Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

How to Avoid a Couch Potato Lifestyle

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.


Change Anything

QDear Crucial Skills,

How can I rid myself of watching TV mindlessly for long hours?

Couch Potato

A Dear Couch Potato,

Thanks for asking! This is a problem that sneaks up on people and has real impacts. Adolescents who watch hours of TV also eat more junk food, exercise less, study less, have fewer friends, and are more likely to be involved in drugs and alcohol. Adults who watch lots of TV are more likely to be overweight, depressed, have cardiovascular diseases, and shortened lives. Wow!

However, notice that these are correlations. They aren’t saying that watching TV causes all these ills. In fact, the causation may run the other way, at least sometimes. Think of how it might work: I feel ill and a little depressed. I don’t have a close friend to visit, and I don’t feel up to taking a walk. So instead, I watch a few hours of TV. While I’m watching, it’s easy to down a beer or two and a bag of chips. As this becomes a habit, I go out less, gain more weight, spend less time with friends, and feel worse about myself. So, how do I handle my depressed mood? By escaping into more TV.

How can you escape this vicious cycle? Personally, I use the principles from Change Anything.

Set a Goal. Decide how much TV is the right amount for you. It might be one hour a day or five hours a week. Make sure the goal is reasonable and within your control.

Create a Six-Source Plan. When a habit is hard to change, it’s usually because your world is perfectly organized to maintain it. You probably have all Six Sources of Influence pulling against you. I’ll suggest some ways to get all Six Sources pulling for you.

Source 1: Personal Motivation. Left in a room by yourself, you probably want to watch TV. How can you change your motives in the moment?

I think we often use TV as a solution to boredom, loneliness, burnout, and bad moods. And it may even work, at least in the short run. It pulls us into a compelling story and distracts us from our troubles. But it’s a distraction, not a solution. And it tends to lead us into other bad habits, as well as take time away from more healthy habits.

If you are using TV as a solution to a problem, then finding better solutions to these problems might remove an important motive for watching TV.

Track your moods. Put a notebook near your TV, and track what you are thinking and feeling when you get the urge to watch TV. Find out whether you are using your TV to manage your moods and which moods they are.

Also, note what your moods are at the end of each day. Some researchers have found that viewers are happy while watching but feel lousy at the end of the evening—as if they’ve wasted the evening. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Do I feel good about how I spent my time today?” Enjoy the well-deserved feeling of success when you stick to your TV plan.

Source 2: Personal Ability. New habits require new skills. If you find it’s taking too much willpower to avoid TV, add some skill.

Skill up on better ways to enjoy your free time. First, determine when you watch TV: is it early morning, the middle of the day, after dinner, or late at night? Map out these times and begin searching for better activities that could replace TV during those times.

Create your own Pleasant Events Schedule. It’s an old tool, but it’s a good one. The Pleasant Events Schedule is a simple list of 320 activities that some or many people enjoy. You can find an updated version that focuses on older adults here. You can use this tool as follows:

a. Check out the items on the list
b. Select several that you enjoy and that would fit into your free time
c. Schedule them into your free time—put them on your calendar as an alternative to TV watching
d. If you discover you don’t enjoy them, pick different activities

Sources 3&4: Social Motivation and Ability. Do others around you influence you to watch more or less TV? What is your personal mix of accomplices (people who enable or encourage more TV) and friends (people who enable and encourage less TV)?

Change the Mix of Accomplices and Friends. Identify your TV buddies—the accomplices who join you in front of the TV—and then ask them to join you in non-TV activities. Or, add a new friend by finding someone who is doing something you’d rather do—exercising, taking a walk, reading aloud, volunteering, etc.—and join them.

When you feel as if you need help, help someone. Or at least connect with someone. Spend your TV time with someone you care about, instead of with your TV. Call your mom, visit a friend, talk to your children, or help your children with their homework.

Source 5: Structural Motivation. Are there hidden rewards for TV watching? Can you do something to invert the economy?

