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Experiment No 23 – No Aimless TV

In this experiment I cut out my habit of filling time with Netflix and YouTube. No more unplanned TV, no watching while eating, no killing time with screens.

The main purpose is to discover what happens when I don’t have this crutch. But I also hope it will make my eating more mindful, lead to more reading, and trigger some insights about why we are so attracted to the most passive known type of entertainment.

This experiment begins October 18th, 2016 and ends November 17th.

The Log

10/18/16 – Day One

Already noticed an urge to watch YouTube instead of read this morning. I find when I wake up kind of cranky, often because I have something difficult on my to-do list that day, I want the total effortlessness and comfort of watching something first thing. But I left it off, picked up my book, and the urge went away almost immediately.

10/19/16 – Day Two

Well Day One was interesting. It was a fairly rough day, moodwise — not because of TV, but the inability to watch TV in response was actually kind of challenging. I just had to do something else. I cleaned a bit, did quite a bit more work, read my book a bit.

There were lots of moments when I would have normally watched something and I had to find something else to do. This felt weird and kind of strained at first, but after a minute or two of the non-TV alternative activity, the craving to watch was gone.

The day definitely had a different character. Slower, and more vivid, which at times made it harder. I felt like I had a lot of extra time, because I don’t pack screen-watching in around my breaks and “transition points” like mealtimes and beginning and ending work.

10/22/2016 – Day Five

I’m feeling really good about this experiment. It’s quite simple — I have an urge to turn on a show, often a response to indecisiveness about how to spend the next part of my day; I remember that’s not an option; I do something else, which often ends up being something fairly engaging and productive, like tidying something, doing some light work, going for a walk, reading a book.

I have watched a bit of “planned” TV though, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I decided to watch an episode of a show after I’d done all my work for the day, and it was lovely. I didn’t carry on with it after, just stopped, turned it all off and did something else. However, this is creating a bit of a gray area — what kinds of shows am I allowed to watch in this premeditated way, and how far ahead of time can I concoct a “plan” to watch something? I don’t know exactly, so I’m going to err on the side of not watching.

Life really feels quite different. Activities don’t bleed together anymore. I do one thing, then I stop doing it to do something else. Life feels cleaner somehow.

10/27/2016 – Day Ten

Well it’s certainly a lot easier now. There isn’t much temptation to watch anything, at least until I’m completely done all my work and responsibilities. The biggest benefit so far, I think, has been that I don’t stick little “YouTube breaks” in my workday. If lunch was at noon, and it was 11:52, I’d throw on a video, and that always leads to more. Often I would put on one before even beginning work, which is clearly a terrible idea.

Things have gotten a little fuzzy though with the gray area I mentioned last update — I really need to decide what counts as “planned” watching.

I have also noticed a bit of a “transfer addiction” to surfing Reddit. But I don’t easily pass hours this way, and it’s not something you can do in the background, I quite quickly feel annoyed with myself enough to stop before it’s a problem. But it does achieve the same effect as aimless TV — I find it relieves me from having to decide how to spend this next bit of time. So I will monitor it for that.


11/2/16 – Day Sixteen

Just a quick update — I’m in Ecuador right now, and so the normal temptation to put on a show isn’t there. So I don’t have much to report. When I conceived this experiment I thought it would be a good time to do it, because it would be easy to stay away from the screen while I’m traveling.

In hindsight this was kind of dumb, because the point isn’t just to watch TV but to recondition the home-based behavior of how I watch TV. So I’m not really learning anything. Oh well. I do have a TV in my room here but I have had no desire to turn it on. The remote is still in its plastic packaging.

11/21/16 – Day Thirty-five (The end)

Well the experiment flew by, definitely in part because I was away most of the time. This was a mistake in hindsight. But the changes I wanted to make did happen pretty quickly and effortlessly. It turns out TV wasn’t such a compelling addictive force for me as much as a bad habit.

So now that it’s over, do I plan to keep doing it?

Sort of. I do sometimes put something on in the background while I make dinner, but I realize I am actually quite engaged with it, and this isn’t the problem behavior I was trying to change. What I don’t do anymore is watch YouTube videos at any time before I’m done work for the day. I used to start with a kind of “morning show”, which was only 15 minutes long but then I’d start clicking around in the “Recommended” section and delay the start of my workday. This seems absurd now, and it was probably the worst of my screen-watching behavior.

I watch much less YouTube. I look at my subscription feed now and then and scroll past almost all of it. It has very little appeal now and I realize I was only watching it to delay the rest of my day.

I have been watching a few shows in the mean time (The Crown and Black Mirror) and really enjoying them. I seldom want to watch more than one episode at a time.

So much has changed in the past four weeks in terms of my attitude towards my time and my work (see my latest post for details) that it seems like a completely different person who spent so much time watching X-Files reruns and scrounging for another watchable YouTube video. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that kind of behavior.

