What are your (especially non-obvious and/or free) life hacks?
May 8, 2004 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Danny O'Brien's bid for an O'Reilly book deal, Life Hacks (more here is a list of "Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks." There's lots of text-editor usage to track tasks, little scripts, and all kinds of nifty thingies.

What are your life hacks? You get extra points if they are non-obvious and incorporate free software. Best hack gets a prize

The private blog -- a secret blog, using a tool:

Brad Fitzpatrick of LiveJournal: 8 entries every 10 min are
private. Closed off from everyone.

Announce stuff is moving into RSS -- email announcements to
something that syndicates over RSS

And yes, I realize that ask.metafilter is kinda one giant answer to this question.

Sorry the post is so mis-formatted. When I hit "back" to edit it, the text didn't magically reappear in the browser form.
posted by mecran01 to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: The last italicized bits are examples of "life hacks" of a sort.
posted by mecran01 at 6:54 AM on May 8, 2004

spamfilter so well you don't worry about making your email public.
when you have a micro managing boss, don't try to go behind them - flood them with details until they clog up.
don't waste time with assholes if there's a technical workaround | killfile people that send annoying emails.
if you're collaborating on a job, sharing too much information is better than too little - let the other people filter | filter incoming email.
if you can't do something, ask someone who can | answer as least as many questions as you ask in any forum.
if you're good enough to become invaluable, first impressions only have to be good enough to get you in the door.
salary isn't an issue unless you're already unhappy with your job.
if you're at the point where you're seriously considering resigning, you should already have left | look for a job while you're still working.
cygwin on win2k is less hassle than installing linux, if it's not your own machine.
know how to tunnel with ssh | understand crypto.
keep work and hacking (old sense) separate unless you have a very nice contract and a good lawyer.

hmmm. not sure they're exactly what was wanted, since many don't involve software.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:37 AM on May 8, 2004

oh, and know how to google.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:38 AM on May 8, 2004

For me, the best life hack the large-capacity media player. (I have an Archos Jukebox and an iPod.) These devices have changed my life more any other machines I can think of -- even more than the PC.

I suffer from insomnia, and that used to mean lying in bed for hours and staring at the ceiling. Now it means listening to music or an recorded book from audible.com. Being stuck in a long line is no longer so terrible, etc.

Before iPods and the like, I used a Walkman, but that meant deciding what I wanted to listen to beforehand, which I hate doing. And it wasn't really practical to cart around the tapes for a 46-hour audio book.

Almost up with iPods, I'd rate NetFlix. I love having access to an unlimited DVD library. My only problem with it is that it seems rather ugly to me -- all those 1s and 0s traveling via snailmail. I look forward to NetFlix 2.0, when you will (I hope) be able to suck the content directly from their servers to your TV.

On the web, the biggest life-hack for me has been Amazon and other online retailers (and ebay, of course). I almost never go to a store anymore, except for groceries. Which is great for an intervert like me.

The life-hack I HATE the most is the cellphone. I wish I could throw mine in the East River. But I need it for work. I also have mixed feelings about email. In general, it serves me well, but it also is a huge timesuck. I bet I spend a hour and a half a day dealing with email. UGH!
posted by grumblebee at 8:35 AM on May 8, 2004

This sort of fits with what you are talking about. It's pretty bad though.

If you can read fast and like to watch a lot of movies, but don't have much time, find a DVD player that can fast forward 2x while still displaying subtitles. It helps to get through movies with slow parts.

Oh, and like grumblebee, HURRAY for online retailers!
posted by the biscuit man at 12:42 PM on May 8, 2004

I e-mail myself notes, thoughts, ideas, urls etc all the time. sometimes from my mobile phone.
posted by mcsweetie at 1:01 PM on May 8, 2004

Use e-mail to keep disagreeable people (stepmonsters) at bay. Use e-mail to share useful information rather than chain letters with those I care about.

Bank online. As above, shop online. Compare and review. Save money and time. And aggravation. Yep, introvert here.

.Txt-file useful instructions. For anything. Cable confirgurations to recipes.

Read daily news on the www. Preview, scan, skip, or delve - no hour-long forcefed sitting in front of a device presenting atrocities served with a smile.
posted by vers at 1:02 PM on May 8, 2004

Here's one that has sunk so deeply into my life, I almost forget it's there: I'm now used to the idea that, if I need some information, I can get it. Not necessarily all from google (though google is great). I get a lot of info from books, sites like this, friends, etc. But I think the web has changed me in that it has made me ASSUME that I have the right and the access to any info that I want or need.

The few times this turns out not to be the case, I'm always shocked.
posted by grumblebee at 2:14 PM on May 8, 2004

Response by poster: Yeah, I pretty much can't stand to watch network news any more, with the exception of the BBC, which has a more global perspective than most.

I'm starting to become spreadsheet guy. And I am going to get all of my email accounts channeled into one place and heavily filtered. And then limit non-essential web surfing to about 20 minutes a day, planned in advance. No really.

