In June 2018, I gave up watching television. I had just had my heart broken, and I knew that my first instinct would be to numb the pain with fruitless Netflix binges. I initially intended just to stop watching for a month or so, but the TV fast stuck for 18 month.
A Bingeing Problem
In part, I gave TV up because I knew it would be hard. Television had become an emotional crutch. If I was stressed, or sad, sitting in front of Netflix pushed away my emotions and left me happily numb. But as soon as I turned my laptop off, everything flooded back. This impending flood of negative emotion made it hard to stop watching.
When I was depressed, such binges had been a problem, taking too much time out of my life. In recent years, I was watched a ‘normal’ amount of telly: a maximum of one hour a night, whenever I was in alone for an evening. Yet that is, on reflection, a massive commitment. There was no other hobby with which I was so diligent or whose habituation required so little effort.
That wouldn’t have mattered had I enjoyed it. I am not a genre-snob who thinks that television is a cursed format in which no art can be made. There is wonderful television. I watched some shows I love, from the silly to the serious, Brooklyn 99 to Breaking Bad. But most of what I watched was shite. Not shite as in “low brow” or “shameful,” just unmemorable, drab. Scrolling through Netflix to think about this post, there are so many shows that I have watched that I barely remember, or even actively disliked. I watched a whole season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show I’m sure I hate! TV is also enormously time-consuming. Yes, I loved Breaking Bad and Brooklyn 99. But over their runs, I’ve watched them for 127 hours, or two full working weeks. I don’t think I meant to do that.
TV wasn’t really a hobby. It wasn’t even recreation. It was a time-filler, a brain-pacifier for when I felt too stressed to do anything else. It is sufficiently numbing to be addictive; I used to call it “white noise”. Crucially, its endless succession of programming (particularly on Netflix) removes the need to make active choices. This habit is exemplified by my avoidance of films. The decision to start a movie somehow felt much more difficult, even though I’d often sit down to watch TV for two hours.
I am not alone in this attitude towards television. People talk about TV a lot, so I often find myself explaining my TV fast. After I’ve convinced them that I’m not an anti-TV puritan-snob-zealot, I’m normally asked: “So, in the evenings, what do you… do?” When I answer that I learn chess, play the piano and read, the standard response is: “Oh, I’m far too exhausted in the evening to do anything like that, I just want to veg out.”
I felt the same. The prospect of not watching TV involved a mental investment I couldn’t make. When tired and alone, I had forgotten how to have other fun. It’s damning of my TV habit that even something I enjoy, like playing the piano, felt like much more effort in comparison. But when I ruled out TV by deleting my Netflix account, a dramatic shift occurred.
While the first 2 or 3 minutes of my new activities felt mentally uncomfortable, they quickly felt just as relaxing as TV. But there was a significant difference: unlike with TV, I wasn’t numbed, so there was no need to keep going when I was tired or bored. Unlike with TV, I haven’t learned any songs that I don’t like or read through any books I wasn’t enjoying. They aren’t compulsive to me in the same way. TV’s advantage was illusory. When forced to give it up, it turned out that reading was just as relaxing all along.
(I did have one major wobble while quitting TV: I briefly used online chess in much the same way. It isn’t as addictive, despite the best efforts of Chess.com, so the habit quickly became manageable.)
What do I want to do?
This experiment returns me to one of my biggest preoccupations: the distinction between first and second-order desire. First-order desire is what we want, second-order desire is what we wish we wanted. A lot of things associated with second-order desire are annoying: puritanism, Silicon-valley style life-hacking, the quantified self, etc. I fear and love that bullshit. I suspect that anybody who tells you that a simple choice can improve your life is probably selling you a Peloton.
And yet for me, my default is acquiescence. If I don’t set up systems, I follow the carefully-engineered behavioural cues of whichever digital platform has me in its grasp. Following my desires isn’t a path to authenticity but to Netflix-curated numbness. To carve out something of myself takes effort.
If I step back and make decisions about my life from a distance, rather than in the moment, my priorities seem very different. In the year that I’ve given up TV, I’ve more than doubled the number of books I read, from 10 to 23. I’ve got massively better at chess and started turning up to my local club. I’ve learnt piano pieces I thought might be beyond me, like Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2. If you had asked me at the beginning of 2017 whether I’d choose between those activities, or decide to watch a bunch of TV I’d probably forget, I’d never have picked the TV. That’s a decision so bad that you need to make every day, not all at once.
A desire to read more was a big part of the decision to quit TV. Having spent years teaching adult-learners the piano, I was aware of the cost of taking up something new. Our ideal of self-improvement seems to involve generating time from nowhere. Many of my adult students have no answer when I ask them what they’ll give up for practice. If they do, it’s some handwaving about spending less time on Facebook. But if you want to do something more, you’ll need to do something less. If you happen to spend 30 minutes a day staring at a wall, you can take up a hobby cost-free. Otherwise, something has to go.
Now, is my preference for books over Netflix shaped by social desirability and inherited snobberies? Sure. But then so are all my other choices. I’m watching woke Netflix shows, not QVC; scrolling Twitter, not leaving angry comments on the Daily Mail. I’m not even sure TV is looked down on nowadays: I see more long-reads on a prestige TV series that on artworks from any other medium. Either way, trying to make only make decisions uninflected by social mores is a losing game.
And in fact, dropping TV has given me time to take up a very low-prestige new form of watching: I’ve developed a YouTube-while-cooking habit. This is sparked in part by my discovery of great YouTubers like Adam Neely and Contrapoints, and in part by searching for chess tutorials. As well as being great fun, I find this form of content much less compulsive than TV, perhaps simply because there is less available at the moment.
I have now restarted watching TV: I really wanted to watch the new His Dark Materials series. I’ve also caught up on Big Mouth and on Brooklyn 99. (That was perhaps a mistake: my bingeing tendency has not disappeared completely!) But my prioritisation of bad shows over fun activities has gone away. TV doesn’t have the self-punishing edge it once did.
This year, my aim is to find a healthy relationship with television. That will mean picking a couple of shows from last year that I really want to watch, that still seem appealing now their hype has dissipated. I’ll prioritise things that aren’t too long. The idea of committing to watching Succession, which will have at least 30 hours available by the end of this year, feels too demanding. My current prioritise are Fleabag and Chernobyl, do leave further suggestions in the comments!
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