By Ethan Maurice | March 28th, 2018
Two years ago, I posted an article titled, Why You Should Stop Watching TV and Be More Like Bruce Dickinson declaring my intention to stop watching television after encountering some startling statistics:
The average US citizen spends 2.8 hours per day watching TV.
Over an 80 year lifespan, that amounts to 9.3 years of passively staring at a screen.
In comparison, we spend 1.6 years in school (K-12) and 10.3 years of our lives working.
Confronted with these figures, I saw a huge waste of time and an opportunity. There were much better ways to spend more than 10% of my life than passively staring at a screen. Two years ago, when I published that article, I cut all watching out of my life entirely: I stopped watching television, movies, YouTube... everything.
Since, my decision, and experiment of a sort, has evolved. I've let some “watching” (the overarching term I'll use for viewing any sort of video) back into my life. I think I've found the sweet spot, of how much (and what kind of) watching to have in one's life.
Here's what happened, what I learned, and how much watching I plan to do in the future.
For the first three months, I was ruthless. I watched zero television, a single movie in a theater with a friend, and maybe enough short online videos to count on two hands.
Not coincidentally, it was the most productive, driven period of my life. I got into the best shape I had ever been, meditated daily, had my nose in a book multiple times a day, listened to over a hundred episodes of Tim Ferriss's podcast, took photography and Lightroom classes through Skillshare, and wrote an article every week for this site while simultaneously building a startup company (that I never launched, as I eventually chose this project exclusively over).
While remarkably productive, productivity is far from everything and cutting out all watching out of life was overzealous. I missed the escape of a good movie. I was living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a tropical paradise I'd gone to focus on work and really enjoy my time off. However, my interests differed from those around me, and I lacked real connection. A language barrier often prevented the deep conversions with others that I craved at that time. For my spirit, my well-being, the occasional movie would have been a relieving escape.
After three months of rigid resistance, I started watching movies every now and then.
I had no interest in watching television (and still don't), but the occasional movie—maybe one or two per month—became a profound, otherworldly escape. As I watched so few, I only watched the best of the best films, and they were such different stories than the stories I was living. I also eased back into watching the occasional TED Talk or YouTube video but would never browse for “entertainment.”
For the remainder of the past two years (about a year and nine months) a couple movies per month has remained the case. While I still get lost in the occasional movie, my time spent watching has never amounted to more than the tiniest fraction of the American average of 2.8 hours per day.
What I Learned:
1. There's a lot more time in a day without watching to fill it. When I cut myself off from all watching, I immediately went from wondering where the time went every night to wondering what else I should do with it. To a large extent, that feeling of busyness evaporated, and in its place was a curiously uncomfortable question: “What should I do now?”
2. We watch when we don't know what else to do. Whenever we encounter that uncomfortable question of “What should I do now?” turning the TV on is often the easy, patch-fix solution. Giving into television at this moment is of huge detriment, though, as we would otherwise be forced to examine our lives, be creative with our time, and might even follow our curiosity towards something new. The uncomfortable moment of “What should I do now?” can lead to some remarkable things.
3. We watch to escape. I've discovered nearly all watching—from TV to movies to online video—to be an escape from the current situation. From time to time, that escape is totally healthy, fun, and often wonderful. But the constant need to watch, and thus escape, is a sign that we're avoiding important things in our life or that we need to live better, more interesting stories ourselves.
4. News is gossip 99% of the time. From local broadcasts to politics to sports, most news is mere gossip to fill the space between commercials. The amount of our time a panel of experts can spend analyzing the latest minor happening in the multi-year process of the Trump-Russia investigation or which team LeBron James might sign with next season while the current season is underway is astounding (I only know this because of all the televisions lining the walls at the gym).
5. Silence has something to say too. When life is no longer saturated with commercials and news and the opinions of others, when the noise is turned down enough to have a degree of unperturbed silence in one's life, we begin to hear the faintest of voices—a voice from within, that's been there all along, but has been drown out by all the other voices. Not the clever, calculating voice constantly chattering away in our heads, but another, that seems to comes from deeper within. Of all voices in the world, this is the most important one we can listen to. Yet, most of us don't even know it's there.
6. Watching does serve two important purposes: conversational material and awareness. As we all tend to watch the same things (sports, movies, the news etc.) we have shared material to converse with each other about. Not watching what everybody else watches does make small talk and relating with acquaintances more challenging. Additionally, many would argue that to not encounter any news is to be uninformed and to let the actions of our politicians go unchecked. My counter to this has been the occasional browse of Reddit World News and a local newspaper's website (which often expose corruption on a local level).
Conclusions and the Future:
At 2.8 hours a day (9.3 years of an 80-year lifespan), we're spending way to much time passively watching screens. I love the occasional movie as much as anyone else, and there is absolutely some worthwhile watching online, but I don't think I'll ever watch television regularly again.
There are too many other, better things to do with our time.
By limiting my watching, I gained the time and inner quiet in which I discovered myself, explored curiosities, and accomplished a whole lot more—actions that helped me build an unconventional, fulfilling way of life over the past couple years. I'm learning to march to the beat of my own drum, largely because turning the TV off has allowed me to hear it.
If you take away anything from this article, I'd hope it's to watch less—to experience some silence and especially to not use watching as a crutch when you don't know what else to do.
If you're bored, don't plop down on the couch and see what's on. Sit with boredom for a couple minutes. See what comes of it.