Lessons Learned From My Media Break

During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”

I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:

Silence Equals Discomfort

While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.

I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.

Cable News Makes Me Anxious

One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.

With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.

Media is Like Pecan Pie

We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.

Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.

But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.

Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

My Fleeting Flirtation with TikTok

Like many people, I fell in love with comedian Sarah Cooper earlier this year. I wanted to easily find all her Donald Trump lip-syncing videos, and I heard she was posting them on TikTok, so I downloaded the app onto my phone.

Coincidentally, I had put myself in a social media “time-out” right before taking the plunge into TikTok. In quick succession, I had removed Facebook, then Instagram, and then Twitter from my phone. Each time I deleted an app, I found myself spending more time scrolling on whatever remained. I even took to scrolling on LinkedIn for a brief period! So, I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

First, when you download TikTok, the app asks you to check off what topics interest you. The subjects I selected seemed innocent enough, but the outcome was an endless stream of girls in bikinis doing identical dance routines.

This should have scared me off, and yet it didn’t. Fascinated, I scrolled and scrolled through videos of young women with seemingly perfect bodies, beautiful hair, and not half-bad dance moves. I started to feel bad about my own appearance, which is pretty stupid given the vast age difference between me and these video stars. Even the moms showing off their youthful good looks were at least a decade younger than me.

Disconcerting thoughts popped up: I’m pretty sure we didn’t have butts like that when I was a teenager! Was I ever that flexible or sexy? Could I get away with wearing an outfit like that at my age? And how come everyone lives in such a fancy, pristine house?

I had to remind myself that I was seeing these specific videos because they were among the most popular content on TikTok. Not everyone posting on the app looks or moves like that or has a closet full of trendy clothes.

The videos started playing in my head even when I wasn’t scrolling. Thus, after only a few weeks, I banished TikTok from my phone. Perhaps it was just a weird phase I went through in a relentlessly awful year.

Still, I’m mad at myself for falling prey once again to the idea that being “hot” is the ultimate achievement for women of all ages. For goodness’ sake, I worked at a feminist organization for 18 years and helped create content for a campaign promoting positive body images. Maybe that’s why I loved working on that project—because I was intimately familiar with the how the media exploit and even cultivate our personal insecurities.

Well into middle age, I haven’t really recovered from the sense that life would be better if I were more attractive. Instead, my fixations have simply shifted. Rather than hating on my big nose, my stubby legs, or my frizzy hair, now I’m more obsessed with my saggy neck, my stomach cellulite, or the gray in my hair.

As I try to escape this feeling of beauty inadequacy, the practices that work the best are spending less time looking in the mirror and waaaay less time scrolling through social media. When I’m moving my body as opposed to focusing on its reflection, I forget about my self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on social media—and Instagram is back on my phone. But these days I consciously concentrate on the accounts I have deemed worthy of my attention, and I do my best to avoid the content served up through ads or the search function.

My recommendation: Identify why and how you want to use social media and stay within those margins!

What to Binge After Tiger King – Part I

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Looking for something to binge watch during your home quarantine, now that you’ve seen Tiger King and Love is Blind? Well, as some of you may know, I watch a lot of TV. It’s been that way since I was a wee child and our TV sat on a wheeled cart that we swiveled back and forth between the dining room and the living room.

I’ve struggled to tame my media over-consumption for years now, and considerable progress has been made. My eyeballs are no longer glued to the screen unless I’m watching something I consider “must see TV.” But there’s a lot of good stuff out there, folks, and thanks to my husband we have every pay channel and streaming service known to humankind.

So, I am kindly sharing hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of research with you. Due to the sheer volume, my recommendations will be offered in parts—a limited series, if you will. This first part covers my favorite half-hour shows that first premiered during the past decade. Each show listing contains no more than 280 characters—just the basics to help you decide if each show is for you.

Enjoy!  Much more to follow during these cloistered times…

Half-Hour Shows (recent-ish—started in 2011 or later):

Barry

HBO; 2 seasons so far (2018-?)

From IMDB: “A hit man from the Midwest moves to Los Angeles and gets caught up in the city’s theatre arts scene.”