Take away hidden rewards. Don’t allow yourself to eat or drink while you’re watching TV. Don’t have the TV on during meals. For example, do you indulge in junk food when you sit in front of the TV? Don’t reward yourself while watching.

Reward incremental progress. Track and reward your progress every week. But don’t use TV watching as the reward! Find a range of little presents you can give yourself. Change them up so they stay fresh and make them contingent on achieving your weekly TV goal.

Source 6: Structural Ability. Is your environment making it too easy and convenient to watch TV? Does your living room, kitchen, or bedroom scream, “Turn me on, I’m a television!”

Use convenience and comfort. Make it less convenient and less comfortable to watch TV. My wife and I have one TV that’s out all the time and is located on the wall in our kitchen. But we’ve made sure the chairs there aren’t overly comfortable. After about 45 minutes, no one would want to keep watching TV at our house.

Actually, we do have a second TV, but we keep it on the top shelf in a closet near the living room. Whenever we want to watch a longer show (we’re Tour de France addicts) we take down this TV and put it on a stand in the living room. But we always put it away again after the show. These little touches of inconvenience and discomfort prevent us from watching too much.

The secret sauce that makes Six-Source Plans so effective is that you use all the Sources all at once. Don’t cherry pick one or two of these ideas. Make sure you have a tactic that will work for you in each of the Six Sources of Influence and implement them all at the same time.

Of course, I’ve shared only a few of the many possible tactics out there, and some that work for me might not work for you. Be the scientist. Explore what works for you and then let the rest of us know. Everyone, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Please share your ideas for turning off the TV.


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19 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Couch Potato Lifestyle”

  1. Mark

    I haven’t had a television for 13 years now. That’s the best suggestion for watching less TV. If you don’t have one in the house, guess what, your kids can’t watch it!

  2. AJ

    I found I really like to watch TV, probably too much. Shows like Duck Dynasty are just too good to miss! So it didn’t make sense to kick the habit just yet. I did, however, decide to make it more positive by putting a treadmill in front of the TV and telling myself I could watch as much as I want as long as I was walking or jogging on the treadmill. Turn a bad habit to your good! Does that fit under invert the economy?

  3. Marian Olson

    I also enjoy watching certain TV shows, but find I am uncomfortable just sitting while watching. So – my answer is to place the TVs in locations that provide me the opportunity to multi-task. In the kitchen and my work room, I can cook, sew, paint, etc. while watching the shows I like best. Alternatively, I record them to watch during scheduled activities. While I agree many people watch too much TV, there is some value there.

  4. Frederic Mokren

    I recently discovered digital video recording or DVR. I decide what TV shows are important to me and I record those. I tend to only watch the shows that I recorded. I can increase or decrease the my TV time by adding or removing shows from my DVR schedule. I still watch some random TV, usually sporting events or specials, but I definitely cut out the endless hours of searching for something on TV.

    As a side benefit I can watch shows at times that are convenient for me. I don’t feel that I’m missing my “favorite show” if a friend calls on the phone or wants to meet because it is being recorded. This pattern also gives me an opportunity to be thoughtful about what shows I record. I can ask myself, “is it really important to know how the lives of illegal moonshiners work out?” If the answer is no, then I can simply delete the program from my schedule.

  5. Jack Chang @ Cincinnati

    I tried several methods. Most effective is to terminate the TV service all-together.

    One of the earlier methods tried was to auto-record the shows I liked, so at least I watch TV only at the start times when I choose. The down side I found out:
    1) after finish watching the desired shows, I find myself surfing the program table looking for new shows to add towards auto-recording.
    2) I’d end up watching through re-runs that are also recorded, even though I’ve seen them before.
    Before I realiz, I’ve spent 3hrs in front of the screen and wasted the entire evening.

