Television. The average American watches more than five hours of it every day.1
Five hours is a stunning number on its own, but wait until you see what we’re missing!
Opportunity cost asks, “What is the cost of doing this instead of all the other options?” It highlights what could be rather than what is.
“What is” is a lot of people sitting on a couch for five hours every day passively absorbing data from a screen. Now let’s look at what could be. Since TV isn’t all bad, we’re going to see what life could offer Americans (and anyone else who is bored enough to watch TV as much as we do) if we were to trim 4 hours off of the 5 hour average, which would still give everyone a full hour of watching TV daily.
With 4 Extra Hours A Day, You Could…
Read a book every day
Fortune 500 CEOs are some of the most successful people there are, and they reportedly read an average of 60 books a year.
If you used your four bonus hours to read, and you read at the average adult speed of 300 WPM, you’d read 72,000 words per day. According to Amazon Text Stats, the median book length is 64,531 words. That’s the median and not the average, mind you, but it should be a reasonably close estimate of a typical book’s length. Thus, you’d read more than a book every day!
If you read a book every day, you would be a better person. Period. You’d have more to talk about, know much more, and make connections faster (which can improve your humor, among other things). I’m pretty sure you could be on Jeopardy in a couple of years.
They say reading is fundamental because there is no substitute for it!
Don’t like reading? Listen to audiobooks.
Write a book every month
Author Dean Wesley Smith tracks his writing speed, and he writes at a pace of roughly 1,000 words per hour. He says, “many professional writers I know are in that range.”2 I have yet to time myself, but I know I write slower than that. Depending on one’s writing style and topic, this number fluctuates.
To use a conservative estimate, let’s say we could write 500 words per hour. That would equal 2,000 words per day (and again, this is a conservative number—it would likely be more). Using the same median book length as above, we’d write one full-length book every month.
Some people dream for years to write a book. They could theoretically do it in one month by cutting out TV and writing instead.
Lose weight and get in shape (just 20 min/day!)
For the following calculations, the average adult weight is used and moderate intensity is assumed. For men, the average weight is roughly 170 pounds, and for women, it’s about 130 pounds. If you weigh more or train at a higher intensity, you’ll burn more calories than these numbers. Note: To lose one pound, you need to burn 3500 calories.
While reading and/or writing 4 hours a day isn’t super realistic for many, it is possible. Exercising for four hours a day is definitely not going to happen, so we’ll just use the more realistic metric of 20 minutes a day. Assuming everything else was constant in your life, if you exercised only 20 minutes per day (let alone 4 hours), you could achieve the following in weight loss:
20 minutes bicycling (12-14 MPH speed)
Women: 158 cal/day = 57,670 cal/year = 16.47 pounds lost per year
Men: 206 cal/day = 75,190 cal/year = 21.48 pounds lost per year
20 minutes running (9 minute mile speed)
Women – 217 cal/day = 79,205 cal/year = 22.63 pounds lost per year
Men – 283 cal/day = 103,295 cal/year = 29.51 pounds lost per year
Watch one less show and exercise instead and you might end up 20-30 pounds lighter by next year! Not bad at all. Or if you have the equipment, watch your favorite show while on the exercise bike! Multi-tasking is usually stupid, but this is an exception.
Learn to juggle in one day!
According to Jugglefit, a person can learn to juggle in as little as 15 minutes or possibly 1-2 hours.3 On average, four hours would be more than enough time to be able to learn to juggle.
Learn the basics of a language in 15 days! Become fluent in a language in less than 8 months!
Language learning varies considerably based on the learning technique(s) used, pre-existing knowledge of similar languages, and each individual’s capacity and desire to learn. French language site ILA says that 890 hours is the expected time to become fluent in French, so we used that as a rough ballpark figure to come up with 8 months.4
To learn the basics of a language, ILA says you’ll get there in about 60 hours. At four hours a day, that’s only a couple of weeks! Sure, four hours a day is no cakewalk, but think about knowing the basics of a brand new language. Unlike five hours of TV a day, this time investment is well worth the reward.
