T HE BEST LIFE HACKS SHARE MUCH
of their conceptual DNA with Extreme
a software development approach that relies on
the principles of teamwork, simplicity, and a baked-in iterative process. (Plus funky names with an
increasingly retro feel, but let’s ignore that for now.)
Though we’d never want to push the metaphor
too far (who, us?), it’s fair to say that a Venn diagram
of Life Hacks and XP would show a large section of
overlap between a reverence for focused simplicity
and the pursuit of a clear and modest goal.
Code the Unit Test First
XP programmers gauge the success of a new chunk
of code by whether it can pass an automated “unit
test.” This is a modest programmatic yes/no quiz
that determines whether new code returns the kinds
of values that would indicate it can play well with all
the other pieces of code. Does the add(x,y) function
return 4 when you feed it 2 and 2? If so, great.
XP has an extra twist (it is extreme, after all),
whereby you write this test before you begin to
develop your code. So you start with a specific goal
in mind, and build in the means to determine when
you’ve reached that goal. You know what success
looks like, and can recognize when it’s OK to move on.
The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work
When choosing an approach to building code that
will pass their unit test, XP programmers are always
encouraged by their beardy masters to “try the
simplest thing that could possibly work.” Note that
this is not the most comprehensive thing, nor the
most impressive thing that could work, nor even a
particularly enjoyable thing that would just be fun
This approach maps to the results of Danny’s
original Life Hacks research, where he learned that
many über-geeks were overclocking their productivity
by creating dozens of ad hoc scripts for use within
wildly simplified workflows.
The geeks weren’t developing world-beating
frameworks that could “scale across the enterprise”
or cook French toast every morning — most of the
scripts were hastily coded with the single-minded
It’s amazing how we can
be misled by our ambitions
and cravings for novelty.
purpose of fixing exactly one problem.
The geeks’ consequent leaps in productivity
seemed to come not from simply automating repetitive tasks, but, one imagines, from not blowing two
weeks engineering a bloaty system meant to solve
every conceivable problem in their lives.
Unit Test? What Unit Test?
Despite (or, more likely, because of) this XP/Life
Hacks similarity, there’s no small amount of irony
in the recursive loops of unfocused tinkering that
afflict so many aspirational life hackers. When it Extreme Life Hacking
comes to theoretically improving our productivity, The trick is to write down — as in, meticulously
we often do so without the vaguest idea of our own outline — what you need to do, and then devise a
unit test — exactly what problem we’re actually trying method that will immediately tell you when your goal
to fix — let alone the best way to find a satisfying has been achieved. Do the least you possibly can to
solution and get back to work. get there. And if it’s something you do regularly, try
So, we reload
del.icio.us all day, download every to do even less each time.
new web dingus that catches our eye, and then while It sounds so obvious, but it’s amazing how quickly
away our evenings printing out piles of homemade we can be misled by our own ambitions and our
graph paper. The potentially transformative efforts cravings for novelty. Extreme Programming works
of life hacking are squandered on a wash of amusing by operating modestly, and by rechanneling the
time sinks, and you head off to bed 16 hours poorer cruel psychological flaws that darken the souls of
and no closer to improving anything. most geeks and tinkerers. Likewise, if it’s not simple
So, how do we pass this meta–unit test? How do and doesn’t adhere to a goal with a clear finish line,
we stop drifting, quit screwing around, and focus on chances are it’s not a particularly good life hack.
applying economical solutions to things that actually
hang us up? The best answer comes straight out of
(where else?) Extreme Programming.
Learn how to reel in your mind at Danny O’Brien’s
and Merlin Mann’s