Slaying The Feed Dragon: How To Ensure You’ll Live A Good Life
Stop Scrolling, Start Living
There’s a monster right behind you. You can’t see it, but it chased you here. Without you even realizing, it towers over you, guiding your every step. It’s a relentless, insidious beast that never sleeps. Every minute of every day, it tries to push you off the path of righteousness into the pit of regret.
That monster is the Feed Dragon and today we’re going to slay it.
You scrolled to get here. You scrolled through your Medium feed, an email, Facebook, Twitter, or maybe another post. But you scrolled to get here. Think about how much time of your life is spent scrolling.
When you’re scrolling — with your finger, your mouse, your eyes — whether that’s on your phone, tablet or laptop, you are doing one of only two things:
The reader has arrived at her destination, but the seeker’s not there yet. She’s searching, scanning, hoping to find what she is looking for. But what are we looking for? Often times we don’t know, because we weren’t searching to begin with.
The Feed Dragon is merely dictating our next step. It is an evil creature, spawned by the progress of civilization. The Feed Dragon only exists to lure you into its den of regret by stealing your time, your attention and your energy.
Here are some of the most common places where the Feed Dragon resides:
- The grocery store
- Your inbox
- The newspaper
- Your car
- Khan Academy
- Right here on Medium
In other words, wherever there’s a list of elements, requiring you to scan and make a choice, the Feed Dragon hides. It is ubiquitous, universal and infallible. We all face the Feed Dragon, all the time, and it wants to take each and every single one of us down with regret.
Throughout the first four posts of the AntiTech series, we dealt with our addictions to certain apps, activities and devices. Machine-to-human interactions that left the machine the master and the human the slave. It is now time to step back and ask “What’s the overall lesson here?”
To me, the answer is crystal clear:
If you think about how much time we spend interacting with feeds in one form or another and how most of those encounters unfold, it is easy to see that this side effect of technology will cause us a lot of grief down the road.
But it’s not like the Feed Dragon can’t be beaten. All obstacles have weaknesses. We just have to find them. The way we do that is by examining the nature of the beast.
Enter The Dragon: The Science of Facing Feeds
While the advancement of civilization has greatly enhanced the creature’s powers, its origins lie in ancient history. They go right back to the world’s first bazaar.
A synonym of the word ‘feed’ is ‘supply.’ When we changed our supply management from hunting to trading, the Feed Dragon first awoke, bombarding us with questions, such as:
- Who can I trust to trade with?
- How much is this apple worth?
- Which carpet looks best?
- Will there be better sheep skins tomorrow?
- When’s the best time to buy?
- How much can I afford to spend?
- What do I actually need?
Facing this real, magnificent, but terrifying dragon, how would you react? When Bilbo first meets Smaug in The Hobbit, he does the same thing we continue to do until this day: he freezes.
This still happens when we encounter the Feed Dragon at the grocery store today. Barry Schwartz calls it The Paradox of Choice. When you’re standing in aisle seven, trying to select the right brand of cookies out of 53 different kinds, you’re likely to experience two kinds of regret:
“[The first] is postdecision regret, regret that occurs after we’ve experienced the results of a decision. But there is also something called anticipated regret, which rears its head even before a decision is made. Anticipated regret is in many ways worse, because it will produce not just dissatisfaction but paralysis. If someone asks herself how it would feel to buy this house only to discover a better one next week, she probably won’t buy this house. Anticipated regret will make decisions harder to make, and postdecision regret will make them harder to enjoy.”
When the dragon stares at you with flaring nostrils, you regret walking into the cave, but you’re also paralyzed by the consequences of potentially dodging to the wrong side as it’s about to attack.
Of course the issue has compounded through the rapid growth of markets in selection and size, especially in recent times. So while we’ve had about 2,000 years to adjust to this problem, our solution still isn’t pretty:
“The very wealth of options before us may turn us from choosers into pickers.
Choosers, Barry says, think actively about their possibilities. They consider what’s important in life, for a particular decision, short- and long-term consequences and that maybe none of the options will be perfect.
“A picker does none of these things. With a world of choices rushing by like a music video, all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.”
When you’re faced with one option, you ask “do I need this?” When you’re faced with multiple, you automatically ask “Which one do I need?” As a result, our overwhelm with choice has led us to perfectionism, high expectations that can only be disappointed and a lot of regret, for we think it’s all our fault.
Eventually, we learned to navigate the cornucopia of modern choice fed to us in the grocery store with tricks, such as visually ignoring 75% of items, sticking to the brands we know, and, of course, shopping lists.
