The Top Shelf Principle

Say you have before you a kitchen cabinet with three shelves. On the top shelf you have your most delicious snacks and delicacies. Chocolate chip cookies, crispy cheetos, and frozen pistachio gelato. In the middle shelf you have snacks that are "not bad", but not the most scrumptious. Maybe some beef jerky, plain pretzels, and a granola bar. On the bottom shelf, you have your survival snacks. You wouldn't eat them unless you were starving. For me that'd be plain almonds.

I've found that when I'm in the mood for a snack, my hand will always reach for top-shelf items. If the cabinet is stocked with soft chocolate chip cookies and spicy potato chips dripping with oil, I'll never reach for the almonds. The end result was that almonds never got eaten. In the presence of top-shelf items, almonds just didn't seem delicious enough. They were boring.

But I found that as soon as all the delicious top-shelf items ran out, and all I was left with were mid-shelf items like plain pretzels, the plain pretzels began floating to the top. They became a top-shelf item, and reaching for them became relatively instinctual.

The top shelf principle is thus:

  1. Options, not just in snacking but in any domain, tend to sort themselves by most satisfying first.

  2. On average, you will choose items sorted higher in the satisfaction queue. And anecdotally, what is most satisfying in the short term is typically not what is healthiest in the long term.

  3. The amount of will-power and discipline required to choose an option increases with its sort order in the satisfaction queue. That is, the first item—the top-shelf item—, will require very little will-power to act upon. Items towards the end of the queue, however, that are less satisfying but probably healthier, tend to require large doses of long-term thinking and discipline.

    And most importantly:

  4. Options do not possess an inherent satisfaction value. They are always relative to one another. In the absence of a historically top-shelf item, items lower in the queue will surface to the top and themselves become top-shelf items.

In a queue of cheese puffs, chocolate chip cookies, and plain almonds, almonds sound mundane and unappealing. But in a cruel hierarchy containing expired milk, uncooked rice, and almonds, almonds will quickly sort to the beginning of the queue and become heartbreakingly delicious. And you will not feel ripped off for eating them. You will derive more or less equal satisfaction from them as you would any historical top-shelf item.

This principle has been useful for me in snacking, sure, but has served me far greater in its application towards lifestyle addictions. My lifestyle cabinet looked like this:

Top shelf:
working, checking some sort of digital feed, like reddit, or twitter, or instagram, and playing video games

Middle shelf:
reading a book, watching a movie or show

Bottom shelf:
socializing with people in real-time, house chores

Naturally, I was doing a lot of top-shelf actions, but hardly any bottom-shelf actions. And I had developed a fatal misunderstanding towards bottom-shelf items: I had thought I hated socializing in real-time because it was inherently unsatisfying to me. I had qualified myself as an innate introvert with no capacity for change. In reality, it wasn't that I disliked socializing—it was that I enjoyed playing video games more. And with the options of playing video games or checking my phone always available to me, I almost always acted on them first, leaving whatever crumbs of waking capacity (usually none) to items lower in the queue.

I observed this in the children of family members: if you gave them an iPad to play with, they weren't going to say no. And when they do get their hands on it, they lose themselves so deeply into the digital world, that they are mostly unavailable in the real one. But take away the iPad, and a remarkable thing happens: they find something else to do. Sure, they might throw a momentary fit, but a kid is a kid, and will not let one second pass without finding some way to entertain themselves. In these cases, where the top-shelf iPad was removed from the equation, items lower in the shelving system, like two blocks of legos, surfaced to the top, and the kids began playing with them with as equal voracity as the iPad.

As for me, a grown adult with no seeming need for personal order or control in time spent facing a digital device, I wanted to reduce working, checking feeds, and playing video games for one reason: RNG.

Developers know RNG as a random number generator. In the video game world, gamers refer to the acronym simply to refer to "randomness" in a game. Random or not, in the course of playing video games, you are bound to lose. Especially in a networked game where you play against other real people. Losing, in a word, sucks. It's a very sharp and gutting pain. The pain lasts only seconds, but stabs like a knife. Losing can be especially painful when it happens in a game you love; one which you've been working hard to better yourself in.

For me, this game was Rocket League. I'd been playing almost every day for a year and a half. When I'm winning, it's pure ecstasy. When I'm losing, it's pain coupled with RAGE, depending on how bad the loss is, or how futile I feel playing. You tell yourself, if I keep playing, I'll get better, and I'll lose less. Of course, that's a lie. You won't ever lose less, because as you get better, you get matched up against people who are also getting better. The result is that you're always playing against like-minded people.

