Life Hacking or Life Brute-Force: What Does It Take To Get Ahead In Life?


Sometimes, life can feel as though work never ends. Especially for grad or doctoral students. You get up early in the morning, take a shower, brush your teeth, and before you know it you have been engrossed in your responsibilities and the day is nearly over. You may feel like all you do in life is work, work, work, without any time for yourself or leisure. You may feel as though there is no balance to your actions, or that all your time is eaten up by energy-sapping processes, only to wake up the next day and start all over again. 

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell, on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

In those moments you think you would give up anything to make the hours pass quicker (or at least read this darn paper faster!). This is a familiar feeling for many, and it can feel really hard to overcome. There are, however, ways to take the reins of your life, gain greater control, and not let your workload overwhelm you. In this post, we discuss the difference between life hacking and life brute-force, the benefits of each, and which is most advantageous. Dave talks about this topic in detail in the vlog below, but let’s get right into it here!

Life hacking

Something that may immediately come to mind is the idea of life-hacking. Life hacking is a colloquial term for when you try to find clever shortcuts to reduce the amount of work that you do, complete task in a simpler and less time consuming way; one of the goals and benefits of life hacking is to maximize the time that you spend in leisure. Life hacking is everywhere these days from being featured in popular shows, to YouTube videos, in your social media feeds and in blog posts just like this one. 

Life hacking is especially relevant to life as a student. What grad or doctoral students does not want to cut some corners to make life easier? Students find all kinds of life hacks to make their lives easier. They may develop a ‘system’ for grading papers, checking and organizing emails, writing course assignments or manuscripts, or attending to administrative work or matters. Hacks might include using templates for repetitive communication, batching papers to be graded (potential As/potential Bs), creating rubrics and checklists, using old ideas or written work to create new papers or reports (but remember you must rewrite old content because plagiarizing yourself is a ‘thing’ you could get in trouble for).

(If you like this post, you really should read this post about dealing with self-doubts. We all have doubts!)

And these are just hacks related to school and work. All of the great life hacks students find out there become really useful when trying to fit in all the others things in life such as cooking, finding activities to do with the kids, or cleaning the house. Life hacks can also really help with fun things such as being prepared for a day at the beach or a night on the town. Student are made for using life hacks.

Why life hacks are so popular

Life hacking seems advantageous and smart, and it does have its benefits! You can reduce the amount of effort, time, or resources spent on any particular task and find work arounds for things that are intimidating or difficult. Certain tasks become much cheaper because you spend less time doing them. Plus, many people overlook simple techniques that speed up their work and life, which can allow space for you to perform arbitrage and improve performance.

The idea of minimizing work and maximizing leisure is not new. We have been thinking about these concepts since the early 1900s, or even before that. A management scholar by the name of Frederick Taylor was very influential in the development of these ideas and basically life-hacked his way through 20th century factories, optimizing and simplifying many jobs which then boosted productivity.  

The problem with life hacks

You are reading this likely because you are in some sort of rut. You are in the throes of a task, it is taking forever, and you’re just miserable. Life hacking makes things look easy, and those who market life hacking present it as simple actions that automatically boost your status or work ethic leagues above everyone else. This is not always the case.  (Check out this post about why you should not hack your way to becoming a professor.)

Life hacks are very resource intensive. Looking for them and then developing them adds to the time you are already spending on work, expending more energy than you might not actually have. Many people attempt to “hack” something only to find that it’s much harder than it looks, and they do not have the resources to follow through with their plans. This sometimes results in the “shiny object syndrome” – the idea that you are always chasing a new rule for riches. Then they try to hack something else, and then something else, and on and on, constantly coming to dead ends from lack of resources or skill level. Think about using “shortcuts” while driving for example. You think you know that shortcut and that it is going to save you ten minutes only to find you are lost and have added twenty minutes to their trip.

As a student you may find yourself trying to find hacks for almost everything and then your work can begin to seem to routine, or even meaningless. It becomes one template or rubric or form after another and the creativity and learning is gone. You have hacked your entire academic life and it has become very dull. Maybe you have more leisure time and certain tasks are easier, but the life hacks have made your life boring.

Many doctoral students realize that “easier” way out–that life hack that seemed like a quick fix–made life harder by actually taking needed time away from their goals. Quick wins did not finish a task, and they did not help you get ahead in the long run. Even if you are not miserable you can recognize that something needs to change in order for you to push forward. Instead of looking for an easy fix, Dave recommends using brute force to change your perspective. 

Life Brute-Force and embracing the routine

“Life brute-force” methods focus on simply using personal experience and fierce, raw determination to pursue a life goal–whether that be buying a house, building your wealth, or finally finishing that PhD. Brute-force algorithms come from computer science. They are not elegant and very resource intensive, but they get the job done. 

In Dave’s experience, life brute-force is a more effective strategy than life hacking. Life-brute force involves:

  • Actively embracing your situation no matter how exhausting it might feel. 
  • Shifting your perspective and giving yourself strength. 
  • Taking one step after another.
  • Being focused and purposeful in your decision making. 

