy. It’s better to spend the majority of your time finding and cultivating the best tools for any task. … Applied to indoor jobs, “sharpening your axe” may include things like setting up email filters, using text expansion, and installing productivity software. Furthering your education, eating right for better brain power, and otherwise sharpening your most important tool—your mind—also will help you work more efficiently.14

Although this sentiment is used to justify the hours life hackers spend on their systematizing, experimentation, and tweaking, many appreciate that this can waste more time than it saves. Merlin Mann, creator of 43 Folders, joked about the lure of “productivity pr0n” (pornography in internet slang) as early as 2005: “It is a tongue-in-cheek term often used lovingly by its avid—even obsessive—consumers. It often implies the awareness that not all productivity pr0n leads to actual productivity. … In any case, many friends of 43 Folders (including its author) will readily confess to their productivity pr0n addiction.”15 By 2008, this loving sentiment had turned bitter: Mann had become disillusioned with the superficiality of life hacking. Consequently, he committed to cutting back on what he termed “half-finished, half-useful, half-ideas that I both make and consume” and instead “do all of it better.”16 By the end of the year, he had reduced his posting to 43 Folders and ceased it altogether in 2011.

More recently, Heidi Weiss, a technical writer, mother, and blogger, called this predilection “process fondling.” In a 2015 talk about life hacking “for the rest of us” (i.e., women, parents, and caretakers), Weiss spoke about applying software workflows to her life, especially her hobby, “agile crafting,” which brings “agile principles to the needle arts.” She warned that “if you spend more than an hour a day reading about time management, you have failed.”17 This has even been the topic of an XKCD comic (figure 4.2), popular among geeks, that charted, within a five-year time frame, “How long can you work on making a routine task more efficient before you’re spending more time than you saved?”18

Figure 4.2 Randall Munroe, “Is It Worth the Time?,” XKCD, 2013,

The Reproducibility Crisis

Clearly, “sharpening the axe” can be a way of procrastinating. Instead of chopping wood, we experiment with novel methods and materials for improving the blade. But do we know that any particular gadget or method for sharpening actually works? As with self-help in general, we should not be surprised to learn that some claims are short of well founded. For example, could holding your urine, as was farcically suggested earlier, actually boost productivity? Lifehacker thinks so, based on a trawl of questionable research. “The Best Body Hacks to Boost Your Productivity at Work,” recommends that you “put your thumb in your mouth and blow to reduce stress,” “chew gum or coffee stirrers for added focus,” and “use your right ear for important conversations.” Most notably, “control your bladder to control impulsive decisions”; that is, take a big drink of water before a meeting so that the determination not to wet yourself will spill over.19

That post is an example of a larger problem with contemporary research, its reporting, and the self-help suggestions based on it. Consider the recent hoax study that concluded that eating chocolate accelerates weight loss. The study had real subjects (only fourteen), a typical methodology (subject to false positives), and a statistically significant result (with minuscule effects), and it was published by a rigorous peer-reviewed journal (so says the publisher).20 This was a weak study best ignored, but many news sites reported the finding as fact, revealing problems with scientific rigor and journalistic vetting.

To gauge the extent of this problem, a number of efforts are being made to reexamine well-regarded and classic studies. The Reproducibility Project, a collaboration of hundreds of researchers, repeated one hundred studies from top-tier psychology journals and managed to reproduce the results of just thirty-five. Another approach, the Replicability-Index, uses meta-analysis to combine existing studies’ data so as to reveal spurious findings. This happens to include Roy Baumeister’s famed ego-depletion theory of motivation, though Baumeister remains convinced his methods and conclusions about blood-sugar are sound.21

The reformers believe that researchers have had too much freedom to steer work toward statistically significant results. A p-value represents the likelihood that a novel finding would happen by chance alone—5 percent is a typical upper threshold for significance. Yet this value is meaningful only in the context of testing a single hypothesis, not of fishing for results across many variables. For example, the chocolate study took eighteen measurements from fifteen people: blood protein levels, cholesterol, sleep quality, weight, well-being, etc. By trawling for results across eighteen measurements, the researchers had a 60 percent chance of finding something that looked significant at the 5 percent level. Whether researchers inadvertently fool themselves or purposefully trick their peers, the practice is known as p-hacking, appropriately enough.

