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Life Gets Real When the TV Goes Off

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I don’t remember when they changed it, but Netflix no longer asks you if you want to watch another episode. Instead, it tells you you are going to unless you take immediate action. You have the option, if your drive to get on with your life is strong enough at that moment, to spring to your feet and stop the countdown before it’s too late.

Back in 2008 I quit putting the news on first thing in the morning. I had noticed that I didn’t really watch it, it was just comforting to have on, and that made me suspicious. So I stopped. The effect was strangely jarring—my breakfast-making routine seemed unnervingly quiet. Suddenly it was just me, my kitchen, and creeping thoughts about my job and my boss and whatever troublesome project we were on at the time.

For some reason just having the TV on seemed to soften the reality of those mornings, and turning it off seemed to intensify my problems. It was like life finally had room to square up and confront me directly, whereas with the TV on it could only make glancing contact.

You might have noticed this phenomenon too. Even when the TV has only been on in the background, life and all its responsibilities suddenly become a lot more vivid the instant it plunks off. And that can be a strangely uncomfortable moment, to be in a quiet room once again, suddenly quite aware that the rest of your day and the rest of your life is undecided, and you’re at the helm.

Often we already have an impending obligation somewhere else, and that’s why we turn it off in the first place. But without another vine to grasp the moment we let go of the TV, shutting it off reintroduces a certain existential weight to our experience.

One of the least-acknowledged peculiarities about human beings is that we can scarcely bear being in the moment we’re already in. It’s rare for us to truly be at ease in an ordinary present moment, if we’re not being entertained, gratified or otherwise occupied by something. We’re always planning better moments than this current one, or at least trying to soften or improve it with entertainment or food, or anything else that delivers some predictability to our experience.

Just letting life flow by, without adding anything to it, distracting ourselves from it, or fixating on the future, is strangely excruciating for us. It should be the easiest thing in the world to do, just to let time unfold at its own pace, but we’re so uncomfortable with that.

The present moment is seldom good enough. We’ll do anything to avoid experiencing the moment unadulterated, even useless things like biting our lip, reading the sides of cereal boxes, or thumbing the seams of our jeans. 

One easy and ever-available way of escaping the present is to turn on a screen of some kind, and flood the mind with moving pictures, sound effects, and a story that belongs, mercifully, to someone else.

Blaise Pascal said all human miseries derive from our inability to sit alone in a room—to do nothing rather than something, even for a little bit—and he was right. We have a generally terrible relationship with how things already are. This is a huge problem for us, because things are always exactly how they are. We’re like fish who dislike water and are always trying to swim away from it.

This is the entire reason I practice mindfulness: to gradually overcome this persistent aversion to the here and now, and learn to be at ease wherever I am without squirming away from it in some way. My aimless TV habit is clearly at odds with that goal.

And TV is a tempting log to cling to when there’s any hint of that discomfort with the present. With a really compelling TV show, we can forget we have lives at all, for a while anyway. While we’re watching, we quickly lose track of the screen the story is playing on, the walls behind it, the room we’re in, the fact that we’re watching TV, and even our basic awareness of being a person, with roles to fulfill and problems to solve. Where’s your job and your to-do list when you’re wrapped up in a season finale? Gone, for the moment.

That’s is why it’s so jarring when the screen clicks off. Oh right, I forgot! I have a life in front of me and I have to make the best of it. Shit!

Don’t think I’m saying TV has no value. This really is a golden age for TV, and you should all watch The Americans and Black Mirror, or any of dozens of other thoughtful and creative shows. What you learn from them will help you in life, which is the show that resumes when you stop watching TV.

But because of its value in helping us temporarily forget ourselves, we tend to abuse TV as a drain for our existential angst. At any given time, we can live, or we can plug into a screen and forget we’re alive. But that only kicks the can down the road. TV can put off, but never solve, the basic problem of being human, which is that we are always in the middle of our lives, with all of our story arcs still unresolved.

Shutting off

I’ve noticed recently that I’ve been using TV and YouTube to fill time a lot. When I’ve got 45 minutes here or there, I watch an episode of something on Netflix. When I’ve got eight or ten minutes, I watch something from a YouTube channel. Often I continue watching longer than I planned.

In any case, what’s the point of simply “filling time”, rather than going on with what would otherwise be the next thing? Watching a 45-minute X-Files rerun just pushes the rest of my life 45 minutes back, and something somewhere must be falling off the far end. I’ve got a thousand books to read, things to make and people to meet, but they get put off because nothing else provides quite the same vacuum of uncertainty and difficulty that an hour of TV offers.

Now that I’m acutely aware I abuse TV in this way, I want to find out exactly how important that “existential drain” effect is. Would life be unbearable without it?

So “No aimless TV” will be my new experiment. I’m stepping away from this habit for thirty days.

The Terms

Some of my screen-watching does have genuine value, so this won’t be a complete shutdown.  Watching football with my friends on Sundays is one of my great unconflicted joys. Watching a movie with another person falls into the same category. And scheduled events like baseball finals or debates (if I watched debates) aren’t the problem, so they’re exempt.

It’s the habit of putting “something” on—while I make and eat dinner, or in the evening instead of reading, or when I’m delaying my return to work after a break—that I want to stop. I know that habit only developed in order to delay or avoid consciously deciding what to spend my time on. That kind of screen-watching just fills gaps in my conviction about what I ought to do next, and there are a ton of those.

So there will be no unscheduled viewing of Netflix or YouTube (I don’t have cable) for 30 days, beginning October 18th, 2016.

I’ll be reporting my results and ongoing observations on the experiment page. You’re welcome to follow along or even do it yourself.

I’m mostly interested to see how many times a day it comes up, what I will do instead, and whether it’s going to be difficult. For some reason this experiment makes me nervous, as though part of me suspects filler TV might have somehow become a crucial stabilizing factor in modern life.

The thought is genuinely scary, and not unbelievable. It would make a good episode of Black Mirror.


