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.

  • Positively Present

    Really interesting post! I think television is a topic more people should write about, since so many people watch it constantly. Personally, I like to use the TV as sort of a background. I have it on sometimes, but I’m not usually super into it. Like everything, I think TV watching should be balanced. Too much or too little is extreme.

  • Barry Wright, III

    Not to play devil’s advocate (since I really do agree with a lot of what you are saying), but do note that watching only prerecording television drastically reduces serendipity (stumbling upon new great content).

    Just like with books/websites, this can lead to watching redundant things, staying within a “television comfort zone.” Fortunately, I have a friend who is a television addict, and lets me know about great new programs fairly early on so I don’t miss out (though I still got into a few shows late, notably Alias, House, and the Office).

  • Frank Bruder

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with these different approaches.

    For me, huge time savings came from the realisation that there’s only one TV show which I really want to watch. Which one that is changes from season to season. But at any given time—except for one or two weeks of overlap occasionally—it is at most one. There usually are a couple of shows which I would enjoy watching, but I’m not really thrilled about them, and once I stopped following every show I sort of liked it didn’t bother me.

    This might be the way to go for some other people too. Pay attention to how you feel about the shows you watch. Which TV shows do you really look forward to watching every week? Are there any which you watch just rather habitually? Ditch the habit and make your TV time a more worthwhile ritual.

  • Andresito

    There’s so many good reading on the internet and constantly updated, however not everything with excellent quality makes it to the internet. Good magazines and books hold special content only for that format.

    Good TV works the same, documentaries, good talk shows, special reports, and cetera, you won’t find them easily elsewhere.

    There’s always something good to listen, watch, read… specially if you’re doing french! …remember TV is your new friend Scott

  • Spesh

    PBS rocks! Usually the only TV worth watching.

  • Steve

    I would agree that we have to beware of the inputs we download into our brains. However, if we are critically aware of what we choose to watch, we will be ahead of many in the status quo.

  • Brad Sayers

    Ever since I read Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ in 1980, I have seen television as the ‘feelies’. Ugh.

    You say “The Best Television is Better than a Mediocre Book”. This is a key point for me and really can’t be denied by anyone. Disconnecting the TV (cable, satellite) can be done with no real loss. The documentaries (must check out stuff from David Attenborough!), History channels and the like can all be procured free from the local library on DVD. However, one has to be *very* organized as they usually have to be returned in a week (or renewed) and sometimes come all at once. Or such material can be rented.

    We hear a lot lately about the decline and death of newspapers. This will never happen with books. Books are really where the action’s at! The question is how to get more people turned on to reading books when the competition is the feelies (which are technically better than ever).


  • Laurie | Express Yourself to S

    I don’t watch much television, but that’s because I take the time to choose what I watch. This way, I don’t feel like I’m wasting time but am watching with a purpose: to be entertained (and only a few shows actually entertain me) or to learn something (documentaries).

    BTW, I really liked Arrested Development also. 🙂

  • Tim

    Speaking of Arrested Development, I ran into Michael Cera at breakfast in Toronto on the weekend! Well, he came into the same restaurant I was eating in, and I glanced over at him a few times, but still…

    I spend a ton on cable a month ($100ish) and need to cut down. I hate how cable companies package things so you spend so much just to get a few channels you want so you have a few channels that you would like to see programs on (e.g. HGTV, Food, etc).