The problem of p-hacking is compounded by journals’ publishing only novel findings. For every remarkable result (e.g., “chocolate accelerates weight loss”), there are many unpublished studies that find the opposite but are never published. This publication bias distorts our understanding of the world and contributes to baseless self-help advice.

One way forward is for researchers to register their hypotheses and methods before any data are collected. This limits researchers’ degrees of freedom in shaping the analysis. Additionally, even negative findings should be published so as to prevent publication bias.

Until these reforms become the norm, researchers are in fraught waters, especially when they give advice to the public. The authors of Grit and Rethinking Positive Thinking have both been criticized for making unwarranted but “science-y” claims in pursuit of the self-help market.22

This concern has even caused a split between two coauthors. In one of the most popular TED talks ever, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy spoke of her research, with Dana Carney and Andy Yap. She began her talk with “a free no-tech life hack and all it requires is that you do this: change your posture for two minutes.” Cuddy and her coauthors had found that “power posing,” taking a confident posture, for two minutes increases confidence, risk taking, and testosterone, decreases cortisol, and improves how one is perceived in “stressful evaluative situations,” like a job interview. This shows that “our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes outcomes.” The “no-tech life hack” is to not just fake it until you make it, “but fake it until you become it.” Cuddy asked the audience to share her message with others, especially those with the least resources, power, and privilege, “because it can significantly change the outcomes of their lives.”23

Cuddy’s talk and subsequent book were popular successes, but attempts at replication by those who wanted to build on the research yielded poor results. A few years later, Dana Carney, Cuddy’s coauthor, took the unusual step of explaining why she no longer taught, researched, or spoke to the public about power poses. The failed replications and her understanding, in hindsight, of the work’s weaknesses led Carney to conclude that the effect was not real. As Carney did much of the data collection and analysis, she was able to frankly disclose the many mistakes she and her colleagues had made. In their research design, the testosterone effect may have been the result of winning a small prize rather than posture. In their analysis, they ignored data, selectively removed outliers, and reported only the statistical tests that showed significance (i.e., they engaged in p-hacking). In response, Cuddy conceded that although the most rigorous attempt at replication—a registered study—failed to find the behavioral and physiological changes, it confirmed subjects’ reports of feeling more powerful; the behavioral and physiological changes “are secondary to the key effect” and the subject of continuing research.24 However, people’s self-reports are notoriously unreliable. Subjects often report what they want to believe. Had the change in feeling been the only finding, it would not have merited a TED talk, life hack, or new self-help regime.

Part of the problem might be the attempt to reach the TED stage. In 2012, the TED organization was forced to issue a warning about the increase of pseudoscience at TEDx events. In 2015, comedic writer Will Stephen gave a compelling-sounding talk that began: “I have absolutely nothing to say whatsoever. And yet, through my manner of speaking, I will make it seem like I do—like what I am saying is brilliant. And maybe, just maybe, you will feel like you’ve learned something.”25 This parody echoed a debate from a few years prior in which TED was criticized for offering solutions that were little more than placebos: they were “middlebrow megachurch infotainment” that offered overly simple, inspirational but ineffectual, solutions.26 The same critique has been leveled at life hacking and Tim Ferriss specifically. The author of one prominent profile notes that sections of Ferriss’s books “sound like an Onion satire of a TED talk,” and another characterizes his speech as that of the “Wired-reading app-happy nerdpreneurs” and his prose as “a combination of northern Californian lingo (Ferriss is often ‘super psyched’) and TED Talk jargon.”27

A lot of life hacking advice is based on published research. Unfortunately, much of this work is of questionable quality. Worse yet, there is a lot of “woo,” what skeptics call bogus beliefs dressed up in science’s trappings, and life hackers are not immune to its allure. Fortunately, the current tumult means that science remains capable of improving. The life hacker must then be savvy to the differences between phony science, weak science, and rigorous science—listening with both ears.