Photo by Orin Zebest

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Phil October 17, 2016 at 11:49 pm

Sad post, and of the mark really. How is “watching TV” really any different than “thousand books to read, things to make and people to meet”. Sounds like the standard song of the quasi-intellectual who deride TV as being bad compared to whatever their current equivalent to “ballet”. How is TV any worse than the crap coming out of the mouths of the typical citizen or author?

Jakub October 18, 2016 at 6:20 am

I believe you’ve misread the post. The point, as I understand it, is not that books (or anything else, really) are somehow inherently better than TV shows. The problem is not in consciously making time to watch a show. The problem is habitual “empty” watching, not really for enjoyment, but rather for avoidance (of anxiety, having to decide how to really spend your time, etc.) or to just “fill time” that you could’ve instead used to do one of the million other things you want or should do.

Anna October 18, 2016 at 7:55 am

Your post started off nice with: “Sad post…”

How come people can even bare to watch TV nowadays? I have not owned a TV since I moved out from home (6 years ago). Everytime I am at someone’s home and I see them watching TV (a friend of a friend for example, or their family), I am looking at a zombie – at least thats how it feels like to me. TV is entertainment. Which is enter, (con)-tain, mint (mind). So you get stuff unconsciously put in your mind which is mostly garbage, lies and… fear.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:42 am

I think I described the difference. You can’t engage with another person or a creative project with that same kind of total passivity that you can a TV show. If you don’t find anything to relate to here, fair enough, but I bet a lot of people will.

Mari October 18, 2016 at 11:37 am

This is the only post i’ve found online that captures perfectly the feeling of unease I get from the comforting fog you get from just putting a TV series on.

I have the exact same feeling, but with something that up until now I haven’t 100 percent realised is pure avoidance: non-aimless browsing. I always tell myself I’m better than my friends, who put on vines, go on endless youtube loops that inexplicably always seem to end up with CCTV footage, check instagram, facebook, snapchat a thousand times. I do ‘research’. I’m endlessly fascinated by learning so I’m constantly googling something like ‘books about what really drives politics’, or just searching for opinion porn – the porn I’m addicted to – anything well written, long, witty and packed with thought. It’s how I found you years ago. I’m always looking for the next best longform to consume.

It’s mostly reading, because I’m obsessed with reading. But it STILL completely blocks out any in depth, 3D awareness of my life and what I need to do. I’ve done it so compulsively before that I lose complete track of myself and my life and whole days can be drowned in other people’s opinions, other lifestyles, other issues. Not mine. Never mine.

I want to do this experiment by reading strictly things that help me accomplish what I’m supposed to be doing – which is a lot. No escapism, no matter how intellectually fulfilling or life-affirming.

Anyway, perfectly-timed and illuminating article, as ever.

Phil October 18, 2016 at 12:29 pm

Why is engaging with others better than TV? Why is active behavior necessarily better? It’s not. I understand that people will relate to it. Many also related to Hitler – not saying you are Hitler, but while your objective may be creating relatable content, the objective should be happiness. If you find it in TV, that’s just as fine as any other activity. To think otherwise, I think, people are just exposing their insecurities and being “elitist” (in their own mind, not actually).

Jim October 19, 2016 at 6:44 am

Yes! Godwin’s Law still holds.

David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:03 am


Ad hominems right out of the gate, Hitler analogies… we got it all!

David Blakeman October 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm

I LOL’d.

Phil November 17, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Wow…if you automatically think mentioning Hitler is an ad hominen, then I’m clearly wasting my time explaining a point on this site. I’ll find another place to have logical discussions…

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:24 pm

@mari — We all have our ways of escaping. I guess it’s a matter of recognizing in the moment whether we’re doing it or not, and having some kind of clear standard for what we will and won’t do.

Phil October 18, 2016 at 12:21 pm

My point here is that TV is just like any other activity other than the basic/required eating, sleeping and pooping – it’s all just basic filler. Each individual activity is inherently no better than any other. To believe otherwise, I think, is just rationalizing an activity is better based on some insecurity or learnt behaviour (e.g. ballet better than basketweaving, reading better than TV, etc.).

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:04 pm

I believe I get more out of X than Y, so X a better way to spend my time. Insecurity and elitism aren’t the only motivations for watching less TV. If you think equal value can be found in every possible way to spend your time, then obviously a discussion about making lifestyle decisions isn’t going to be very interesting to you.

Phil November 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

What I’m saying is one’s lifestyle decision is strictly up to that individual – and their definition of happiness. Your “discussion” on lifestyle decision is completely predicated on attacking television. I’m sure it’ll find applause with your audience, but it’s a still flawed premise with no basis other than make a judgement about the person that likes television.

David Blakeman October 19, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Time as “basic filler” is the most depressingly drab outlook on life I’ve ever heard.

Dan December 1, 2016 at 6:54 pm

Phil, I think it comes down to intention. Being intentional with your time, which may include watching TV. The way I read the post, he isn’t attacking television as a poor form of entertainment, he is attacking mundane ritual that has lost it’s meaning.

Value isn’t derived from the action, you could read every word in an entire book and not understand a single idea. Value is what you get to take with you, what you learn. Go learn from your TV.

Al October 30, 2016 at 10:40 am

There’s a big difference in watching media vs reading. Books aren’t as addicting and your utilizing your mind more. YouTube and Netflix try to be addictive to get your data viewing so they have an incentive bring the actual content your viewing.

Mike October 18, 2016 at 1:08 am

Thanks for a neat writeup. I’ve had similar thoughts not about background TV (I haven’t done that ever really) but about background music. I used to have a compulsion to fire up some light jazz or anything to break the room silence. Same principle applies!

I haven’t really watched unscheduled TV since childhood, it must be like 15-20 years even. None of my homes have had TV plugged in to reception, instead the black box just serves as a monitor for my PC when I watch scheduled “TV”. Many don’t really know the distinction so try not to say that “I watch TV” but instead I say if I watched a movie or a show then-and-then. Very much netflix & co, youtube very little (less than 4 hours a month, I’d say). I think I watch way too much but in general, I feel it’s all quality entertainment without the manipulation and other bull of the network/cable TV.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:48 am

I’ve become more aware of my motivations for putting on music too. I am a die-hard music fan and always will be, but I’m starting to experimenting with driving without music, cleaning without music — the fact that those are “new” experiences for me says something.

