ASK JOLIE HOLLAND on breaking TV habits

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Just want to say, I’ve been enjoying your advice column so far, and saw your call for more questions. Here’s one question I’m sitting with: I struggle with how much TV I watch. I used to be one of those annoying people who felt super smug about not owning a TV until the internet ruined that for me. Now that my laptop is effectively a television, I have a very hard time exercising self control and not watching 1-4 hours of TV a day. I have other things that in an ideal world I’d would rather be doing with my time—reading, spending time with friends, cooking, exercising, but instead when I get done with work, or when I have a break in the middle of the day, I just put on Netflix. And once I’m watching, I have a hard time stopping. For years I’ve been struggling to reduce my screen time without much success. Any advice?

Dear Garth,

I feel you. It’s so hard to break habits. And TV shows are Designed to be addicting to maintain your interest, keep you watching those ads and product-placements. The addictive quality itself is bread-and-butter for the producers.

I suggest either making some time to sit down and journal, or making an appointment with a good friend to talk it out and take notes. First list all those things you’d really rather be doing, like you said: socializing, reading, cooking, exercising. And come up with some answers to these two questions:

1) What does watching TV do for you?

2) How can you fulfill the same needs with different activities?

You can come up with some substitute activities that are more empowering, more fulfilling. An initial time commitment could be useful as you start breaking the habit. You could say you’ll try alternatives for a week. Maybe you could commit to only watching TV shows with friends. (I did that once and still found it overly addictive!)

I imagine that your time with TV is meeting a lot of specific needs, so I’d list several tactics, and keep that list in notes on your phone or in your wallet. You want to be prepared to apply these tactics at the moment the need arises.

If TV is occupying the space for chill, low-activity consumption, any number of things might substitute well: a short walk, maybe doing a little errand on foot, a nap, meditation, some relaxing exercise like stretching or restorative yoga. Maybe even prayer would fulfill that need.

Consider whether TV is providing narrative in your life, and think about what could satisfactorily inhabit that role. I find cleaning the house or working out to be so boring that I don’t do it without listening to the podcasts or vloggers I follow.

My hero Ray Peat talks about how boredom has demonstratively negative biological effects. Try to make sure you’re not bored during this transition.

Now about the first list you made, of all those things you’d really rather be doing: socializing, reading, cooking, exercising.

All those things take planning and time commitment. Each of them are very unlike the ever-present TV show at your fingertips. Go to the library and order some books you’re interested in. Even if you don’t succeed in reading them, just having them on your nightstand is part of your habit-changing process. See if you can combine any of these activities: call friends and plan a cooking project, something interesting and engaging. Maybe start a little book club? Or buddy up to go to the gym.

I appreciate your question, since I am in need of breaking a similar habit. I find myself wasting time glued to the horrific news these days. I could be more proactive with educating myself about the issues I find most concerning, and figure out some concrete ways to be of service.

All the Best,
Jolie Holland

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