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Life Hacking

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior
to your former self.
Ernest Hemingway

IN T ROD UC T IO N

Start Here Some Important Heuristics


This is a fairly comprehensive The following are general principles I
snapshot of how I run my life and use at all times, and heavily influence
what I’m doing to improve it. (For most of what’s on this page.
everything else I work on, see Impact
Projects.)  Incremental progress – Focus on
I’m a very different person than the what you can do next to
Alex of ten years ago. I’m more improve, not on how far you are
organized, healthy, productive, and from some ideal.
active than I’ve ever been. I continue  Protect attention – Attention is a
to crank the wratchet of growth, ridiculously valuable resource
though, of course, it has much further and should be treated as such.
to turn. Reduce cognitive load, reduce
distractions, reduce mental
There is a lot of compressed material clutter, etc.
here; I could write multiple blog posts  Keep it simple – Directly related
on many of these topics.1 In the spirit to attention, simplicity is
of ‚perfection is the enemy of done‛, I extremely important.
created this page.  Use habits – Habits are ‚free‛
I hope you find this page useful. I try behavior. As in, a solid habit is
to only include items that I’m executed effortlessly. People
regularly using. Though, the exact who have a deep exercise
tools and systems I use at any given habit don’t need willpower to
time are in a state of flux. exercise, it just happens.
 Busyness is a lack of priorities –
Last updated September 2017. Busyness is a choice. Usually,
busyness is completely
unnecessary and is simply a
failure to prioritize.
O V E RV IE W

Priorities – Where to start? At the Well-Being – Taking care of mental


beginning! Here I lay the groundwork health and emotions.
for everything else that follows. Money – Money can be a huge source
Sleep, Fuel, and Exercise – Covering of stress in life. Being on top of your
health basics, setting the stage, finances feels great.
increasing energy levels, etc. Productivity and Organization –
Basically, squeezing out any obvious Tools for being more productive and
life-improving stuff. organized.

P RIO RIT IE S

Overview Tools
I periodically step back and think
about why I do what I do, and what I Reviews – Every year I perform a
want to do, from the high-level, big- thorough review of my life and make
picture stuff, and all the way down to plans for the upcoming year. See
the mundane like what I eat for my 8,760 Hours guide for more
breakfast, what I do on my ‘breaks’, details. Every quarter I do a shorter,
and how much time I spend reading. less formal review.
You need to know what you want to Descriptive, Normative, and
do in life and why you want to do it. Prescriptive Questions– My
A word of caution: I think people are preferred method of setting general
quite bad at setting goals, for a variety life goals is to explicitly ask three
of reasons. If you’re going to important questions in all areas of my
explicitly set goals and work to life:
achieve them, make sure they’re  Descriptive – Where do you stand

things you actually want. Consider all right now?


of the consequences of pursuing and  Normative – What do you want?

achieving your goals. What does your ideal life look


like?
 Prescriptive – What do you need
to do to move from the present
reality toward where you want
to be?
This is basically what my 8,760 Tracking Priorities
Hours guide attempts to do.
Set CSI Approach Goals2 – When I use several tools for tracking my
getting a bit more granular and goals and life in general.
defining specific projects, good goals
are: WorkFlowy – WorkFlowy is my
 Challenging – Not too easy, and general-purpose note taker, project
not impossible. tracker, and priorities organizer.
 Specific – You know exactly what Current Life Status spreadsheet – I
you have to do, and what use a Google Spreadsheet to track
‚done‛ looks like. around 150 life metrics.4 I use as
 Immediate – You can take action many concrete metrics as possible,
on them right now. though these are still many subjective
 Approach – They’re things you’re ratings like ‚My workspace is
drawn to do, as opposed to uncluttered (rating: 6/7)‛. These
avoidance goals, which are metrics, sorted by life area, give me
things you don’t want to do.3 an overall ‚life score‛, as well as
scores by area, which is especially
useful for identifying areas that need
the most attention.5

SL E EP

I generally consider this a top


Overview priority.