I'd say I'm an intermediate googler. I like the general intelligence and congeniality of the metafilterians when it comes to questions of this sort. Some of my favorites from Doctorow's notes:


Geeks write scripts to take apart dull, repetitive tasks. They'll spend 10h writing a script that will save 11h -- because writing scripts is interesting and doing dull stuff isn't.

Scripts are embarassingly coded, often forgotten.


Even though it is hated by true Hax0rz, I will probably teach myself applescript, because it's quick and dirty, and then move on to something else...

I suppose the dominoe's pizza-ordering script that is floating around right now falls into this category as well.

If I could force myself to really learn regular expressions I'd have a powerful tool for sorting through all of my unix email.

I suppose the non-software suggestions are probably more useful in the long run. Anciently, these were called "wisdom."

Here is the personal spreadsheet thread at Anil Dash's site. Be sure to scroll down to the comments. I don't know if the spreadsheet stuff makes you more productive, but it is certainly interesting--all of those highly personal spreadsheet.

And I suppose a palm pilot is really just a handheld database for exactly this purpose, although I don't learn anything cool, scripting-wise, from using a palm per se, nor does it contain my killer app (does anyone use that phrase anymore?) which is email.
posted by mecran01 at 2:21 PM on May 8, 2004

- maintain wholly separate [login & domain] email accounts for friends, work and junk
- learn email filtering and email management. grep is your friend, as is mbox format, as is ssh, as is tar.gzip
- eschew contentless email. incoming or outgoing
- when I find a new piece of info online ask myself "do I need to read this, bookmark this, research this, add it to my aggregator, contact this author, pass it on, or something else?" and then DO that
- jam all news into the rss aggregator
- I keep a piece of paper in my pocket of words/ideas/concepts I want to research more later [possibly google, possibly popdex, possibly library of congress, possibly my library]
- I keep post-its on pages in the books I am reading for the same purpose
- I keep a piece of paper in my pocket as a calendar for this same purpose when I am really busy
- calendar contacts on iPod = one less gadget to carry
- I group my bookmarks onto my toolbar by purpose. So I have separate toolbar folders for "links to add" "stuff to read" "blogs I read" [subfolder for ones in the aggregator] "social networks" "scripts and bookmarklets" "to do" The more of my life that is wired, the more that I want things fewer clicks from wherever I'm sitting
- I allot specific time to data cleaning during the week [adding addresses to address book, messing with MP3 filenames and sorting, clearing stuff off the laptop desktop, getting rid of old buddies from the buddy list, making sure my email filtering is working like it should, archiving old bookmarks, organizing uploaded photos] so I don't have to do it all at once when I need to find something
- two words: tabbed browsing. it's gotten to the point where even then small wait in point-wait-click is too much waiting. load pages simultaneously, check email in the shell while you wait.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on May 8, 2004

My friend Kelly Sue DeConnick introduced me to the concept of the Uberlist, which I find incredibly motivating. Traditionally, it's done around new years, but it's never too late to start one.

Many people use a folder ongoing text files to keep track of information for future reference. I always had trouble with this concept because it was one more application to deal with.

My solution was to replace the text files with separate ongoing emails saved in my email program's Drafts folder. I usually have my email app open at all times anyway, so it's always handy. I have an email for my to do list, one for music I want to, er, investigate, one for each project I'm working on, etc.
posted by samh23 at 2:50 PM on May 8, 2004

Get gmail and run your life through it.

Until last week I would've said "run Zoe on your personal email" or "get a search engine and run it over a folder of your .txt or blosxom files", but now I have gmail I see that it whups this solution's ass.

Gmail now does what I used to do with a combination of the above, but is accessible from everywhere in the whole internetted world (once they release the HTML version, natch)

Email yourself, subject "todo" and google will keep them organised for you. Email your thoughts to yourself, and search for them later. Google for your life.
posted by bonaldi at 2:54 PM on May 8, 2004

My philosophy is if I can't keep my schedule in my head, my life is too complicated and I need to drop something. This keeps me from making commitments that I technically have time for, but which would cut into my "me time" or else leave me procrastinating and feeling guilty about it. My life became much more pleasant when I stopped taking on on every project that came my way and chose instead to work on projects I couldn't pass up. (You can and should pass up many of the things foisted upon you by friends.) I highly recommend this approach to all the "alpha geeks" who (think they) need "to do" lists.
posted by kindall at 5:25 PM on May 8, 2004

My password generator.

My spam blocker.

My private stylesheet, which just uses the after: pseudo-selector to put an envelope icon after all maillto: links. I forget where I got this idea.
posted by nicwolff at 10:14 PM on May 8, 2004

Get a decent text editor, and learn how to use the Macro Commands that come with it. Macro commands are quicker to program than code, and can make reformatting a piece of text fun.
posted by seanyboy at 3:30 PM on May 9, 2004

Response by poster: Bonaldi wins the contest, and will receive some sort of emailable prize, but thanks to everyone for the excellent advice.
posted by mecran01 at 2:25 PM on May 26, 2004

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