How To Stop Binge-Watching From Ruining Your Life
Press Play On Your Life, Not Next On Netflix
You glance at your phone as you approach your front door. 5:13 PM. It’s Friday. “Got out early. Awesome.” Your key turns in the lock, the door swings open.
After you slip out of your shoes, you walk into the living room and set your bag down. With your hands on your waist and your feet planted firmly on the ground, you look around. You take a deep breath.
The weekend is here. “Finally!” You can feel the joyful rush of anticipation washing over you. You have a ton of energy. There’s so much to do!
Game plan: On Saturday, you’ll finally set up the website for your side hustle. You look at the papers on the table. They’ve been sitting there for too long. Next, a glance at the pin board. “Right, Anne’s first show is tomorrow night! And on Sunday, a big cleaning session is in order. The closet and garage are a mess.”
“But first, a little relaxation from all the stress of the week.” You drop yourself on the couch and open Netflix. “Oh. What’s that? ‘Stranger Things.’ Haven’t heard of that one. Looks…interesting. I’ll watch just the first episode and then get started.”
We all know how this story ends. If even imagining that ending hurts a little, this post is for you.
The purpose of video is to inform, teach, entertain and inspire. That purpose is lost if we don’t remember what we learn, don’t follow the steps we’re given, don’t appreciate the laughs and don’t turn inspiration into action.
Yet, those are the exact consequences of binge-watching TV shows on Netflix and videos on Youtube. On the surface, this looks like a simple procrastination problem, but it runs much deeper than that. Yes, we use video to replace boredom with excitement, but why do we need that so badly in the first place?
Today, we’re going to explore this question by tracing its roots all the way back to our childhood. You can then use this knowledge to limit your video consumption so that the time you spend on it serves a meaningful cause.
We’re All Born Innocent…
The first movie I ever saw was The Lion King in 1994. I was three. While they introduced me to moving pictures early, like most parents, mine felt naturally inclined to limit their children’s exposure to not just screens, but all electronic devices. That’s a good thing, because our brains, especially children’s brains, don’t stand a chance against the power of video.
Since it stimulates our visual, aural and spatial senses, as well as triggering our movement detectors and a host of emotions, video lights the entire right half of our brain on fire. TV creators knew this early on. As Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in The Tipping Point, the inventors of Sesame Street used a tool called “The Distracter” to plot attention graphs:
“We had data points for every seven and a half seconds, which comes close to four hundred data points for a single program, and we’d connect all those points with a red line so it would look like a stock market report from Wall Street. It might plummet or gradually decline, and we’d say whoa, what’s going on here. At other times it might hug the very top of the chart and we’d say, wow, that segment’s really grabbing the attention of the kids.”
That was the 1960s. Imagine what it’s like today. While the goal of Sesame Street was an honorable one — to teach children literacy — even then their understanding of neuroscience was critical to the show’s survival. A month and a half before air date, they found the children didn’t like the separation of imaginary and real elements. Psychologists thought mixing muppets with humans on screen would disturb the kids, but adults alone weren’t interesting, so the creators disregarded the advice.
“We decided to write a letter to the developmental psychologists and say, we know how you guys think about mixing fantasy and reality. But we’re going to do it anyway. If we don’t, we’ll be dead in the water.”
Hacking our brains has been, sadly, a day-one necessity for video creators to succeed.
It’s an inherent flaw in the system. A bit like doping in the Tour de France: if you don’t do it, you might as well not show up. Was Sesame Street a well-intended exploit of our easily tricked brains? Yes. But an exploit nonetheless.
And just like that, our innocence went out the window.
…But Life Catches Up To All Of Us
Limited TV time felt like ‘the worst’ growing up, but if we’re honest, we didn’t care all that much. That’s because most of the time, nothing we wanted to watch was on. We’re lucky to have been subject to air times, as today, Pandora’s Box seems to open a little wider every minute. James Bridle describes the phenomenon on Youtube:
“Online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale. It uses existing and easily available content […] and it can be repeated and revised endlessly and mostly meaninglessly because the algorithms don’t discriminate — and neither do the kids.”
