If you’re a regular reader, you’ll remember that for the month of May I offered a “30 Day No Netflix Challenge for Writers.” This blog post is a short report on that exercise.
As I wrote earlier, I was increasingly aware of how much time Netflix was sapping from my life. I felt that I had moved away from using it as occasional entertainment and into using it as a way to numb out, or escape.
A couple of months ago, the COVID19 pandemic had me feeling like there was darn good reason to numb out. I didn’t want to spend time stewing in my own anxiety and fear, so rewatching seasons of Scandal felt like offering myself a kind of sanctuary. There’s something especially comforting about formula TV — knowing what’s coming after the next break provides a certainty that doesn’t exist in real life.
But I moved from occasional fun escape into numbing regularity, and the time I spent in the evenings and on weekends with Kerry Washington began to take over time I had previously spent reading or — importantly — writing.
So I issued the 30 Day No Netflix Challenge. It was a challenge for myself, but I also invited others to join me if they also felt the need, and I provided a tracking sheet so that we could tick off the days and observe how it felt.
30 Days of No Netflix: Final Reading Tally
Before Netflix ate my brain, I was in the habit of reading at least a book or two a week. It was how I preferred to spend my down time. For several months, I hadn’t read much at all.
I’d start books but not finish them. I’d also buy books but not start them…though a certain amount of that is normal behaviour for obsessive readers.
In the month of May, with no Netflix to while away my hours, I read 7 books. Or more precisely, 2348 pages. I read for research, and I read for pleasure.
When I started the challenge, I was only reading a few pages at a time — unable to concentrate for long stretches of time. 16 pages the first night, 22 the next…and then suddenly 188 pages and regular sessions of over 100 pages at a time. And one Saturday about two weeks into the Challenge, I read an entire novel in one sitting, which I haven’t done in years. (Shadow of the Serpent, a mystery novel by David Ashton set in Victorian Edinburgh.) It was delicious.
30 Days of No Netflix: Final Writing Tally
My page count didn’t rise as quickly as I thought it would on the Challenge. I didn’t automatically replace Netflix time with equal writing time, but did other things as well, like planting some vegetable seedlings, swapping out winter clothing for spring/summer and finishing an online course I'd bought.
The final writing count in May was 111 pages. Those are handwritten pages on my novel project, so may be slightly less when entered into the computer.
I also wrote some poems for the first time in a long time, and started a new poetry project.
30 Days of No Netflix: How It Felt
On the tracking sheet for the Challenge, there’s a column headed “One Word for How It Feels.” What’s most interesting to me is how that shifted over time: from “tired” or “anxious” at the start, to “engaged” and “great!” as time passed.
The more Netflix-free days passed by, the easier it became to be Netflix-free.
I did have a spell at the start of the Challenge when I wrote “BORED” in capital letters on my tracker. When I took stock of those days, it turned out that I’d spent more time on the social media apps on my phone. When I restricted social media use, it got easier to focus more on reading and writing and boredom stopped being an issue.
How Others Used the Challenge
A few others wrote in to say they tried the Challenge as well.
One of my First Book Finish students [*waves at Helen*] downloaded the tracking sheet and then adapted it to keep track of her page count as she revises her memoir.
Another writer friend reported using it to monitor how much Netflix she was watching — but without banning it completely. She said that tracking it just naturally meant she was watching it less automatically.
And a shout-out to Bernadine, who was the first person to send in her fully completed tracking sheet, and so wins a notebook and pen set for her troubles. Bernadine reported feeling “excited” “grateful” “satisfied”…and even “liberated” at times.
Will I Do It Again?
Probably. I know it may seem terribly earnest of me, but I don’t want to live my life unconsciously, spending hours zoned out and disengaged from my own life. When I feel that I need to pull back on the streaming hours, I’ll do so.
At the same time, watching social media use and screen use more generally — including the wretched phone — needs to be a central part of my writing life and practice. Self-evident perhaps, but when my head is in a screen, it’s not in my book.
If/when I do it again, I’ll also add in some specific writing page counts or time counts (i.e. number of writing sessions) as parallel goals to give me something to strive towards as well as something I’m doing without.
I may not “ban” Netflix entirely again, though. It makes more sense to me to schedule selective times when I can enjoy watching something a bit mindless as a respite from a long work-day and/or the news. But less streaming overall is good for my focus and the health of my reading and writing life. The Challenge reminded me of that and I’m grateful I took it on.