How to Watch Television Effectively

Over the last several years, I’ve experimented with different levels of television usage. I’ve found that the most common television watching behaviors are suboptimal. Even if you love television and could never think of giving it up, there are better ways to watch TV that waste less time.

Considering I’ve put different levels of usage to the test, I’d like to share some of my findings. Since television occupies a large chunk of time for many people, becoming more effective can yield huge amounts of regained time.

The Best Television is Better than a Mediocre Book

There is a lot of awful programming on television. Then again, there is a lot of garbage on the internet, but I still enjoy using the internet. I’m not one of the detractors who says all TV is horrible, and you should completely abstain. If you enjoy certain TV shows, then watch them.

I have been watching Arrested Development on DVD. In all likelihood, one of the best sitcoms ever written. The best television and movies have had a bigger impact on me than mediocre novels I’ve read. For me, the solution wasn’t to completely avoid television, just to be smarter in my usage.

Experimenting With TV

I’ve tried out different forms of television usage over the last few years, including:

  • Completely abstaining from all television
  • Only watching with friends as a social activity
  • Only watching pre-recorded television (and thus, skipping commercials)
  • No restrictions, but not having access to television in my home
  • Watching only DVDs or movies

Completely Avoiding Television

My first attempts at effective television watching were simply to stop watching television altogether. This may be the ideal solution for many people. If you need to reclaim a lot of time for new goals, or you simply don’t enjoy the television shows you watch, just eliminate it.

The disadvantage of this approach is that although you may eliminate the 90% of your wasteful TV habits, you’ve also scrapped the 10% that actually adds to your life. I believe really great TV can be better than an average book (or in rare cases, better than a great book). The reason television is so maligned is overusage, not an intrinsic evil of the medium itself.

So, if you’re like me and actually get value from a select few programs, complete abstinence isn’t the best policy.

Watching only Pre-recorded Television

This was another experiment I ran a few years ago. This approach was more successful than complete abstinence for two reasons:

First, it eliminated all commercials, which in average programming takes up about 27% of the time spent. If you spend three hours a day watching television, that reduction means you’ve just added another 48 minutes to your life, without giving up any of your favorite shows.

Second, it forces you to make conscious decisions about what you watch. The weakness of television as a medium (as opposed to books), is that it is passive. By only watching pre-recorded television, you remove TV as a tool for procrastination, since you can’t just turn it on when you’re bored.

I found that this habit drastically cut my usage to the few key shows I enjoyed watching. This meant instead of spending 3-4 hours watching television, I was spending 40 minutes, all of it well invested. You may be surprised at how much of your day is actually spent watching television if you don’t run a timelog.

Having No Access

The best solution I found was simply to not have access to television. If you don’t pay for cable, your usage will be drastically reduced. This also makes switching to moderate usage (through DVDs or at friends’ homes) much easier, since you won’t be tempted to channel surf whenever you get bored.

The disadvantage of this approach is it puts you out of sync with the rest of the world. Instead of watching your favorite shows as they are shown live, you are watching them on DVD, months later. However, with the abundance of internet television, this probably won’t be a significant problem in a few years.

Smart Television Usage

I believe in efforts being made to get the most out of life. For some people, that will mean completely eliminating television usage. For others, that means being smarter in their current usage. Whatever you choose, the purpose is to design a lifestyle that helps you reach your goals and makes you happiest. If you just follow the recipe given by society, you probably are far from that maximum.