Steve October 19, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Same same! I pretty much always put music on (straight after meditating, with breakfast, cycling to work, at work, walking to a friend’s) and then I realised that as much as I enjoy it it blocks out a lot of thoughts… which is quite nice… but then I felt it was sorta “wasting” time somehow, if I wasn’t really so engaged with it, so I started listening to more podcasts, or just going with silence. And now my music listening is more enjoyable too! There’s also something to be said for tuning into sounds around you – snippets of conversation and bird calls, swooshing trees and the hum of life. It’s quite easy to go about the world blocking it out with thoughts or media in our ears.

Andrew October 18, 2016 at 2:43 am

As I become more and more used to turning to screens of all kinds – TV, phone, laptop, iPad, this is a very timely reminder. Great explanation of THE problem and a strong advert for mindfulness.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:48 am

Thanks Andrew.

DiscoveredJoys October 18, 2016 at 3:40 am

I have a hypothesis related to your experiment… I am coming to believe that most, if not all, of our feeling of consciousness is the consequence of events happening in ‘real life’ which trigger automatic responses in our brains. Our brains weld the responses to these events into a narrative, including a top level point of view (the ‘self’ in our conscious life). Consider the effect on consciousness of people in sensory isolation tanks, or dreams.

Our brains work by predicting sensory inputs from bodily and external events (see Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clark). Expected sensory inputs do not alert us and merely strengthen our habits. Deviations from our (learned) predictions do alert us. There’s a huge evolutionary pay-off in responding to unpredicted events that might harm us – so we are inherently on the look out for them – and, more importantly for your experiment – we unconsciously train ourselves to search for unpredicted events and novelty.

I’d argue that we train ourselves to be ‘unpredictable sensory input junkies’ because it is pleasurable. and that even without this self-training/learning we would still have a (reduced) inherent desire for the stimulation of the unexpected.

My guess is that mindfulness might well reduce the strength of the automatic search for novelty. Profound meditation might train you to permit the automatic search for novelty to flow around you without a lasting effect – although this might be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Good luck with your experiment.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:52 am

My guess is that mindfulness might well reduce the strength of the automatic search for novelty.

This is true in my experience. It reduces the neediness for stimulation and entertaionment, but it also just makes you more aware of the desire when it does come up. And when you’re aware of it, you can choose consciously what to do in response, instead of acting out a reflex.

Zoe October 18, 2016 at 4:03 am

I have this problem with Buzzfeed. TV, not so much, as it rarely tends to be on (we mostly use it to watch DVDs), though I do occasionally binge-watch stuff.
What particularly hit home in your article was the notion that we are “pushing stuff off the other end” whenever we engage in an activity. It does make me want to put more thought into the activites I choose.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:56 am

Yeah. It’s hard to keep doing one of these time-sinking activities when we believe we’re just pushing our lives down the line for five or fifteen or sixty minutes.

Chris October 18, 2016 at 4:40 am

Yeah, this is definitely an issue for a lot of people. My in-laws are the ones who always have the TV on at their house. Headline news. Ugh!

We don’t have cable so it’s an extra step for us, but we have to try to limit TV watching with our daughters. It’s a fine line – we want them to earn what they want when they behave well but we don’t want to use the TV as a crutch.

In the end, I’d argue that Netflix is better than cable TV since you have more of a choice. Plus there’s less garbage (I’m looking at you Headline News) and no commercials!

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:58 am

Right, and I’m not arguing that any particular form of passive entertainment is better than others, just that it’s not at all unusual to use it as a kind of crutch like I have been. Canceling cable helps because you can’t leave Netflix “on” as easily, but it’s definitely possible to do it anyway :)

Barbara October 18, 2016 at 5:22 am

Perfect timing for this. I’m looking at my tendency to check out at the end of the day. Netflix is usually a part of that. Your words are helping me to understand the cost vs benefit of it. Thank you.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:59 am

Checking out is a good term. TV allows me to check out in a way that books don’t.

Anna October 18, 2016 at 6:45 am

This is so amazing…. I was about to get youtube up and waste my whole afternoon watching X factor and shark tank episodes when the thought came to me to type into google ….can somebody help me to turn off this bloody computer… I got google up and decided to quickly take a look at my emails…. a way of procrastinating that doesnt make me feel so guilty and your article is there. I really do struggle with tv watching…. I dont have a tv thank god but i use my computer as escapism. I so get what you are saying and have done many expeiments giving up tv watching. I feel so free and happy without it but i seem incapable of limiting it. I can give it up for even a month at a time and life is fantastic but the moment it comesz back i bindge watch. I seem incapable of doing just an hour a day or just watching useful stuff. Im really good at finding loopholes of what is useful, meaningful tv. i am so looking forward to reading about your experiment. There is nothing on the net about internet addiction or how to have self control with regards to usage.
Good luck, I may join you.
Anna xx

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:02 am

I think a big part of it is just starting to notice what kind of role it fills in your life. I’m doing the experiment to find those moments when I would have turned on YouTube — to see what’s going on there, what I could be doing instead, and how hard it is to do something else.

Brandon October 18, 2016 at 6:55 am

Hello David,
I have been reading your blog for few years and I wanted to tell you that I really enjoy your writing generally and this post in particular. Generic internet browsing is my go-to escape from reality. You’ve inspired me to try a month where all my web use is scheduled or directed toward a specific, finite purpose.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:03 am

Thanks Brandon. I’d like to hear how it goes for you. Feel free to comment on the experiment log page with what you notice. We can compare notes :)

Mike November 2, 2016 at 1:22 am

Thanks for this post. For me it beautifully captures the anxiety of “wishing I was in another moment besides this one” that feels like a constant for me..

Reading your post made me feel less alone in that, and for that I am really grateful.

