Reverse-Hacking and Going Beyond “Short-Cuts”

Alwyn Lau
4 min readSep 23, 2023

The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.” (David Epstein)

I don’t recall when I first heard the term “life-hacking”, must’ve been more than ten years ago. But since then, as everyone is surely aware, almost every other day you get some video, WhatsApp message or tweet about how to life-hack something i.e. how to perform a quick short-cut to an otherwise difficult or tedious task.

I’ve seen life hacks applied to things ranging from how to squeeze and keep toothpaste properly, to a faster way of folding shirts, Rubik-cubing, cooking pasta, tucking in one’s shirt properly, making iced lemon tea, to things like learning Maths, reading, bargaining, working out, picking hotel rooms and even to driving uphill(!).

I suppose the reason why life hacks are so popular is the sheer fun and creativity of many of these ideas. It’s almost Daisho-like except these are FOC ideas which not only make life easier but makes the user feel smarter as well.

But there’s a catch.

Over time, I’m starting to suspect that life-hacks to reality is sorta like TED talks to learning: Nice and amusing for the short-term but ultimately detrimental to true quality.

At best, a life hack gives you a quick solution to a trivial problem; at worst, it gives us an excuse to not spend time a real skill in doing something. Hence, maybe what we need is to pay attention to reverse-hacking i.e. intentionally not taking a short-cut and deliberately refusing the easy/fun/creative answer to a problem in order to undergo the ‘hard-ship’ of truly mastering something.

Take health and fitness, for example.

There are way too many people who’ve discovered the ‘life-hack’ of eating low-carb foods (i.e. avoiding rice, cakes, bread, etc.) in order to lose weight. So they skip the carbs and, lo and behold, their weight plunges dramatically, they get to ‘show off’ their lighter frame for a few weeks and then…what happens?

They revert to eating carbs (perhaps with a vengeance this time?) because, sigh, isn’t it just really depressing to live in Malaysia and not enjoy gems like chicken rice, roti canai and so on? Am I really expected to stop eating these heavenly foods for the rest of my life? And isn’t it kinda expensive (especially in these times) to keep eat meat so frequently? Fast-forward a few more weeks and said person is back to his pre low-carbing weight.

To reverse-hack fitness would be to be disciplined enough to spend at least four days a week working on resistance training, cardiovascular fitness, maybe skipping two or three meals a week, etc. People like Jocko Willink and Andy Lau spend practically every day in the gym or some form of exercise. Willink, in particular, doesn’t even do ‘recovery days’ unless he’s sick or has his workout schedule interrupted.

That’s real discipline and real quality and, thus, true fitness. The benefits of this lifestyle of fitness means that, alas, enjoying the occasional bowl of curry laksa isn’t such a big deal anymore.

Or consider politics.

Many folks develop their worldview of such controversial topics like abortion, climate change, U.S. politics, Mid-East conflict, etc from having read only one or two articles (usually from a few biased news sources) and one or two favorite info-graphics and — voila! — they believe they’re experts on that particular issue (to the point of feeling annoyed whenever close friends disagree with their take on some dispute or politician or whatever).

To reverse-hack knowledgeability on any issue would mean spending serious hours thoroughly researching it from multiple angles (our e-books and Google Scholar-ing should be working overtime), to be always skeptical of ‘obvious’ positions or easy caricatures (and to demonstrate some media literacy about how news is produced, filtered, headlined, what news is not reported, etc) and being well-versed with what the ‘other side’ is saying (which, of course, demands that we pay close attention and due respect to evidence and arguments which give us cognitive dissonance, instead of simply dismissing them away). It may also require that we quit engaging in each and every ‘hot topic’ which shows up on our Facebook or Twitter feeds.

If more people did this, social media will be much improved because there’d be way fewer experts pontificating about some news topic the moment something happens around the world. Hopefully we’d also have fewer people outright promoting bigotry and racism without knowing it just as we’d have more and more people with authentic knowledge, thereby filtering the noise from social media and replacing with it genuine signal.

Reverse-hacking equals true learning

Other domains which can benefit from reverse-hacking would include cooking, dancing, spirituality, writing, reading (especially serious literature), conversation, etc. just about any exercise where mastery matters. I would, in fact, compare the experience of reverse-hacking to tasting an amazing homecooked tom yam soup after all this time eating 3-in-1 pre-packaged “life-hacked” tom yam.

However, just as life-hacking usually enables us to do things faster, reverse life-hacking has the tendency to slow us down (at least initially). Here’s the full quote from David Epstein:

“Learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.” (from Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, Penguin, 2021, p.9)

Ergo, reverse-hacking — to the extent that it more accurately represents real learning — isn’t going to look and feel very appealing at the start.

It may not even be an exaggeration to suggest that reverse-hacking requires a mindset change from quick-and-easy to slow-and-powerful; hardly a bad thing in today’s world.

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Alwyn Lau

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.