Sleep is by far one of my most


important things to get under control, Sleep Goals
given how much energy levels affect
1. Do all the obvious things to
quality of life, and given how much
improve sleep quality.
time is spent asleep.
2. Eliminate the obvious things that
disrupt/reduce sleep quality.
Shaving an hour off your sleep 3. In all things, experiement/track.
requirements gains you 365 hours a
year to do stuff. Improving the
quality of existing sleep can turn a Ensuring Good Sleep
thousand tired, unproductive hours Avoid the Obvious Sleep
into fun, energetic, productive hours. Disruptors – Don’t drink a lot of
alcohol, don’t eat large meals right
before bed, don’t have caffeine past Absolutely No Snoozing – When I do
mid-afternoon, don’t watch super- use one, I avoid snoozing my alarm
intense movies right before bed, etc. clock as much as humanly possible.
Melatonin – I take less than one Getting out of bed immediately when
milligram roughly a half-hour before you wake up (or are woken up by an
bed. Really helps me fall asleep alarm clock) feelsshitty at first, but
quickly and maintain a 24-hour sleep always makes me feel better in the
cycle. Unclear whether it helps me long-run.
sleep better.6 F.lux – A free Mac app that takes out
Darkness – My room at night is quite blue light from your display at night.
dark. I unplug as many light sources I also generally try to avoid using my
as possible, and I cover up the ones I computer or other devices for at least
can’t avoid.7 the hour before I go to bed.
Unwind Time – Roughly between Good Equipment – You use it every
when I take my melatonin and when I night, so spend the time to find the
want to fall asleep, I try to unwind mattress, pillow, and sheets that work
and relax as much as possible, usually for you! I use a memory-foam pillow
by reading fiction on my Kindle, often well-suited to the fact that I’m a side-
in bed. sleeper.
Consistent Length – I always aim for Exercise – Exercise also has a big
7.5 hours of sleep, though impact on sleep. See
occasionally alow longer sleep if it the Exercise section for details on that.
seems necessary.8 While I do strive for
consistency in when I go to bed and
Tracking Sleep
wake up, I find locking in
the duration of sleep better than Spreadsheet – I use a simple
forcing a consistent schedule. spreadsheet to track the basics of my
White Noise – I have a white-noise sleep schedule: when I fall asleep,
generator that fills my room with when I wake up, and how long I
background noise (sounds a lot like a slept.
fan) while I sleep. Apple Watch – I’m currently
Alarm Clock Placement – Related to experimenting with the AutoSleep
the above, I always put my alarm app that combines movement data
clock (usually the same old iPhone and heart-rate data from my Apple
that’s playing background noise) on Watch to quantify the quality of my
the other side of the room, so that I sleep.9
have to get out of bed to turn it off.
F UEL

Overview Liquids
Much like sleep, I consider what I eat Soylent – A liquid meal replacement.
to be one of the most important things I usually drink Soylent for one meal a
to get under wraps, given how much day (often breakfast). Quick, easy,
it affects the rest of my life, in terms and dirt cheap.
of time investment, financial Power Smoothies – As the website
investment, and energy levels. says, ‚A simple, cheap, convenient,
ethical, healthy, tasty meal.‛ Doesn’t
In general, I try to eat as healthy as get much better than that! I use
possible. I enjoy cooking when I want a Magic Bullet with a large blender
to invest the time, but for most meals attachment (though really, any
I’m fine with quick and easy. I’m also blender will do) and stockpile all the
vegetarian. non-fresh ingredients, buying fresh
ingredients on demand.
Coffee – My beverage of choice.
Supplements10
Though, I usually limit myself to one
Creatine – Good for my climbing and
a day. Beans sourced via a Blue
apparently this is especially good for
Bottle subscription (previously Tonx).
vegetarian brains. More
Ground using a Hario Skerton, made
info here and here.
using an Aeropress.
BCAAs – Shortly before, during, and
Water – And that’s pretty much it…
after intensive exercise (usually
climbing), I add some BCAAs to my
water bottle. I find it very effective at Solids
reducing muscle soreness post-
“Classic Alex” recipes – I have a few
exercise.
staple classic recipes, mostly for
Enzymes – I take two of these before
breakfast and dinner, that are quick,
eating certain meals, to reduce upset
easy, healthy, tasty, and easy to create
to my digestive system.
variety.11
L-Theanine – I add L-Theanine to my
Other than that there’s the occasional
morning coffee. It’s a tea leaf extract
eating out, more inspired cooking, or
that may help reduce stress and
dinner at a friend’s place.
anxiety, and reduce ‚caffeine jitters.‛
Specific Diets Tracking Fuel
Vegetarian – I’ve been vegetarian for In general, I don’t track what I eat. I
over ten years. Despite being a fairly have systems and habits in place that
active person, and thus needing to eat ensure I eat mostly healthy food most
more protein, I’ve never found it of the time.
difficult to get enough protein.
Ketogenic Diet – I periodically do Occasionally I do short bursts of more
multi-week ketogenic diet sessions, detailed tracking to identify any
which is essentially an ultra-low carb problems. For example, I recently
diet. While often used for weight loss tracked all of my caloric intake in
or for specific medical reasons like detail over a two-week period. Useful
epilepsy, I do it for the physical insight: I wasn’t eating enough given
energy and cognitive boosts it gives my height/weight/exercise levels.
me.

