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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

February 15, 2014 at 9:46 PM

Hack your life: Pioneering Seattle event makes habit change a group effort

Lifehacking event Spark Weekend Seattle reflected a focus on the individual. (Photo: Spark Weekend)

Lifehacking event Spark Weekend Seattle reflected a focus on the individual. (Photo: Spark Weekend)

“We’re here to change habits, change lives,” James Norris told 100 people gathered on the first floor of Pioneer Square’s Impact Hub.

“You guys are all part of a movement.”

It was the kickoff to Spark Weekend Seattle, a first-of-its-kind, two-day event Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 that got my attention as soon as I’d heard about it.

It had one day of talks, one day of work and a lot of techie tips and tricks. But the goal wasn’t to learn how to improve your job performance, your business or even your ideas.

It was to learn how to improve yourself, then sit around a table and do it.

If that sounds like self-help, it’s geekier. This movement, if that’s what it turns out to be, is group lifehacking.
And I guess it’s about time it arrived.

The term “lifehacking” was first tossed around by computer programmers in the ’80s who wrote programs to get things done faster. It reached wider circles around 2005, when blogs like Lifehacker.com pulled together shortcuts to better productivity, often with the help of personal tech.

Eight things you can discard to downsize your life” is a popular recent post, as is the tip that typing “set timer for xx minutes” into a Google search bar turns your browser into a handy countdown clock.

Today, lifehacking could be taking another step forward. It’s offering the right tools, and the right mindset, for a time when the individual is more and more at the center of everything.

“You can only rely on yourself. Everything else is too shaky,” attendee Wade Brill told me between the first day’s talks, which had titles like “Measuring Happiness” and “Turning Lifehacks into Life Lessons.”

Brill is in the generation that saw old standbys fail when the recession hit in 2008. Stability wasn’t coming from a company or a job market or even a college degree. So we turned inward, and found something to work with: ourselves.
There’s a case to be made that as individual people, we have more power now than ever. From blogs to Facebook to Kickstarter, we can say anything and start anything for almost nothing.

SelfSpark founder Norris wants "lifehacking" to be about health and happiness as well as productivity. (Photo: Spark Weekend)

SelfSpark founder Norris wants “lifehacking” to be about health and happiness as well as productivity. (Photo: Spark Weekend)

Meanwhile, we’ve made entrepreneurs in pursuit of personal passions our new heroes and adopted a new generation of self-sensing, self-tracking tech that’s giving self-awareness a new edge.

When our devices make it so easy to find new tasks and distractions and what we love directs so much of our potential, staying focused on what matters has a new appeal.

“I’m so glad they’re getting young people to start this now,” said Joan Copeland, a former HMO executive in her late 60s whose daughter encouraged her to come to the event. “The happier you are, the better you are at everything.”

Spark Weekend’s more than 20 day-one speakers presented challenges to attendees: Try the discussed sleep hack for 10 days. Make time for a Monday ninja-planning session. Plan a way to improve your happiness score.

On day two, attendees chose challenges to tackle and shared them with the group, with speakers available as mentors and Norris handing out bites of chocolate to keep the energy up.

Norris held the first Spark Weekend in Singapore in August. When the event’s parent company, SelfSpark, got invited to a Seattle accelerator program called Fledge, he brought his team here. But like a growing number of young bootstrapped social-good companies, SelfSpark is nomadic; next week, Norris and his team head to D.C. to begin work at another accelerator, Conscious Venture Lab.

But work for Spark Weekend Seattle, the company’s first large American event, is not over. Thirty days after the end of the event, team members will email attendees and, if they don’t respond, call them to see how their commitments are going and collect data to measure their own event’s success: Of the people who committed to changing this or that habit, how many kept it up after a month?

SelfSpark evolved from Norris’ own experiments in lifehacking. At the University of Texas, he and his friends would host Get Things Done days, throwing money into a “productivity pot” to reward whoever made the most progress.

Norris has a spreadsheet that’s counting every task he’s completed for his company and every hour he’s dedicated to it since its founding in 2012. As of Friday: 4,844 tasks in 4,128 hours.

Norris wants SelfSpark to lead the wave he believes is coming.

It’s easier than ever to get buried in our own frantic habits.

Working together, we might dig our way out.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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