Turn Off the TV

When I choose a challenge for my 30 Day Challenges, I don’t know exactly what the outcome will be or how difficult it will be to complete. That’s part of the fun. Sometimes I’m surprised at the ease a which a challenge passes, and sometimes unexpected results emerge even just days in. In January I gave up television and streaming media, and I was caught off guard by the results.

I chose this challenge for a few reasons. First, I wanted to explore the strength of my addiction to this electronic pacifier. What level of withdrawal would I go through if I couldn’t just plop down on the couch and press the power button? Second, I wondered how often I would have the urge to flip the TV on. Would it be a daily draw or could I keep myself interested in other things?

The urges and their strength turned out to be stronger and more frequent than I imagined. The first couple of days were especially tough, but after I established a new rhythm in my schedule the cravings began to diminish, that is until the weekends. I’d become accustomed to spending evenings working on my computer from the couch in the living room and by the end of the month, I was getting desperate for a movie night. It seems that this mindless pacification has its place in my routine.

In addition to measuring the intensity and frequency of the cravings, there were some alternative effects I was interested in exploring, namely the lack of ad impressions and how I would replace streaming media as my mental recovery time.

The noticeable void in my daily life where television ads used to live gave rise to a more keen awareness of ads, especially when they come in bulk like at a sporting event. The longer I went without them, the quieter and less under attack my mind felt. As for the last item, replacing streaming media with work was not exactly giving my mind a break. Audiobooks helped, especially fiction, but I also turned to my old friend running for that meditative release. Even with 10 minutes of guided meditation in the morning, nothing beats a good run.

Avoiding streaming media at home is one trick, but it’s rare to find a business with out a screen blasting, from barber shops to restaurants. Sports bars are especially offensive. In these situations I tried to take a seat that was not facing a screen, but most places are designed to ensure there is always one in view.

Airplanes, social media, friends wanting to show you things on YouTube ... the temptations are endless. I did come to realize, though, that not all streaming media should be classified the same. At times I found myself questioning whether a news clip counted against me. Or what about an educational video that extended an interesting article I was reading? It was informative and short, not a mind-numbing sitcom or reality show. Ultimately, I decided to take those only if necessary. I didn’t want to start making exceptions. That is a slippery slope indeed.

As the month progressed, I felt more productive and focussed than I had in a long time, maybe ever. Like my alcoholic abstinence challenge, I didn’t want to give up streaming media completely, it’s not all bad. I love a good documentary or a C.G.P. Grey video, and it’s nice to let my imagination fly away from time to time in a science fiction movie, but I need to maintain my limits.

Ultimately, I believe that these screens, like alcohol, are good only in moderation. While there is quality, stimulating content to be found, there is also a plethora of mindless programming, all of it chock full of advertisements and paid opinions. My takeaways from a month without streaming media: it’s nice to take an occasional break, but the mind is a resilient thing. The more you challenge it, the better it will respond. Stretch your imagination. Pick up a book or play a game. Make just one night a week TV free and see the results for yourself.