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Family, work, social activities, workouts — we make our best effort to divide our time among all the things that are important to us. Of course, most of us eventually realize that to stay sane, we must also eek out at least a little time for decompressing and doing nothing.

Doing “nothing” may actually mean meditating, napping, taking a long bath or staring idly into space. But for many of us, it often means zoning out in front of the TV.

Television can be a convenient relief from the worries and responsibilities of the day. It can also be an unconscious, insidious, low-grade addiction that takes us away from our relationships, goals and other more satisfying pleasures.

Sucked In

As a nation, we are collectively glued to the TV. We tell ourselves that we de-serve the break, the escape, the pure, mindless entertainment. But at what cost? Do our TV sets really give us back what we want from the time we invest with them? Or do they gobble up our attention without offering a fair return?

Even though we may meticulously plan our workdays down to the quarter-hour, we very rarely examine how much time we really spend watching television, or why. We don’t consider what our TV habits are costing us. And in many cases, it’s a lot.

TV can cost us our perspective. Television is popular precisely because it is so good at temporarily numbing us to our real problems and situations. But it can also cause us to unconsciously reshape our priorities around fictitious characters (and advertisements) that have little to do with our core feelings or values.

TV can act as an opiate, appealing to and temporarily sating our deepest fantasies and desires (for success, intimacy, power, romance), but never delivering or moving us toward anything of real or lasting importance.

TV can drain us of energy and intent. When was the last time you popped up from watching TV and felt ready to take on the world? Sitting motionless with your brain turned off tends to create both physical and mental inertia.

TV warps and steals time. TV programmers and advertisers masterfully design their footage to capture our attention and then draw it — seamlessly — from one image and sound bite to the next. Time just seems to “disappear.” Meanwhile, we can’t seem to squeeze in even 10 minutes to call our legislator, play catch with our kids, or fix a squeaky hinge.

TV is the ultimate distraction. Not quite ready to start that big project or have that talk with your spouse? Maybe you’d better “think about it” while you take in a show. Or two. Or three. Now, what was that thing you were going to do?

TV makes us focus on exterior impulses instead of paying attention to internal messages. We let the programmers, advertisers and news media tell us what is important, what we should find appetizing and exciting, and what we should be upset about. Meanwhile, we feel less empowered, less resource- ful, less capable of creating our own reality.

Still, TV isn’t all bad. Watching our favorite show every evening may be a nice way to transition from work to home life or wind down before bed. (Of course, so is reading, taking a stroll or playing a musical instrument.) And hey, some shows are educational and inspiring. (Of course, so is listening to a symphony or hearing what your 12-year-old did after school.)

The point is, TV is a tradeoff, just like everything else. It offers you something, but it costs you too. If you’re happy with the bargain, by all means, tune in. Just be sure you don’t tune out all the other things that matter so much more.

Take Control of Your TV

  1. Size up your TV habit honestly. For a week, keep a simple log of how much time you spend watching TV, and what you watch. Then ask yourself why.
  2. Consider relocating. Are TVs dominating your home environment? How does TV’s place in your space influence your viewing habits, and what does its position say about your priorities?
  3. Ditch your remote. Having to physically go over and turn on the TV gives you more opportunity to think before you click. Before you turn on the TV, just sit down and relax for a moment. Ask yourself if TV is what you really want and need right now.
  4. Cut your weekly viewing in half. If you normally watch TV from 8 to 11 on a certain night, plan to start watching at 9:30 instead. Try it for a week and see if you really miss it.
  5. Multitask. If you have a daily or nightly TV ritual, get into the habit of doing simple tasks or hobbies while you watch. Stretch. Do your nails. Massage your feet. Sort your mail. Put photos in albums. You might just find you get more pleasure out of the non-TV activity!

Jon Benfer is a personal and business coach in Minneapolis. He specializes in working with successful people who want more happiness and performance in every area of life.

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