Stop Watching So Much Television! It’s Killing Your Productivity, Health, and Happiness (Here’s PROOF)
According to a Nielsen report, U.S. adults spent an average of almost six hours (5:57) per day on video in 2018.
The good ol’ TV, live and time-shifted, eats up most time, with adults watching a staggering average of 4 hours and 46 minutes per day. The number differs heavily depending on your age, as shown in the following graph by Business Insider.
But don’t worry, young people still consume plenty of video. They have simply shifted to YouTube, Facebook videos, Instagram stories, and most importantly, streaming services, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Video consumption has been rising steadily for years. In Q3 of 2017, the average time spent on video was 5:27, in Q4 it was 5:46, and in Q1 of 2018 it was 5:57. If you consider how much time and money Netflix and co. spend to make their apps as attention-grabbing and addictive as possible, that’s really no surprise – and we can expect to see the average time spent watching video to rise even more in the coming years.
In view of all of this, it makes sense to learn about the effects of video consumption on our lives, and consider strategies for reclaiming our time.
“I Just Can’t Keep My Eyes Off it” – What Makes TV So Appealing?
The television has a lot going for itself. For starters, the TV exploits our biological “orienting response” – our instinctive auditory or visual reaction to any novel or sudden stimulus. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage, a deeply wired sensitivity to movement and potential threats in the environment. If you see or hear something rustling in the bushes, you better pay attention because if there’s a tiger, your life is on the line. Some of the basic features of TV – cuts, zooms, edits, sudden noises – activate the orienting response, thereby keeping our attention on the screen. Your conscious mind may want to look away and do something else with your time, but the unconscious part of your nervous system urges you to please pay attention to the television. Your life is on the line, after all!
Watching television is also incredibly rewarding. Studies show that when people are watching TV, they are feeling relaxed, yet, the moment the TV is turned off, the sense of relaxation ends. According to Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is a big part of TV’s addictive power. In a report aptly titled Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor, they write, “Within moments of sitting or lying down and pushing the ‘power’ button, viewers report feeling more relaxed. Because the experience of relaxation occurs quickly, people are conditioned to associate watching TV with rest and lack of tension. The association is positively reinforced because they remain relaxed throughout viewing, and it is negatively reinforced via the stress and dysphoric rumination that occurs once the screen goes blank again.”
“Habit-forming drugs work in similar ways. A tranquilizer that leaves the body rapidly is much more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves the body slowly, precisely because the user is more aware that the drug’s effects are wearing off. Similarly, viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing.”
The television has more tricks up its sleeves. Cliffhangers activate the Zeigarnik effect and play on your need for completion. Auto-play removes stopping triggers. Thousands of channels mean there’s something to anyone’s liking. Replay and playback features make favorite shows available 24/7. Netflix’s sophisticated algorithms suggest precisely the shows and movies you’re most likely to watch. Environmental triggers, such as the TV in your living room or emails titled “Netflix tonight?” or “What’s playing next?” reel you in.
We know on a conscious level that we shouldn’t watch so much television, but it’s the unconscious part that urges us to come back again and again. Let’s face it: By playing on our evolutionary programs, the entertainment industry has us hooked. It’s a war for our attention, and we’re losing it – and the effects aren’t pretty.
What’s the Problem?
More than two decades ago, psychologist Tannis MacBeth Williams studied a mountain community in Canada that had no television until cable finally arrived. This allowed Williams to compare the lives of these people before and after the introduction of the television in their community. Over time, she found that both children and adults in the town became less able to persevere at tasks, less tolerant of unstructured time, and less creative in problem solving.
Williams concluded that “television viewing may result in the following: increases in children's physical and verbal aggression; decreases in reading skills, varying by sex and grade level; decreases in some cognitive skills; formation of more traditional sex role attitudes; and decreases in participation in community activities.”
Other research found that after watching television, people report feeling depleted and tired. Their alertness levels have gone down, and they say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. Their mood is about the same or worse than before.
Shawn Achor, a leading positive psychology researcher, writes in The Happiness Advantage that “studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.” In support of this, a study found that people who watched six or more hours of television news about the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than people who were actually at the bombing. A 2014 study showed that the single best predictor of people’s anxiety and fear was how much time they spent watching talk shows.
If you think this is bad, read what researcher Dr. Aric Sigman has to say about watching television, “I've recently compiled a report on the serious risks associated with watching the amount of television we do. I've analysed a wide range of scientific studies from government agencies across the world… The picture I formed was profoundly disturbing and amounts to what I believe to be the greatest health scandal of our time.”
