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Richard Gill's Blog

Block your feeds

I’m addicted to the internet. Mainly via my phone. A year ago I implemented a radical plan to try and stop my addiction. Here’s what I learned.

My internet addiction

Everybody has slightly different internet vices, mine are:

  • Reddit
  • Youtube
  • Twitter
  • The News

Thankfully, I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram problem currently.

A bit like many smokers, I wanted to quit, but quitting is hard. Owning a smartphone is like trying to quit smoking whilst carrying a packet of cigarettes in your pocket at all times.

For me the negative impacts of my addiction were:

  • I picked up my phone and opened certain apps subconsciously (a sign of addiction).
  • I wasted a lot of time scrolling through unfulfilling content. This prevented me from doing the things I actually 'wanted' to do.
  • Some activities, especially reading the news and Twitter too often made me feel worse and fuel anxiety.

My will power feels like a limited resource, and it felt exhausting to fight these addictions. I wanted to make a systematic change.

The problem: Internet business models & ‘The Feed’

The underlying problem is that various internet businesses: Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, Twitter, The News, etc. make money with advertising. To maximise revenue, they need your eyes to be looking at the screen so they can show you ads. The time you spend engaged in their App is proportional to how much money they make.

So like any good company should, they’ve set out to maximize engagement.

The problem here is that humans ultimately have monkey brains, and the company’s feed algorithms figured out that negative news, clickbait and cat videos are the things that keep us there.

Youtube doesn’t make more money by recommending only 1 hour of high quality content per week. They’ll show you the 1 hour, then it’s on to the unlimited cat videos!

The root cause of all of this is the ‘Feed’ and ‘Watch next’ recommendation engines that point you to the content to consume. We have little control over what they recommend and the frequency they update to show you new content to consume.

Solution: Block/Limit the feeds, but not the content

To try and help my addiction I took radical steps - I blocked and limited my access to feeds on my phone and laptop.

This involves blocking apps: Reddit, Youtube, Twitter… etc. so you can’t open them or they have short time limits.

It also involves blocking websites: reddit.com, youtube.com, twitter.com, etc. so that you can’t circumvent the controls using your web browser.

You should also block installing new Apps. Installing new Apps allows new vices to come in and might allow you to circumvent your blocks. This sounds quite radical, but in practice it’s turned out to be much less of a big deal than I’d have thought.

You should make it hard to circumvent your blocks, for me this involves creating a difficult to remember password which is as short as it can be e.g. ‘a1f3de7’ and giving it to my partner. If I want to circumvent my blocks I ask her for the password, which I’ll then later forget. I also don’t like asking her, which means that I don’t ask often.

However, if you block everything, you’re completely unable to engage with any content. If a friend recommends a video or sends a link to a news article, you can’t view it. In practice this is irritating and encourages you to disable your blocking, which leads to addiction lapses.

So allow individual pieces of content in the browser:

Continue to block Apps, block twitter.com, but allow twitter.com/*/status/*. So if someone sends you a tweet, you can open it. But, you can’t waste hours scrolling through your Twitter feed.

How to implement the blocks

Implementing these blocks isn’t straightforward. iOS is limited in its ability to allow wildcard urls, so I switched to Android (a pretty radical step, I know!). Hopefully Apple adds the capability to implement these kinds of blocks in future.

Android has multiple Apps which allow you to limit your access to Apps. Help me Focus is the one I landed on, although it’s a bit clunky.

I blocked all browsers except for Firefox and installed LeechBlock which supports deny and allow lists with wildcards.

Blocking on your laptop is straightforward. I use Cold Turkey which supports blocking sites using deny / allow lists with wildcards, as well as applications.

I would recommend doing a dry run for a week where you can easily ‘break-glass’ and tweak your setup easily. Once you’re happy it’s working well, hand the nuclear launch codes to someone else.

If you’re interested in my setup: here's the config I use.

How did it go?

Pretty well. Until my addiction took over and I circumvented my own controls and slowly descended back into feed hell over the course of a year.

I’ve now doubled down, even more radically, to stop myself from easily circumventing the controls.

When it’s working I notice:

  • I feel happier and less anxious.
  • I get more stuff I ‘want to do’ done.
  • Time limiting some feeds works well. For example: Time limiting Reddit forces me to effectively ration my usage to 30 minutes per day.
  • Boredom - I struggle to fill the time the feeds took up.

I’d recommend lining up some activities (or projects) so that you don’t lose your mind in week one.

Sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on good content. Some of this content is brilliant, so going completely cold turkey seems like a shame, but without control of your feeds, it’s hard to consume in moderation.

I wish there was a place I could go which gave me ‘Slow feeds’ which only recommended the best content that day or week, instead of a never ending feed of cat videos. An example of a slower feed (which I still allow) is: news.ycombinator.com/best which shows you the most upvoted Hacker News posts in the past couple of days.

Blocking feeds is a promising strategy, the tooling to implement it could be much better, today it’s only possible for power users.


Appendix: Circumventing your blocks *spoilers*

If you implement feed blocking, you’re entering an arms race with yourself to circumvent the blocks. Here are some of the pitfalls and how I solved them.

**Spoilers below: This section might help you circumvent your own blocks, read on at your own risk. If you never think of these workarounds, you’ll never have to solve them!**

Installing new Apps which aren’t blocked:

I blocked the Play Store App so I can’t install new Apps. Easy! Then I figured out you can install apps via the play.google.com on the web. Then on a bad day I installed Brave Browser, then I used that browser for 6 months to browse Twitter. So now I’ve blocked: play.google.com/store/apps/details*

Youtube is hard to block:

I limit the Youtube feed to 30 minutes a day. I've figured out that I can easily bypass this, by scrolling the feed finding videos I want to watch. Google for the titles of the videos and watch them in the browser. This means 30 minutes of feed scrolling Youtube is a lot! Because Youtube content is videos it’s really hard to stop abuse.

Also, chromecasting Youtube videos is not tracked.