Keep up the good works. There are people out here you are helping.

Anne October 18, 2016 at 6:55 am

I’ll be very interested to follow your progress. I don’t have a problem with TV – I record everything I genuinely WANT to watch, and doing so is a deliberate choice to spend an hour doing that. I watch 1-2 hours a day max. I get bored if I’m not totally absorbed in a programme and soon go and do something else. But I recognise what you describe in my use of Facebook, Pinterest and a newspaper’s website. I spend hours – or the odd spare 10 minutes – going from one to the other and am very aware of this being procrastination/avoidance. For a week or two I tried picking up a book instead every time I got the urge to surf – got a lot of reading done and felt less scattered. Time to work on it again, I think.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:07 am

The introduction of Tivo and other digital recording really shook up people’s TV habits, and caused a weird domino effect. Ad revenues dropped dramatically (because you can skip them) which accelerated the explosion of reality TV (because it’s so cheap to make). It’s all so fascinating to me how these different cultural factors interact with our habits. I want to see what happens when I pick up a book at those moments I normally turn on a screen.

It’s also interesting how different media are compelling to different people. I look at Facebook for about sixty seconds and I’m so over it, but Reddit I can get lost in for hours.

Esa October 18, 2016 at 7:34 am

Thanks for the great post, as always!

It will be very interesting to follow the experiment. However, as someone who has attempted something similar with video games and aimless internet surfing I should warn you that it will be very easy to just replace TV with some other way to dull the reality. Don’t listen to the excuses of your mind and stay strong! Good luck!

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:09 am

Thanks! I am very aware of the possibility of “transfer addictions”, and I’m interested to see what I become more attracted to. If you’ve noticed I haven’t banned the use of my phone or web browsing or video games. I’ve just found that nothing is quite as easy to fill time with as watching something, for me anyway. I do have a PS4 but I’m not going to fire it up at lunch the way I do with YouTube.

Kevin October 18, 2016 at 7:57 am

Hello David,

Thank you for a fine article. It hits home with me. I grew up in a poor family in a third world country. We only had TV for 2 to 3 hours per week. So it has been very easy and enjoyable to not have any TV. I gave it up about 10 years ago. Life is beautiful without it. I find myself to be living an authentic life.

Just a suggestion, I had given up eating out completely. If I am forced to go to a restaurant I will order a soup and sometimes not finish it. Now my health results speak for itself. No beer belly or weight issues. Blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar levels as well as all the other vital measurements are fantastic. So as my physician says watch your
1) Hurry
2) Curry
3) Worry.
Enjoy life my friend and thanks a million for all the insightful articles you write.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:12 am

Thanks Kevin. I guess just like anything else, our emotional relationship to TV starts forming really early, and fills different roles in different lives. I love the hurry-curry-worry refrain :)

Jesse October 18, 2016 at 8:45 am

Great post David. There was a study recently that said average American watches 13 years of TV in their lifetime (4.33 years of commercials) — that stat was scared me out of watching any TV for a while, maybe it can help with your experiment :)

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:14 am

Whoa damn!

Again, I don’t think TV is an intrinsically bad way to spend time, but that is a lot of time, so I just want to make sure it’s quality time.

wrkrb October 18, 2016 at 9:55 am

13 years?!?! Whose lives are we living??

Tara October 18, 2016 at 8:50 am

I loathe TV and would not even own one if I did not have a spouse who is addicted to it. My personal escape is spending hours on my iPad reading blogs and discussion forums. It has seriously curtailed my book reading which is something that I’m not happy about. My plan for this winter is to spend an hour a day or less on the iPad and get through at least 10 books.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:16 am

There are apps that can help that. For a while I used an app that blocked access to Reddit, Facebook and a few others for most of my day. You turn it on, it tells you no you can’t do that now, so you put it down and do something else.

Mark Kandborg October 18, 2016 at 10:27 am

I thought you said, “There are apes that can help you with that,” and I got really excited.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 7:52 pm

There probably are apes that can help. The trouble is finding them.

Luciana October 18, 2016 at 9:10 am

I can´t thankyou enough for having writtern this article. I have someone who lives in the same bed as me to forward it to ;)

Luciana October 18, 2016 at 9:42 am

The few times I tried this, I ended up increasing my time with WhatsApp groups. Be attentive not to diverge on to the same behavior with social media, so easy to slip to.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:45 am

Yeah, I’m going to be monitoring the “transfer” effect. Discovering what new (or old) behaviors I turn to is part of the fun of the experiment.

Lisis October 18, 2016 at 10:13 am

I did this recently with ALL screen time. I put myself on a “diet”, with carefully allocated rations: admin stuff (paying bills, registering for things, handling emails, research), social stuff (facebook, chats), and Netflix (at night I watch a thing with the kid, and a different thing with the husband).

ALL of it had to fit in TWO hours… which sounds like a lot, but it isn’t when you compare it to the zillions of times I normally check emails, notifications, watch random videos, look up articles or information.

Long story longer: I was BLOWN AWAY by how much more LIFE I had in my days… how many more things I could get done… how clean my house was… how creative and productive I could be… how much joy I derived from every social interaction and every beautiful thing. I was very mindful and present and grounded in the joy of each moment.

It was Beautiful.

And it was EXHAUSTING.

I know screens are a distraction from Life and the present moment, but sometimes that serves a pretty great purpose… especially when Life gets too intense, too dramatic, too stressful, too heavy, too social, too… anything.

It’s so great to have a simple, accessible, inexpensive, always available pressure-release valve. The trick, though, is to not abuse it… to not settle into auto-pilot and trade in a real Life for a virtual one. The trick, it seems, is to find the right Balance… which of course, is different for each person.

I wish you luck on your new experiment. You will discover amazing things on YOUR quest… for balance. ;)

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:09 pm

Thanks for sharing this. It’s the end of day one and it has been kind of weird. There have been a number of instances where I felt really needy to throw something on. It really does seem to have a purpose, it’s just hard to accept that life is in any way unbearable without them. Any maybe they’re not, except when you’re highly conditioned to them it kind of feels like the rug has been pulled out. It will be an interesting month.