Odyssean Goal Tracking

As a hacker and developer of learning apps, Winter naturally made use of an app in his efforts to be absurdly productive. There are hundreds of apps that provide goal tracking, graphing, habit building, daily inspirational quotes, and even hypnosis. Such apps have become especially popular with the addition of social and gaming features. You can now join group challenges (nearby or virtually) and receive encouragement and coaching. You can also connect your goals with role-playing. In Habitica, eat junk food and your character loses health points, do ten push-ups and it gains gold and experience points. Winter used Beeminder, which describes itself as “Odyssean goal tracking,” referencing the myth of Odysseus bound to his ship’s mast. Beeminder asks you to bind yourself to a set of increasing monetary penalties. Forget to floss your teeth? You just lost your $5 and are now on the hook for $10, then $30, $90, $270, and more.

Beeminder is not the only such app—StickK is a popular alternative from Yale economists—but it is the geekiest. Beeminder and StickK both receive the money their users forfeit for broken commitments—StickK allows users to specify a different beneficiary, but even then the company still gets a cut. This seems odd at first, but it was not troubling to the users I spoke to: they saw it as paying for a useful service.

Beeminder is the product of Danny Reeves and Bethany Soule. Reeves has a doctorate in computational game theory, and he subsequently worked on incentive systems at Yahoo. Soule has a master’s degree in machine learning and often “speaks publicly about her crazy Quantified Self life-hackery.”28

Beeminder is intended for “akratics,” those who want to do something that is achievable but are unlikely to follow through. Many life hackers speak of a difficulty in motivating themselves to floss their teeth, and this is a perfect Beeminder goal: it’s of value and definitely doable, whereas becoming an astronaut is valuable but unlikely. Beeminder uses penalties to motivate its users to achieve their desirable and doable goals, just as Schelling suggested decades ago. Consider the example of A. J. Jacobs, the author who outsourced his life and otherwise turns yearlong experiments into best-selling books, like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and living biblically. As part of his Drop Dead Healthy experiment, he decided to kick his dried mango habit—despite their “veneer of being healthy,” they are “really just orange-colored sugar.”29 He wrote a check to the American Nazi Party and told his wife to mail it should he ever eat another dried mango. Jacobs succeeded, and Beeminder uses a similar aversion to losing money encapsulated within a web service.

Upon creating a goal, Beeminder creates a path of daily milestones called “the yellow brick road.” The idea is that a long-term goal is more likely to be achieved if you take baby steps toward it. Every time you “derail,” or step off your road, you pay a quickly increasing penalty. The road can be flat (floss your teeth at least once a day) or increasing (go from writing three hundred to a thousand words a day). Beeminder is structured to offer “meaningful commitment with maximal flexibility.” The commitment becomes “meaningful” with the increase of the penalty: $5, $10, $30, $90, $270, $810, and $2,430. (The most anyone ever paid has been $810.)

The flexibility is in specifying how quickly your milestones ramp up: “Beeminding means committing to keep your datapoints on your yellow brick road, but the steepness of the road is under your control, with a one-week delay.” The week delay, which Beeminder calls the “akrasia horizon,” keeps you from the immediate temptation of adjusting your goals downward: “it’s the time horizon beyond which you can make rational decisions, undistorted by akrasia.” And the penalty schedule is chosen so that you reach your “motivation point” as quickly as possible, such that “you’ll never waste more than half of the amount that eventually motivates you to stay on track.”30

Sean Fellows, a software engineer I met at the Beeminder picnic, used the app for a number of ordinary tasks like watering his plant, exercising, calling relatives, brushing his dog, and sending photos to his mother’s digital photo frame. Fellows most appreciated Beeminder’s integration with IFTTT (IF This Then That), which allows users to write recipes that integrate different services and devices. For example, your phone can automatically tell Beeminder if you’ve gone to the gym (via geolocation), called your father (via the dialer app), exercised (via the accelerometer), and completed urgent tasks (via the todo app). Fellows managed to mind his goals with modest pledges, never having paid more than $30. And, true to type, he had a bunch of scripts and a Beeminder goal for managing his Beeminder goals.31

