What does it mean to consume productively?  In this blog post, Abigail M. Letak considers the cultural anxieties attached to consuming television, and shows us how time is a resource at stake in consumption debates.

– Laura Miller, section chair

Consume This! “You lazy piece of trash! Come on, do something with your life!”: Productivity Anxiety and Our Troubles with Television

By Abigail M. Letak

“Are you still watching?” I blinked. Moments earlier I had been immersed in a world where a small woman possessed inordinate powers of strength and was preparing for a final showdown with a former abuser with mind controlling abilities. I’m ripped from the televisual world of Jessica Jones, and register that I’m back in the real one. I struggle to comprehend the time displayed on the clock nearby. Guilt and anxiety wash over me as I realize it’s been hours since I first hit “play.” Reality and, with it, responsibilities flood my mind. I should be grading. I should be answering emails. And, oh my goodness, I should be working on my dissertation.

I think to myself: You’ve done nothing for hours! You have so much you should be working on right now!

Common refrains in my thoughts, these two accusations are telling about our cultural attitudes towards television consumption, and a phenomenon I call “productivity anxiety.”

“You’ve done nothing for hours!”

Former Stanford University President John Hennessy once unabashedly declared: “TV is a waste of time.” If that’s the case, Americans are wasting an awful lot of time: The Nielsen Company’s estimates from 2018 put the average American’s weekly viewing time at over 33 hours—approaching the equivalent of a full-time job. Other estimates are a bit lower, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate still puts the figure between two to three hours a day—more than half of Americans’ daily leisure time.

American culture often denigrates television consumption. Medical professionals and wellness experts increasingly proscribe too much screen time. Scholars continue to tally up the negative consequences of time spent in front of the small screen. Perpetuates negative stereotypes? Check. Distorts perceptions of reality? Check. Harmful to children’s socialization? Check

The denunciation of television may be linked to a cultural obsession with accomplishment and success—values at the root of capitalism and Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. In effect, spending time consuming television violates the productivity imperatives of American meritocracy. As an activity unconcerned with competitive advancement, it attacks the very basis on which we accord status culturally. Consuming television doesn’t earn you a promotion or degree. It doesn’t help you buy a car or a house. It won’t help pad your resume or CV.

“You have so much you should be working on right now!”

This considerable cultural pressure for advancement leaves individuals bearing the weight of a constant imperative to be productive. Ever-increasing competition for college admittance, scholarships, grants, and job opportunities raises the bar; resumes must be more robust, experience more extensive. The treadmill of productivity never stops; the ladder to success has ever more rungs. 

Underlying these symptoms of modern productivity imperatives is “productivity anxiety”—the significant stress (and distress) resulting from a constant pressure to be working hard, producing results, and advancing toward life goals. There is no room for “wasting time” in a society where “time has become a commodity.” We must justify even our leisure activities. We do not run for running’s sake: we run “to train for a marathon” or “to fit into those skinny jeans.” Hobbies become instrumentally worthy based on their productive value.

But what does this mean for television consumption, an activity with no apparent productive value to speak of? As part of a larger project on productivity anxiety, I conducted a pilot study of fifteen interviews to explore the cultural status of television.

For the pilot study, I chose to speak with undergraduate students, as many of them are negotiating time management and work-life balance for the first time in their lives. The time-structured nature of high school and often close parental and guardian influence mean relatively little time-use autonomy for high school students. In college, though, students become responsible for managing their own time. 

For most of the students with whom I spoke, a range of negative emotions accompanied discussing their television consumption habits—guilt, shame, regret, frustration. These feelings all seemed to center on that notion that they were indeed “wasting” their time when they were watching TV. Many felt that it would be better to do something else—really, anything else. One young woman admitted that sometimes when she has a day off and spends much of it watching TV, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s making poor life choices. She told me that she’d think to herself, “You lazy piece of trash! Come on, do something with your life!” even though we had spent the past twenty minutes of the interview going over all the incredibly impressive things she is indeed “doing with her life.” Particularly after binge watching, students reported feeling “icky,” “gross,” and like they had “wasted” their day.

One student would only watch TV if she was simultaneously doing some sort of task—washing the dishes, folding the laundry. She could not stand to be “doing nothing.” A Communications major initially discussed his television choices in terms of enjoyment and entertainment. But as we talked further, he explained his behavior in a different light, discussing how the time he spends watching TV will help prepare him for a career in the television industry. His television consumption became instrumentally valuable instead of intrinsically worthy.

Talking about these students’ TV consumption habits highlighted their stress and distress over feeling like they were never doing enough, and TV consumption became equated with “wasting time” and “doing nothing.”

Such a relationship to television—one that often exacerbates feelings of guilt and productivity anxiety—might seem to suggest that these students would come to resent TV in some way. But they don’t hate television. In fact, they adamantly love it; their eyes lit up when they got to talk about their favorite shows. But I watched smiles fade as the conversations turned from show content and characters to quotidian habits and how much time was spent actually watching these shows. It’s one thing to love Lost, and quite another to face the reality that watching the entire series translates to an investment of over 100 hours. 

Ultimately, television consumption gets in the way of doing more, achieving more, accomplishing more. Or at least the students I spoke with often see it that way. In a culture where self-worth is equated with productivity, it’s no wonder television consumption can be so troubling. 

About the Author:

Abigail M. Letak is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her areas of interest include cultural and phenomenological approaches to mental health and wellbeing, media consumption, gender, and disability. Her recent work on television includes a forthcoming article in Sociological Forum titled “The Promise of Sociology of Television: Investigating the Potential of Phenomenological Approaches.”



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