The experiment seems like a minor one, but something important has shifted. As I alluded to in the original post, latching on to aimless TV is a kind of existential escape hatch — it signals a need to delay or avoid the future. Certainly you can’t sink hours into lame TV while you’re simultaneously excited about your work or creative possibilities, because when you are there’s never enough time for it. And that’s how I feel now. I want to use my hours creating stuff, getting better at things, not just passing the time.



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Viv Silva October 18, 2016 at 10:38 am

Haven’t had a TV for years, but napping every afternoon is my way to kill time..so decided, yesterday, to start knitting a scarf, I will call my nap scarf…. whenever I get the urge I will pick it up and have something to show for my time.

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David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:17 pm

I want a nap scarf!

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Marike October 19, 2016 at 1:28 am

I have several finished nap scarves and I currently have a nap blanket. Confession: I watch TV while I knit. But that’s active series watching for relaxation, not for noise.

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liza October 18, 2016 at 6:19 pm

i decided this morning to do this along with you, and on my way home from work just the image of being home and turning on the set was ‘comforting’… but i resisted the urge and indeed, i find that just simply becoming involved in something else can quickly quash the demon. told a work friend i was going on this adventure and she looked at me practically in horror and said “oh i could never do that, that’s scary!” …yup! but exciting too, as i have been soooooo lazy for too long. thanx fer the inspiration, david!

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David Cain October 18, 2016 at 9:19 pm

I have had so many moments like that today already. This is going to be rough. But I am doing it. I’m getting more work done, that’s for sure. It’s 9pm and I’m still at it. You’re right, it is just a matter of starting up something else — anything else.

Glad you’re joining me. It is a bit scary, but that means there’s new ground being broken here.

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David Fitzgibbon October 19, 2016 at 1:03 am

I’ve decided to follow along too, removing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, but keeping Reddit ( it’s great for articles relevant to my work ) with some subreddits removed.

Instantly had my housemate point out that I hadnt accepted an event on Facebook, and a Pinterest album of ideas for the Halloween party!

I’m going to just allow myself 10 mins every two days to get by that party, but I’m on it besides!

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David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:51 am


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Jude October 19, 2016 at 1:05 am

Hey David – good luck with this challenge.
I grew up in a house where the TV was on 18 -20 hours a day.
I only put it on if there’s something particular I’d like to watch. If it’s only varieties of crap after that, off it goes.
I love reading and I paint so cutting back screen time isn’t hard for me.
In fact, I mostly prefer the quiet, or some music. Getting old??
I have a friend who doesn’t even own a TV.
My sister tho – she’s an all day every day girl.

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David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:52 am

Thanks Jude. I played a lot of music yesterday, but mostly ambient music that let me pay attention to what I was doing.

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Suzanne November 27, 2016 at 10:50 am

I’ve only recently switched from a full-time, work-away-from-home career to taking a short “mid-life retirement”. For about another year, I’ll be a full-time virtual college student from home…then I’ll decide on a new career to pursue and go back to full-time employment.

I’ve found that my brain always has a song playing. I think that being in a more sound-filled environment (like my previous job) kept it stimulated enough. Now, it’s “too quiet” and my brain is automatically filling the space with music…much like some people need the TV on for the same effect.

When it’s an “ear worm” song that becomes annoying because of its repetition, I imagine pushing a “pause button” and imagine how the song then immediately stops…even midway through a word. When it comes back, I do the same thing again.

Most times, though, I play ambient or symphonic music in the background so that enough of my brain is occupied with that, which allows me to actually concentrate and get in a flow. It almost feels impossible to be productive in complete quiet for me.

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Jennifer L Nazak October 19, 2016 at 8:46 am

Thanks for this article and the “ongoing experiment updates.” I grew up with a family who watched TV most evenings, but I always preferred to read or draw or daydream or stare at a globe. I haven’t had a TV in my home for most of my adult life. I like the quiet, and when I go to someone else’s place who has the TV on a lot (and also has the typical American flotilla of electronic devices with all their lights and beeps, which I don’t have in my home), I find it pretty noisy and jarring. That said … if I stay at someone else’s place for a while, say a few weeks, I get used to the TV and even get hooked on shows. And (in that different space, having become accustomed to that other reality) when the TV is turned off, and the silence hits, I get a sensation like that of confronting a sink full of unwashed dishes. ACCCKKKK! Life! Responsibility!!!

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David Cain October 19, 2016 at 8:55 am

TV is actually kind of shocking when you get away from it for a while. I haven’t had cable for years (just netflix/youtube) and so I only see commercials when I’m visiting someone else. And they’re so obnoxious! It’s completely absurd to have advertising playing in your home, but it’s so normal we don’t bat an eye.

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Lorrie Beauchamp October 19, 2016 at 10:38 am

You’re so right about TV being this weird, archaic influence in our lives, with advertising designed solely to make us “buy” more stuff that we don’t need and probably didn’t want until we were told we should. We’re incredibly gullible as consumers. Lemmings to the sea!

