Back at the beginning of February, I was starting to feel like I was watching too much telly. It’s not that I think a little bit of Netflix is bad, but I night after night I found I was turning to it to relax in the evening rather than doing something genuinely relaxing like reading a book.
Instead of picking up the book I was midway through, I was scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch.
And instead of winding down in the evening and getting to bed at a reasonable time, I was forever watching ‘one more episode’, then dragging myself to bed without doing the washing up.
The end result was that I felt stressed and frazzled, while also feeling guilty for not reading more. I wasn’t living in line with my values, and it left me feeling hollow and anxious.
This isn’t a new problem for me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spent my evenings watching Netflix and then telling myself I should read more. The problem has always been that I like television. There are some amazing shows out there that really do add value to my life, and so I’ve always resisted the idea of cutting it out cold turkey.
But there’s a difference between settling down with my husband for a couple of episodes of The Good Place and spending the entire weekend re-watching Buffy episodes. I touched on this on my post on Slow Saturdays, but the key difference here is intention, and tuning into how you feel.
I started to find, though, that I was losing the ability to really judge how Netflix was making me feel. I have depression, so when my mood was low I blamed my depression and treated watching Netflix as a form of self-comfort, even self-care, when I couldn’t turn off the head noise enough to focus on a book.
The problem here is that I know from experience that watching telly can increase the head noise and depressed mood. I couldn’t say for sure why, but I suspect it’s because it requires less focus than other activities, so my mind is free to ruminate. The research on the positive impact reading has on stress relief would seem to support this theory.
So I decided to take a more drastic approach than my usual attempts at moderation. Telling myself I could watch a show after reading a book for an hour only made me resent reading, while restricting myself to two episodes simply didn’t work because, well, I watched more than two. So I made a decision.
I cut out television for a month.
The idea of cutting out telly entirely is something I’ve always resisted. I associate it with smug yogis who boast about drinking green juice at dawn. It always feels performative to me to say ‘I stopped watching telly’, like you’re telling everyone else how much more enlightened you are.
But here’s the thing: it worked.
So now I’m here telling you all how wonderful it was to not watch any television for a month, starting with the stats.
Thanks to my neverending love affair with Toggl (which is a post in and of itself), I have a good idea of where my time went in January and February. Although I never tracked my television-watching time, the things I did track are quite illuminating.
Reading: 18:20, 3 books + part of a collection of short stories
Writing: 8h, various fiction projects
Yoga: 0 times
Photography sessions: 0
Mood: Up and down
Reading: 15:28, 3 books
Writing: 9:41 fiction, 4:27 blogging
Blogging: 17.5h, excluding drafting time. About 9 hours of this was social media, with the rest being tech setup, brainstorming, planning, and other creative work.
Yoga: 3 times
Photography sessions: 3
Mood: Pretty stable and good
The two big things I notice here are that I was much more creative in February and my mood was far better. I didn’t take any photos in January (other than the usual eleventy cell phone pictures of my cat), but in February busted out my real camera on three occasions. I spent 60% more time writing, with much of the difference being time spent on this blog, and did three yoga sessions compared to the zero from January.
The biggest difference, though, is in how I feel. In January, my mood fluctuated quite substantially. In February, by contrast, I felt optimistic and happy.
What this means
The key takeaway for me here is that reading isn’t the secret sauce for a better mood for me. Creativity is. I’ve always been comparing television and reading in my head because they’re the two main ways that I consume stories, but it’s not consumption that I need more of – it’s creating.
What this tells me is that I need to create more and consume less.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Happiness in life tends to come from a sense of fulfillment and meaning, and creativity brings that for me.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I should just stop reading books. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But it does mean that I should safeguard my creative time and be critical of the amount of value I get from the content I consume. A book that makes me laugh and cry must stay, while an afternoon of glazed-eyed Netflix watching should go.
I can extrapolate this further to things like Instagram and other internet media. Accounts with beautiful pictures or captions that make me think deeper should stay, but those that I just scroll past without much thought should go.
A final note
I have no intention of cutting out television permanently. What this experiment has taught me is to approach television, and other content consumption, with more intention. It’s taught me that creativity is what brings me the most joy, and the content I consume should support that, not detract from it.
After all, it’s my lifelong love of books that made me want to be a writer in the first place.
Would you do a month (or more) without television? What content do you consume that you know brings value to your life?