Life hacks: Burgeoning industry shows how to do everything better

A wooden spoon keeps pasta water from boiling over.
A wooden spoon keeps pasta water from boiling over. The Kansas City Star

It might sound crazy to store pancake batter in an empty plastic ketchup bottle, but UMKC’s king of hacks says it really works.

No worries about spills in the fridge. And the bottle makes pouring batter onto the griddle a snap.

Basically “you don’t have to keep making a mess,” says Frank Lillig, 24, who writes a “life hacks” column for the University News school paper. (He does admit, however, to needing a funnel to get the batter in the squeeze bottle.)

For Lillig and others around his age, life hacks are ways to “live comfortably while being a poor college student.”

But anyone can take advantage of life hacks, which might be defined as inexpensive work-arounds to common problems. Back in the day, some of these were known as “household hints.” (Hello, Heloise!)

Now they’re all over the Internet — often illustrated, often on video — and they can be as specific as whatever your crisis of the day happens to be.

Travel hacks. Marriage hacks. Makeup hacks. Cooking hacks. Cleaning hacks. Pet care hacks. Cheese hacks.

Do not, by the way, associate these helpful hacks with hacks of Target, Sony Pictures, your health insurance company, blah blah blah. Completely different things.

Don’t eat the chips

Whether you call them hacks or not, they’re clearly a phenomenon. The latest proof: two new TV shows.

“Hacking the System,” on National Geographic Channel (9 p.m. Mondays), tackles one area at a time (survival, personal security, money). Host Brian Brushwood “has made a career out of social manipulation and thinking like a criminal.” He’s also a magician.

Meanwhile, TruTV’s “Hack My Life” not only introduces the life hacks you might have missed (on Pinterest, BuzzFeed,, etc.) but also tests them.

That show’s hosts, Brooke Van Poppelen and Kevin Pereira, take a lighthearted approach.

“I think ‘hack’ is this very, very 2012 sort of buzzy new way to put it,” Van Poppelen tells us by phone from New York. “I think that’s when I really started seeing life hacks being passed around on the Internet.”

In Van Poppelen’s view, good hacks are “new, completely undiscovered ways to solve everyday problems.”

And yes, some are kinda nutty.

Like using a bicycle tire pump to open a bottle of wine “if you really didn’t have anything other than a bike pump around.”

“You could do it,” she says, “but would you?” Probably not.

And some hacks are impractical for other reasons.

“You can chill a bottle of beer in 30 seconds with a can of compressed air, but that can costs $7,” Van Poppelen says. “That’s silly, so we are giving qualifiers to all these hacks.”

One episode of “Hack My Life” (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays; episodes also online) featured a supposed shortcut to peeling potatoes. It involved putting spuds in a bucket of water and then agitating the water with a toilet brush hooked up to a drill.

It didn’t work, at least for the “Hack My Life” crew.

Maybe, Van Poppelen says, the guy who did it successfully in an online video — the prolific “Crazy Russian Hacker” — didn’t disclose every last detail.

“We were like, ‘That looks amazing,’ but no, the average person, that’s not gonna work for them. And that’d be a terrible thing to find out on Thanksgiving Day when everybody’s waiting for the mashed potatoes.”

The show also offered instructions on how to turn a pencil into a fork (think paper clips and tape). If you’re in an office with absolutely no plasticware, you might go there.

Other hacks have a high wow factor but will probably never catch on. The TV show demonstrated, for example, that potato chips can be used as a charcoal substitute in your backyard grill.

Van Poppelen says if she found herself in that kind of desperate cookout situation, she’d volunteer to make a charcoal run: “I want to eat those chips!”

But she’s embraced some hacks, usually the simple ones. Like defogging the bathroom mirror with a blow dryer. (That’s definitely easier than applying shaving cream to the mirror, then wiping it off, to create a fog-free zone. But it does work, the show discovered.)

Brownie waffles

At UMKC, Lillig, a theater major and Eagle Scout, landed a weekly column after writing an article on camping hacks. But a chunk of that first story was itself hacked — as in cut.

“A lot of it was how to start a fire” without matches, Lillig says. But editors didn’t want to give students in the dorms any ideas.

Speaking of fire, Lillig likes to cook, and he appreciates the versatility of a waffle iron — it can be pressed into service for omelets and brownies, too, he says. His favorite: hash browns, using frozen tater tots. Both sides cook at the same time, so you don’t have to worry about when to turn them.