Winter has used Beeminder as a goal tracker, without penalty, and a motivator, with large penalties. As noted, the motivation equation worked well for Winter when launching Skritter. The launch date was a hard deadline, Winter’s finances were at stake, and he likes to code. He didn’t set a pledge amount for this goal, but he still used Beeminder to track his efforts. Winter initially set a modest goal and managed to increase his app development time from 1.3 to 2.7 hours per day. This showed he could improve, but it wasn’t enough, so he increased the goal to 5 hours a day. For the first three months of the Beeminder goal, he “skated the edge” of derailment, as he was “never more than a day’s work away from failing.”32 In time, his use of the motivation equation created a success spiral, and he easily exceeded his target.

Other goals required the possibility of losing money. When I expressed my concern to Winter about being a workaholic and the oddness of setting social and girlfriend goals, he conceded that doing work was his “natural state, so adding Beeminders for everything else is what I do to avoid doing too much work and not getting balance … it’s dangerous to focus only on, say, work productivity, because you can definitely make yourself into a work monster.”33

One of the unnatural goals for Winter was to go skydiving, and he requested that the folks at Beeminder set a $7,290 penalty for failing to follow through. Surprisingly, this isn’t all that unusual. Short-circuiting the usual schedule, which starts at $5, to a higher penalty is a feature available to premium members of the service. Not only did this increase Winter’s motivation, it lessened his anxiety about jumping out of a plane. He pledged thousands of dollars, paid for the skydiving tickets on a specific date, told all his friends and colleagues, and wrote about it in a draft of the book: “Now that I’ve pre-committed far more than necessary, I’m so sure that I’m going to successfully jump out of the plane that I’m not afraid anymore. I’m excited.”34 In the end, he didn’t like it and has no desire to jump again, but he had successfully insulated himself against any anticipatory wobbling of will. For Winter, if it comes down to willpower, you haven’t sufficiently hacked your motivation. Beeminder provides a mechanism for folks like Fellows and Winter to do just that. People could cheat and falsify their data to avoid a penalty, but Beeminders are self-selecting: they do not want to mess up their tracking data—they often use automated devices (like a Withings scale or Fitbit)—and they want to continue to benefit from the service. Yes, Beeminder does make money when you fail at your goals, but as the Beeminder website says: “we make you fail less!”35

The Rat Race

Is Nick Winter’s 120-hour workweek a harbinger of a troubling future? His maniac week was a personal challenge undertaken by a hacker with significant autonomy, but what might it mean for others? He tested motivational hacks on himself, but what does it mean when employers come to expect maniacal motivation from workers forced to compete among themselves? Captive rats racing through a maze easily comes to mind.

The notion of the rat race stems from psychological experiments in the early part of twentieth century. Most famously, beginning around 1929, Robert Tryon and his students began breeding a diverse group of rodents into lineages of “bright” and “dull” maze runners. Those that avoided previously encountered dead-ends were interbred, as were those that fared poorly. In one study, Tryon wanted to test the role of nature and nurture, so he let some dull mother rats foster bright pups and bright ones foster dull pups. The difference in the data was stark: nature (genetics) trumped nurture (fostering).36

Incidentally, a few decades later, Robert Rosenthal and a colleague noted that this experiment was not blinded: Tryon and his students knew which rats were which. Rosenthal asked his students to replicate the study, telling them he would provide bright and dull mice. In truth, Rosenthal randomly assigned mice to the two groups. Still, surprisingly, the purportedly quick group did better. He suggested this was because the students had biased the results, perhaps by favoring those thought to be bright.37 This parallels the reproducibility problems I alluded to earlier and is a further lesson regarding how easy it is to fool ourselves.