While we were spared lots of bad content thanks to gatekeepers like TV stations and movie studios, even back then we learned the habit of watching TV early on. I remember the first shows I was really hooked on, mostly anime like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Digimon, often running home from the bus stop to catch the intro.
- Our curiosity is strong, our requirements low, so even the most simplistic stories immediately trigger it.
- The only action necessary is to push a button on the remote, which only gets easier once our parents trust us enough to let us stay home alone.
- As a reward, that curiosity is satisfied, supplemented with lots of dopamine.
- Our investment is more time spent with our favorite characters, which only front-loads more curiosity for the next episode — and perfected stands the loop.
You likely won’t have to dig deep to find that yes, at some point, you formed a TV habit too. Few of us manage to stop there, but a regular, contained TV habit can actually have benefits.
What’s more, spending time in a “familiar, fictional world” is a valid, short-term replacement for social activities, a study suggests:
“The current research examines social surrogate restoration — the possibility that people seek a social surrogate when depleted, and that seeking social surrogacy restores self-control. [The results] demonstrate that people seek familiar fictional worlds (e.g., a favorite television program) after exerting effortful self-control. Supplementary analyses suggest that it is the social nature of this familiar fictional world that contributes to restoration.”
If you and your friends all follow the same show, you also have something to talk about when you leave the surrogate world and go back outside. Your favorite characters may even inspire you to take an important, but scary next step in your life.
What didn’t feel good was what happened in March 2008.
One of my earliest, most memorable binges happened while I was interning in England with a friend. Our host had a Sky account, so every night for ten days, we watched the evening marathon, a four-hour mix of Simpsons, Family Guy and Futurama episodes. We laughed a lot, but we also felt tired and foggy afterwards.
When was your first binge? Try to find that moment in your memory. Were you a teenager? There is a phase of aging we all go through that is the perfect opportunity for binge-watching to strike. It’s called adolescent rebellion.
“Rebellion can cause young people to rebel against their own self-interests — rejecting childhood interests, activities, and relationships that often support self-esteem. […] Rebellion causes the young person to depend self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want.”
Rebellion occurs repeatedly in our lives, anywhere from age 9 to 23. Since it’s a phase in which we reject almost everything, we end up doing nothing a lot of the time. Thinking everyone is against us and with not much to do, where do we turn? To fictional worlds.
This is when Netflix and Youtube can most successfully work their hot-wiring magic on our brains. And boy, do they.
- Netflix methodically A/B tests every screen, every picture and every word, down to the thumbnails.
- It tracks exactly by which episode we get hooked on shows.
- The company recently played with a feature that outright encourages binging by showing you how far you’ve gotten in a show.
- Technologically, Netflix consists of hundreds of micro-services that custom-tailor your video so it buffers as little as possible.
- Auto-play has become the default both there and on Youtube.
As a result, 92% of millennials have a Netflix account or use someone else’s and we do it for 1.5 hours every single day. Teenagers are in rehab right this second because of this deliberate, mental manipulation.
It also means that when we grow up, we can’t stop.
If excessive media consumption is result of having “nothing better to do” as teenagers, it seems kind of inexplicable for adults. Once work takes up most of our time, we have a lot of better things to tend to. In theory, that is.
But somehow, the habit has taken hold. To quote Samuel Johnson, “the chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
In his research at Temple University, Emil Steiner identified six motivations for binge-watching:
- An improved experience from spending more time immersed in the story.
- A sense of completion, which goes back to the Zeigarnik effect of wanting to complete all things.
- Cultural inclusion, so your friends won’t isolate you.
- Convenience, because it’s easy to pick up where you left off whenever, wherever.
- Catching up before a new season drops.
