Americans watch a lot of television. More than 30 hours a week, according to Nielsen, though time diaries put that number closer to 20 hours (19.33 hours averaged over all Americans; 23.86 if you only include people who watched TV on any given day).
Still, 20 hours is a lot of time. It is the equivalent of a part-time job. Since we spend so much time watching TV, it’s important to understand exactly why we do. The easy answer is that it is pleasurable, but it is a particular kind of pleasure — namely, one that is very easy to incorporate into our lives. Turning on the TV takes no effort, nor does sitting on the couch to watch it. The TV doesn’t care what you look like, or if you only watch for 30 minutes or so. The TV doesn’t care if you don’t pay complete attention, and most shows are accessible, even if you’ve never watched them before.
It’s important to know, though, that while TV is pleasurable, it is not that pleasurable. It scores in the middle on scales of human enjoyment that go from taking the car to get repaired to sex. Unfortunately, since it is so easy to turn on the TV, and since TV is so cheap as entertainment, it winds up crowding out things that would be more pleasurable.
But this suggests that the problem is solvable. TV time is a very easy place to find extra hours if you are not devoting as much time to some other aspect of life as you want.
For instance, instead of working until 7pm, spending an hour with your kids, and then watching TV in the evening, you could work until 5pm, spend 3 hours with your kids, and then make up the work hours after they go to bed.
Instead of getting ready for work in an inefficient fashion because you’re watching the morning shows, you could get up 20 minutes earlier, go on a very brisk short run around your neighborhood, and then power through the morning routine with no distractions.
Instead of losing a weekend afternoon on the couch, you could go to an art museum or do a project you might find meaningful, like building a dollhouse with your daughter, gardening, creating a family photo album, or volunteering at a soup kitchen.
Instead of watching TV before bed, you could use that time to read, or to write in a journal, to have sex or just to go to sleep. The earlier you go to sleep, the better the chances that you’ll have enough energy in the morning to tackle whatever difficult tasks you’re facing.
The easiest way to keep TV from controlling your life is not to have one, but your computer can be just as easily abused. Anyway, I do think that TV can be incorporated into your 168 hours. The key is to make sure that you can control it, rather than it controlling you. This is difficult, because the multi-billion dollar TV industry is all about trying to get you to watch that extra half an hour (and hence be exposed to more marketing messages). Here’s how to keep it in check:
1. First, step back and examine your life. If you’re watching a lot of TV, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough pleasurable, meaningful other things happening in your 168 hours. One recent University of Maryland study found that unhappy people watch 20% more television than happy people. If you don’t like your job, you’ll come home drained and watch TV to perk yourself up. You could try to set limits on TV… or you could get a different job. If you’re working in a job you love, getting enough exercise, focusing on making time to play and read with your kids, going on dates with your spouse, volunteering for a cause you believe in, and filling your time with hobbies that bring you joy, you will naturally watch less TV. Assuming you are doing all that…
2. Choose exactly how many hours you want to watch TV. Seven — one a day — is plenty. If you’re logging your time, one useful challenge might be to see if you can spend more time exercising than you do watching TV. Or only watch TV when you’re using exercise equipment as a way to combine them!
3. Get rid of your extra sets. No one needs a TV in their bedroom. Kids or adults. A high TV-to-person ratio only encourages more consumption.
4. Plan ahead to choose which shows you want to watch. If you only have 7 hours, you will naturally be picky. Is this show meaningful or pleasurable for me? If not, don’t watch it. Simple as that.
5. Buy a DVR and record those 7 hours of shows. That way you can watch them at a time that’s convenient for you and fast forward through the commercials. Snuggle with your kids or partner while you’re watching, and when the show is over, turn it off.