Throughout the 2000s, a decade during which the economy tanked, the U.S. started multiple wars, and the rise of cell phones altered the communication landscape, loss and uncertainty were dominant social forces. This pervading sense of instability set the stage for one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the digital age: the life hack. A life hack, roughly defined, is a trick that makes an everyday task a little easier. Life hacks are generally cheap, low-tech, and (allegedly) simple. Think “sock bun” or “spaghetti as a candle lighter.” But while the 2000s birthed the life hack, the 2010s warped it from its earnest origins into a kind of efficiency mania, “optimized” for “maximum productivity,” and also virality.
Tech writer Danny O’Brien coined the term “life hack” in 2004, primarily to describe software-related shortcuts he noticed developers privately creating to make their lives easier. “Modern life is just this incredibly complex problem amenable to no good obvious solution,” O’Brien told the website Lifehacker in 2005. “But we can peck around the edges of it; we can make little shortcuts. And once you point out that everyone does that, once you coin the term, it's really easy to pile a whole of lot of shared behaviors into one neat pile.”
Soon, the life hack evolved to encompass the productivity-boosting mindset championed by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and blogs like Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders (although Mann has since disavowed the cultural force behind life hacks that he helped create). According to Adam Pash, former editor-in-chief of Lifehacker, the appeal of life hacks laid in their implicit promise of improvement. “I really think, at its best, it was about feeling like someone handed you the keys to a slightly (or, rarely, significantly) improved life, over and over again,” Pash told VICE via email. But the darker appeal of the life hack lies in the anxiety-inducing idea that you’re currently Doing It Wrong, whatever ordinary activity “It” might be.
That mentality meshed well with the rising sense of individualism and push toward self-sufficiency that prevailed in the 2000s, according to Peggy Wang, founding editor of BuzzFeed and former editorial director of the now-defunct BuzzFeed Life. “People who came of age in the 90s and 00s didn't take home ec class, we had parents who worked two jobs and weren't around a lot,” she told VICE via email. In lieu of traditional knowledge sources, Wang said, people turned to the internet for answers. “We aren't equipped with basic living skills and have to learn from strangers how to do simple as well as highly complex tasks. This offers an opportunity to rewrite how things are ‘supposed’ to be done.” And when the recession hit in 2008, life hacks assumed a new kind of urgency, given the widespread financial precarity that ensued. With the bright future many people felt was guaranteed for them suddenly vanishing, life hacks were viable solutions for anyone with limited resources and know-how who needed to keep on living anyway. “Life hacks are disruptive of rules and techniques, and sometimes the results are just more interesting and better if something is done crudely, or by someone who has never really done it before,” Wang said.
But as the decade draws to a close, life hacks, or at least life hacks referred to as such, seem destined to be left behind. It’s not that we don’t need help anymore—clearly, we need all the help we can get. But an overview of the trend’s trajectory makes it apparent that the hacks themselves have been done to death. We tracked that rise and fall here. Try This One Easy Trick to Learning More About Life Hacks: read below.
1. Clear nail polish, snagged tights, can’t lose
The first wave of life hacks decoupled from the term’s techy origin were actually fairly basic, pretty helpful tips—the kind of thing traditionally passed down from an industrious loved one to the next generation. No-frills tips like subbing baby powder in for dry shampoo, popping a beer cap off with a lighter, and de-linting pants with a piece of tape were the stuff early Pinterest boards were made of, the domain of crafty aunts everywhere. This is, logically, where the hacks could have stopped. But stop they did not.
2. Peak hack: How to load a case of soda in the fridge
As the trend evolved, life hacks began to take on a sense of panache. These weren’t just regular degular tips—there was a real sense of joyful creativity, innovation for innovation’s sake. These hacks didn’t always have a daily application, but they were whimsical enough that they could double as a party trick in a pinch, the spiritual descendent of Rube Goldberg’s famous machines. Pash said this can-unpacking hack is one he still uses on a weekly basis: “It's legitimately good, simple, and so stupid, but... it removes a tedious task from my life.” Basically, it’s the Platonic ideal of a life hack.
3. All hail the Pinterest fail
As the proverbial hack market grew, so did the available archive of people trying life hacks and completely screwing them up. Pinterest, every suburban mom’s favorite social media platform, was the epicenter for this kind of content; nowhere was the gap between the cutesy-but-polished aesthetic that dominated “Easy DIY Hack!” boards and the homemade abominations people were actually churning out more visible. Now, these Pinterest fails are the basis of a successful (and very fun) Netflix show, but in the early 2010s they were merely fodder for aggregators like BoredPanda and Ranker. Not only did these fails usher in a new sense of disillusionment with supposedly “simple” life hacks, you have to admit... they’re still pretty funny.