Life brute-force allows you to embrace your surroundings and take advantage of what you can and improves your ability to succeed. 

There will be a change in your mindset

One of the biggest elements of life brute-force is acknowledging that things won’t be easy and that the best way to get through something is to simply power through it. If you hate the task at hand and feel as though it will never get done, motivation evaporates. And, if all you can think about is how long it is taking and how much you wish it was over already, your productivity grinds to a halt. Suddenly even just looking at your work can feel like a huge hurdle. (Read this blog post about thesis depression, which is a very real thing for many students and professors).

If you have a negative mindset, allow yourself to let go of negative emotions and negative associations regarding your work. Sometimes remembering the goal helps you to let go of negativity. There is a reason why you are doing this, and there is a finish line–it is what’s been driving you all these years. And the work you have to do? Your goals are worth that effort. You are worth it. 

When you approach your tasks from a place of positivity and encourage yourself, just this shift in perspective will make previously monumental tasks much easier to accomplish. Rather than bemoaning all the time it took to write a paper, or get a paper published, or the pitfalls of navigating academia and working with colleagues, the positive-minded students sees a set of challenges and learning opportunities. They are confident in their abilities and their capacity to ultimately persevere and achieve their goals.

Life itself is routine, take pleasure in it

Many people have morning or nightly routines, like brushing their teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, all within a specific order that does not often vary. Routines are powerful tools for work and life. If you think about the top performers in any particular field, like academics, or athletics, the reason why they’re so skilled at what they do is because they developed a routine and performed it on a daily basis. They make incremental changes, incremental progress, and those are the keys to success. Establishing good routines and sticking to them are extremely helpful in terms of reaching your goals. (Here is a post about the normal routine of many grad students.)

They ensure incremental progress over time. As long as you are working on a project, any changes you make and work you do keeps you on the path to your end goal. Some days you get more done than others, but what matters is the fact that you did something in the first place. Take studying for example. On a daily basis you might not make a lot of progress, and it might feel excruciating and difficult to stay on track, but over time the information starts to stick. 

With any monumental task, taking bite-sized pieces on a daily basis nourishes your goals and provides progress every day. You can see, incrementally, the gains you are making. When you have a routine, you do not just forget to work or pay attention to details–you are constantly tuned into the nuances of what you are working on. 

Some of the characteristics of successful grad or doctoral students are quite in line with life brute-force. Those students who have patience, can see the forest through the trees, and can delay gratification are some of the most successful. They build on small and large accomplishments, and keep going. They learn from their mistakes and are creative. Their work is not based on a template, but rather on their intuitive ability to recognize a problem, analyze it, then try to solve it. They are ok with some ambiguity in their work because they understand that science is not always objective or always right.

Check out this video where Dave talks about the qualities of successful graduate students. Note that one of the characteristics he discusses is being able to delay gratification

By establishing good routines, you are ahead of the curve

The vast majority of people are not actually good at starting routines, let alone sticking to them. It is not easy to allow yourself to take bite-sized pieces. We often try to wait and do more in less time. That is when the negative feelings of being overwhelmed and overworked come out. It takes a lot of mental grit and discipline to establish routines and stick to them on a daily basis. By being one of the individuals that do stick to these habits and actively makes progress (no matter how small it might feel), you are already leagues ahead of those around you.

Routines, for a student, can actually enhance creativity and save time. (Check out the exciting work by Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, who have laid the foundations for understanding routines in organizations). You know what the task at hand is, and what the next task will be, freeing up mental space for creativity and intellectual thought. You are not worried about how to organize your day. Undoubtedly many people discovered the power of routines during the pandemic when they were working from home. At first they may have felt tempted to do something around the house, but then when they really got into that routine they found they were just as productive at home as in the office or on campus.

Celebrate your successes

One of the best things about routines and sticking to them is the ability to enjoy your free time. Healthy routines allow you to stop at a given point. They also encourage self-care. When creating those bite-sized pieces that you incorporate into your day-to-day activities, make sure to schedule time to enjoy life and time to reflect on and praise your daily accomplishments.

What that free time and leisure looks like varies from person to person, but just ending the day with free time or leisure, for example, can create positive note on which to end your day. Ending the day with positivity and free time is a daily reward. It reduces stress and anxiety allowing you to have a good night of sleep. You will wake up tomorrow to start the next day’s routine with the same positivity and will be better able to use life brute force to reach your goals.

Celebrate the fact that by using brute-force you changed your perspective and took greater control over your life and academic career. Students and academic in particular need life brute-force, rather than life hacking, to move forward in a healthy way. Sometimes expending the extra time and energy is frustrating or seems pointless, but eventually you begin to realize that you cannot life hack your way through life as a student and ultimately as a an academic if that is the path you take.

If you enjoyed reading this post, here are some other blog posts from blog.r3ciprocity.com that you might also benefit from.

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