- Relaxation and nostalgia, from catching a break and seeing what’s familiar.
While all those factors contribute to a binge-watching habit that’s a much stronger manifestation of the hook we discussed earlier, the last one is the biggest.
We now believe we “need” long Youtube sessions and Game of Thrones marathons to recover from our stressful day.
“The major highlight of our study is that self-identified binge-watchers were more likely to report higher stress, anxiety and depression.”
We must be careful not to mix causation and correlation here, but other side effects include more aggression and less verbal ability. The University of Texas found more connections to depression, loneliness, self-regulation deficiency, and obesity. What’s more, each binging session makes the next more likely and so the spiral continues.
“TV is my mode of recharging” is just a facade. A cheap cover-up that spares us the discomfort of facing the much bigger problem: We have lost our natural sense of curiosity and we’ve stopped rebelling against it.
We’re Not Bored. We’re Boring.
You fumble around the couch. Under a pillow, you can feel your phone. You clutch it, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen. “Not yet. Ah, a scene cut. Now’s a good time.” You slightly turn your head and look at your phone.
10:23 PM. But today is not Friday. It’s Sunday.
You press pause. Exhausted, you sit back on the couch and drop the remote. As you slowly emerge from your 2-day TV show bender, a question emerges from the sidelines of your mind. It slowly moves into the frame, until it gets bigger and bigger, taking more and more space. By the time you go to work the next morning, it’s still all you can think about:
“How the hell did this happen?”
The truth is the moment we sit down on the couch and start watching, we’ve long accepted that none of the things we just planned will ever happen. We don’t need to “recharge.” We need to escape from the fact that we’ve become someone who accepts defeat before we even put up a fight.
Binge-watching was the word of the year in 2015. It’s such a widespread narcotic that it’s become more socially accepted than smoking. In a study calling binge-watching ‘the new normal,’ Netflix holds the mirror in our face, laughing:
“76% of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives.”
What confounds the problem even more is that, like all things, binge-watching isn’t entirely evil. It does have its benefits, like the ones we talked about earlier. The reason it’s become such an uncontrollable beast for us is the role it takes in confirming this identity shift we’ve gone through: The belief that we don’t deserve more in life. That our adventurous days are over. So we should just settle and watch other peoples’ adventures from the couch.
The problem isn’t that Netflix is addicting. It’s that our lives aren’t.
Unless we deal with this limiting belief, we’re sentencing ourselves to forever bottle-feed our innate curiosity, one episode at a time. If we don’t start searching for other ways to satisfy it, or our lives will never be bigger than the 4", 9" or even 42" screens we’re living them through.
What we need is a standoff with the enemy, face-to-face.
Design Your Environment, Stop Being A Victim
“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. The ability to just sit there…like this…that’s being a person.” — Louis. C.K.
We need to stare our own boringness in the face, but that requires making room for that boringness. Here are two tools to help with that. The first is for Netflix, the second for Youtube.
StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that’s perfect for dosing your video consumption for one reason: it limits the number of minutes spent on certain sites per day.
Once you install it, you can set the maximum time allowed to, say, two episodes of a show. Then, under ‘Blocked Sites’ type in ‘netflix.com’ and click ‘Add.’
Now, after 45 minutes spent on the domain, the extension will automatically block access for the rest of your day. ‘Active Hours’ is set to around the clock by default, while ‘Active Days’ lets you make exemptions, for example to cut yourself some Slack on Sunday at first. ‘The Nuclear Option’ is really interesting.
This allows you to schedule a “blackout” once you reach your maximum time allowed, which is irreversible, since it changes your computer’s root settings.
That’s it! Bring on the boredom. Some more tips to help you see this through:
- If you’re mainly using Netflix on your iPad, phone, etc., use Freedom. Better: delete the app everywhere.
- In case you have cable or another form of “normal” television, you can hide your remote or, better, give it to a friend to hold on to it during the week.
