[epistemic status: I believe it, but still a bit speculative]
Lifehacking is this thing where people solve small problems in novel ways. (Maybe you’d define it differently, or you have a similar behavioral pattern but don’t use the same word, and that’s okay; I’m referring more to the behavior than the label.) People have always been solving problems, so it might seem strange to have another, relatively new term for the activity. The words small and novel in that definition are doing a lot of work–when we solve problems that aren’t small, it’s usually called something like “innovation” or, you know, “problem-solving”; and if a solution didn’t seem that creative (i.e. it’s similar to something that’s already common knowledge), you’d call it “advice” or a “tip” if somebody reminded you of it, or maybe not label it at all otherwise.
“Lifehack: read books to learn things”. Sounds flippant for some reason
I don’t know if solving small problems in novel ways has actually become so much more common recently that a new word was really needed, but it does seem that way to my young eyes, and I can come up with at least one multi-faceted just-so story to explain why, so here goes. Now that the low-hanging fruit of easy innovations available from where we are now has been picked:
The mental energy that people have to spend on creation and change is more likely to offer trivial returns, including things so trivial they have little chance of memetic reproduction (let alone becoming named products or practices).
As the marginally-useful, niche-focused creative output that does turn into products and practices proliferates, the dimensionality of the lifestyle optimization problem grows, meaning there are relatively far more opportunities for novel and interesting-sounding hill-climbing that’s difficult to generalize across situations or people. (“17 cool uses for your espresso machine!”)
This lowering in expected returns from “productive” creativity trains people to inhibit any grander and riskier innovative tendencies they might’ve had, at least relative to someone in a similar economic situation before the low-hanging fruit disappeared and this huge variety of trivial stuff took its place, leading to more “consumptive” creativity by implication.
(If you’re questioning the difference between consumptive and productive creativity: I think of it as a spectrum with high variance both within and among creative activities, not a rigid dichotomy. If you’re questioning the idea that people can willfully devote more energy to one type of creativity than the other, or willfully be more or less creative in general, given the huge roles that serendipity and the subconscious play: think operant conditioning and cultural narratives rather than homo economicus.)
Whatever the complete story is (and this narrative isn’t that), the end result is that the outputs of your creative effort are likely to be less impactful, more incremental, less generalizable, and serving purposes not particularly economic (e.g. fun, signaling) than they would’ve been otherwise. The lifehacking phenomenon as a manifestation of this pattern makes a lot of sense to me, and I doubt that it’s solely because innovation really is harder at the moment.
This is what modern ingenuity looks like
It’s not that lifehacking is universally bad or a waste of time. Small changes to your own habits and environment that result in a little time saved or a small improvement in mood can add up, and keeping an eye out for easy changes that bring outsized benefits is obviously a good idea in any domain. Being mindful of your habits, in particular, is unambiguously important, and play in general is good, whatever form it takes. My fear is that some people overestimate the value of lifehacking compared to alternative activities that scratch a similar itch.
There’s this phenomenon where people who do a good deed are less likely to do another good deed in the near future. In my experience, this short-term emotional satiation effect applies to feelings besides piety; with “lifehacker” as a part of your identity and something you “do” on a regular basis, you’re selling your probably-limited ability to feel satisfied about having done something creative and/or productive to buy trivial, evolutionary, likely transient improvements to your own life. Meanwhile, that strange little side project you could’ve worked on lies unattended, and the world is robbed of a small chance of seeing something truly new and broadly useful.
If you’re inclined to describe an activity as “lifehacking” instead of “research” or “experimenting” or “learning” or “building” or even regular old “hacking”, it’s most likely harmless–nothing less and nothing more.