E XE RC ISE

Running – I enjoy a solid 5km run. I


Overview generally prefer going for distance
rather than speed. My favorite is trail
Exercise, like sleep and food, is
running, though that’s not as easy to
extremely important. I want my
make happen. Furthest I’ve run to-
exercise to be easy to do, fun, and
date is a half-marathon.
time-efficient if at all possible.
Hiking – I love a good nature hike.
Exercise is high-priority, given how
As with running, I enjoy trying to
much it affect energy levels and
get far.
general well-being.
Walking – My target is 8,000+ steps a
day, tracked using my watch. This is
What I Do accomplished mostly by walking
to/from work and to/from the
Climbing – I climb because climbing
climbing gym.
is fricken amazing and all humans Sprints – Two minute light jog, thirty
should be required to try it. I love it. I
second full-on sprint, repeat until
revel in the fact that it also tones my
dead. Makes me feel completely
body in pleasant ways, and
awful for half an hour, but amazing
I enjoy doing it. Feels like cheating. I
after that. Repeat two or three times a
aim for three indoor bouldering
week. Super fast and easy. Bonus
sessions a week.
points if you take a post-sprint cold Tracking Exercise
shower.
High-Intensity Circuit Training I aim to exercise three times a week,
(HICT), i.e., 7 Minute Workouts – minimum, though more (if not too
Occasionally—in particular when intense) is preferred. My goals at the
climbing or sprints aren’t moment are more about actually
happening—I squeeze in one or two getting out and doing the exercise, so I
seven minute high-intensity circuits. only track my exercise frequency
Details here. using Beeminder.

W E LL -B E ING

current thoughts, sources of friction,


Overview sources of resistance, etc. in my mind,
and then dealing with each one, one
Subjective well-being (SWB) is a fancy
at a time, for at least five minutes. I do
way of saying ‚How much are you
this in my Thoughts log, mentioned
enjoying life?‛ I’m using it here to
above.
also generally mean things like ‚how
Cognitive Behavior Therapy – I think
is your mental clarity‛ or ‚are there
CBT is great and has several useful
always things weighing on your
insights/ideas, such as:
mind‛ or ‚are you feeling cognitive
 The way you interpret events
friction in your life.‛ This seems
has a huge impact on your mood
important. :)
and happiness.
 It is very easy and very common
Tools to interpret events in incorrect,
negative-slanted ways.
Meditation – I do 20 minutes
 There are quite simple
of mindfulness meditation a day
techniques for addressing these
using Headspace, which I highly
common misinterpretations.
recommend (the practice and the
app).12
Focusing – This refers to the specific Tracking Well-Being
concept/technique from Eugene
I find it hard to get concrete, useful
Gendlin. I basically think of it as very
assessments of well-being.
intentional, structured introspection.13
Nonetheless, here are a few things
Regular Brain-Dumping – I have a
that I’m currently measuring:
technique for dumping all of the
Beeminder – This isn’t for directly my well-being. For example, I use
tracking well-being, but tracking Beeminder to track my meditation
things that I’m pretty sure improve minutes and exercise.

