Resolution one: get a life hack

For alpha geeks, every day offers a chance to improve themselves

New Year is traditionally a time to better yourself. Stop smoking, join (and maybe even visit) a gym, or just resolve to see your friends more often. But for geeks, every day is an opportunity to better yourself, because a culture of self-improvement has blossomed on the web over the past few years.

It all started at the 2004 ETech conference in San Diego, California, when the digital scribe and Brit émigré Danny O'Brien delivered a lecture. This was called, simply, "Life Hacks: tech secrets of overprolific alpha geeks". O'Brien had noticed that the technologists he admired - the so-called "alpha geeks" - were able to process more information in a day than most literate 18th-century readers would consume in a year. After surveying his favourite technologists, O'Brien gathered together and presented a simple set of home-made software tools and shared habits under the catchy moniker "life hacks".

The idea of life hacks spread, and as it spread, it quickly lost most of its connection to ETech and to O'Brien's first set of observations. Search today for "life hacks" on the social bookmarking site - itself a bit of a life hack, in that it gives an accurate picture (arranged by key phrase or "tag") of the most popular websites being bookmarked by its core user base of hundreds of thousands of prolific and web-savvy surfers. The results returned will offer succinct, practical advice on everything from how to live frugally and how to lose weight to how to brew ginger beer.

The top hit for "life hacks" in Google is the popular life coaching website, or "personal productivity system", 43 Folders. 43 Folders advocates the employment of said number of folders, 12 for the months in the year and 31 for the days in the current month. Adherents distribute and store actionable items in these folders: the benefits include increased time and efficiency, and less anxiety about tasks that lie ahead.

"If it's not in my current time-frame, it doesn't exist." That's how Felix, our operations manager and in-house geek at openDemocracy, characterises his favourite life-hack methodology. Felix, who, like any sysadmin, is besieged daily by calls to fix this, back up that and find the other, believes that 43 Folders and systems like it draw their inspiration from fast-paced, agile code development practices. But he warns that not all areas of life are amenable to life hacking.

Indeed, just like New Year's resolutions, there can be good and bad life hacks. The quick proliferation of the term has secured the existence of many a snake-oil peddler. Follow each life-hacking blogger around every twisted corner of time-saving trivia, and you could spend more time life hacking than you spend living. Remember the cautionary tale of the geek who spent so long writing computer programs to remind him to talk to his friends that he died alone.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.