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Why Lifestyle Design is Broken

March 4, 2014

When the 4-Hour Body was first released, I was so excited to read about quick, easily applied shortcuts to ‘improve’ my life and my body. How could I resist the promise of becoming superhuman?

But when I tried to apply the habits, none of them stuck. It wasn’t that they didn’t work, but they were hacks, not part of a cohesive lifestyle, and hacks are not meant to be permanent or sustainable. The 4-Hour Body in particular reads like a recipe book: you pick your abilities, like building a character in Dungeons & Dragons.

It was Lifehacking applied to people, and while the allure was irresistible, it felt hollow.

The Automated Life

The term Lifestyle Design was coined in 2007 by Tim Ferriss in 4-Hour Workweek, but it had existed before that. It is the logical growth of Lifehacking (workflow efficiency tricks and shortcuts) applied to all areas of life, to create your ‘dream life’. You can hack your sleep, hack your body, hack your relationships, hack your sex. You can even hack your happiness.

The mentality has found its way into many communities, from CrossFit (40 minutes for the best workout in the world) to The Game (use these magic words to get any girl in bed) to the 4-Hour Workweek. The core motivation is admirable: be conscious about your life. Don’t just accept the status quo of college-desk-job-retirement-at-60. But in practice, people are accepting a different kind of status quo: it’s better to work less, travel all the time, and own a hands off internet money-machine.

You create a system and let it run on autopilot, even to the point of putting your own behavior on autopilot, for the sake of sparing your time and attention for…what exactly?

What we were meant to spend our attention on was never clear to me. Enjoying life? But life is made up of those little struggles and the everyday mundane. Trying to only have the parts of life we want is a bit like watching a movie trailer and thinking you’ve seen the whole thing.

I got involved in many of these movements, but they were just so many disjointed behaviors. They didn’t stem from my authentic self and so they didn’t integrate with my life or my values. I felt out of sync and unbalanced. The only one I’ve found with any kind of integrity (and I haven’t heard him use the term Lifestyle Design in a while) is Chris Guillebeau.

I did learn a lot, but the biggest lesson I learned had nothing to do with productivity or skills.

Nobody Else Can Tell Us How Best to Live

While trying to follow the footsteps of others who seemed to have the answers, I learned that I had to make my own mistakes, my own observations, my own choices, and my own discoveries.

If I wanted to be epically healthy, I had to learn how to do that in the context of my life, values, and physical attributes. If I wanted to become more productive, it was up to me to explore and find the system that appealed to my particular sensibilities.

Of course, trying some of the skills and behaviors in the lifehacking communities was part of the journey. But instead of trying harder and harder to ‘do things right,’ I eventually had to let go and do things my way.

I had to figure out what kind of life I really wanted and accept that it didn’t match the ideal of the New Rich (deskless digital nomads running lucrative minimalist internet businesses. Another term I first heard in 4-Hour Workweek).

My guess is that lifestyle design is fulfilling for Ferriss and a good number of others. That’s his authentic self.

You Have All you Need to Find the Answers

I’ve been trying to spread that message for a long time, asking people to take responsibility for providing their own answers to the questions of life.

When I put out my first book about the principles behind health and fitness, I tried very hard to emphasize that the knowledge I shared was just principles. The reader had to do the work of understanding their own body and their own unique expression of health, even their own reason for being healthy. I could not provide that, and I couldn’t even tell you that weight training is better than bodyweight training. It all depends on your preferences, your body, and where you are on the strange and surprising journey of life.

Pay attention

Ultimately, that’s the most important thing. We spend so much time trying to distract ourselves, trying to off-load the hard thinking to experts and internet gurus that we lose the ability to notice our own lives.

That’s why meditation is so difficult, because it’s all about paying exquisite attention to the most fundamental thing we do: breathe. The only thing I can think of that’s more automatic and unthinking is beating our hearts (try meditating on your heartbeat next time).

I don’t think life should be lived on autopilot. I don’t think efficiency is the end-goal. And I don’t really like sunny beaches. I adamantly believe that some of the reasons that make life worth living are found in the forgotten moments and the tedious day-to-day chores of life.

My sister had a card hung on her wall that said, “There’s more to life than increasing it’s speed.” It’s important to remember that as we strive constantly to ‘improve’ our workflow, our health, our effectiveness, our skills. Sometimes, we just need to enjoy the ride, bumpy as it is.

I found bliss years ago drying my boots in front of a fire after a thunderstorm. I could have set them there to dry on their own while I did something useful or pleasurable, but instead, I knelt by the flames, drenched from the storm, holding the boots to the warmth. I was miserable, homesick, and had a cabin full of rowdy boys I had to hunt down and herd to dinner. And in that moment, I could have died and felt my life well-lived.

Seek your own experience and believe in the beauty of life the way it is being lived by you.

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee on Flickr