Technology is merely a tool. It can work for us or against us. If we use it with agency, we can leverage the world’s information to better our lives. If we use it indiscriminately, we find ourselves at the mercy of the Algorithm, passively consuming content. Our generation is at an inflection point - either we use technology intentionally or it uses us.
This post is about one principle that transformed my relationship with technology: feeds considered harmful. Feeds slow you down, take you in unwanted directions and encourage consumption over action. Adopting the principle enabled me to effectively focus, prioritize and act on my goals.
A feed is a set of algorithmically generated content provided to the user without explicit input. Almost all of our interactions with services begin with a feed - Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, Netflix, Reddit, Amazon, News. You name the app, it has a feed front and center. (Although this definition doesn’t include messaging apps or RSS feeds, some of the concerns below still hold.)
Feeds distract and slow you down. Ever catch yourself binging on The Office clips an hour after you open YouTube to learn how to revive your dying succulent? This is no accident - it’s the digital equivalent of placing the milk in the back of the grocery store. Even if you have a clear purpose for navigating to a site, it hijacks your attention with content the Algorithm has concluded you can’t resist. Instant gratification is only a click away.
If you’re mindlessly browsing, the effect of feeds is even more potent. The brief dopamine hit triggered by fresh content quickly evolves into analysis paralysis. Ever spend a half hour on Netflix just deciding what to watch? Then, shortly after a decision is made, feel a pang of buyer’s remorse? The abundance of options challenges the optimality of your choice, and in the face of the slightest obstacle, lures you to a replacement. Greener pastures are only a click away. And so begins the endless cycle of novelty and disillusion. The only way out is through - establishing an intent and following through.
You may be asking: don’t feeds broaden our exposure to new ideas? Yes, they do. But there’s no free lunch. Time spent consuming is time not spent doing. Taking meaningful action requires a delicate balance of explore and exploit. Feeds uproot this balance, disproportionately encouraging discovery instead of focused execution. This is best explained with a navigation analogy - explore is direction, exploit is movement. Explore is necessary in small doses, to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. Too much explore though, and we’ve over calibrated to our orientation - we’re no closer to our goal, but left with the illusion of progress (*cough* productivity porn *cough*).
You can still explore without feeds. New ideas surface everywhere. In everyday conversations, which are inherently tailored to mutual interests. From resources in the exploit phase, as a springboard into complementary subjects. By browsing the library, a physical feed optimized for education instead of engagement. Instead of preventing exploration altogether, eliminating feeds recalibrates our explore-exploit balance by compelling us to adopt healthier forms of discovery that inevitably leave more energy for execution.
Speaking of execution, here’s how to reduce your dependence on feeds:
- Identify your triggers: What feeds consume your attention the most? As a proxy, check your most visited sites on desktop (yes, that is a feed too!) or most used apps on mobile (Screen Time for iOS, Digital Wellbeing for Android).
- Eliminate the feed.
- (Ideal) Remove the feed entirely. The ideal page is blank, save for a search bar - intentional begins with intent! Such Chrome extensions exist for the most popular services: Facebook, YouTube, etc.
- (Backup) If the above isn’t entirely possible (say because you’re an active mobile user), add friction. A very effective solution is to uninstall the app and only access the service through the browser. Your muscle memory in the first few days will be a great reminder of how unconsciously you used these feeds, but it won’t take long to unlearn.
- Repeat for the new triggers that emerge. As your usual suspects are solved for, you will reach for new distractions. It will take a few cycles to fully eliminate them.
Side effects may include mild FOMO (which will soon subside), an enhanced feeling of control and excessive amounts of spare time to live life on your terms, not the Algorithm’s.