Now, after getting away from TV and cable for five years, I honestly can’t watch it anymore. I was visiting my sister recently, and she wanted to sit down and watch “Entertainment Tonight” after supper, which is her routine. I literally could not stay in the room AND keep my tongue from being overly critical and sarcastic about the content she is filling her head with. It’s a remnant of the capitalist consumer culture which is killing us slowly.

On the other hand, I quickly replaced my TV addiction with a streaming addiction… Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime included… and checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. ad nauseum throughout the day to fill any “quiet” moment.

I look forward to your observations and suggestions on how to more easily rest with tranquility and silence… or perhaps to embrace audio treats, like classical music… and meditation, which I’ve taken up recently, without much success.

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Alex October 19, 2016 at 1:41 pm

Hi David,
I’ve followed you for awhile and really love your writing, and your approach to using life as a laboratory to learn and develop.
You are spot on about TV. I’ve also gotten into the blank noise and checking social media at the same time! Talk about blocking out life! I did not watch TV much before being married,but my spouse works at home and is a all day every day tv on for background noise person, and I’ve gotten used to it. Your post reminds me how crucial it is to have some time without that noise. It’s going to be a creative challenge, but I’m inspired to see where ai can make a change here. Bravo to your fabulous creativity, curiosity, and willingness to share being human.

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Linda Bacon October 20, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Thank you, David, for this noticing and your experiment. For me, it’s Facebook and Spider Solitaire. I use them both, first thing in the morning, to avoid the present moment. Your article has really called me out on that! I’m going to brave up and try 30 days without them.

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Anna October 22, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Hi David,
Im doing the experiment (loosely) with you and here are some of my rambling thoughts so far…….. when i have youtube or something like that i have mild irritation when my kids try to talk to me and i give them a quick answer so i can get back to dream world. Our relationship is better when i just keep to a bit of screen time in the morning and none during the day.
Ive noticed however that often i wake them up late for shcool because im in the middle of watching something when i should be getting them up… this leads to a very stressed, rushed morning before school
I am lazy and sleepy when ive been watching too much youtube. Sitting and watching leads to more sitting and watching whereas getting up and moving leads to more moving.
Ive been going to my morning pages when i get the urge to do some mindless internet surfing. I just write about how im feeling the urge and how i dont know what to do next and this gets me back on track.
It is much more exhausting but maybe its like someone who hasnt excercised for a long time. They are building up muscle slowly…. later it will be much easier to go without the escaping into youtube moments. Im hoping this is the case.
Im feeling like having my computer open in the room and trying to limit my time on it is like putting a bottle of alcohol on the table in an alcoholics house and telling them to give themselves only a glass a day. Alcoholics cant do this they have to give it up completely and remove themselves from any tempting environments and definately have no alcohol in the house. Internet is so difficult because you cannot give it up totally. i work from home and I have to check my airbnb account every day, my emails and my popclogs account which leaves me open to browsing facebook, youtube etc. I have tons of jobs to do but none of them are that urgent and its only me that suffers if i dont do them. I have had months where my internet broke or my computer broke and it was like a spell over me had been broken and i realised that my center had been the computer and i was just doing things until i could use the computer again. without internet we go for walks, play board games make cakes etc…
Are there any books out there about how to have balance with screenlife?
i think they would just say to do what im doing now but i know i will do the observing and writing in my morning pages when i get the urge for a bit and then i will bindge watch again.
Anyway these are my observations so far.
Im loving reading your observations.
I think you should write a book about it all.

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Paul B. October 26, 2016 at 9:23 am

An interesting experiment! So bizarre that I’ve been pondering the same thing too lately, how severe by mindless ‘button pushing’ has become over the past year or so.
I may not join in the experiment, but I’m going to be more mindful of this thing in my life.

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Amber October 29, 2016 at 8:39 am

(Loving following your experiment and the attention it’s bringing to such a commonly accepted and often harmful form of escapism.)

I’ve never had cable or satellite service in my own home (22 years) and we rarely break out our tiny old tv to watch something. My parents, however, have always had it on constantly. I find it very difficult to spend time at their house because of the constant barrage or noise and imagery blasting out of their big screen. It’s the opposite of ‘comforting’ for me. It’s really disturbing. Anyone else experience this?

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Kristin October 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm

I think one of the reasons we, as a society, are out of touch with our emotions and each other is because there is so much electronic noise, whether it be television, a website, or an addiction to a smart phone. Once all of those things are eliminated, a void is created that would have once been filled with crafting, conversation, relationship, cleaning house, WHATEVER.

I commend your experiment and am tempted to try one myself. Although, I am afraid of what would come out of the silence.

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Venky November 18, 2016 at 5:36 am

Great David, I did cut off my TV. I realized the news channels in India, were always filled with Negativity. Also, by switching off TV, our family found lot of free time, which we really enjoy by playing board games and listening to music. Life without TV was so good.

I agree we got similar thought for first few days like you have mentioned on first part of the post. But after a week things were too good.

Looking forward how the experiment turns out to :)

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