The Upside-Down: How Binge-Watching Might Be Making TV Worse

Season 3 of “Stranger Things” was released on Netflix last week en masse and subscribers can watch all eight episodes in a row. Some finished the season the day it came out. TV used to follow a stricter format – one episode was released per week, at a predictable time. After the episode aired, discussion would ensue; no “Play Next” button existed, so in order to draw out the enjoyment of the show, viewers would discuss the events of the episode, develop theories, and anticipation would build over the coming week as time led up to a new episode.

I recently experienced this watching season 8 of Game of Thrones (opinions on the overall season aside). My husband and I would talk about theories during our Sunday morning hike in anticipation of the evening’s new episode. After the episode aired, we frequently found ourselves rewatching it the next night to catch new aspects we may have missed. Had we arrived at the series finale within 8 hours of starting the first episode of the season, I predict that our experience would have been significantly less rewarding.  It turns out that anticipating future events makes people happier than thinking about past events. (Boven & Ashworth 2007) This may ring true for Game of Thrones fans who spent 18 months excitedly anticipating the final season and now look back on that eighth season with despair. In Boven & Ashworth’s study, they found that individuals got more enjoyment out of imagining a potential upcoming vacation than reliving an imaginary past vacation.

One way to use these findings to your advantage is to plan your leisure time. Time management expert and author Laura Vanderkam argues this in her eBook What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend. Planning your leisure time also helps keep you from losing 45 minutes scrolling through Instagram while you brainstorm what to do with the evening. As computer scientist and productivity writer Cal Newport has written, “Free time that you leave free drains energy.”

Boven & Ashworth’s study also found that emotion is stronger when anticipating negative events as well; we dread the upcoming deadline more than we dwell on past stressors. Boven & Ashworth argue that this isn’t necessarily due to inherent uncertainty in the upcoming events (one part of their study found the anticipation vs. recall effects in women asked to think about their next or last menstrual periods, an event that they have experienced many times before and presumably lacks uncertainty). However, it is often the case that no two projects or deadlines are the same, so uncertainty could have a role to play when it comes to workplace dread.

One way to combat this? Again, scheduling these tasks. People in a 1972 study experienced more stress anticipating an electric shock if they didn’t know when the shock would occur, rather than if there was a predetermined time at which the shock may or may not come. Our anticipatory stress may be less just knowing that on Monday at 3 o’clock, we have to write a section of that paper rather than the looming stress of not knowing when we will work on it. It also creates a closed loop so that our mind is not constantly ruminating about what we need to do. I am a fan of Cal Newport’s deep work philosophy, one aspect of which dictates that you should schedule your deep work to take the effort of making the choice to work deeply or not out of the equation.

There is a scenario in which anticipation might not be useful and that is when it comes to tasks that make us very anxious. For me, this is making a phone call to someone I don’t know. I will put it off, but continue to think about how I need to do it. In this case, the anticipation likely magnifies the negative emotions I feel until the anxiety about making a simple phone call to make a dinner reservation is far out of proportion to the circumstances. My strategy for dealing with these types of tasks? Don’t think about them, just do them. Either do them immediately or set a time for 10 minutes, at the end of which you will make the phone call. Do something distracting until the timer goes off, then immediately make the call.

In summary:

  1. Schedule your leisure time to add your enjoyment by tapping into the anticipation factor. A plan also makes free time more intentional.
  2. Schedule hard tasks to decrease associated stress.
  3. Use the “Just do it” approach for small, anxiety-provoking tasks.

To bring things full circle to our binge-watching discussion, avoiding binge-watching may actually increase our enjoyment of TV entertainment. We can at least try and take a break in between episodes to take in what you just saw, think about it, and anticipate the next one. A better practice might be to watch one episode per week (or per day, if you can’t help yourself), scheduled at a certain time that you are looking forward to. Watching socially may also add to enjoyment, both from the company and from conversations anticipating the unfolding of the story.

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