My 30 day challenge for August was to avoid watching any television or movies, and I finished about a week ago. This challenge was tough, primarily since my girlfriend Stephanie (who I live with) was not under the same restriction. As a result I ended up catching a few minutes of TV and movies here and there, but I did manage to avoid watching a complete show or movie for the entire month. Also as a clarification, I exempted things like TED talks, screencasts, and other educational videos from this challenge. The focus was really to avoid "junk food" entertainment that doesn't provide any lasting value.
Two things surprised me about this challenge. The first was how hard it was to go completely cold turkey. In addition to the temptation at home, many of the bars and restaurants I went to in August (obviously) had TVs. I also spent some time in airports, where TVs are never far away. If you truly wanted to avoid even looking at a TV for a month it would be nearly impossible. This is something we take for granted, but I was amazed at how hard it was to go even a single day without seeing something being broadcast. On the flip side, the other surprise was how easy it was to avoid spending any significant amount of time doing it. There were certainly a few instances where I wanted to sit down and watch a movie, but I was able to resist and (typically) spent my time on more productive work.
So What Did I Do?
I managed to get through a backlog of magazines that had been sitting on my dresser for months, and I finished three books that I was partway through at the start of the month. I also made some good progress on a couple of side projects, caught up on RSS feeds, and felt a little more in control of my life overall. As Clayton Christensen says, "it's easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time", and that was certainly true for me with this challenge. If I had simply tried to watch fewer movies, or spend a little less time in front of the TV, it would not have been nearly as effective. By having a firm rule I was able to able to avoid situations where it would have been easy to make an exception, like a rainy night at home with Steph, or an evening watching the game with friends. I just foisted all of the blame for my strange behavior on "the challenge" and moved on to more high value activities. This had the side benefit of making my interactions with people more meaningful - in situations where we might have had the TV on in the background we instead focused our full attention on each other.
After spending a month without TV or movies, I really got out of the habit of turning towards them as a source of relaxation. I was forced to find alternate ways to unwind, and that has carried over into the first week or so of September. Aside from a Labor Day binge on season 2 of The Wire, I've pretty much continued the habits that I developed in August - reading more, coding more, and having more 1-on-1 interactions with friends. It feels great, and I plan on keeping this up as much as I can. My loose goal for the rest of the year is to avoid watching any TV or movies alone. I totally acknowledge that they can be social events, but when I am by myself there are always better things that I can be doing. To be clear, I don't just mean better from a productivity point of view, I mean activities that I personally get more enjoyment out of. For me it's all about finding the "Maximum Fun Quotient", and deliberately spending my time doing things that make me happy and enrich the lives of my friends and family. This challenge helped me realize that movies and TV are not a critical part of that goal.