    Ever since we terminated the TV service in Jan 2010, we’ve never really “watched TV” in the traditional sense of it. Besides a corporate career, we also run a financial consulting business. We set business result milestones that we’d celebrate. One of the rewards menu we’d celebrate ourself could be picking up that favorite TV show — either as a DVD set (it’d have being released after 1~2yrs), or paid internet streaming that we’d plug onto the big screen. This does not “cost extra”, since we’re really paying it with the TV service that we didn’t pay anymore.

    The time that’s freed up can be used in many ways to build healthier new habits.
    For singles, go spend quality time with boyfriend/girlfriend, or just friends. Spending quality time with friends AND THEIR acquaintances is best way to meet a “someone” who’d appreciate your character and qualities.
    Asking your other couch potato friends to help you develop a TV-less activty, are you kidding me? (Would you ask a bankrupt person to help you sort out your finances? Or would you ask a child who’s constantly being bullied at school to help another child “here’s 10 ways how to not get bullied”?)
    Reach out to your other non-TV friends for that! If you don’t have non-TV friends, you need to make new friends. Go get a trial membership at the local gym class, indoor climbing center, toast master, whatever; you’ll meet new people.

    For married, go spend quality time with each other.
    Can’t think of something quality to do? Spend the time coming up with a list of quality things to do.

    Got kids? Spend quality time with kids. Can’t think of quality things to do with kids? See the earlier comment – go make a list.

    Can’t think of anything else to do with your time? Go review your investment portfolio and figure out its last 10-yr, 5-yr, 1-yr, 6-mo. I’m not advocating making knee-jerk changes, I’m talking about getting familiar with how it’s doing: do you need re-allocate, do you need a re-balance, do you need to increase monthly auto-contribution, is it time to refi to lower rates, etc. This is easily a 3-hr task, perfect for a TV-less evening.

    Still got time? Pick up a good book. Check out ones from Stephen Covey, Robert Kiyosaki, Napoleon Hill, Steve Seiboldt, Wayne Dyer, Dale Carnegie, Sam Parker, etc. (And if you’re reading this, you obviously already receiving Crucial Skills blog, AND bothered to click another link.)

    Still got time you can’t kill? Call/visit your parents or in-law’s.
    Still got time? Go find a new hobby, and its related interest group.
    Still got time? Call your congress person and tell them your opinion on current hot topics.

    There’s just so many things one can do to enrich one’s life, other than watching TV. Since we cut the TV, our business revenue has grown >3x, our annual net savings have over doubled, our family relationship has continued to strengthen, and we’ve had 2 additions to the family.

    Besides, at $100/mo x 12mo = $1,200/yr additional money going into your Roth IRA, that can’t be bad. Or give your son/daughter a kick-butt $500-value Christmas present (each) and blow their mind away. (and still save $200)

    Why does cutting TV service work best? This is the most-likely avenue to establish a NEW HABIT, before one has found a new way to become couch potato again. No amount of will power will overcome old habits. One musters will power, and use it to create a new habit; the new habit will replace the old habit. Once the person has a new haibt, whatever newer methods of watching-TV comes up later, the person is in a new equilibrium — so is least likely to be wasting time away on TV at that point.

    Worried you’d “miss forever” that favorite show once you cut the cable? Don’t worry. The sponsor company would always turn it into DVD release, or something, to continue making money off it. So you’ll have a way to get it later, once you’ve reached your personal goals and “earned” it.

    I hope this is of help to folks. This has certainly helped me. Would love to hear from others who’ve successfully changed their TV habit.

  6. Elaine B.

    I eliminated my cable altogether. I watch movies from time to time, but that is all. I am much more productive and happier.

  7. Sabina

    Our family has been TV-free for over 2 years. Yay!!!!

    Suggestions to reduce TV:

    Cover the TV. A tablecloth works great. The action of flipping up the tablecloth to turn on the TV makes one pause: Do I really want to do this?

    Move the TV to an out of the way room or less comfortable room. Our final TV was in the garage.

    Downsize TVs. Do this gradually. For instance, if you have 4 TVs, get rid of 1 TV every 6 months.

