Last night at TED headquarters: a salon on life hacks

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Charles Duhigg talks about the incredible staying power of habits at TED@250 “A Better You.” Photo: Ryan Lash

Last night in the TED office, we held a salon all about spring cleaning — for your life. Themed “A Better You,” the event featured four speakers with ideas on how to make a better, happier, more productive self.

First to speak was The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize last week for his series The iEconomy. Duhigg began his talk describing a habit he just couldn’t kick: Every day at around 3 pm, he would leave his desk and go to the cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie. As a result he gained 8 pounds, and his wife was starting to make pointed comments. As he looked more closely at this habit, he realized why it was so hard to break — because habits become part of tightly wound behavior loops. Habits are extremely powerful: Bad ones can be harmful, he said, while good ones can improve all aspects of your life. He capped his talk with an unexpected example — Starbucks, which endows its employees with good conflict resolution habits in order to provide the customer service they are known for.


Tech writer Jill Duffy shares tips for taming one’s email inbox. Photo: Ryan Lash

Tech reporter Jill Duffy spoke next, giving nine useful tips on how to conquer email before it conquers you. Among them: Keep your unread emails to about a page, save canned responses or email templates so you don’t always end up typing the same thing, and don’t be afraid to delete emails — and let go of the obligations that they represent.


Jay Silver shows how a cat can take photos of itself — using a bowl of water and the Photo Booth program on a computer. Photo: Ryan Lash

You see a banana for eating; Jay Silver sees a yellow edible space bar for his keyboard. Silver, an MIT Media Lab Maker, brought in a bag of tricks to demonstrate how to hack everyday objects. He connected his laptop to two slices of pizza to use as a clicker to advance his slides, and painted a streak of ketchup — then played it like a piano. See more uses from his invention kit, MaKey MaKey »


Amy Webb concluded the program, giving a hilarious and heartbreaking talk about how she gamed the online dating system. Photo: Ryan Lash

Finally, author Amy Webb closed the night with a lesson in love, explaining how she reverse engineered online dating sites to find her perfect mate. Webb drew from her new book, Data: A Love Story, to explain what she did when she found herself frustrated with her online dating prospects. Since she’s a digital strategist, she naturally turned to data analysis. She devised a point system by which to rate all her prospects, only to realize that she had left out one important element from the equation: the competition. In this incredibly honest talk, she explained why she created 10 fake male accounts to scrape data about successful female candidates and how they presented information about themselves. (Note: optimistic language and photos with just enough skin.) Webb’s story has a happy ending. She is now married to Brian Woolf, who she met as a result of her data gathering. Sitting next to me in the audience, last night was the first time he heard her tell the story.

“A Better You” was part of TED@250, a new series of salons held at our New York headquarters at 250 Hudson Street. Since our main conferences are only twice a year, TED@250 is an opportunity for talks that rethink headlines and respond to conversation happening in real time. It’s also a place for speakers with the kind of personal stories that simply work better on the small scale. Stay tuned. Some of these talks may be coming to