- Log out of your Netflix account everywhere. It seems like a small hurdle, but it can give you enough time to think about your decision to start watching.
2. Remove Youtube Recommended
You could just add Youtube to StayFocusd, but I use it for research a lot, so here’s an alternative. Since binges on Youtube all start from the same place, it’s enough to eliminate one thing: the ‘Recommended’ section.
Once you’re watching a video, it moves to the right side bar. Most languages are read from left to right, so our eyes naturally wander to the right when viewing web pages too.
The very first thing you’ll want to do on Youtube, in case you haven’t, is to disable autoplay. You can see it on the top right in the picture above.
The next step is to install Remove YouTube Recommended, another Chrome extension. It puts a simple icon in your extension bar, from which you can disable various visual elements to make your home screen less of a black hole.
Watching videos now looks like this:
It instantly brings a sense of deliberation to how you use the platform. You must seek and choose something you want to see, instead of just picking whatever looks best out of a present basket.
Now that you’ve put a harness on binge-watching, the question becomes: What do you do once you, as Louis put it “just sit there?”
Play It Away
Say it out loud: “I am boring.” Again. Louder.
“I am BORING.”
Feels kinda liberating, doesn’t it? It takes the pressure off. All this pressure to function, to look successful, to have a big mission and be amazing at it. When you remember you’re boring, you free yourself from these expectations. We need that sometimes.
Acceptance is important but it’s only the first step. I know boredom is scary, but it leads us to necessary questions and their answers. And to more questions. Like this one: What if we went back all the way to the beginning, even before you’d watched your first episode of Sesame Street?
When we were kids we replaced boredom with play.
“Play is the state where we are truly ourselves, once we let go of our egos and fear of looking stupid. It’s what facilitates our best friendships, our most treasured memories, and ultimately, our enjoyment of life.”
Could fixing our broken belief system be as simple as a game of catch? Charlie thinks so:
“It took me a long time to see it, but I finally realized: I really don’t function well when I approach life as Work. I have to think of life as Play. Otherwise I take everything way too seriously, my health and happiness plummet, and the work I produce is awful.”
Play is the purest form of satisfying our massive, innate desire for curiosity. We’ve just stopped seeing it as an option. Maybe that’s why Dr. Seuss called adults “obsolete children.” Indeed, the world of grown-ups doesn’t exactly encourage us to stay curious as we get older.
“No one today ever says anything bad about curiosity, directly. But if you pay attention, curiosity isn’t really celebrated and cultivated, it isn’t protected and encouraged. It’s not just that curiosity is inconvenient. Curiosity can be dangerous. Curiosity isn’t just impertinent, it’s insurgent. It’s revolutionary.
All you have to do is look to the Bible to see. The story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the tree does not end well for the curious. The parable could not be blunter: curiosity causes suffering. So there you have it. The first story, in the foundation work of Western Civilization — the very first story! — is about curiosity, and its message is: Don’t ask questions.”
What will you do with your boredom? I don’t know, but it’s important you dare ask the question. I have no idea where curiosity is going to lead you, but it’s taken me far away from the need to watch eight Simpsons episodes in a row. It’s the solution to adolescent rebellion and adult depression, all at once:
“Here’s the remarkable thing. Curiosity isn’t just a great tool for improving your own life and happiness, your ability to win a great job or a great spouse. It is the key to the things we say we value most in the modern world: independence, self-determination, self-government, self-improvement. Curiosity is the path to freedom itself.”
Whatever your replacement for boredom ultimately becomes, make finding that replacement your first adventure. Explore. Dream. Relight curiosity and play it away, so that when you can’t fall asleep, it’s not due to blue light from a screen, but because you’re addicted to life.
Albert Einstein died in 1955. By his deathbed, his family members found 12 pages full of equations. A much better remnant than a TV remote, don’t you think?
Here was a man who played for a living. A man we still remember today, sometimes for these final words:
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
— Albert Einstein