Thank you for continuing to help me on my “quest” after all this time :)

sandybt October 18, 2016 at 11:09 am

Love this post and the idea of fostering more awareness of our daily distraction habits.
btw – we purchased an inexpensive ROKU device which, along with other benefits, forces us to actually press a button in order to start the next episode on Netflix. Felt kinda good to outfox them, although it did cost a bit of effort and $ to get back to what should be the default choice anyway…

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:09 pm

It should be a setting!

Sarah Flores October 18, 2016 at 11:31 am

This might be slightly off topic, but it popped in my head as I was reading your article, so now it must go in your head, too.
I’m currently reading Time Tactics of Very Successful People by B. Eugene Griessman. He tells you to determine what each of your life’s hours are worth. If you make $100,000/year, one of your hours is worth $50. Or, maybe you decide that each of your hours is worth $100 or $200. Whatever. Once you put a value on your time, you’ll become very careful about what you choose to do with your time.
Each time you aren’t doing something productive that betters your life, you’re losing that determined amount. (When you’re spending time with the people you love or doing something that makes you extremely happy, the value of those hours don’t count—they’re already at their peak value.)
Now, this isn’t really about money, but it is about realizing that each hour of your life is valuable—that your life has value!
So, if you’re mindlessly watching the boob tube, you’re essentially devaluing your time—the only absolute you truly have. Hopefully this makes your 30-day experiment a little easier.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:12 pm

I wonder if downtime is essential for the productive time. Already today I’ve encoutnered “downtime” — time I don’t intend to use to make money, get work done, or anything else — that I had to do something with. And it was weird to remember that watching something isn’t an option. I just want to fill that time with anything at all but more screen time.

Paul Anthony October 18, 2016 at 12:18 pm

I don’t know how old anyone is, but I’m 68 and find that the older I become the more I just want to be/rest in silence, or to say, rather, that I just want to be present in what is happening all around me without any tampering or interfering in any contrived or artificial way. I have been washing dishes by hand for a long time and prefer this over using the dishwasher because I relish the sensation of the warm and even hot water on my skin. I have this thought that after I’m dead, even if there is “life after life” in some fashion, will I ever get to feel water again? So, now that I’m getting ever closer to “the end” I want to experience life as it really is as much as possible without any artificial distractions. You get what I mean?

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:15 pm

Yeah I do. I want that too — more direct contact. I just fear that I’m currently *super* conditioned to have regular “tuning out” time during my regular days. Still, whenever I wash the dishes by hand or do something with my hands instead of my head I am glad I did.

Peggy October 18, 2016 at 7:38 pm

I don’t have a TV habit… What I have is a laptop habit haha, I get lost in it… Granted, there is a lot of valuable information on the Internet, specifically on decluttering and health matters AND philosophy that I am interested in… BUT it can also be a giant time waster :p

Great article, thanks!!! :)

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:18 pm

Yeah, it’s hard to know when that line is being crossed, especially on the internet. I think it’s a matter of asking yourself the question “Am I avoiding something right now?”

Karen October 31, 2016 at 10:06 pm

Thanks for posing that question David ‘am I avoiding something right now?” This is the take home message for me about my overuse of browsing the internet and watching TV. Both are fine, and I enjoy them and I don’t apologise for it, but I know too that I overdo it, and it’s a crutch at times when I’m avoiding other things – some good some so much. Great article, thank you.

Nick December 11, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Peggy – me too (!) have a laptop habit….used to watch average 3-4 hours of tv a night, now maybe up to an hour and some nights not even that. I find myself switching from browsing the internet and playing games. So even though I don’t really have a problem with tv any more, just got to remedy the browsing/gaming habit – probably down to facing up to doing things instead of browsing. Like David’s other articles about being in the moment and savouring them and that every moment is a gift, either I would be just being or doing something productive.

Nate St Pierre October 18, 2016 at 8:11 pm

I like the “they’re not the problem” line. Experiments, whether your rigorous ones, or less-directed things that other people try out to see how they feel, don’t always have to be all-or-nothing. I think attempted change is easier when you can isolate the desired behavior and make smaller, more directed efforts to tweak it.

Also tell me what’s wrong with Rodgers and the Packers this year, please.

David Cain October 18, 2016 at 8:20 pm

Honestly I think Rodgers is just in a psychological slump. Minnesota is looking scary and he doesn’t feel like king of the north any more.

Not sure what “They’re not the problem” line you mean?

alice gray October 18, 2016 at 9:55 pm

When my brother and I were growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, we had serious rules about TV. Our parents, and step-dad were college-educated and 2 were teachers. TV was still in its infancy. We were allowed a certain number of hours per week of TV. No TV on school nights. No TV past 8pm. And only certain programs were acceptable – well, programs were pretty tame back then. Homework had to be completed before any TV. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Our mother pretty much had the attitude that TV is stupid, and didn’t teach you to think. She pretty much hated it. 60 Minutes on Sunday night was about the only regular TV program that she would watch. I still watch it today.
Our TV was N.O.T. in the living room. The living room was for people, conversation, or reading. To this day, I refuse to have the TV in my living room. My living room is a people room. I limit myself in my TV watching. I almost aways watch only at night. My duties, responsibilities, and chores come first. TV is a reward for a day well spent. I don’t keep the TV on. I love the quiet, especially in the morning. Quiet is essential for my peace of mind, my sense of calm, and my ability to think and figure out problems. I’ll work a cross-word puzzle before I’d watch TV. I am very thankful that I was raised to think, to reason, and appreciate the love of learning. Some TV is fine – the TED Talks, for example. I often don’t turn the TV on for days. I don’t miss it either.
Apparently TV has become an addiction instead of a treat, or a reward. Like candy, sugar and other things once thought of and used as special. It’s no wonder that we have a society addicted to all sorts of things, diabetic, overweight, and stressed out beyond reasonable limits. We need to re-think a lot of our values. Thank you for this column today, David. It has made me more appreciative of what I treasure.

