British technology journalist Danny O’Brien coined the term life hack after he’d polled a group of productive geeks on the details of their work processes. O’Brien discovered a pattern that emerged amongst these super-productive programmers: that they devised and used “embarrassing” scripts and shortcuts to get their work done. O’Brien summarized his research in a presentation called “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks” at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, California in February 2004. After his presentation, use of the term life hack caught fire in the tech and blogging community, and O’Brien went on to do the life hacks presentation at several other conferences as well.
The original definition of the term life hack referred to quick and dirty shell scripts and other command line utilities that filtered, munged and processed data streams like email and RSS feeds. Examples of these types of life hacks might include utilities to synchronize files, track tasks, remind yourself of events or filter email.
As the meme spread, the definition of the term expanded. Today, anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way might be called a life hack. The term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by geeks who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow.
“Life” refers to an individual’s productivity, personal organization, work processes or any area the hacker ethic can be applied to solve a problem. The terms “hack”, “hacking” and “hacker” have a long (and troubled) history in the computing and geek communities, particularly within the open source crowds. According to the Jargon File (typically the authority on the term), the quickest summary is “an appropriate application of ingenuity” to a problem.
Danny O’Brien made his first life hacks presentation in February of 2004. For a brief period of time after the conference, O’Brien worked on releasing a web site devoted to life hacks which never launched.
In September of 2004, Merlin Mann launched 43 Folders, a topical weblog dedicated to productivity tricks and life hacks, on which Mann invented the Hipster PDA.
Weblog network Gawker Media launched a blog dedicated to life hacks, Lifehacker.com, in January of 2005. Independent blogger Leon Ho launched Lifehack.org in May of 2005. Eventually O’Brien redirected lifehacks.com to 43 Folders.
O’Brien and Mann co-write a column entitled “Life Hacks” for O’Reilly’s Make magazine which debuted in February of 2005. O’Brien and Mann also co-presented a session called “Life Hacks Live” at the 2005 O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference.
The American Dialect Society voted lifehack (one word) as the runner-up for “most useful word of 2005” behind podcast.  (PDF)
Hacking Towards Happiness – TIME Magazine on life hacks
Interview: Father of “life hacks” Danny O’Brien at Lifehacker.com
Cory Doctorow’s notes from Danny O’Brien’s first Life Hacks presentation