TV is the Mind Melter

September 6, 2021
Confidence: likely

For the last three years, I’ve been tracking everything I do on the computer. This is done for me automatically via a lovely program called arbtt, which records every window you have open, every minute. By watching which window is focused, and how the titles of the windows change, it’s possible to get an extremely good sense of what activity I was engaged in, at any moment in time, since 2018.

The original impetus here was to track exactly how much work I was doing per project. Having this sort of information around is wildly valuable in determining where your time is going, and whether it’s being put to good use.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to run a query against my last year of computer time: how much YouTube did I watch? I was expecting some embarrassingly large number, like maybe three or four days worth. To my intense dismay, the actual number was 30 days. The horror! Holy shit — I was off by an order of magnitude!

Not only is this a dreadful review on how good my internal sense of spending time is, it’s also a disgusting amount that I wasted last year. To put 30 days into perspective, that’s equivalent to 90 work days, or 9 biweekly pay-checks. At my current rates, this six-figures worth of productive time down the drain. Compared to my burn rates, that’s equivalent to about half a decade of expenses! Forget skipping the avocado toast, or sticking to a weekly budget, the amount of time I spent watching TV completely dwarves every other cost in my life — by at least an order of magnitude.

What the fuck.

Time spent watching TV isn’t even time I enjoyed. The majority of things I watch are other people playing video games that are 10-20 years old. Sure, there are the occasional math lecture in there, but actual valuable watching time is a tiny fraction of my total TV time. This is time that I’m not learning anything, that I’m not developing any skills, and that I’m not feeling better because of.

It wouldn’t even be fair to call this “wasted” time. This is simply killed time.

So, what to do about this shitty state of affairs? Life is too short to be killed like this — to be killed at all, really. The part of me that does long-term planning (“system 2”) — as opposed to system 1, which is good at following habits and seeking short-term gratification — recognizes that TV is a horrible addiction, one that should be purged with extreme prejudice.

The trick to breaking (psychological) addictions, is to convince system 1 that it doesn’t actually desire these things after all. But system 1 doesn’t speak the language of well-reasoned arguments! It only understands vague intuitions, wishy-washy feelings, and Pavlovian conditioning. So the strategy here is to communicate my system 2 distaste for TV via intuitions, feelings, and conditioning.

Last year, I read Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. It’s an excellent book, and I am not, nor have I ever been a smoker. My interesting in reading it was exactly for building intuitions on how to break addictions, and the book comes chocked full of lots of psychological tricks. The tricks are exactly what we’re looking for — convincing means of influencing how system 1 feels. They’re almost embarrassingly simple in how obvious they are — but yet they allegedly work anyway. And it’s not hard to see why.

For example, Carr never calls tobacco “tobacco.” Instead, he exclusively refers to it as “the evil weed.” He makes frequent analogies to how it chokes out the natural, beautiful garden of your body. He reminds you just how disgusting smoking is, by focusing on how much you hated it when you started, how it makes you feel powerless to addiction, to all of the cold nights you’ve spent alone, outside, exposed to the elements. How it makes food taste bland, and makes your teeth yellow, and he points out just how disgusting the stuff is that you produce from your smoker coughs.

It’s important to consider all of these downsides simultaneously. Individually, the cost of any one downside might be less than the pleasure one receives from smoking, and system 1 is liable to make the equivalent of the following comparisons:

  • cost(feeling powerless) < reward(smoking)
  • cost(cold nights) < reward(smoking)
  • cost(bland food) < reward(smoking)
  • cost(yellow teeth) < reward(smoking)
  • cost(coughing) < reward(smoking)

System 1 looks at these comparisons and thinks to itself, “hey, since each comparison comes out in favor of smoking, I should continue smoking.” But, it’s important to remember that system 1 is really bad at math, and it’s cheated during its bookkeeping here. It’s incorrectly counted the reward from smoking multiple times, which is like if were to say “well the cost of this new laptop is $1 than my paycheck for the week, and the cost of these new speakers are $20 less than my paycheck for the week, so I can afford to buy both.”

The real comparison that system 1 should be doing is actually:

  • cost(feeling powerless) + cost(cold nights) + cost(bland food) + cost(yellow teeth) + cost(coughing) ~ reward(smoking)

If each of those earlier (incorrect) comparisons were barely in favor of smoking, then there is no way that the honest version will come out in the same direction. None of these downsides is unknown to the smoker, but often system 1 accidentally fudges the numbers, and the addiction seems much more persuasive than it actually is.

Of course, none of these techniques are smoking-specific. They are easily co-opted into convincing system 1 of anything. Like how much it hates watching TV for example — or should I say, how much it hates watching the mind melter. While I sorta like having something to fill (read: kill) time when I’m feeling low energy, I recognize that my lethargic states aren’t cured* by the mind melter —- in the long term, they’re caused by it!

Furthermore, watching old video games is a pathetic and ineffective way to attempt to recapture how I felt when I was young. It’s infantilizing — and no better than those adult children who cheer for every new (and inevitably terrible) Star Wars film.

Often I get pulled towards melting my mind when my wrists hurt — preventing me from working on valuable things. But my wrists are hurt by having bad ergonomics, usually when I’m slouching to melt my mind!

I think of the disgust I feel every time someone tells me about the latest and greatest show on Netflix that they binge-watched over the weekend. They inevitably sound like stupid programs (who could possibly care about tiger kings and octopus teachers???), and I silently judge these people. But I’m no better if I’m instead binge watching some guy play Mario for hours at a time. In fact, I might be worse, since Mario isn’t even novel.

What the fuck is wrong with me? How in hell did I waste a month of my waking life last year doing this shit?

All of these things sound harsh, and they probably are, but I can feel it working already. But system 1 also responds well to imagery. Here’s what should come to mind whenever I think about melting my mind:

This is an image from the fantastic music video for Blockhead’s song The Music Scene. I won’t link you to it for obvious reasons; you know how to find it if you want to.

So, I feel like I’ve successfully convinced system 1 that the mind melter sucks. But, as Nate Soares says:

A problem isn’t solved until it’s solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.

In the spirit of this, I’ve also installed StayFocusd to my browser, and have marked the mind melter as a forbidden site. By default it gives me 10 minutes a day across all of my forbidden sites, which is helpful in that it will let me scan videos for information, but isn’t enough time to get hooked. Furthermore, I’ve used uBlock to delete all of the recommendations on the mind melting site, so that even if I slip up, it will be hard to fail with abandon.

Even though I’m pretty sure my new mindset around mind melting will be sufficient, it’s nice to have a backup plan.

Finally, it’s nice to have something to substitute this behavior with. If I’m still feeling burned out and low energy, I’m going to just pick up my book instead. It will scratch a similar itch, but at least I’ll have to exert some attention, and create some room for daydreaming.