Cory defends lifehacking, which “is in pretty bad odor these days, and with good reason: a once-useful catch-all for describing how to make things easier has become a pit of productivity porn, grifter hustling, and anodyne advice wreathed in superlatives and transformed into SEO-compliant listicles.” But at its core, lifehacking is just a collection of little tricks that help people be more productive.
He links to his notes from a 2004 talk by Danny O’Brien: “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks”.
O’Brien’s inspiration was his social circle, in which people he knew to be no smarter or better or motivated than anyone else in that group were somehow able to do much more than their peers, in some specific domain. O’Brien delved deeply into these peoples’ lives and discovered that each of them had merely (“merely!”) gotten very good at using one or two tools to automate things that would otherwise take up a lot of their time.
These “hacks” freed up their practitioners to focus on things that mattered more to them.
… everyone who created a little hack was faintly embarrassed by it, and assumed that others who learned about their tricks would find them trivial or foolish. O’Brien changed the world by showing that other people were, in fact, delighted and excited to learn about their peers’ cool little tricks.
(Unfortunately, this eventually opened the floodgates of overheated posts about some miraculous hack that turned out to indeed be silly and trivial or even actively bad, but that wasn’t O’Brien’s fault!)
Cory notes that he is a pretty productive fellow himself, having written nine books during lockdown. And he shares a couple of his little tricks.
One of them is having “a group of daily tabs that I open in a new browser every morning. The meat of this tab group is websites I want to check in with every day, either because they don’t have RSS feeds, or because I want to make sure I never miss an update.”
These include news and opinion websites, Wikipedia pages whose edits he is watching, and also personal finance and ecommerce sites.
I do something similar: I have three folders of tabs: One I open multiple times daily, another that I also open multiple times daily, but less often than the first group, and a third that I open 1x/day. I call them, imaginatively enough, “First,” “Second” and “Daily.” The first group is social media replies, the second group is social media streams, and the third group has more social streams, Discord channels and one or two blogs that have lousy or nonexistent RSS feeds.
Tabs, like lifehacks, are also in bad odor. Everyone stresses about how many tabs they have open…. But this is a very different way to think about tabs. Rather than opening a window full of tabs that need your detailed, once-off attention later, this method is about using groups of tabs so that you can pay cursory, frequent attention to them.
I find RSS, newsletters and daily tab groups do the same job, enable me to check on a couple of hundred websites daily in very little time. I currently use the NewsBlur RSS reader, which is also a great place to read newsletters. (If you don’t like NewsBlur, my friend Barbara Krasnoff writes up five good RSS readers.)
My little tab habit is so incredibly useful, such a powerful way to seize back time and power from powerful actors who impose burdens on me, that I sometimes forget how, for other people, tabs are a symptom of a life that’s spiraling out of control. For me, a couple hundred tabs are a symbol of a couple hundred tasks that I’m totally on top of, a symbol of control wrestled back from others who are hostile to my interests.
Cory talks about how tabs are an example of “generative” technology—innovations that users implement in ways that were unanticipated by people who developed technology.
It occurs to me that a reason I love the Obsidian notes app is that it’s an example of “generative” technology. I use Obsidian in weird ways that don’t seem to be the designers’ intent, but it works well for me—and I think that actually is part of the designers’ intent.
Originally posted to: How Cory Doctorow uses browser tabs for productivity superpowers