Lillig and fiancee Lindsay Nelson (another theater major, and managing editor of the paper) are also big fans of wood pallets. “You can find ’em all over the place,” Lillig says, including on Craigslist.

The couple used four pallets to elevate their bed, which created shelves on both sides. Pallets also can be transformed into benches or end tables.

Lillig also devoted one column to uses for used tea bags, such as placing them (once they’re dry) in shoes, chests and closets to deodorize.

Hacks come in all shapes and sizes. And yep, some are just recycled from when Grandma was a girl.

On the other hand, some are truly innovative “because of technology or an app or something,” says Valeria Edwards, family and consumer sciences agent for Johnson County K-State Research and Extension in Olathe.

Ask Edwards for a couple of life hacks and she’ll recommend what might be called lifestyle changes.

Automate your financial life, Edwards says. Set up regular transfers into a savings account and pay bills automatically online.

Another suggestion: Everything in its place. Spend a few minutes every evening planning for the next day: Lay out your clothes, pack lunches, do some meal planning.

But if any of those seem like too much to consider at the moment, contemplate binder clips and dryer lint. We hear they have a gazillion uses.

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to On Twitter @tim_engle


Here’s a sampler of what we got when we asked readers for their tried-and-true “life hacks.” We can’t guarantee these tips (or some of those in the accompanying story) will work, but they might be worth a try.

▪ For “aromatherapy on the cheap,” sprinkle your favorite spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, on a cookie sheet and “bake” at 250 degrees. “Your house will smell heavenly.” (Kathleen Isabell, Kansas City, Kan.)

▪ Use clothes pins to keep bags (like cereal, crackers, chips, loaves of bread) closed. (Marilyn George, Lee’s Summit)

▪ Use used dryer sheets to remove soap scum from shower doors. “Use some elbow grease and rub in circular motions.” (Jean Janner, Olathe)

▪ If you buy gum in those plastic round containers, use them for other things after the gum is gone. Like cereal for the kids or anything else “you want to snack on while in the car.” (Ginzy Schaefer, Kansas City)

▪ Don’t throw away jar lids — you can place them underneath the honey container, cooking oil, etc., to prevent messes. (Janice Lackey, Warrensburg, Mo.)

▪ Wash your socks together in a mesh laundry bag. They don’t get separated or lost that way. (Peg Nichols, Olathe)

▪ Cook more than you need and freeze the leftovers for later meals. Examples: lasagna, macaroni and cheese, chili, soups, shredded rotisserie chicken, cookies, pizza dough. Date and label the items you freeze. (David Zagalik, Kansas City)

▪ Use cola to “wake up compost and break down organic matter faster.” (Wes Heyde)

▪ Use an old hotel key card to smooth wall board patching compound in a narrow spot. Just cut the appropriate width. (Lou Kaufmann, Leawood)

▪ Dampen some leftover aluminum foil to scrub rust off your car bumper. (Mary M. Thomas, Oakview in Clay County)

<bullet>Use a folded-in-half bath towel at the foot of the bed to keep your feet warm at night. “And for a really toasty start on those especially cold nights, give it a minute or so in the dryer just before you pop into bed.” (Marjorie Van Buren, Topeka)

▪ No more fitted-sheet headaches: Figure out which way it goes on the bed, then use a permanent marker to label the tag “foot” or “head.” (Christine Fuller, Blue Springs)

▪ To avoid messes when heating soup in the microwave, take a piece of paper towel slightly larger than the bowl, make a few small slits in it, dampen and stretch it over the bowl. Steam will escape from the slits. “You will need a sturdy paper towel for this to work.” (Julie Elfving, Olathe)


A “creative solution to a computer hardware or programming problem or limitation.” That’s one definition of “hack,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, which so far has not added “life hack.”

But yes, we have computer brainiacs to thank for hacks of all kinds now.

In fact, when I Googled “sock hacks,” looking for a way to salvage holey socks without sewing, I instantly found a column called “Hack Your Socks” in which the writer, Scott Rosenberg, said he’d attended “the original” life hacks talk at a tech conference in 2004. There he “was intrigued to learn how leading geeks organized their lives and files.”

(Rosenberg did not solve my socks-with-holes problem. He recommends a minimalist approach, buying only black socks and white socks, which cuts down on the time spent matching them up.)

“Hack” as a synonym for “tip” has become so common and apparently so annoying, Lake Superior State University in Michigan included it on its most recent annual list of overused and misused words that ought to be banished.

| Tim Engle, The Star