Saturday, 27 July 2019

Eight life hacks that actually worked

Coffee in Bloomsbury

I’ve been reading about artificial intelligence and reflecting on how irrational us humans are. A visit to any betting shop is a depressing display of how our irrationality makes our lives worse. If we could curb our dumbest behaviours, we could improve our individual lives: eat less junk food, stop smoking, avoid flashy status symbols, and live healthier and happier. Why don’t we use our smarts to make our lives awesome? And collectively maybe we could get along better together too.

I wondered: why do I do things that sabotage my well-being? If I were to optimise my life to be as sweet as possible, then what would that look like? So I tried out a bunch of life hacks, and here are some that have stuck.

Keeping a to-do list on Google Docs

This one is really obvious. It seems pretty dumb, but I’d previously relied on notes on my phone, or a cluster of notes on the desktop of my computer at home. It was just easier to have it accessible anywhere. I broke it up under headings : high (this week), medium (next week), and low (whenever) priorities. To-do things were short bullet points. I could also embed links where it was relevant.
It helps me focus on things that I should be doing now, rather than some pointless but fun action not due for several months.


I read I think five books in three months this way. Now that I do a fairly grim commute, it’s a blessing to have audiobooks. I do often lose concentration and drift off, but it’s easy to skip back in 30 second increments. Machines Like Me I also listened to at 1.5x. Another plus of audiobooks is that they don’t hold all of your attention in the way that TV does, so I can tidy my room, cook food, or go for a run all while listening to something, so my room is tidy and my life is nice and healthy. Major lifehack. But I still listen to lots of podcasts, in particular This American Life and The 80,000 Hours Podcast.

Queal (like Huel)

I’m sure I’ll get lots of flak for this. But haters gonna hate — and it works for me. I chose this brand over Huel because the guy who runs it is a GWWC member. They are tasty and convenient, and replace about 1 in 5 meals that I eat. I still cook lots of fancy things, but this replaces the peanut butter on toast that I would otherwise eat.

If you’re thinking about the environmental impact of the food you eat, I reckon this is among the lowest impact sources out there. The economies of scale of food production, and having virtually no energy requirement of cooking (just add water), mean that it’s much greener than the manual task of travelling to a shop, buying things, taking them home, refrigerating them, having 30% of them spoil, then cooking them with gas or often coal-generated electricity. Plus the source stuff is all vegan, which tends to be low-impact overall.

Sleeping with an eye mask

While popular health kicks often include eating salad and exercising more, I think lots of people probably neglect things like excessive alcohol consumption (as I’ve written about before), poor sleep quality, and stress. Sleep is a huge part of health, and for me it is a major determinant of my health and happiness. I’ve recently bought blackout roller blinds, but when travelling, or when sleeping in, eye masks make a huge difference. So good.

Changing my news reading

It’s stressful and totally pointless to check the news every half hour (but still something I’ve done many times). Nothing is going to have significantly changed. It’s the availability heuristic — judging based on the things that are the most visible—that means constant news reporting gives us such a warped understanding of the world. You can also scroll for hours without any natural sense of end, which makes it a real drain on time.

Instead I signed up to news briefings via email. At the end of the email, that’s the end of my news. I also feel like POTUS getting an email described as my ‘daily briefing’. I’ve subscribed to the following, which I love:
  • BBC Daily News briefing (daily, sent at 6:45am), subscribe here.
  • The Guardian’s The Upside (journalism that focuses on our capacity to act together to make positive change, weekly) subscribe here.
  • Effective Altruism Monthly, subscribe here.
(I also am on the list for EA London’s newsletter, to find out about events, available here).
I have also recently subscribed to the London Review of Books, to get a longer read on some contemporary debates. It is strongly left-leaning, but the writing is eloquent and covers contemporary topics in depth like climate change, UBI, and AI and chess, and I get to feel like a member of the liberal elite. Maybe I’ll switch to the Economist later.

I feel like this hack has been one of the best to reduce stress, and, together with my reading, I feel like it helps me understand the world better.

Password manager

I have tons of logins on different sites, and rather than duplicate passwords it’s just plain easier to have a password manager. Having done some work on cyber security, I can say it is one of the top 5 risks for every organisation I’ve worked at. A few friends have had passwords cracked, and I only expect this to increase in the future. Password managers seem like one useful tool.

I know Chrome has one but I feel a bit icky giving Google all of my passwords and bank information. There are bunch of password managers —this one is apparently good, and I use this one which also has an app so it’ll also work on your phone. I think the paid version is worth it.


I meditate an average of 10 minutes each day. So one day I might skip it because I’m busy or travelling, but then I’ll make up for it with 20 minutes the next day. I’m increasingly annoyed by Sam Harris but I like his app (and I got a subscription before he increased the prices). An example session is here. I also like Christina Feldman.

Donating to effective charities

It’s natural for us to want to help others in need. And with so many problems to choose from: plastics pollution, climate change, animal welfare, global poverty, it can be disorienting. But by thinking about this stuff through an analytical framework, and researching the most cost-effective charities, I feel positive and am excited and proud to support the many wonderful folks making the world a better place (like these awesome people).

It brings me much more happiness than some designer clothing or more gadgets I don’t need. I currently donate 5% of my annual income to a group of exceptional charities, and in the future I’d like to donate more, possibly 10%.

If you liked this article, feel free to share it with your friends. This is the second of a three part series. I’ve also previously written articles about climate change, vegan diets, society and alcohol, and meditation. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

What is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint?

In a 2017 paper in Environmental Research Letters , the authors compare popular advice around reducing individual contributions to climate ...