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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

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Erik March 5, 2014 at 11:33 am

I really enjoyed this post, Khaled, thanks for writing it. Also for sharing the story of drying your boots.

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Khaled March 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Thank Erik! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s funny, it was such a small thing but that moment stuck with me over all these years.

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Anna March 5, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I feel this is a very important idea to be out there in the web ether. I especially like the line, “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?” I think that was poignantly put.

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Khaled March 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Thanks, Anna! I appreciate your input.

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Francois Paul Lambert March 6, 2014 at 5:09 am

Thanks for the very good read!

When you said “I don’t think life should be lived on autopilot”, I couldn’t stop thinking that our own bodies are actually on autopilot (our heart, our breathing, etc.)… so that we can obviously put our attention to what’s outside of us (or inside if you meditate ;-).

It would be a tedious life to be constantly monitoring and consciously controlling our heartbeat, our breathing, and at the same time live a “normal” life.

I think this is the same for the macro aspects of life. Humans seem wired to seek happiness and meaning, somehow.

Happiness and meaning may come from the forgotten moments, but I don’t quite agree that the reasons that make life worth living are found in the tedious day-to-day chores of life. I respect your view though.

Life brings challenges and obstacles, and my personal view is that overcoming these obstacles and living through the challenges are the reasons that make life worth living.

I don’t personally see a need to add the additional strain of the day-to-day chores of life. That is exactly where we have control, where we can put things on autopilot and focus on the grander scheme of things, as well as on the smaller (I really liked the boot story. To me, THIS IS lifestyle design ;-)

About Lifestyle Design, honestly, I don’t think Tim Ferriss’ definition is the only viewpoint. I don’t think at all that lifestyle design means life hack.

To me, Lifestyle Design is really about putting you back at the centre of your life and re-empowering you to be the superhero of your life story.

Let’s look at the official definitions:

Lifestyle = “the way in which a person lives” (Oxford dict.)

Design = “the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made”, “decide upon the look and functioning of something, by making a detailed drawing of it” (Oxford dict.)

And then one could probably add her/his own life purpose in the definition.

My own definition would therefore be something like: “Lifestyle Design is the art or action of conceiving and matching the way you live around who you really are (your personal strengths, your talents), around what you really want (your passions), so that you can contribute to an important need in the world (your market?)”.

For Tim Ferriss, designing his life indeed means being a deskless digital nomad running lucrative minimalist internet businesses ;-)

In the end, lifestyle design seems like a good terminology to define how you want to live your life outside of conformity and status quo.

So, is Lifestyle Design really broken? I don’t think so. To me, it is the antonym of Lifestyle Conformity.

Either you take control of your life and your start designing it. Or you play the conformity game and go through the day-to-day chores of life, enjoying from time to time some forgotten moments of peace.

Or… as you seemed to mean, you can just flow with your life, go through the chores, enjoy the still moments. and, like Thoreau once said: “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”

There are no right or wrong options here. Just choice.

Peace & thanks,
FPL

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Khaled March 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Hi Francois,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. After reading it, I have to say I agree with everything you’re saying. Perhaps we are simply looking at things from a different perspective. You’re right that lifestyle design doesn’t have to be according to Ferriss’s definition, and I certainly advocate living in accordance with your principles and values in order to serve your communities. My experience of lifestyle design, however, has been fairly restrictive, the idea that you must be a digital nomad and hack into every aspect of your life or you’re just slacking off.

Your definition is much more accepting, but to me, what you’re talking about isn’t “design.” It’s more organic and less directed because the process of discovering your values and living by them is much less straightforward and involves a lot more introspection than I think is normally included in traditional ideas of lifestyle design. I’ve found that living the life I believe in involves a lot of letting go sometimes, and being designed…but that’s not the same as just going with the flow.

As I said, I think we’re both on the same page, but emphasizing different parts of the definitions. Your comment alerted me to some assumptions and generalizations I’d made, so I appreciate you taking the time to post it.

Be well,
Khaled

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Francois Paul Lambert March 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Hi Khaled,

Thanks for your reply. I like your idea that indeed my definition could be beyond “design”.

I’d like to find another one for it then. Any suggestion?

Anyway, I like your blog. Seems like we have a lot in common in fact. Funny.

Cheers,
Francois

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