David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:01 am

I like the ethos here. The internet has blurred the line between TV and the computer, which I must have on most of the day anyway. “A reward for a day well spent” sounds like a good role for it.

Diane October 19, 2016 at 7:23 am

Perfect timing of this article for me. I’m going on a Vipassana retreat next week. Luckily, my tv habits have evolved to be less time sucking over the years. Still, I’m interested (alright, nervous) to discover my level of attachment to, so far, 72 episodes of The Fosters. I’m looking forward to reading about your progress when I get back.

Off topic, you sent a short questionnaire a few weeks ago asking what writings have been particularly helpful or what we might want more of in the future. Would you consider a Nichiren Buddhism practice experiment? You could do that while you’re not watching tv :-)

David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:08 am

My guess is that you will barely think of TV. Retreat life is so different from everyday life that you probably won’t have any of those cues that make you miss TV. I’m interested to hear how it goes though!

I don’t really know anything about Nichiren — one day I might do an experiment on some aspect of Buddhism, like the precepts maybe, but I don’t want to combine them.

Enjoy the retreat!

Rene October 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

I enjoyed the think piece, but let me just digress and remark on how much your writing style has evolved. Not that it was ever off, but it has grown. I had stopped reading your updates for a while, for XYZ, and maybe that’s why I’m more susceptible to the step-up.
Thanks for sharing the organized thoughts on which you’ll base your experiment. They are very thought-provoking.

David Cain October 19, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Well thanks Rene!

Amy October 19, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Love the post. Also, as a sidenote: the autoplay on netflix is a setting. (Go to settings > playback settings and there’s a checkbox.) Just in case you wanted to wrest back control of your viewing in a small measure. :)

David Cain October 19, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Ah! I had no idea. Thanks Amy.

John A_W October 19, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Great post, David.

I have found thinking of TV viewing as a “last resort” form of entertainment (after books, music, film, art, whatever) works for me. As in: get everything else you want to accomplish during the daylight hours, and then plan out how much time you want to set aside for the vegetating hours. I would agree there is an embarrassment of riches out there when it comes to TV viewing/streaming, but thankfully that means there are a ton of awesome shows that never could have existed in the network days. I think I read that the average American ingests around five hours of TV per day, so if you can manage to cut that in half for your evening you’ll be miles ahead of most folks. Another thing that I constantly fail at but continue to strive for is to focus on ONE single show and watch it through to the end of its run (tougher to do for shows currently running, of course).

I feel obliged to add that I am a long-time reader but don’t believe I have commented on a post until now. I am quite impressed at your voluminous ability to respond to each individual comment; I don’t believe I have encountered an online writer who has achieved that besides you. Since subscribing to your awesome newsletter I have tried to read everything you have produced, and it has helped my life in incredible ways (one of which led me to begin toying with the notion of different “experiments” on my own website). You are an excellent writer, you deal out plenty of advice worth reading, and I hope you continue to build your following. The way this world is going we’re going to need all the mindfulness we can summon…

yours, jA_W

David Cain October 20, 2016 at 8:57 pm

This is the kind of thing I thing I’m gravitating towards. So far doing other things where I normally watch TV feels a little weird, but then I just start doing something else and I don’t miss it for a moment. It’s quite a relief and I feel like I have more time. I guess that tells me how much time I’ve been spending.

Julie October 19, 2016 at 11:25 pm

In grad school, I had no smartphone and no internet, no TV either. Not at home – and school was a half hour away. For a year, maybe more, I forget. Totally changed my relationships to these things and how I use my time. Exercise, reading, cooking, schoolwork, I was never bored. And that has persisted mostly intact even now that I have access to all those glorious things. I autopilot to deleting trash emails, but any real thought or time is still done with purpose.
The thing I’ve tried to re-establish is my relationship to music. It’s a powerful way to influence my emotional landscape, or just to enjoy something. I don’t want to run away but I am a chronic over-thinker, so it helps sometimes.

David Cain October 20, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Music fills a great role. It doesn’t steal your attention away from anything, but it also changes the ambiance behind whatever you’re doing. I’m listening to more music already.

Elena October 20, 2016 at 6:01 am

I really enjoyed this and agree with the writer. I watch TV only at scheduled times. I try never to “channel surf”. Now THAT’S a waste of time for sure.

It’s not that I believe that someone who watches a lot of TV is worse off than I am. I just think that there is more to life than passively observing someone else’s life on a screen. I want to be living mine rather than watching someone else’s.

Great post. Thank you.

David Cain October 20, 2016 at 8:59 pm

Thanks Elena. I kind of thought I had escaped the worst of it when I canceled cable, because there isn’t really any conventional “channel surfing” with netflix and youtube. There really is though, it’s just a different mechanism than clicking the remote channel button.

Nell October 21, 2016 at 4:53 am

This is much like waiting for a train and pulling out your smart phone. The other day I was standing at the platform and I just looked around and took in everyone. There was not one person who was not jabbing away at their electronic device.

I felt like I was in a parallel universe. Very serene and peaceful when you just stop and live in the moment.

Ethan Maurice October 23, 2016 at 11:23 am

Great post. I think there’s a certain kind of fog that comes with constant connection to technology in general. I just returned from nearly five months running a lodge in Montana that had no TV, WIFI, or cell service. I could drive three miles to get an internet connection, but otherwise had no technological link to the outside world. That vividness, the clarity of mind you mention is a very real product of stepping away from such things. It had become quiet wonderful.

I’ve been back in Phoenix, full connected to it all for 5 days now. I’ve felt a bit numb, my mind a bit hazy since I’ve returned. Being connected is awesome and I’m so glad to be able to access information again, but I think we all have to keep an eye on our relationship to technology and self-impose our own limits on it.

What a great experiment to run, you rock David!

Amanda October 27, 2016 at 5:32 pm

I do this way too often. And I watch the same stuff over and over. I have it on as background. It splits my attention and I always feel conflicted about it. For most of the year, I’ve thought, “I’ll get around to changing it.” I think I’m experiencing a type of change exhaustion, though. I’ve made a lot of changes all at once and one more will wear me out! I’m going to come back to this post every time I think I can’t do it now. I’ll prime myself to do it by reading about your progress.

