The Perils of Hacking: Optimizing is the Enemy of Doing

There’s definitely a close relationship between the glow on your skin and your overall lifestyle and health, and for this reason, we’ve published several articles that talk about diet, exercise, and stress which have a profound influence on your skin. The problem is that exercise routines, healthy eating, plentiful sleep, and exercise aren’t always easy to do. We feel guilty, and then we Google up how hopes of an easy hack, which result in the number of “X most popular ways to do Y; number Z will shock you!” type word salads. Yep, mea culpa.

Getting to the heart of the matter, what does it take to be healthy?

  • Exercise
  • Balanced and healthy eating

In other words, hard work. For many, that’s their cue to hit the backspace. A culture of hacking has taken over a culture of hard work, and the Internet caters to this particularly well. What’s wrong with hacking, you ask? Optimizing, being rational, and questing for efficiency is what the modern world demands, isn’t it? A quick search on Google provides us with facts about almost anything. It can also tell you how to optimally act on everything from peeling bananas to the best time to shop at thrift stores. If the only drawback of fascination with hacks was that future generations would become the masters of the trivial, things wouldn’t be so bad. The trouble is that bombardment of optimizing without a purpose can be ironically suboptimal.

On one hand, Tim Ferris is an evangelist for bio-hacking and the author of several self-help books, the most famous being The 4-hour workweek. Tim is the poster-boy of efficiency over effort—he is a big proponent of the Pareto principle and suggests that by focusing your energy on the 20% that matters, people can minimize effort and optimize/maximize results. Using technology, research, and wit, he proposes that by designing efficiency into lifestyle and business, people can do the extraordinary—whether it’s working 4 hours a week, or bodybuilding, cooking, or anything else in life easily. Tim Ferris represents the most extreme end of hacking for efficient results, promising 4 hour work-weeks with plenty of wealth.

Then there are the no pain-no gain, mind-over-matter camp, often found in drill sergeants, personal trainers and motivational speakers, and they will sound unoptimized and even unscientific. There’s no doubt as to which camp sounds more appealing. Go run on the treadmill and cut out junk food! You’ll never get someone to read that article or find an advertisement for that.

That said, if you take a broader view, the drill sergeants also have a lot of prima facie evidence going for them. Despite the prevalence of dietary and fitness hacks and apps, obesity is a continuous problem in the United States as well as many other developed countries. The critique from this camp is that for all the pseudo-scientific appeal of life-hacking, as a whole, there appears to be little evidence of easy solutions working on a wider scale. That there are so many new fad diets and exercise routines that promise immediate results or your money back can be seen as evidence that these “hacks” for the most part aren’t effective—if they were, why are they so varied, and why is there still plenty of market for them? In a society which is becoming more educated and increasingly connected, why hasn’t the “optimal hack” resulted in societies becoming healthy, more productive, and so on? Finally, the underlying critique—sometimes said explicitly, sometimes not—is that all these hacks might just be the snake oil to the weak-willed that keeps them from actually doing anything, hoping to purchase the next information product.

Is lifestyle hackable?

The obvious problem is that nobody can put healthy foods into your mouth, and nobody can make you exercise. Health is 95% effort and 5% optimization. If you focus on the optimization, you’re increasingly focusing on the trivial while eschewing the 95%--how’s that for Pareto efficient effort distribution? When it comes to health then, optimizing actually helps elite athletes the most. Since it’s a given that elite athletes are doing all the grind that they can--they are fighting to optimize the last 5%, and give themselves an edge over their elite competitors who, like them, have all the basics covered.

  • The public already knows 95% of what they need to do in order to be healthy
  • Optimizing does just that--it optimizes results for people who have the other 95% done

For the rest of us, we’re arguably losing sight of the big picture—eating what we know we should eat, and exercising more or even at all—that is holding us back, not the lack of the perfect hack, whether it’s the magical supplement, or eating more superfoods. The negative form is equally seductive-- avoiding acidic foods, avoiding gluten (True celiacs are rather rare), or removing undefined toxins from your body. If only I remove the villainous food, then I can continue to…live the way I normally do. If you’re looking for the universal formula to minimize effort to get into shape, clearly, you’re going to keep looking year after year. That there is a cookie cutter solution that works for everyone is itself questionable, but even if there was one, we’re certainly not close to finding it. If you’re constantly reading top 10 articles to better living, the trivial might be distracting you from what matters. In pre-internet parlance, perfect is the enemy of the good.

Is skincare hackable?

Now we’re talking, and I think the answer is, sometimes, depending on who you are. Like exercise and diet, there are the skincare basics, which are simply about doing: Sun protection, moisturizing, and cleansing. While cleansing isn’t a problem for most, there are tons of people who know about the importance of sun protection, but never slap on sunscreen. These are habits that you need to master. If you’re asking the question, “Which product do I choose?” you probably already have the habit down, and you’re 95% of the way there. Now you’re in the optimizing zone. If you’re having trouble doing it--committing and following through, whether it’s skincare or anything else, here’s what Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit” has to say in his investigation about habits, behaviors, and willpower:

  • Habits are supremely important in how people behave on a regular basis. You’ll need to force yourself to slap on sunscreen, and go to the gym at first, until it becomes a habit.
  • Belief matters; believing you lack willpower decreases it—this is why guilt is counterproductive. On the other hand, spiritual or otherwise, a belief or faith in your ability to change helps you maintain positive habits in the face of challenges, setbacks, and obstacles.
  • Awareness matters; behaviors that make you more aware of your food intake have a major effect on weight loss.
  • Willpower is like muscle; it gets exhausted, and also builds strength with training. This is why small steps build up into bigger success.
  • Explicit short-term goal setting helps to keep you on track. Start with something simple like waking up at a set time every morning.

We’re increasingly living in a society that favors optimizing over actually doing anything. Hacking particular things are useful, addictively so, but not very good at affecting fundamental changes of behavior. In fact, it makes you more expert-dependent, and it goes hand in hand with the idea that there are buyable information products out there that you can unlock to turn your life around. Rather, if there is something useful to hack, it’s your mind and the habits that make up what you do on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s being sun-conscious, or doing your 30 minutes of exercise every day.

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