Widgets Magazine


Netflix and self-loathing

It’s week nine, and the season of final projects, all-nighters and neglecting social obligations is upon us. I took some time to reminisce on some of the most common self-destructive coping strategies I have personally implemented or seen students use to get through the end of  the quarter. The most amusing examples are strategies to increase productivity that inevitably end up creating either more work or less ability to do it — make a major unilateral decision in your final group programming project requiring a major refactor two days before the deadline and refuse to back down. Milk an extra two hours out of your day by skipping meals and exercise. Pull consecutive all nighters and drink half a dozen cans of energy drinks.

However, one coping strategy, more about staying sane than being productive, eclipses all others in its potential to turn your life and work into a total garbage fire: Netflix.

Every now and then, I’ll hear a story about some high-functioning lawyer who managed to stay completely healthy despite their decade-old heroine habit. Closer to home, half of Stanford students smoke weed regularly. This completely contradicts the wisdom imparted to me by both my parents and the moralizing teachers/cops/administrators who ran my high school workshops on drugs: that there is no way to enjoy these things in moderation because they are addictive.

The standard pop-psychology explanation for these anomalies runs something like this: addiction is not about the drugs, it’s about the people. If you are generally happy and mentally healthy, your hobby is less likely to become a problem. Being in a good place mentally means that it’s easier to muster the willpower to resist superficially appealing temptations to do something stupid (e.g. too many drugs). However, being exhausted, unhappy or stressed makes it harder to resist superficial temptations, a phenomenon known as “ego depletion.” If there’s some other healthier fun thing to look forward to in the near future, then you have another reason to make good choices. On the other hand, if you need drugs to escape an otherwise dull or unhappy existence, prolonging these brief periods of relief seems more tempting.

Enter Netflix. Certainly, you’d like to enjoy it in moderation — “Black Mirror” is an excellent show, after all. If you could restrict yourself to even one hour a day, it probably wouldn’t matter much to your overall ability to be a functional human being. It’s when you get into a habit of switching it off out of sheer exhaustion at 3 a.m. after a four hour binge that you start to get into trouble, because it’s eating more time than you have to spare, and because it’s playing havoc with your sleep schedule. However, you can always theoretically avoid that scenario by just switching it off after one episode.

Except that it’s deadlines season. You have quite a lot of work, and you are very stressed and probably already quite sleep deprived. There is not much to look forward to before the break, and that might be a couple of weeks away. Netflix is your only reprise. Now, of all times, you probably have the background conditions of stress, exhaustion and a dip in the amount of fun you have to look forward to. Ironically, while the end of the quarter is probably the worst time for a Netflix binge, I suspect that’s when most of them happen.

You also get the benefits of a negative feedback-cycle. If “ego-depletion” is a real thing, then Netflix-induced lack of sleep and guilt-induced stress probably make it harder to not binge on Netflix the next day.

To all those who have overcome this most terrible of vices, I congratulate and admire you. As for everyone else, I offer the following advice: install an app called “Self-Control” and set it to block Netflix around the clock. If you find yourself unable to muster the willpower to turn it on, find someone you trust and have them change your password. It’s probably worth locking yourself out Facebook and whatever your favorite content farm is too. These things work.

Anyway, with that, I’m signing off for the quarter. Good luck with finals, everyone!


Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.