Binge and Purge (TV and video games)

There’s a series we’re doing in the daily beemails called Madhack Mondays where I give my verdict on a long list of lifehacky advice tidbits (I’ve dubbed them madhacks) and last week’s was particularly beemindery and generated some good discussion so I’m repeating it here:

The Madhack (courtesy of PutANumOnIt):

Binge a show / video game for a couple of weeks, then take a break from TV for a couple of weeks. Trying to limit yourself to an hour a day is less fun and more addictive.

My verdict:

No no no. First of all, the verb “binge” is a pretty good clue that this isn’t healthy! But, ok, maybe you don’t mean it in an unhealthy way. Live a little once in a while, etc. Fine. But clearly there’s an addictive element if the concept of binging is even on the table. So having some insurance against that is only prudent.

Can you tell where I’m going with this? If you want to occasionally binge a TV show, that’s a perfectly reasonable choice… if you make it dispassionately. Pick the average number of hours per week you’re ok devoting to TV / video games / whatever and beemind it. If you agree with Jacob that binging for a couple weeks and then abstaining for a couple weeks is more fun, then great, but abstain first to build up safety buffer. And let Beeminder keep you honest.

I claim it’s even more fun that way because you’ve actually earned the binge. Enjoy it guilt-free!

I actually agree with the lifehack as written, but I suspect it depends how your brain works. My brain has absolutely no interest in “moderation” or “a little every day” of anything; trying to limit myself to an hour a day of X (fun or otherwise) either means I won’t give a shit about X (and won’t do ANY of it) or I’ll be thinking about X literally the other 23 hours of the day (and won’t get anything else done those other 23 hours anyway). Whereas if I go ahead and let myself immerse in it as much as I want, the interest will run its course in a week or month. Even on the other side, if there’s a thing I Need To Get Done that I don’t intrinsically enjoy (say, board up the basement to keep the rats out), doing it “an hour a day” means I will literally hate life, whereas just doing it for 9 hours straight will be a fun and interesting project I’ll get into and enjoy.

There’s even evidence for this – current best-practice advice for parents trying to teach their kids to “eat in moderation” is NOT to strictly limit the amount of junk food they can eat, but in fact to regularly (say, once a week) let them eat as much as they want (yes, binge), to let them discover that there IS such a thing as enough gummy bears. If you never let them find that out, they’ll always want more gummy bears: “Being able to fill their craving will decrease their desire for such foods instead of piquing it.”

(and yes, this is not an ideal brainspace to work with Beeminder – this is why I very rarely use beeminder to track time, and more often use it to track the incredibly tedious things I DO have to do every day, like brush my teeth, that I just Won’t Do otherwise)

Also, judging the ‘healthiness’ of something by the words used to describe it is going to lead you astray more often than not, because the words assigned to an action are assigned by the broader society, and contain all of society’s qualms and judgements, regardless of whether they’re true in general, let alone true for you!


As usual @lanthala says what I’m thinking better than I could!

Here’s how I responded to the beemail:

First, “binge” in this context simply means to watch all episodes of a show quickly rather than over time. There’s nothing unhealthy or addictive about it. It just works better that way.

Second, the whole point here is that you shouldn’t think of it or do it as X hours / day, but should do it in cycles. so don’t beemind 1 hour / day - beemind 0 hours / day for a few weeks after the “binge.”

First, I’m fascinated by this “let kids binge on candy” theory, which is not to say I believe it yet! (Actually I think we tried that one Halloween – “free rein on candy today only!” – and both kids made themselves sick but it didn’t change their relationship with candy at all. But who knows!)

Anyway, children aside, I may just be very different from @lanthala and @zedmango and there isn’t a fruitful debate to have but let me try anyway:

I don’t think this is an argument against beeminding TV / candy / whatever it is. Let’s assume that meting it out sucks all the fun out. Totally reasonable utility function one might have! But that just means you need to decide what an upper limit on a binge should be and then just wait. Mark it on your calendar for when you’ll have enough safety buffer built up that Beeminder will let you have that binge.

