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The Netflix and YouTube Diet That Changed My Life

How I reduced my video usage and replaced it with books

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Is it possible, given that someone has an impenetrable will, to stop watching videos? Maybe, but videos are addictive: an immersive experience where all you have to do is sit back. I grew up with Netflix taking Blockbuster, YouTube’s rise to fame, and anime on the screens of every Asian teenager (including me).

From my childhood to my teenage years to adulthood, I consumed videos endlessly. If I wasn’t playing games, I was watching videos, and I often wasn’t playing games. I’d click a video, and when it ended, choose the next video from the suggestions sidebar. Then I would go into an infinite loop of videos until I realize I’ve watched a bunch of videos about something I didn’t care about and didn’t need to know. A said something about B behind their back and C watched but kept quiet, and D roasted them for not contributing, but E also wants to stay out of the drama and doesn’t take any responsibility, so the comment section grills them.

I’ve developed a sickness for videos. Well, not for videos themselves, but for the experience of endlessly watching videos. This type of consumption has lost its allure. I can’t watch video after video after video anymore: I’m too aware of how much time I’m wasting. You can make the argument that I’m learning something from every video, and it’s true, every video teaches something. But there’s an opportunity cost to it: you could be learning more.

And it also doesn’t change the fact that there’s a state of pure passivity that you eventually reach, a state where your mind is not conscious of anything you’re doing anymore. You click because you can’t handle the void.

Maybe I’m unfair, perhaps some people watch every video with a genuine active interest, with the curious electricity of a mind absorbing and adding information and creating a clearer mental model of the universe. But I don’t think so. I’m sure that others have the same brain-drain feeling after getting lost in a hedonic loop.

I tried to quit videos all at once a little over half a year ago. But I kept facing the blank space, the void. Having nothing to do terrified me so much that I couldn’t do it. If I were a strong man, I would face the void, the darkness. But I’m not. I can’t handle being alone with my thoughts. Maybe for a little bit, and perhaps even better than most people can. I meditate for twenty minutes every day, which I’m sure improves my ability to be alone.

But still, left for too long, I’ll go back to watching videos. I couldn’t quit all at once, so I decided to set some rules to reduce my usage. I didn’t want to stop watching videos altogether anyway.

So I set some rules for myself:

  • Only watch educational YouTube videos.
  • Only Netflix sitcoms with under thirty-minute episodes.
  • One episode of Netflix per meal, and one episode of Netflix before bed.

The most valuable resources on YouTube for me were exercise form and routine videos, podcast clips like Joe Rogan, and videos about books that Bill Gates recommends (and others like that). I now never get addicted to watching one video after the next. There’s only a certain amount of learning I can do before it gets boring, and it gets boring fast. And so I rarely touch YouTube except to listen to music, in which case I’m letting it play in the background while I do something else.

The sitcoms-only rule comes from my personal experiences with TV. I found that dramas like Game of Thrones stir my feelings, interest me in the plot, and leave my mind wanting more, probably why it’s so popular. Sitcoms do the opposite. They make me feel good, and they barely have a plot; I can more easily stop myself from watching another episode.

On weekdays, I have breakfast and lunch at work, so I don’t watch Netflix there. And often, I have dinner outside (sadly, I don’t have a family to come back home to, so I eat with friends). This means that on weekdays, I watch one episode of a sitcom, and on weekdays, I watch two or three. It took me 7 months to complete The Big Bang Theory, despite it being the only show I watched the entire time. One of my friends laughed because she could finish a season per day. That’s okay; I’m trying to reduce my usage, not increase it.

What did I do with the extra time? I started taking exercise seriously. I went six days a week. Four days at the gym, two days running. After work, I spent more and more time at the gym because I was afraid of going home only to have nothing to do. Avoidant, yes, but it resulted in positive behavior, and I’m grateful for that.

At this point, you might be wondering: Why don’t you just become comfortable with the void? I’ll be honest: I’ve tried, and it’s hard. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to sit in a room by themselves without doing anything, away from technology, from books, from any possible stimuli, but not only does it make me feel like I’m wasting time, my thoughts rampage in a chaos that I know I can stop by doing anything. I still try, though. Like I said before, I meditate for twenty minutes every day. But that’s not enough for me to become comfortable sitting in a room silently, after all, monks do meditate for hours on end to achieve that state.

I started reading more, a lot more. I read 70 books in the past half a year. Okay, fine, I won’t brag. There are many novellas and poetry collections on that list that inflate that number. And most are regular-length, easy-to-read novels that only take a few hours to finish. I intentionally read books I was comfortable with because I was now reading for entertainment (unlike when I was reading non-fiction to learn).

My friends call me a voracious reader. We live in a society where content has become shorter and more passive: from books to movies to videos to TikToks. We’re losing the ability to read long-form content, including me. A few months ago, it wasn’t easy for me to read. I spent a long time trying to muster the concentration, and even longer absorbing the stories.

The reading has made my friends think I’m a disciplined man. But I’m not. Reading is reading, and I do it for the same reasons everyone else watches Netflix: to escape the void. But I’ve learned a lot, things I wouldn’t have found. From fiction, I learned of the mutual suffering we all experience. And I never got that sick-to-the-stomach feeling of wasting my life away. I’ve improved my concentration, not just for reading, but I can now concentrate on a task for hours on end without stopping, which has, in turn, made my writing better.

My rules aren’t unbreakable. If my friends wanted to watch something with me, I’d gladly do it. But as a general rule, I follow my rules. I read instead of watch.

I’m happy with my video diet. Feel free to copy it, mold it, carve it into your own life.

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