Annie October 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

I have no issue with watching TV as a pastime if one is truly interested in what’s on. I watch both educational and simply entertaining shows from time to time, but like you I don’t like to use TV as background noise or “filler” for my day. The same goes for smartphones and surfing the net. I find it distracting when I am trying to read, or think, or whatever else I am doing at the moment. I began regularly meditating about a year or so ago and it has helped me realize that I used these things as an excuse not to face what was going on in my life that troubled me and sometimes it distracted me from the good stuff as well. A mindfulness meditation practice is a powerful tool for self awareness.

Ann Hall October 29, 2016 at 8:41 am

Love this article. Growing my family in the jungles of Asia has taught me to live the peace and quiet of no tv. Returning to the states is a shock as our lives are filled with the media agenda. Thank you for sharing!

Jill October 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

About 15 years ago my family and I did an experiment. We “fasted” from TV for the summer. I have 4 kids. My hope was to get them outside more. We closed the door on the entertainment center in our family room & hung a sign on it. It was a picture of a TV with a circle around it & a line through it. Also on the sign was the Bible verse from Philippians 4:8 (it’s worth looking up ). So days were not too bad, but at night we all started getting fidgety. So we started playing games, reading, the boys got out their Legos, my daughter experimented with recipes, etc. Eventually we found a new normal. At the time social media was a lot different so it wasn’t as much of an issue. Well at the end of the summer we (the parents mostly) liked the new normal & we haven’t had TV ever since. My husband & I don’t miss it at all. As a matter of fact when I do get an opportunity to watch, like when we stay at a hotel or are visiting friends, I hate the commercials so much that I just turn it off or walk away. Now my kids are much older. My grown daughters stream their favorite shows & my sons play video games, which I do set a time limit on. We still have a TV set and watch movies. My husband listened to the World Series in our kitchen on the radio last night just like families did when the Cubs were in their last WS in 1908. When my husband & I got married, we agreed to never have more than one TV in the house & no TV in the bedroom. In 30 years of marriage we have stuck to that. Anyway, all this to say, if we are to live our life to the fullest and enjoy the company of people then consider what you do with the precious time you have. Great article! Thank you for writing this! I started following The Minimalist blog a few years ago & it has changed my life. God Bless!

Marianne October 30, 2016 at 5:20 am

I enjoyed your article. I did not enjoy some of the comments from other people. Why is it that some people can be so critical on the Internet and say things they would never say in real life?

David Cain November 18, 2016 at 10:45 am

Because you don’t have to see the person’s face

Ravi October 30, 2016 at 7:50 pm


Thanks for your great article… i am an indian, currently working in japan alone. Didn’t understand the contents fully, but overview of the contents. rather i was not interested as the sentences are difficult to understand FOR ME.

as you said, IMO as well, you cannot switch off the TV/Netflix/youtube, etc without any other work. you need to replace with some other habit, whichever you feel as good.

Even i have realized the same, for the past 10 days i did not switch on tv, youtube, but i have a smartphone to contact my family and friends…

in case of me, i have switched from TV/youtube to Kindle and rubik’s cube. It feel a lot better than TV and also gives a good satisfaction than watching TV.

thanks for your article.

David Cain November 18, 2016 at 10:47 am

Rubik’s cube! What a great idea. I should go back to that, and all those string-and-wood-block puzzles. It’s been so long and I think I’m more patient now.

Fontslake November 2, 2016 at 6:52 am

You are damn right, you just mentioned the right facts and figures. Thanks for sharing the wonderful post.

John H November 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I too like this post along with most of the others and it makes me think about how much unconnected time is the right amount of time. As I age, I am much more conscious of and intentional about how I spend my time. (The irony in life is that it can take a lifetime to figure it all out, and when you do, you run out of time). The only time I watch TV other than certain college sports, is before bed, and I either read or watch something mindless, a pre-recorded drama of some sort. Lately I have opted more for TV vs. reading, when I think reading is the superior down time and this post had me asking myself why I am opting for the screen. As David points out, reading is engaging the brain in a different way than video, and usually I am reading something with some literary or probative value (goes back to intentionality).

On overseas flights, I used to binge watch the shows like 24, which I described to the uninitiated like a crack form of TV, taking the suspense, action, whatever to a whole new level. One can literally park the brain into suspend mode for many hours and be disappointed when you land and can’t finish the current episode. Oddly though, I also look forward to the down time on a trans Pacific flight, where I can sort out and organize the loose ends in my brain, write a song or a letter, reflect on photos and prior events, but 14+ hours can sometimes be too much down time and I find the need for outside brain stimulation. I guess the difference between the video and the book is that the book requires the brain to imagine the story, or process the information once read, and the video stimulates the eyes, ears and brain simultaneously and doesn’t require a lot of processing to receive the stimuli. On a long flight, the engaging movie or show feels more like eating a high calorie dessert, and reading a self help book can feel more like eating your vegetables. I guess I am agreeing with those that see differences in the quality and benefit of various diversions or ways we choose to spend our increasingly limited free time (and how much is it more limited due to screens as pointed out by one previous poster).

So the question in my mind is, what is the right amount of down time away from screens or other outside distractions and mindless entertainment? On one extreme, solitary confinement is described as one of the harshest punishments we can administer to a human and people in long term solitary confinement often go crazy and few rarely recover if subjected to it long enough. The stats are used as convincing proof that humans need social interaction and need to be around other humans. Would the outcome change if solitary confinement came with a screen, an unlimited Netflix account, or flow of content, etc., i.e. can we park ourselves long term into one of these diversions with fewer consequences than being alone with only our brains and bodies for extended time periods? Are those people in pods in the Matrix be just as happy binge watching House of Cards vs. being fed their computer-generated version of reality?