The point is to still think in terms of an acceptable average amount per week and then let Beeminder do the math from there.

@zedmango says better to beemind zero hours/day for a few weeks after the binge but that’s exactly what Beeminder works out for you if you make a standard do-less goal with a certain number of allowable hours per day or per week.

It seems like the only possible point of disagreement is whether you should think of it in terms of how many weeks you want to go between binges or whether you should think of it in terms of how much TV or whatever you want to consume on average and let Beeminder derive how many weeks of intra-binge abstinence that implies.

Unless an aspect of this pro-binge psychology is that any attempt to limit the indulgence sucks out the fun or triggers a rebellion reaction where the whole concept of constraining your consumption backfires. In that case I don’t know where to start.

Or maybe the sticking point is just picking the upper limit on the binge? In that case maybe @lanthala and @zedmango are right. The optimal strategy is to get it out of your system, go totally wild, then, based on how wild you turned out to go, abstain for the right number of weeks. That sounds fair.

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I think that’s exactly the mindstate the madhack is arguing against.

Yes, that’s the point of disagreement, but it’s a very different mindset.

That’s it exactly. The idea is to just lift the restrictions and let the consumption burn itself out. It’s self-limiting.

As I understand this madhack and the mindset, that won’t work and is not the optimal strategy, because in the back of your mind will be “the more I binge the more I pay for it later.” Instead, the optimal strategy is to choose the number of weeks ahead of time, binge until it self-limits, then stick to that number of weeks.


@zedmango said everything I came here to say in response! So I’ll just write it anyway so I don’t waste the trip to the forum :stuck_out_tongue:

But yes, the entire idea here (and the idea behind the “don’t always restrict what your kids can eat” idea as well) is that for many people, restricting something makes you want it more – think of everyone who’s ever dieted who finds that suddenly food is all they can think about, or when you had no interest in going outside but now it’s raining and you can’t so now you’re desperately wishing you could go outside.

If you teach your kids that candy is a rare, special treat they can only ever get a few times a year, then whenever they DO get candy, they’ll eat as much as they can, because hey, they’ll only get it a few times a year! Gotta get while the getting’s good, ignoring any sense of your body telling you that you’re no longer enjoying it*. On the other hand, if they know that every Sunday is Ice Cream Sunday and they can eat as much ice cream as they want – even thirds! – they’ll learn that actually, ice cream is pretty common, easy to come by, and there’s no reason to eat thirds if you’re feeling kind of sick after seconds.

I can come up with an evolutionary just-so story about why this makes sense (if fresh meat is rare and hard to get, you better gorge on as much as you can when it comes around!), but regardless of cause, a lot of us are like this. A combination of the Lure of the Forbidden, with The Desire To Not Miss Out. You can either spend all your time and energy fighting against your brain, or you can accept that this is how your brain works, and beat it by letting it get as much as it wants, because once it figures out that it’s not being rationed, it doesn’t have to gorge. Once you realize – you really, truly, grok – that you can watch as much TV as you want, it ceases to be as compelling a pastime as it was when it was Restricted.

*) My sister and I were raised by parents who Did Not Believe In Added Sugar. I developed a hoarding response – I could make my Christmas candy last all the way to my birthday in April – and my sister developed a gorging response (she would literally search the cabinets for any sweets when my parents left the house, and we still tell the story of when she found the baking chocolate). I can’t say either of us has an entirely healthy relationship to sweets as a result.


