Breaking the TV Habit
In August of 2014, Valerie Lanard committed to quitting TV and focused on how her environment and triggers reinforced a behavior she felt “locked into.” In this talk, she discusses her fascinating project to quit TV for thirty days. She shares the process, what ended up replacing all of her TV time, and lessons she learned about herself when she was able to break the habit.
Have you ever thought I should be doing something more productive, but I just feel like watching TV? Well, I was feeling that way a lot up until last year, last summer, and that for good reason I basically had started keeping my television on all the time when I wasn’t working in the background.
And this was a problem for me for multiple reasons. First of all, I grew up in a family that was pretty strict about television. It was kind of the boob tube, and also I’m a fitness entrepreneur and an engineer, and I actually my working time is spent trying to make us healthier with technology. But I felt like weirdly locked into this behavior and I didn’t know why. But then I figured it out. I happened to look down and see my hand on the remote one day, and I absolutely understood what was happening, if you have read Charles Duhigg’s The Habit Cycle.
Basically, something had cued me to pick up that remote to get a reward, which was dopamine and sights and sounds, and entertainment and stuff from my TV that I didn’t even realize on a conscious level. It was basically on autopilot it was happening.
And so I understood that this was a habit and therefore I felt like I had some tools to kind of tackle it. So I decided to do a 30-day quitting experiment last summer, and it actually has been over 10 months now, because I've enjoyed it. But the first thing I wanted to do was try to figure out what is cueing me how come I'm turning on my television automatically, without even making the decision to do it? And I started realizing I had a lot of associations with television. Everything like time of day, like drinking coffee while watching the news to Day Of the Week. Social media filled with references from Game of Thrones and all of these things, you know. And my favorite radio show was always interviewing actors and directors, and I never even realized that until I started looking for cues.
So my brain started to try and sabotaged me as soon as I decided that I wanted to quit, so I knew I needed to come up with some ground rules for this 30 days. And the ground rules were pretty simple; I am allowed to watch TV for workouts and music, no other TV. And I want to be mindful with what fills in the time. I don’t want late-night snacking or something to pop-up where you know, like guacamole with bad habits.
So I decided I needed to get prepared. The first thing I did was pick up Evernote and I started brainstorming all the things I could do with my time, and some of them were very far-fetched and some of them were very mundane; things around the house. And I started ordering things off Amazon, aromatherapy candles you know, books, puzzles. I wanted to be ready for high energy, low energy, low willpower at the end of the day. I just didn’t want to give in to the urge to watch television.
And so my 30 days of quitting began and that was last August.
And so this area in green is the first month, and it turned out when I couldn't complete that habit cycle automatically, I became aware of how frequently I was thinking about turning on the television. And it was 5 to 6 times a day at first. I was journaling about three times a day for the first month, and then after that, it got a little less frequent and now I just check in about once a month to see where I'm at. But I have a lot of journaling that was saying I'm thinking about television five or six times today. You know, which was just starting, because I had no idea that it was happening this frequently below a conscious level.
And so the way that I dealt with that was brute force. Basically, I kept my back to the television. I worked late. I went out. Anything to just not give in. And there where you see that dip was in the third week. I went on a trip. I’ve met some friends in Mexico. We stayed at a house that didn’t have a television.
It was awesome. I had no urges whatsoever and I didn’t even remember that I used to watch television. It was fantastic because I felt like I had rewritten some of those associations like time of day, day of week and I was properly cured.
And then on the plane coming back it look like this. And basically we had to watch ads and we couldn’t turn off our televisions for about 20 minutes, and I shielded my eyes like a crazy person. But I knew when I got home I was going to be better because I was you know properly better.
But in fact, when I got home the urges came flooding back just as much as before. And here is my house before and after. So this was what I came back to, and I had believed that I could not rearrange my furniture because I have a huge couch and a really strangely shaped house, you can't even see here.
But in fact, I have this giant open floor plan and you can see this TV from every room, even two rooms behind me where I’m sitting here. And once I did not have the constraint that I needed to have the TV and a prime location, I reconfigured my layout to be like this. And this actually supports the behaviors that I want to support. So I can work out in a really awesome space. I can look at my books and my art, and it made me so happy and my urges just dropped immediately and then just went to nothing, so that TV was the final piece; moving the TV out on my visual reference.
So now 10 plus months have passed and I’ve been keeping track of what I do, instead of watching television. And this is a sampling of what has changed, not what has stayed the same.
And it turns out what I do mostly instead of watching TV is other kinds of media. I have filled in TV time with podcasts; a lot of them are radio shows and books. And what I didn’t do was a lot of the things on my Evernote list were you know, writing hand written letters and things that weren’t really aligned with my actual current lifestyle and interests. There’s just a lot more variety overall so I feel pretty happy about that.
And one of the things that I wanted to do most instead of watching TV was to read more, and in month three I had hit my stride. I was reading voraciously. I had a sack of books. I was reading like a chapter of each one, a chapter, a chapter, a chapter. I didn’t even want to do one at a time. I was just you know, plowing through them.
And I was doing motivational tapes. I was working on my start-up. I was doing you know, meditation. Everything was amazing. I was super woman. This was exactly how I wanted to be without TV, and then I hit a rough patch.
Basically, I had a four-day stretch where I had serious brain fog. My memory and creativity were impaired and I didn’t know what was going on. But it turned out I looked at my Jawbone up data, and I was not sleeping. I basically was no longer having a restful sleep. I was having a lot of interruptions, and it turned out that TV had given me this nice downtime every night that I wasn’t giving myself anymore. And so I realize that I’m actually not able to be super woman and work every wakened hour of the day. I actually have to allow myself a little downtime before bed. That was something that TV had afforded me that wasn’t pure laziness.
So now 10 months have passed and I’m really struck by how ubiquitous television is. You know, you go out in public places and you don’t even get to opt in or out. There’s just TVs playing at you everywhere. And you go and visit your friends, your family and they tell you it’s inconvenient if you don’t want to watch TV.
And I think more people should just question this. It’s not necessarily good for us to not have a choice, but it’s extremely difficult to actually avoid television if you try. So, that’s one of the things I learned in these months is that you cannot control all the cues or triggers in your environment for a perfectly you know, broken habit cycle. Therefore, going back to that original graph I sample as I said, this is the last six months in green because I still have occasional urges and I can’t control all of these triggers.
So, I never set out to quit TV forever, that was not my goal. My goal was to get rid of that nagging voice in my head that said, you know, TV crowding out other things that you want to be doing with your time and life. And so I feel like that has been awesome about this process. I also feel like I now have a sense of autonomy and I can choose consciously what I’m doing with my time. Whereas before, I didn’t even realize I wasn’t choosing consciously how to spend my time. So that’s been really great.
And finally, I started to wonder if my actual environment, my layout of my house caused the habit in the first place, and if that could be true maybe we should start looking at you know, our public spaces, our workspaces, our bedrooms where people are keeping TVs and where we all the time have to see these TVs and we should question it.