M ON EY

Overview Tools
Money troubles are a huge source of
You Need A Budget (YNAB) – A
stress for many people. I try keep my
budgeting app. It’s only semi-
finances as absolutely painless and
automatic, so it does require some
effortless to manage as possible.
effort every month to categorize
Being on top of one’s finances
transactions. That said, I really love
feels amazing.
the budgeting implementation.
I keep it simple. A few heuristics are
Betterment – Super-simple investing.
good enough for most situations:
Credit Karma – Free weekly credit
reports.
 Get rid of debt as quickly as Automatic deposits – I also have
possible; only take on debt if automatic investing/savings set up so
absolutely necessary. that every month, after my paycheck
 Don’t spend more than you earn. comes in, it’s immediately withdrawn
 Live within your means. from my account, so I hardly notice it.
 Build savings – long-term
investments, emergency funds,
buffer funds. Tracking Money
 Know how much a dollar is YNAB is where I do most of this. I
actually worth to you, and frame review my expenses every month and
purchases/expenses in terms of make sure I’m okay with where my
what you could get instead with money is going.
that money.14
P ROD UC T IV ITY

Flow – While this is less a


Overview ‚technique‛ and more a ‚state of
being‛, being able to get into a state of
I can’t possibly fit all of my thoughts
flow is an extremely useful skill. A
on productivity in this small space—I
skill I have not mastered, but have
use too many small productivity
made significant improvements.
techniques and hacks to list, but here
Don’t Be Bored – Being bored is the
are some of the key ones.
worst. Sometimes you have to do
boring things. Usually if I just do the
Favorite Techniques non-boring things first, I can ride off
that success and motivate myself to
Deep Work – Set aside large chunks
do the other things as well. Try make
of time with zero distractions or
boring things less boring by turning it
interruptions to do focused, high-
into a game or into a challenge. Ex:
value work. For me, this usually
‚Finish this crap task in 15 minutes.‛
involves waking up early and Glance at my Procrastination
working from a coffee shop before Equation poster – For me, this serves
heading into the office. See Cal
primarily as a trigger of thought
Newport’s excellent book Deep
patterns like ‚oh, right,
Work for details.
procrastination is a thing that I
Dashes – Start a 5 minute timer and
can attack with a whole bunch of
work on the thing for five minutes.
techniques…‛:
Frog Eating – An idea from Eat That
Frog. I always try to keep my eye on
what my biggest ‘frogs’ are—my most Tracking Productivity
important tasks that I’m likely
It’s hard to get a concrete metric that
avoiding doing, or
accurately captures productivity. The
even thinking about—and eat them as
following methods have generally
quickly as possible. This applies to
worked for me:
both work and life stuff.
Pomodoros – I don’t use pomodoros
Percentile Feedback – I sometimes
as much as before, but still a very
use a custom percentile feedback
handy tool when used at the right
graph of my MIRI-related work.
time. Pick one thing to work on, sent
a 25 minute timer, and work on only
Tracking Pomodoros – I once tracked
that thing until the timer rings.
all my pomodoros for an entire year,
hitting just over 5,000.
O RG AN IZ A T IO N

can answer those questions in 30


Overview seconds. If not, it means my system is
broken and something isn’t
As with productivity, I can’t possibly
sufficiently organized, requiring
fit all of my thoughts on organization
investigation and correcting.
here, so I’ll just list some of the key
ideas I find most useful.
Tracking Organization
Favorite Techniques It’s hard to find concrete metrics for
measuring organization. My general
The Three Categories – General
heuristics are things like:
principle: everythingis either in use, in
storage, or decoration.
 How quickly/effortlessly can I
Digital over Physical – Everything is
find any bit of stored
as digitized as possible, with multiple
information?
secure backup solutions. I’ve basically
 How quickly/effortlessly can I
done away with all paper in my life
find any tool/device/thing that I
(except for a paper notebook I
own?
occasionally use.) Physical documents
 How many ‚unprocessed‛ items
that I must keep (e.g. tax forms) are
do I have? (Loose papers,
stored in a GTD-style filing box.
unscanned documents, files on
The 30 Seconds Test – A good test of
my desktop.)
whether my life is organized or not is
 How many physical (stored)
whether I can find anything in 30
items do I have? Do I need
seconds. Need a red pen, an iPhone
them? Can I get rid of any of
cable, or a yearly review template? I
them?
can produce any of these in 30
 Have I been wasting any mental
seconds. Want to know the status of
cycles thinking or worrying
my current projects, where I’ll be
about where stuff is, trying to
exactly 15 days from now, or what
find stuff, or misplacing stuff?
line 23 was on last years tax return? I