I think the problem I still have with this approach is the danger that the binge won’t really self-limit. That you’ll stay up till 3am watching netflix every dang day. And it seems like you’re saying “so be it, any attempt to restrict my consumption will backfire”. I can’t deny your lived experience or anything, but I guess I hope that most people are more like me and can employ systems to limit things like TV and candy that left to our own devices we’ll abuse. Or, better yet, be one of those impressive humans who just don’t have a problem with overindulgence in the first place. Come to think of it, if this “binge until it self-limits” strategy works for you, maybe you’re secretly one of those impressive humans…

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I tend to agree with both ideas. Personally I would binge YouTube and computer games to the point of losing entire nights of sleep. I needed limits in order to function at all. But once I had those limits, I also needed to do some serious work to create a healthier relationship with those activities and address the things I was avoiding by going to those activities. Both were important pieces for me.

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This sounds really interesting! Would you be willing to share links to further reading?

I can relate, since my problems with staying up till 3am with websurfing / phone addiction / internet addiction, every day, can go for a while.

So the madhack literally says “binge a show.” There are sadly only a finite number of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Square One, or any other show on your list.

So what about this approach: choose one show, or maybe make a list of some number of shows. You can binge as much as you like on those, until you finish them all or need a break.

That’s guaranteed to be self-limiting, since worst case you watch all the episodes, then move on.

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This seems like it ends up equivalent to beeminding with a metric of hours/week. You make your list of shows and then decide an acceptable rate, like “3 shows per year” or whatever but there’s a total running time for a show so that’s equivalent to choosing some number of hours per week of TV on average.

I think you’re saying that for various psychological reasons you just want your yellow brick road to be highly nonlinear. Spikes, flat sections, etc. That’s fine. Beeminder lets you choose any yellow brick road your heart may desire! I mean, anything approximable by a piecewise-linear function, which, for us humans, is everything.

I feel like either you have to double down on “limiting my consumption backfires, it’s gotta be laissez faire” or else describe a limiting strategy to which I can say “ha, see, here’s the yellow brick road for hours/week that that’s equivalent to”.

I do concede that you may have psychological reasons not to make that equivalency manifest though!

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You can only describe the yellow brick road in hindsight, so I don’t really think it’s equivalent to following a road in any meaningful sense of the word “equivalent.” Consider the following plan:

  1. Make a list of shows. The list can have any number of shows of any length.
  2. Binge on the shows until they’ve all been watched or you feel like stopping.
  3. 2-week break per the Madhack.
  4. Go to Step 1.

Following that plan, there’s no way to specify in advance what the slope of the road is (other than the trivial bound of 24 hrs/day).

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@nestairov The most “research-y” links on the topic I can find are things like and but it also shows up in various pop parenting sites like (which is where I quoted from in my original reply). The overall research seems to show that parents with the most restrictive food controls produce kids with the most eating problems and highest chance of obesity, all else being equal.

Obviously my anecdata isn’t as valuable as the actual research studies linked above, but I have definitely noticed similar results in the petri dish of my two-year-old daughter and her cousin (4 months apart in age). My daughter has always had whatever “junk food” we’re eating, jelly beans or root beer etc – if we’re eating it and she’s around, she can ask for and get some. While she’s not THRILLED if she asks for more root beer and you say no, she’s generally chill about it. Her cousin on the other hand has had plenty of sweets, but doesn’t usually get sweet drinks (soda or juice or lemonade), and while her cousin is equally chill about ice cream and cookies, if we give her, say, lemonade, she will have a complete meltdown when she runs out, if it’s not refilled. It’s pretty clear that the restriction here has led to exactly the negative effects predicted!

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It occurs to me that one of the exact examples given in the studies I linked above is relevant to the key difference between @zedmango’s approach and @dreev’s: whether you are assigning a pre-decided number to your “deep dive” or if you’re keeping things deliberately open ended.

The researchers found that mothers whose kids were overweight were more likely to respond with restrictive statements, like, “One dessert is enough.” The mothers whose children didn’t have obesity gave more open-ended responses, such as, “That’s too much, you haven’t had dinner.”

That seems like some actual, albeit weak, evidence against the “plan to binge TV for 5 days” idea, imo, and more in favor of a context-based system like “plan to binge this entire series until it’s done”.

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