My opinion: Probably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Brilliant, quirky cast. Moody, wacky, bingeable. Alert: Very violent.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

NBC/Hulu; 7 seasons so far (2013-?)

From IMDB: “…an immature but talented N.Y.P.D. detective comes into conflict with his serious and stern new commanding officer.”

My opinion: Gleefully goofy, charming cast, both broad and subtle jokes. Just try not to smile!

Catastrophe

Amazon Prime; 4 seasons (2015-2019)

Summary: Rob (from the U.S.) and Sharon (living in London) try to turn a hook up into a committed relationship.

My opinion: Hilarious, raunchy, unexpected, and engaging. If you’ve ever been part of a couple, you can’t help but relate.

Dead to Me

Netflix; 1 season, second one coming soon (2019-?)

From IMDB: “A powerful friendship blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.”

My opinion: Darkly funny, adult, lots of great twists, immensely bingeable. Two fabulous leading women.

Dear White People

Netflix; 3 seasons, fourth coming soon (2017-?)

From IMDB: “At a predominantly white Ivy League college, a group of black students navigate various forms of racial and other types of discrimination.”

My opinion: Funny, compelling, hugely entertaining, winning cast.

Enlightened

HBO/Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2011-2013)

Summary: After a breakdown followed by a spiritual awakening, a woman makes it her mission to enlighten others and reform her workplace.

My opinion: Overlooked gem! Funny, bizarre, suspenseful, awkward. Laura Dern is fearless.

Fleabag

Amazon Prime; 2 seasons (2016, 2019)

From IMDB: “…a young woman trying to cope with life in London whilst coming to terms with a recent tragedy.”

My opinion: LOVE! Brilliant, hilarious, saucy, and touching. Second season is darn near perfect. Alert: Fourth-wall breaking.

The Good Place

NBC; 4 seasons total (2016-2020)

Summary: An eclectic group of characters explore what happens after death.

My opinion: Amazing cast, incredible concept, funny, intelligent, big-hearted, and full of interesting twists—what more could you ask for? A+ series finale.

High Fidelity

Hulu; 1 season so far (2020-?)

Summary: A record-store owner recounts her worst breakups while talking music w/friends.

My opinion: Zoe Kravitz is utterly cool AND relatable. Fun, hip, engaging, NYC-drenched. Alert: Lots of drinking/substance use, fourth-wall breaking.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime; 1 season, second one coming soon (2018-?)

From IMDB: “Heidi [Julia Roberts] works at Homecoming, a facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life.” Or are they?

My opinion: Intense, creepy, riveting, thought-provoking. A must for conspiracy fans.

The Last Man on Earth

Fox/Hulu; 4 seasons (2015-2018)

From IMDB: “…after a virus wiped out most of the human race, Phil wishes for some company, but soon gets more than he bargained for.”

My opinion: Hilarious, dark AND silly. Perhaps too timely? End of series leaves things hanging.

Mrs. Fletcher

HBO; 1 season so far (2019-?)

From IMDB: “A single mom whose son moves out for college begins a new life on her own.”

My opinion: Fun, provocative, complicated, and surprisingly tender. Alert: If “unconventionally sexy” gives you pause, maybe skip this one.

Russian Doll

Netflix; 1 season so far (2019-?)

Summary: A woman in Manhattan keeps reliving her same birthday party, trying to figure out how to break the time loop.

My opinion: Funny, edgy, mind-blowing, totally binge-worthy, top-notch cast, tight plot. A must for New Yorkers.

Servant

Apple TV+; 1 season so far (2019-?)

Summary: A husband tries a unique approach for dealing with a family tragedy while his wife hires a mysterious nanny.

My opinion: Super creepy, gothic, juicy performances, food fixation, keeps you guessing. Alert: Not for weak stomachs.

Shrill

Hulu; 2 seasons (2019-2020)

Summary: A young woman seeks creative and professional fulfillment and a satisfying relationship.

My opinion: Aidy Bryant rules! The whole cast is incredible. Funny, touching, surprising, inspiring, unapologetically fat-positive. Don’t miss out!

Your feedback is welcome. Did my brief recommendations sufficiently steer you in the right direction? Got any recent half-hour shows you think I should watch?