As early as the 1950s the “rat race” appeared in popular culture as a way to speak of the exhausting pursuit of success at the behest of an unseen force. Is productivity hacking complicit in accelerating the pace? To answer this, we have to distinguish between the rat, the race, and the guru.

There have long been complaints about the configuration of the capitalist maze. In its most recent form—which different critics refer to as late, new, digital, or cognitive capitalism—imbibing the self-help tonic only perpetuates the anxiety it purports to quench. This is Micki McGee’s argument in her 2005 book about America’s self-help culture, Self-Help, Inc. The anxiety is the consequence of “our culture’s fantasy of a disengaged, masterful, rational, and controlling self that creates the possibilities for endless and futile self-improvement.” Self-help gurus foster this anxiety by “conjur[ing] the image of endless insufficiency,” which leads workers “into a new sort of enslavement: into a cycle where the self is not improved but endlessly belabored.”38

Although McGee makes no mention of the life hacker, her fantasy self-improver sounds like a good fit. Appropriately, in his critical history of life hacking, Matt Thomas concludes that “hacking is offered up as the solution to the overarching anxiety provoked by the networked age.” As such, it is a “technologized form of self-help” in which we seek to “master ourselves using technology, make do with less, ignore structural conditions, forget about the past, and work, work, work to make ourselves more productive like good little robots.”39 For critics, motivation hacking is another station on the robotic assembly line. And gurus’ promises of greater effectiveness and efficiency yield only increased austerity and enslavement.40

Modern life is challenging and often unjust; we do, also, live in an age of racing anxiety. Our possible responses are to be demoralized or cynical, to figure out a local fix, or to build a global alternative. Although gurus sell books on how to win the race, most life hackers are coping in their way by sharing local fixes to common problems. Most will, eventually, recognize the danger of “productivity porn” and “process fondling.” Many life hackers recognize the importance of work/life balance—even if, like Winter, it means tracking social and relationship goals in an app. A few even reach for alternatives to our current social systems, though they tend to be far-fetched and high-tech, such as using bitcoin to distribute a universal basic income.

Granted, the digital age enables and rewards the hacker ethos, which can then become seen as the accepted path toward success. If you aren’t hacking your motivation, you will be left behind. It is, therefore, valuable to ask if life hacking techniques are really useful, if this path is for everyone, and if there is a bigger fix. However, it is difficult to fault those attempting to keep up in the rat race, especially if it’s through a maze that they enjoy running.

Winter did take things to an extreme. And for a few, this is a natural way to see and live in the world. If he wants to challenge himself to jump out of a plane, so be it. And Winter likes work, he likes coding. He concedes most people do not like working so much, but “perhaps more of them would if they filled the entire week up with exactly the stuff they wanted to work on.” (After all, the real goal of the four-hour workweek is to spend time on what you value.) Even though it seems like “an eccentric, atypical thing to enjoy … others do enjoy the focus of the maniac work period … whether it’s a week or just a weekend.”41 This group includes Beeminder cofounder Bethany Soule, who emulated Winter’s “maniac week,” posting her own time-lapse video, when her husband and cofounder took the kids to Canada for a week. Even though it was not as “epic” as Winter’s week, Soule says she “got a lot out of this, enjoyed it more than my average work week, and intend to do it again. It’d be great to experiment over the summer with more nontraditional work-hour arrangements with Danny. Maybe trade weeks of intense work with weeks of vacation or something.”42

For those like Winter and Soule, smart entrepreneurs who largely enjoy their work, productivity hacking is a way of improving their work satisfaction and flexibility. Yet at the optimum or “maniac” level, hackers must take care to ensure that it coexists with relationships and family obligations. As we saw in the last chapter, even if polyphasic sleep yields more time in the day, it is difficult to reconcile its scheduling demands with the larger social world. Similarly, without care, boosting productivity, especially in pursuit of material success, can lead to imbalance and burn out—a topic of the next chapter.


Joseph Reagle:

erratum: Heidi Waterhouse