David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How can I rid myself of watching TV mindlessly for long hours?
Dear Couch Potato,
Thanks for asking! This is a problem that sneaks up on people and has real impacts. Adolescents who watch hours of TV also eat more junk food, exercise less, study less, have fewer friends, and are more likely to be involved in drugs and alcohol. Adults who watch lots of TV are more likely to be overweight, depressed, have cardiovascular diseases, and shortened lives. Wow!
However, notice that these are correlations. They aren’t saying that watching TV causes all these ills. In fact, the causation may run the other way, at least sometimes. Think of how it might work: I feel ill and a little depressed. I don’t have a close friend to visit, and I don’t feel up to taking a walk. So instead, I watch a few hours of TV. While I’m watching, it’s easy to down a beer or two and a bag of chips. As this becomes a habit, I go out less, gain more weight, spend less time with friends, and feel worse about myself. So, how do I handle my depressed mood? By escaping into more TV.
How can you escape this vicious cycle? Personally, I use the principles from Change Anything.
Set a Goal. Decide how much TV is the right amount for you. It might be one hour a day or five hours a week. Make sure the goal is reasonable and within your control.
Create a Six-Source Plan. When a habit is hard to change, it’s usually because your world is perfectly organized to maintain it. You probably have all Six Sources of Influence pulling against you. I’ll suggest some ways to get all Six Sources pulling for you.
Source 1: Personal Motivation. Left in a room by yourself, you probably want to watch TV. How can you change your motives in the moment?
I think we often use TV as a solution to boredom, loneliness, burnout, and bad moods. And it may even work, at least in the short run. It pulls us into a compelling story and distracts us from our troubles. But it’s a distraction, not a solution. And it tends to lead us into other bad habits, as well as take time away from more healthy habits.
If you are using TV as a solution to a problem, then finding better solutions to these problems might remove an important motive for watching TV.
Track your moods. Put a notebook near your TV, and track what you are thinking and feeling when you get the urge to watch TV. Find out whether you are using your TV to manage your moods and which moods they are.
Also, note what your moods are at the end of each day. Some researchers have found that viewers are happy while watching but feel lousy at the end of the evening—as if they’ve wasted the evening. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Do I feel good about how I spent my time today?” Enjoy the well-deserved feeling of success when you stick to your TV plan.
Source 2: Personal Ability. New habits require new skills. If you find it’s taking too much willpower to avoid TV, add some skill.
Skill up on better ways to enjoy your free time. First, determine when you watch TV: is it early morning, the middle of the day, after dinner, or late at night? Map out these times and begin searching for better activities that could replace TV during those times.
Create your own Pleasant Events Schedule. It’s an old tool, but it’s a good one. The Pleasant Events Schedule is a simple list of 320 activities that some or many people enjoy. You can find an updated version that focuses on older adults here. You can use this tool as follows:
a. Check out the items on the list
b. Select several that you enjoy and that would fit into your free time
c. Schedule them into your free time—put them on your calendar as an alternative to TV watching
d. If you discover you don’t enjoy them, pick different activities
Sources 3&4: Social Motivation and Ability. Do others around you influence you to watch more or less TV? What is your personal mix of accomplices (people who enable or encourage more TV) and friends (people who enable and encourage less TV)?
Change the Mix of Accomplices and Friends. Identify your TV buddies—the accomplices who join you in front of the TV—and then ask them to join you in non-TV activities. Or, add a new friend by finding someone who is doing something you’d rather do—exercising, taking a walk, reading aloud, volunteering, etc.—and join them.
When you feel as if you need help, help someone. Or at least connect with someone. Spend your TV time with someone you care about, instead of with your TV. Call your mom, visit a friend, talk to your children, or help your children with their homework.
Source 5: Structural Motivation. Are there hidden rewards for TV watching? Can you do something to invert the economy?
Take away hidden rewards. Don’t allow yourself to eat or drink while you’re watching TV. Don’t have the TV on during meals. For example, do you indulge in junk food when you sit in front of the TV? Don’t reward yourself while watching.
Reward incremental progress. Track and reward your progress every week. But don’t use TV watching as the reward! Find a range of little presents you can give yourself. Change them up so they stay fresh and make them contingent on achieving your weekly TV goal.
Source 6: Structural Ability. Is your environment making it too easy and convenient to watch TV? Does your living room, kitchen, or bedroom scream, “Turn me on, I’m a television!”
Use convenience and comfort. Make it less convenient and less comfortable to watch TV. My wife and I have one TV that’s out all the time and is located on the wall in our kitchen. But we’ve made sure the chairs there aren’t overly comfortable. After about 45 minutes, no one would want to keep watching TV at our house.
Actually, we do have a second TV, but we keep it on the top shelf in a closet near the living room. Whenever we want to watch a longer show (we’re Tour de France addicts) we take down this TV and put it on a stand in the living room. But we always put it away again after the show. These little touches of inconvenience and discomfort prevent us from watching too much.
The secret sauce that makes Six-Source Plans so effective is that you use all the Sources all at once. Don’t cherry pick one or two of these ideas. Make sure you have a tactic that will work for you in each of the Six Sources of Influence and implement them all at the same time.
Of course, I’ve shared only a few of the many possible tactics out there, and some that work for me might not work for you. Be the scientist. Explore what works for you and then let the rest of us know. Everyone, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Please share your ideas for turning off the TV.