Whether you realize it or not, every single day you are confronted with the same choice over and over again. And, whether you realize it or not, the choice you make gathers its own inertia, its own momentum, and becomes progressively easier to make the next time. Easier still, the time after that.
Every day we choose between mere entertainment and the pursuit of self-improvement. We make this choice probably a half a dozen times before we even get to work. Depending on what our work days look like we may make it another half a dozen times or more before we get home. Once we’re home, we are faced with this stark choice yet again.
It should be easy, right? When you’re on your commute, sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, sitting in traffic, walking your dog, passing the evening hours, lying in bed, or drinking your coffee, you just simply choose to use this time productively. Right?
But why, then, are so many people, particularly those harboring ambitions of starting businesses or aspiring to elite levels of knowledge or skill in their respective fields, choosing to fill these interstitial periods of time with mere entertainment?
There’s no profundity in pointing out that we live in an age and a culture of historically unbridled entertainment. We all know this. There are seemingly infinite ways to entertain oneself, from Netflix to phone games, YouTube videos to social media, and so on and so forth. We’ve even managed to create a collective consciousness around television shows, around what happened in which episode, who’s caught up and who isn’t, etc.
But this article is not about the state of entertainment in America because, as I said, these observations are not profound, and people much smarter than me have authored much smarter commentaries. This article is about the choices you make every day, deluged as you are, unceasingly, by the dizzying array of available entertainment options. It’s about whether these choices you make coherently align with the life you aspire to lead and the goals you want to accomplish. Now, obviously, different people define success in subjectively different ways, all of which are valid. The point, however, is that if your idea of success involves or requires an elite level of skill or knowledge, you must begin ordering your life in such a way that you are constantly acquiring said knowledge and honing said skill.
This means that when you are confronted with the choice to merely entertain yourself or to use the time to improve yourself, i.e. gaining knowledge or honing skills, you have to make the choice that reflects your aspirations. Otherwise, your aspirations aren’t real. They’re daydreams. Empty wishes.
But if you can train yourself to choose self-improvement over mere entertainment, you will begin to see real, meaningful, and accelerated gains.
Consistently making this choice is not easy, though. You have to be ruthlesswith your time and how you spend it. Let me say that again. You have to be ruthless with your time and how you spend it.
Here are six ways to choose improvement over entertainment and acquire knowledge or improve your skills every day:
1. Make technology work for you.
For all the lamenting and hand-wringing we do over the entertainment capabilities of new technology and what it does to our brains, this is a sword that can cut both ways. Make your technology work for you. Yes, we live in an age where you can play intoxicating games on your cell phone or binge-watch compelling TV show after compelling TV show on whatever device you happen to be carrying at any given time. But we also live in an age where you can listen to an edifying podcast or an audiobook on that same cell phone. Yes, our entertainment is now endlessly portable. But so are books. Be the master of your technology.
For example, do more than just walk. Most of us spend time each day walking, particularly those of us who are citydwellers. Don’t just walk! Listen to a podcast or an audiobook. I know, I know. It’s tempting to listen to your favorite song for the thirtieth time in a row, because it’s an amazing song, but nobody said this was easy.
2. If you have a commute, read.
Especially if your commute allows you to sit down. Feel free to apply the idea in #1 (see above) to your commute, as well, if you prefer headphones to paperbacks in the morning. The point is that this is one of those interstitial times, and you have a choice to make.
3. Be mindful and conscious of your Netflix time (or Hulu, or HBO Go, or whatever).
I recommend spending one week tracking your television time. Spend this week watching TV in your average, customary dosage, but add up the time. Or, as an alternative, take ten or fifteen minutes and think back to the previous week, to the episodes or shows you watched, and add those up. All of the video streaming websites tell you the lengths of episodes, so this is pretty easy to do.
After you do this, consider the following thought experiment. It’s easy for us to conceptualize, monetarily, how shaving ten or twenty bucks off weekly expenses and investing that money can, through the wonder of compound interest, grow gradually over time in increasingly larger increments. Think of your time and your knowledge or skill in the same way. When asked about how he got so smart, Warren Buffett responded simply that he spends most of his time reading. “That’s how knowledge builds up,” he says, “like compound interest.”
Start treating your time this way. In 2015, the average Netflix user streamed 1 hour and 33 minutes per day. That’s 33,945 minutes for one year, which is 565 hours and, wait for it…23 and a half days. Days. Keep in mind these numbers are just for Netflix and just for 2015. Streaming numbers have increased since then. This also doesn’t take into account hours spent watching live television. According to the New York Times, the average American adult watches over five hours of television per day. And this number, shockingly, does not take streaming services like Netflix into account.
The point is, we watch massive amounts of television. Breathtaking amounts of television. And while you, personally, may only watch five or ten hours of TV a week, imagine what would happen if you started shaving some of that time off and devoting it to acquiring more knowledge or improving a skill. Imagine if you kept investing this time in yourself, consistently. What would that compound interest look like?
Start reducing your Netflix time gradually and get progressively more ruthless about it. Or use it, sparingly and selectively, as a reward. Consciously devote the time you save to improving yourself.
4. Stop playing cell phone games.
I don’t think this requires or warrants elaboration.
5. Think about how much music you listen to per week.
I love music. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always played instruments, I’ve spent significant amounts of time looking for new music, and I’ve spent many a late night discussing subleties of lyrical meaning with friends. But I recently had a revelation about my music listening habits. It occurred to me that, over time, I listen to a lot of the same stuff, either because of its comfortable familiarity or because it’s a proxy for a mood. I noticed that often my rationale for listening to music is: “I’m feeling _____, so I’m going to listen to ________, because it perfectly corresponds to that mood.” Music as mood affirmation. Or mood intensifier.
Moreover, I tend to listen to music during interstitial times, like when I’m driving, or when I’m walking, or taking the subway, or cooking, or cleaning up my apartment, or organizing things. The logic here is similar to the Netflix situation. Over time, these minutes become hours, which become days. You can take some of this time that you spend listening to music and redirect it toward acquiring more knowledge or sharpening a skill.
6. Evaluate your friendships very seriously.
This one is tough, admittedly. Jim Rohn famously said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Let that sink in. Hopefully your friends inspire you, motivate you, support you, make you laugh, and challenge you. Be ruthless about your time with those who don’t. Your friendships should not simply be the results of proximity, convenience, or boredom. Choose to spend your time with people who add value to your life and help push you toward your own goals.
If you take one thing away from this article, make it the following imperative: The choices you make about how you spend your time should be aligned with the life you want to lead. Be ruthless about keeping it that way.