    Program the TV to only show channels you frequently watch. This prevents the endless surfing through channels you aren’t interested in, and you may find you’re paying cable for only 2 or 3 channels you actually watch.

    Assess your values. Are the programs you watching in line with your values? (ie. want a more peaceful lifestyle, but find yourself watching news or graphic crime programs)

  8. Weekend Reading: Getting Rid of a Couch Potato Lifestyle | Industrial Renaissance

    […] Getting rid of a couch-potato lifestyle […]

  9. Guest

    you’re not a couch potato if you managed to finish this article. Good job!

  10. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking | Scorkle's Mass Media

    […] Book by Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler (2011, 2nd Ed). (The same authors also wrote “Change Anything” (2008), identifying six source of influence on habits). For more information on Al Switzler, click here. For the blog by the books authors, see here. […]

  11. ben cartwright

    why would anyone who left TV behind, became active and other habits seen in beer and hair commercials come and read an article on how not to be a couch potato?

    1. Jack

      Modern couch potatos: internet enabled TV & keyboard, surfing… Stumbled upon this article… 🙂

  12. Melanie Sarah Houseman

    My husband has became a couch potato since he retired 2 years ago. He gets up at 8.30 in the morning has his breakfast at 9 after that on goes the TV and most of the day is spent in front of the box. He hardly goes outside the house now especially in the winter time. I though maybe he was ill so he went to get a check-up with our GP but passed it with flying colours. His favourite programme is QVC he even records it and plays it back. Sometimes i go in the front room and think i am going barmy as i saw that particular piece 20 minutes ago. I am now going to a sports centre twice a week swimming he won’t come so i go with a friend. My husband is only 67 i think have i got to put up with this for the rest of my live. Do most retired husbands end up like this i asked myself if anyone else has a husband like mine i have pity for you.

    1. Rosamund Forbes

      Poor you Melanie what a dilemma. My husband is the same but not quite so bad as yours. He does venture out to the pub or betting shop once a week. His favourite programme is Jeremy Kyle he watches it nearly everyday. He is retired now for 4 years i tried to get him an allotment near our home but that never took off. Perhaps we should get together as we are both grass widows i think.

    2. Sheila

      I’very heard some play golf or take up hobbies after they retire

  13. Sarah

    I typed “How to stop being a couch potato” into Google and found this article straight away. Sadly I got to Source 2 and then the TV was calling me and then I went and watched too much for the rest of the night. Ironic right?

    I used to only watch TV in the evening but all evening, it was sad from 8pm till 12am my partner and I would just sit in front of the Tv and vegetate. We both would feel that we wasted out time so when we moved house at the end of Dec we made a huge change.

    For the past 3 months we have a very strict TV routine. I watch TV with my partner, We watch The Walking Dead on Tuesdays, then we watch The Talking Dead on Thursdays which are both about 45 minutes each then I watch a film with my partner and 3 kids who are 10,9 & 2.

    Then after my partner learns to play guitar, plays the Xbox, builds model planes, builds websites or watch his man stuff on TV and I usually read, practise my touch typing and try to improve my speed or write stories but for the past two weeks I’ve been dangerously addicted to the TV again.

    I have now fully read this article with no more TV breaks and think I can see the problem. My partner gets to watch his TV programs and I was only watching the one show we watch together and a film with the family. I’m going to keep the same TV timetable but I think I’m going to add some time in the day for me to watch one of my TV shows.

    1. Sarah

      Watch a film with the kids on Saturdays only.

  14. What Can You Do To Ensure Your Adolescents Are Active?

    […] your child gets older, it’s inevitable that they are going to find hobbies that are more sedentary. This is always the case because as their brains develop, the stimuli they seek will be different. […]

  15. Shannon O'Neill

    I have laid on the couch for too long. Now I am feeling my body grow and it is fat. How do I get rid of it? Will it linger on and stay like the couch potato articles say?? Will I get my body back in shape?
    HELP!! It took me 2 years to loose 25 lbs.

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