The tragedy comes into play thusly: whether you win or lose in a digital, fast-paced game is largely random. The games themselves aren't random, but the interactions you have in the digital world with other people are more or less unpredictable. In a game of Rocket League, two players may fly towards the same ball, at the same time, and a thousand factors will determine which way the ball goes. This interaction is literally called a "50/50" in Rocket League, because it's almost inherently unpredictable. The problem is, if winning a game is very important to you, and victories are decided by these chaotic interactions, then you leave your emotions to chance. In my experience, the emotional aftermath of winning or losing could last a couple hours. That meant that every day, there was a 50% chance that around 1PM, I would feel like shit for the next two hours. And guess what—I did. When I had a losing day, I would be in such a bitter mood, that I felt like doing nothing but languishing for the next few hours.

Same with work: if my emotions depended on how little or many bug reports I'd receive when I open my email inbox, or how much traffic and sales the previous day had generated, then I was leaving my emotional stability in the hands of chance. Of course, these figures tend to form averages over time, but on a day-to-day basis, you never quite knew the shape or form of what was to come. I used to have work email and notifications make it directly to my phone lock screen, so I was always in the know. In other words, I danced with chance at every turn of the wrist. Sometimes, good news would light up my phone, and with it my face. Other times, definitively the opposite. The short of it is that I now only check notifications, of any kind, once a day in the morning. Otherwise, my phone is completely devoid of notifications and accounts of any kind.

Lastly: feeds. By feeds I mean digital applications that offer feeds that constantly change and offer you something new. Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Feeds became dangerous for two reasons: 1) RNG. You never quite knew what you were going to get, and whether it would upset you or make you happy, and 2) the mere act of refreshing feeds became instinctual. I could be standing in line, or walking from room to room, and reflexively reach for my phone to check some feed, and in the span of 5 seconds, bounce from app to app pulling-to-refresh, for no apparent reason whatsoever. Pulling to refresh had found its way to my top shelf.

I had first witnessed the top shelf principle in action in my very serious ordeal with snacking, and later with kids and the presence or absence of an iPad. So I thought to myself: if I completely ransacked my top shelf, and disposed of all the items I'm habitually inclined to, what would happen? Would I go mad with idleness? Or would I find something else to do?

I unplugged my gaming PC. I disabled all notifications from my phone. I wanted it to be so that every time I checked my phone, there would be no notifications. This way, I wouldn't even have to check. I would just know there wouldn’t be any. In the midst of social or family events, I completely turned my phone off. I didn't want to run to it when I felt bored with conversation. I wanted to push past boredom to see what lay on the other side.

The result has been as anticipated by this grand pseudo-principle. In social situations, not cowering to my phone has led me to find other ways to entertain myself. And it turns out, conversation can be quite entertaining. Who knew? Of course, in the presence of video games, conversation wouldn't be, but stranded with no other options, you find a way. It's sort of like the cliche of the shy person in a party retreating to the corner and checking their phone, to seem like they're doing something, as to avoid socializing. In this case, I now know the solution to this problem is shutting off your phone entirely, or leaving it behind, so that you have to socialize. When you have to, you will. And you'll do it well too, if for no reason other than to thoroughly entertain yourself.

Not having video games to reach to, great blocks of time have opened in my day. And as sitting and not doing anything is quite literally undefined, I always found something to do. I began reaching for the almonds-equivalent of real life. I began reading more, whether it be a long session falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, or 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and now the very compelling The Gene. (Did you know that in the 1920's, in the United States of America, "colonies" were set up to aggregate "dumb" people and sterilize them so they wouldn't reproduce? Approved by the U.S Supreme Court and everything. Culling the "weak" was just a trend amongst nations, including Nazi Germany, amidst new discoveries and interpretations in genetics.) When I grew tired of laying with a digital device, I put it down, sat up straight, and contemplated my next move. "Well, I can't play video games. I don't have any digital feeds to get lost in. And I'm not going to sit here and do nothing." So I got up and did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. I tightened a loose door knob. I did some other repairs around the house.

This is week three of this strange experiment. And I kid you not—finding a chore to be done has been as exciting a prospect as playing a game of Rocket League.

The only problem is, I'm all out of chores.

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