We need more time to decide and we’re less happy about the choices we make, but at least the dragon hasn’t swallowed us yet.
Naturally, the monster evolved.
Monster Evolution: The Inescapability Of Feeds
When we first tamed the Feed Dragon by containing its infinite nature with artificial constraints, we cut off the hydra’s head. But of course, as in the Herculean Tale, two more grew back.
With technological and societal progress, the nature of feeds changed. A newer, more accurate definition of ‘feed’ suggests it is “a device or pipe for supplying material to a machine.” An eerily fitting description of the mechanism that supposedly feeds us today, except we’re not machines.
Information, entertainment, ordering food, even who we ask for coffee must pass our feed-based filtering systems. Of course they induce much of the same grocery-store paralysis.
Just open Amazon and scroll down:
Or the Financial Times:
But besides adapting to our new, digital terrain, the Feed Dragon has gone through a second, more cunning transformation. By changing into a single-item, infinite-scroll appearance, it can now spoonfeed us while keeping us in scanning mode. Many of the most popular places online employ this.
“A habit is at work when users feel a tad bored and instantly open Twitter. They feel a pang of loneliness and before rational thought occurs, they are scrolling through their Facebook feeds. A question comes to mind and before searching their brains, they query Google. The first-to-mind solution wins. ”
The problem isn’t that we spend some time on a dopamine drip here and there, it’s that today, all of our first-to-mind solutions are based on feeds.
Almost every trigger leads us into yet another feed.
We don’t just go on Facebook when we’re bored, but on UberEats when we’re hungry, Tinder when we’re horny and even our motivation to work and desire to learn end up in our inbox and on Google.
Wherever we turn, more dragon heads emerge. So how do we beat this beast?
Slaying The Dragon
When Hercules beat the hydra, he did not chop off all heads at once. Nor did he tie them in a knot or bury the creature under a rock. Instead, Hercules called on his nephew Iolaus for help. Whenever Hercules sliced off a head, Iolaus held a burning torch to the open stumps, sealing them for good.
That’s called environment design. Hercules transformed the hydra’s environment to one that wasn’t conducive to growing new heads. He did so only for a brief moment, but that was enough.
We too can beat the Feed Dragon with environment design. Our torches are apps and scripts and other little hacks that help us avoid feeds. We’ve already discovered several in this series:
- Install News Feed Eradicator to escape the fiery breath of Facebook.
- Use tools like Noisli and ListenOnRepeat to pierce the hide of music.
- Put the reigns on video with StayFocusd and Remove YouTube Recommended.
- Calm your phone down with mindfulness wallpapers and tiered apps.
Slash, burn, slash, burn, slash, burn. Can you hear the heads hitting the ground? Of course there’s a lot more you can do:
- Reduce your Twitter experience with Tweetdeck.
- Set recurring purchases to subscriptions on Amazon for less shopping trips.
- Turn your email processing into a game.
- Uninstall apps that make you feel bad.
And another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust. Slash, burn, rinse, repeat. With every next tweak to your environment comes a little bit of relief.
However, the goal of this post is not to slam you with tools. I can’t hold the torch for you on every stump. You have to become your own Iolaus.
Designing your environment to avoid the destructive grip of feeds must become a habit as natural as breathing.
That’s how you slay the Feed Dragon and you can do it all by yourself.
Live A Life Of Relief, Not Regret
We all have this idolized idea of death. We go through our lives imagining that when the time comes, we’ll be ready. We see ourselves lying in bed at 103 years old, surrounded by our loved ones, saying our final goodbye and then falling asleep.
That’s a beautiful vision, and I wish it for anyone, but it’s really dangerous to get attached to it. We’ll never be ready. We’ll never be done.
Death, like so many other things, will be an interruption.
The big question is when that happens, which reaction to the realization that your time has come will shoot up from the depths of your gut: regret or relief? It’s the difference between “I wasted too much time” and “it’s okay, I can go.”
Relief is defined as “a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.” Now that’s a feeling I can kick the bucket on. When we commit to designing our environment, this feeling is what we really optimize our lives for.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but that’s the Feed Dragon’s sneakiest trick. It never swallows you whole or fatally wounds you, but it tries to dictate your every step until, in the end, you have nowhere to end up but in its lair of regret.
What kind of life we’ve lived is measured at the end. But the precautions we take now will determine the final score. On your way through life, make sure you turn around sometimes. It might be dark, but you can always swing your torch.
Stop scrolling and start living. Design your life for relief, not regret. Your gut will tell you, but if you don’t feel well-fed, maybe it’s because you’re the one being eaten.