He is convinced that watching television contributes to a wide range of negative health outcomes, including: Obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, heart trouble, hormone imbalances, increased appetite, delayed healing, sleep difficulties, decreased attention span, decreased metabolism, cancer, limited brain growth, damaged eyesight, early puberty, and diabetes.
The little entertainment value we get is clearly disproportionate to the costs we pay. There are two negative aspects of watching television that deserve some more attention: time wasting and sedentariness.
Where Did My Time Go?
Face it: We are wasting our lives away. Instead of living, we are watching other people live. Instead of playing with our friends, learning new things, honing skills, exploring foreign countries, having sex, enjoying time with our loved-ones, mediating, sharpening our perception, having fun, exercising our strengths, we fritter away in front of our devices.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “You live as if you are going to live forever, your own human frailty never enters your head, you don’t keep an eye on how much time has passed already. You waste time as if it comes from a source full to overflowing.” And the Sufi poet Rumi added: “Travelers, it is late. Life's sun is going to set. During these brief days that you have strength, be quick and spare no effort of your wings”
Life is going to end soon enough. Are you sure you want to spend your brief stay on earth watching television for hours every day? It’s time we take a close, hard look at what kind of deal we’re really getting here. Is the time we offer Netflix and co. proportional to what we’re receiving in return? A burst of entertainment followed by… what? Guilt and regret?
We all claim that we want to be healthier, happier, and more successful. Well, here’s an easy way to make that happen: Watch less television and meditate instead. Or exercise instead. Or read a book. Or play. Or meet friends. Or talk to your kids. Or call your mother. Or go for a walk.
Sitting is Making You Sick, Fat, and Dumb
Countless studies have found links between watching television and premature death. The more you watch, the more it reduces your lifespan. Once you’re over 25, it’s been estimated that every hour of television you watch reduces your life expectancy by approximately 22 minutes. As mentioned earlier, watching television is also linked to everything from diabetes, to obesity, Alzheimer’s, decreased metabolism, and more.
The main reason for these negative health implications is the sedentariness associated with watching television. When you spend hours in front of your devices, you’re in a seated position most of the time, and that’s unhealthy. While we can’t go into details here, know that there’s ample proof showing that sitting makes you sick, fat, and, by depriving your brain of oxygen and other nutrients, dumb.
If you were walking on a treadmill, pedaling on a stationary bike, pounding away on an elliptical machine, or even just standing up while watching television, the negative health effects wouldn’t be nearly as grave. (If you want to learn more about the ill effects of sedentary behavior, check out my favorite book on the topic, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, by Joan Vernikos.)
So, What to Do? 5 Tips to Break Free from the TV…
I’ve made it sound like quitting the TV is the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the world. Unfortunately, the conscious decision to quit or reduce time spent in front of our devices won’t get us very far. Let’s be honest, you already know well enough that you’re watching too much television.
So, what can we do? The starting point is to become more conscious about your TV watching habits. If you really want to spend hours staring into a device everyday and are aware of the consequences, that’s fine. But it should be a deliberate choice, not a compulsive habit.
If you choose to cut down on your television time and make the time you watch more productive, the following five suggestions will help.
1. Keep Track of Your TV Habits
If you do only one thing after reading this article, do this. Keep a daily, written log of exactly how much time you spend watching television. Nothing more. Nothing less. This will immediately reduce the time you spend watching TV. Why? Because it will increase your awareness. You can’t look away anymore. You can’t lie to yourself. You’ll experience guilt and regret if you spend too much time in front of your television.
When dieters were assigned to wear a pedometer, they walked at least one extra mile per day on average and improved their overall activity levels by 27%. I call this the what-gets-measured-gets-improved effect. Try it out, it works.
2. Remove Triggers
Most of our behavior results from habit, not from conscious choice. Habitual behavior is always triggered by something. This trigger can be internal, coming from a thought or feeling. Boredom, for example, might internally trigger you to check Facebook or turn on the television. Or the trigger can be external, coming from our environment. When you see a TV character snack on a bag of chips, this might trigger you to crave a snack.
The thing with triggers is that external ones are a lot easier to change than internal ones, which is why we’ll focus on the former. Changing external triggers is all about changing your environment. The beauty of this is that it’s surprisingly effective, yet easy to do. In one study, snacking was reduced by 46% simply by putting sweets into opaque rather than clear bowls. Small changes can lead to big results. Our motto: Out of sight, out of mind.