Learn to swim in 5 days!
According to Jim (not the show, the swim instructor), after 20 hours of swimming lessons, a typical adult can learn to swim. If you’d rather go for 2-hour lessons each day, that’d take 10 days. If you have a fear of the water, Jim says it will take longer.
For such an important (in my opinion) skill, this is worth your time. The cost of swimming lessons might be another issue, but I bet you could use that extra 4 hours to raise money if it is.
Is TV Worth It?
Yes, I think TV is worth it. It’s a great way to relax, laugh, or engage in top-notch storytelling. But it’s not worth five hours a day of your time! If you’re the average American who watches five hours a day, you’re missing a lot of opportunities to become a better version of yourself and live a more fulfilling life.
I’m not on an anti-TV crusade here, but since it is the activity of choice for the sedentary, it’s worth noting that there are a great number of superior ways to spend your time. Many of these alternatives can trounce the small reward you get from watching TV. So it’s not “stop doing this terrible thing” as much as it’s “look at the exciting opportunities you’re turning down!”
Generally speaking, TV doesn’t improve our lives. In quantities of several hours a day, TV-watching does become a terrible thing—it significantly harms our health and mental well-being. One way that TV “rots your brain” is it keeps you from being active.
Being Active Is A Must
Physical benefits of exercise are well-known, but many studies over the years have shown that exercise is a vital part of mental health, too.5 It’s associated with a number of positive mental health benefits like mood enhancement and less anxiety/depression. It also seems to help protect us from mental diseases like dementia6 and Alzheimer’s.7
People just don’t exercise enough. According to the CDC’s annual report in 2013, only 20.3% of people got the recommended amount of aerobic and muscular exercise (but hey, this is an improvement over 2000’s 15.1%).8
If exercise were a pill, everyone would be addicted and overdosing on it because it has innumerable benefits without side effects. Why, then, don’t people exercise as much as they need? One obvious reason is that some people hate doing it. It’s work. Others don’t hate it, but fail because they try to do too much at once instead of doing it the mini habits way.
There’s even a biological reason why starting big makes people fail with (and dislike) exercise:
“Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold — that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk — they postpone exercise’s immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes.”
~ Michael Otto, PhD
Exercise is already a “work now, benefit later” activity, and if you have to wait an additional 30 minutes to feel a benefit, it’s even less appealing. In addition, I suspect many don’t pay attention to how good they can feel after exercising. I just got back from playing basketball for three hours at the gym, and now that I’m conscious of it, I feel extremely relaxed and really good right now (my legs are cramping some though because I overdid it).
Conclusion: Watch TV As A Reward For Doing Other Things
TV is wonderful. I know.
Why not use it as a reward to get yourself to do better things? One of my favorite techniques is similar to the Pomodoro technique, but with an even split of work and reward. The Pomodoro technique entails working for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minute break. Personally, I like to work for 30-60 minutes and watch a 30 minute show as a reward.
What a big surprise that I like a bigger reward! But it’s important to be satisfied with your reward. Some people might be happy with five minutes. You have options—if you want a 30 minute TV break, you can set the “price” to earn that. Experiment with work/play quantities and see what makes you happy and productive.
The winning concept here that everyone would benefit from applying is:
Work, reward, work, reward, work, reward
It’s so simple, yet many people don’t take advantage of it. Some force themselves to work all day long, which results in sub-par work as they fatigue. Others want to do things but end up procrastinating out of bad habits and feeling overwhelmed. In their procrastination, they might shun work and binge watch TV (and feel guilty about it later). Neither of these is a good thing!
Give yourself a doable goal (or mini habit), and reward yourself after that. This is something I like to do in addition to my mini habits to increase my productivity beyond my mini requirements. Not only does this help you focus on your work more, but it’s so much fun to take a rewarding break that you know you’ve earned than to take one because you’re stressed about not being able to get work done (irony).
For an instantly better life, use television as a reward, not your main activity!