I’ve been thinking about all of the various improvements I would like to make to my life, and how I struggle to find the time and energy to work on them. There are two interesting pieces currently influencing my thinking on this – this great cracked article by David Wong (see point 4), and this nifty YouTube video from Teoh Yi Chie, a guy I follow for water painting advice.
Both ask us what we’re doing instead of the things we want to be doing.
I actually read the Cracked piece back when it came out two years ago, but my YouTube painting guy just reminded me of it and it fits quite well with a decision I made recently to dramatically cut back on TV. I’ve done this because I often tell myself I don’t have time for stuff because of work, because it’s draining and takes up all my time and energy. But actually that’s not true, because when I’ve had long holidays or been unemployed for a while I still don’t achieve many of the goals I consider to be most important to me. For example, since I was a young child I’ve wanted to be a writer, but while I write bits and pieces occasionally (and blog sometimes) I never really dug in and wrote a book, even though I’ve started many and have many ideas for books. I keep telling myself to make a serious go of it, see if I can finish something, publish it, maybe even one day support myself doing it. I have no idea if I’ll be good enough, but I know for sure I’ll never be doing it if I don’t actually try. But here we are. No books completed. I’m also not consistently cooking for myself, not exercising enough, not finally getting rid of all my junk so that my flat is tidy, pleasant and organised. Over a year ago I moved very close to work to free up hours in the day to do these things, and while I’m a little less stressed and definitely get more sleep, I’m still not getting things done.
So what do I do in the evenings and on weekends? Well, I watch TV or movies and stuff about on the Internet. In fact for a while I felt very much like I couldn’t do anything but watch TV or read social media or my news feed when I got home from work. It turns out that shutting down my brain had become a bit of an addiction, and while I do want to switch off briefly over dinner, I don’t want to lose the whole evening. If I start watching TV that’s what happens – the whole evening vanishes. Once I start watching I don’t want to stop, it’s easy, it’s pleasurable, and I’ll go out of my way to watch any old rubbish if I don’t have anything I’m really interested in. So I’ve stopped, mostly. I’m only following two shows right now and I haven’t watched them for a week either, even though that’s just two hours of TV. I’ll pick them up later when I’ve really broken the habit and developed discipline.
I’ve cut way back for the last couple weeks, and in that time I’ve completed lingering household tasks, cooked a proper pot of soup for myself so that I have something healthy and cheap to eat after work, and I’m about half way through doing a complete plot outline for a story I’m writing. I’ve also been watching YouTube videos on writing technique (which is why I’m actually doing an outline, something I’ve never done before) and other topics of interest, and I’ve read a couple books (something I always used to do but had felt like I had less time for).
I’ve discovered that while I can spend a whole evening on YouTube it’s generally of more value to me than TV – the videos are short, they’re often informative, and I generally don’t spend the whole evening. In fact it’s fun to just watch a few over dinner, when I’m at my most mindless and want to switch off from work, then stop watching them and do something productive. Because it turns out that that stressed-out-no-energy feeling fades after I’ve eaten and relaxed for a bit. I just hadn’t noticed before because at that point I was always fully engrossed in watching things.
The first few days were really hard – I had massive TV cravings, not for a specific show, just for sitting mindlessly in front of the screen watching something entertaining. YouTube helped take the edge off. But now I’m finding it easier and easier to start thinking and doing again in the evenings and on weekends. Full TV/Movie-free days on weekends are also very helpful, because I’ve discovered that while I can sit and binge watch stuff all day from breakfast until bedtime, I get antsy with sitting and reading that whole time. So I’ll read a bit, and then I’ll get up and do something different. Instead of my day just vanishing into the ether, I do multiple things and feel like real time has passed and I’ve achieved something. I’m also able to go to bed a bit earlier – about half an hour so far from my Sleep Cycle app. Because the TV anaesthetises me, and I’ll stare at it until I’m almost falling down exhausted. But reading or writing I’ll take to bed, and once I’m lying down I feel sleepy and then turn off my iPad and fall asleep (yes I ignore recommendations about screen time in bed, though I do tend to turn down the brightness and read white on black with the lights off).
Probably at some point I’ll reintroduce TV, but it has to be in limited quantities.
You’ll also notice I mentioned stuffing around on the Internet. I’ve become a compulsive checker of various feeds and Facebook and email. I’ll pull it up while watching the aforementioned TV, and then have to rewind because I wasn’t paying attention. I’ll wake up and lie in bed reading social media until I’m almost late for work, I’ll check it during the day, I’ll read articles that are shared for hours even if I’m not that interested or they’re actively irritating and depressing, or they’re just making me angry. I’ll get into long, wordy, stressful flame wars. While I consider some internet time to be helpful and productive, especially reading things of genuine interest and value to me, a lot of it feels very much like being a rat in a cage pressing a food bar waiting for the next hit of interesting data or attention from a friend. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the perils of social media, so I won’t go on about it, but one of the things I’ve done is close it during the day, shut off notifications and try to check on it less. I’m still grabbing it first thing in the morning.
Since ditching TV has already been so utterly worth it, I think it’s time to crack down on social media. First up, starting tomorrow morning I won’t check Facebook until I’m out of bed and eating breakfast. I need to develop the habit of immediately leaping out of bed when my alarm goes off, and not playing with my phone to stop myself from falling back to sleep. This will stop me from having a mad dash in the morning to avoid being late for work, and it will let me sit and calmly rest in my house for a few minutes before I face my fairly high stress job.
Anyway, it’s amazing to me how much these habits around how I spend my time felt completely involuntary. I felt incapable of anything but watching TV after work, but it turns out that’s not because I was truly brain dead, it’s because I was just used to it.
So there it is. If you’re not sure how to make yourself do the things you want, ask yourself what you intend to give up in order to make time and space in your life. Look at what you currently do, and then make a conscious priority decision. The cravings and habits will pull at you for a while, but stick with it and they’ll fade. Surprisingly quickly it turns out.