To watch less television, I suggest the following changes:
- Turn off Netflix’s email and mobile notifications. Go into your account settings and get it done. If you don’t know how, Google is your friend.
- Install Empty New Tab Page on your Chrome browser. When you open a new tab in your browser, the default setting is to show your top visited sites. If there’s a Netflix or Amazon Prime shortcut, that acts as an unconscious trigger. The remedy is simple: Install an extension that shows you a blank page instead. I use Empty New Tab Page for Chrome.
- Delete apps on your phone. The Netflix app makes it too easy to start watching something. By deleting it, you increase the barrier. If you really want to watch something, you can still use the browser.
- Use Firefox Focus as your mobile browser. Firefox Focus doesn’t keep history, doesn’t remember passwords, and doesn’t keep you logged in. If you want to hop on your streaming site of choice, you’re forced to at least type in the full web address and your login information. Again, this increases the barrier.
- Sell your television. Make a good buck and waste less time. A good deal, no?
You can go as far as you like. The general prescription is simply this: Find out what triggers you to watch television and remove that thing from your environment.
3. Watch Healthier
As mentioned earlier, a key element that makes watching television so unhealthy is that you’re sitting while doing it. To make your TV time healthier, follow these tips:
- Stand up and move every 20 minutes. According to Joan Vernikos, author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, standing up every 20 minutes will go a long way in reducing the negative health consequences of too much sitting. Standing up gets your blood flowing and with blood flow comes nutrient supply for your cells. If you stand up and sit down a couple times in a row, even better. If you do some jumping jacks or pushups, even better.
- Sit on a Swiss ball or balance disc. This forces you to sit with good posture and activates your core and stabilizing muscles. It’s a million times better than slouching in your chair or couch.
- Stand, or better yet, alternative between standing and sitting. Standing recruits a lot more of your muscles than sitting and is therefore a lot healthier. The best choice, however, is alternating between standing and sitting (with good posture!).
- Walk on a treadmill or elliptical machine while watching. This is perhaps the best choice and one could argue that walking while watching television makes the activity quite healthy. Most of us sit all day long at our jobs, so if we can add some extra walking to our days, that’s a pretty good thing. There’s a reason why health experts recommend walking 10,000 steps per day.
4. Plan Your Leisure Time
When you come home from a stressful day at work and have no plans for the evening, your attention is too easily hijacked by the pulls of your television. Same goes for unplanned weekends. If you have nothing else to do with your time, if you don’t deliberately put your attention to good use, it will be captured by the allure of the television.
Now, if you’re anything like me, your reluctancy to get specific will result in making excuses. Maybe you tell yourself it’ll take the fun out of it, or you like being spontaneous, or you’ll come up with something on the go. Don’t kid yourself. If you don’t plan your free time, you’ll fall prey to Netflix and co. whose business is to capture your attention and get you to spend as much time on their platforms as possible.
5. Find Better Uses For Your Time
Ever heard that bad habits can only be replaced, not broken? It’s true in some ways. It’s a lot easier to turn your back on something when you have something else to approach. And the more exciting that thing, the easier it’ll be.
So, what exciting thing will you approach? What new activities will you take up? What new goals will you pursue? What vision are you working toward? What’s your purpose, if you will?
Here are some questions to get you thinking.
- What new activities will you take up? Join a cooking, yoga, meditation, or arts class. Spend your evenings learning a musical instrument. Take up a new language. Take a dance class. Learn to play chess. Read books.
- What new goals will you pursue? What do you want from life? What would you like to accomplish? And just as important, what are the steps to get there?
- What vision are you working toward? What does the best version of yourself look like? Who would you like to become? Who would you like to spend time with? What does your perfect future look like? (Remember: Successful people have a vision.)
- What’s your purpose? Tom Morris puts it well in The Art of Achievement: “Human beings are teleological creatures. We are hard-wired to live purposively, to have direction. Without a target to shoot at, our lives are literally aimless. Without something productive to do, without positive goals and a purpose, a human being languishes. And then one of two things happens. Aimlessness begins to shut a person down in spiritual lethargy and emptiness, or the individual lashes out and turns to destructive goals just to make something happen.” Modern philosopher Brian Johnson says you need a purpose greater than entertainment. What’s yours?