4. A Life hack hack?
As the appetite for life hacks grew, so did the number of people looking to capitalize on them. The end result was, charitably, a little content overlap between various life-hacking entities. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in a 2013 Today Show appearance by entrepreneur Brit Morin in which all of the life hacks she shared appeared to be cribbed from other websites. Or, as Gawker’s Valleywag put it, “Startup Queen Brit Morin Plagiarized Her Entire Today Show Appearance.” Morin’s media company, Brit + Co. is technically still around, so it could be argued that recycling other people’s life hacks is a life hack of its own.
5. It’s aliiiiiive!
Zombies had a major cultural moment in the middle of the 2010s that we don’t really talk about now because it was, to be honest, dorky as hell (and I say that as someone who really participated). The Doomsday-Prepper-lite mentality ushered in by this wave of zombie fandom made a convenient framing for life hacks that now claimed a survivalist bent—possibly a reaction to the aforementioned financial crisis, or perhaps as a way into the trend for men who wouldn’t deign to browse Pinterest. The zombie angle proved extremely popular: the video above is sitting at 49 million views as of December 2019. While these hacks are all technically transferable to everyday situations—hiding from the undead isn’t the only reason one might be missing a can opener—there was a definite role-playing element to all of the excessive, hacky preparation.
6. The father of all life hacks
Part “heartwarming” daddy–daughter interaction, part health hazard, this supposed shortcut to the perfect ponytail was life hacking gone horribly wrong. First of all, it was a patriarchal pat on the back for everyone involved; no offense to the Vacuum Dads out there, but c’mon. It’s not that hard to put someone else’s hair into a ponytail, especially when that person is a child, not a professional model. But this hack was also actively dangerous, as demonstrated by this disastrous daytime TV clip in which a man tries the hack on an adult woman and she kind of cries. It is truly harrowing footage.
7. The secret behind ‘secret menus’
Twitter threads about the secret menus at various fast food chains go viral on a regular basis, but none of them hit a nerve like posts about the mythical “Starbucks secret menu.” Packed with a series of recipes available to any enterprising customer willing to shout across the counter at a beleaguered barista, this hack unlocks the possibility of sipping on a Thin Mint Frappuccino while obscuring the real secret: Service industry workers deserve far more respect than they’re usually shown, and they definitely deserve better than this life hack.
8. Hack and white
The suggestion to set one’s phone display to grayscale mode (for concentration-boosting purposes) was one of the last gasps of the earnest life hack, and a throwback to the concept’s tech-oriented roots. VICE called it “a 5-second adjustment to break your phone addiction” in 2018. It was a trick we all tried briefly, and it feels safe to say that virtually nobody still does it. Call it a last-ditch effort to fight the growing tech reality around us, omnipresent and inescapable.
Pash cited changes in the way we interact with technology as a major factor in the shift in the meaning and content of life hacks. “To a large degree, the concept has changed to what we'd previously always referred to as lifestyle, or self-help. What was once largely tech-driven content was replaced by extremely simple technology,” he said. “Of course, now you have new problems. All the apps are always doing everything they can to suck your life away. So that sucks. And what we call life hacks now are a reaction to that world.”
9. Take a stab at this garlic hack
What do we do with a garlic-peeling life hack that’s actually dangerous and harder to pull off than the task it’s meant to simplify? We make it go viral, of course. This might not be the final life hack of the same ilk as the originals to enter the cultural conversation (probably not, because we don’t know when to leave a party or let a decaying trend die), but it would be a fitting end to the genre: the complex, hard-to-replicate garlic-peeling method made for great Twitter content that didn’t actually translate to the average viewer’s kitchen. The method even got its own New Yorker send-up, which writer Helen Rosner ends with a cautionary tale of five stitches and a firm suggestion that nobody try this hack at home.
10. The reach of life hacks is Bigger Than Before
Now that it feels like every possible life hack is already online and up for grabs, we’re left with seemingly endless streams of content built around comically elaborate solutions for problems that don’t even exist. Well, that and the realization that the problems a lot of life hacks solved could be fixed more easily with money, or time: Buy a rip-resistant pair of tights, pay a Task Rabbit to do the hammering, commission a baker to recreate the dinosaur cake from Pinterest. So now, as the decade winds down and we realize the real problem is not, in fact, our lack of clever solutions, but instead our capitalist society and hollowed-out middle class, all we’re left with is a Dada-esque set of instructions designed to render an egg completely inedible and, most importantly, Bigger Than Before. Is this video a craven attempt to get views in our algorithm-driven hellscape? A parody? Performance art? All of the above? “I think the meaning has been distorted enough that it's more of a punchline than anything,” Pash said. “I don't know that you can seriously use ‘life hack’ to describe anything today.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.