Some people seek out shorter periods solitary confinement essentially as part of meditation and mindfulness (and make an effort to go to stay in a monastery or retreat with this focus), and these retreats offer a short taste of solitary confinement, but the big difference is it being optional vs. forced and short term vs. long term, but you can’t meditate very well in front of a screen, or in a loud crowded distracting place, or even in the car with someone else. So, perhaps it depends upon the person, the degree and maybe what is going on in that person’s life at the time as to what the healthy amounts of alone time are without outside stimulation from a video or audio source. Another question would be how do we measure when we are having enough and when we need more?

When I have time to reflect, I often think of highly creative solutions to problems or issues that don’t occur to me when I take life on the fly and it takes a certain lack of stimulus for me to find a “flow state” (another great topic, David). As for music, I too listen to it when I bike to work and find it hard to go without now. Sometimes I listen intently to the music and sometimes I let the music take me to a creative thought pattern if that makes sense. I find that the music can sometimes help me find a zone in my thinking (flow state) and sometimes it can be distracting depending on the music and how it fits with what I am thinking about. The point is music for me is a different

I will throw out one more thought or concern on this topic. Most of us older people didn’t grow up with the multiple screen environment we have now. I remember when personal computers were in their infancy in the mid 80s. Kids today have a tablet or phone in their hand as early as 2, and I and other parents are finding that many (not all) kids are finding less interest and enjoyment in traditional “analogue” activities (sports, acting, mastering an instrument, etc), and are more inclined to spend time in front of a screen, playing a game, surfing or watching videos, which I believe could become hugely problematic. These same kids resist making voice calls, talking to people or customer support, or face to face service staff and will always opt for the automatic option.

Maybe this is a whole separate post, but as we design ways to illuminate human interaction and we opt for those options, what impacts will that have on society as a whole down the road? Why do we opt for more solitary confinement-like experiences if given the option, when we know it makes people crazy in the long term?

David Cain November 18, 2016 at 10:49 am

I just finished a book called Deep Work, which has a lot of thoughts on finding a balance between focuses and unfocused time. In my case I knew I was investing too much time doing passive screen-watching, and doing less was only going to be a good thing. I think most of us can determine which side of the too-much-too-little line we’re on, if we think about it.

marc November 8, 2016 at 1:04 pm

Man, you got to write! Been several weeks. Kind of dull to check this site on a regular basis, and see the same old article….zzzzzzzzz.

David Cain November 18, 2016 at 10:45 am


A couple of things:

-There’s no need to check a site on a regular basis. Just subscribe by email and whenever something is new, you will be notified.

-There are over 350 articles in the archives. Enjoy!

-I’ve explained that until I’m back from Ecuador the frequency will remain low. My work is more than just writing blog posts, and it’s always a struggle to balance time and creative energy. But now that I’m back there will be more of both for blog posts.

-It is kind of frustrating when people express a sense of entitlement to your creative work. Writing is painful and difficult and I’m offering these articles for free. I’m glad people come to see them but I certainly don’t owe them to anybody, and any quotas on how much I produce are mine alone. I hope you enjoy Raptitude but there are literally millions of other sites to visit if you are bored.

Operative A November 21, 2016 at 12:24 am

Agree with you on that writing takes a large chunk of energy and focus out of your day. It’s just simply- not easy. I thought it would be, but you never know until you try. I seem peak at 1000 words or so, and after that, man, it’s a grind. Thanks for all you do.

christine November 13, 2016 at 1:50 am

Great – I love the experiments. I am going to try to do this one too, starting from today but I am going to add-in aimless browsing of the web. We only got a tv around 2 weeks ago so that has not been a problem, but could start to be. But i have noticed that I spend masses of time endlessly googling stuff on the web. Then when i am on I end up looking at work emails and getting mentally sucked into working all the time. So no mindless tv and no surfing in the evening unless actually looking up something I need to.

David Cain November 18, 2016 at 10:51 am

Aimless web-browsing can take unlimited time. I don’t do much of it but I do end up getting stuck on Reddit frequently. Recently I decided to delete it from my phone, and what a difference.

Opertaive A November 20, 2016 at 1:35 pm

I agree with this post. Last year, after realizing that watching Netflix or playing a video game made time accelerate to warm speed, leaving me with no time left, I did a multi month, no tv, no video games trial. Gave the TV away, cancelled the internet service. It really is amazing how easily entertainment can smooth over everyday life, and get rid of worry/anxiety. A year goes by, and nothing’s changed, except you’ve finished a few games and caught up on the tv shows. I won’t be going back to them, until I feel like my own personal tv show – real life, is in a place where I can spare time for tv. It’s just too easy to be happy, in a haze of tv watching, comfort, and abundant food, when in reality, you’re not where you want to be. Thanks for posting David, long time reader, have both your books, just never comment really, and I think most people don’t. It’s fun to be a ghost and just read sometimes.

Diogo November 20, 2016 at 9:44 pm

I do this too but my main one is music, even if I go to the grocery shop 2 minutes away I have to bring my phone and put up Soundcloud and listen to the same old songs where I get lost in fantastical scenarios about how great I am.

Sometimes I’ll put a podcast because that way I feel like I’m learning something at the same time but at the end of the day its all escapism.

Stuart December 17, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Great article, you put some of the thoughts that I have been having into very clear terms. Particularly lucid was your description of how watching TV mindlessly pushes everything in your life back, and something has got to fall off the end. I have been much more conscious with my TV watching recently. Once a week I don’t watch any TV or YouTube videos or anything like that, as a way to kind of reset and remind myself that it is not only possible, but that I actually get more done and feel more present on those days. In fact this is one of those days where I have decided not to watch anything and that led me here in a sense, as perhaps I might have just put on a show instead of seeking out thought provoking articles like this one. Also there certainly does seem to be a recent trend of having “autoplay” as the default mode. There is however a way to disable this in Netflix, though it is buried in a submenu. I believe it is under Account Settings and then Playback Settings, then uncheck “Play next video”. Just a tip for anyone reading and wishing there way a way to avoid having your willpower so thoroughly tested at the end of every episode.

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