The Crown, Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s the golden age of prestige television. Budgets, artistry and star power in television have apparently never been higher.
There’s just one thing.
It turns out that the most popular, most streamed shows aren’t epic or politically prescient or extravagant.
The Resurgence of Friends and Co
It turns out, in fact, that the shows that are surprising everyone by topping the streaming charts, the ones that the ever-growing stable of subscription services are paying crazy amounts to get on (or get back to) their bench, are shows like Friends, The Office and Parks and Recreation.
Old repeats of comedies from the 90s and early 2000s where you know what’s going to happen and everything ends in a generally feel-good way.
In fact, media companies aren’t just stopping at buying up these warm and fuzzy media memories, they’re doubling-down on them – hence the reboots of all those 90s/early 2000s classics from Lizzie McGuire to Mad About You.
The Non-Anxious Presence
There’s a theory by Edwin H. Friedman, a 20th century leadership consultant, family therapist and Rabbi who hailed from New York and Washington DC, on the importance of the ‘non-anxious presence.’ In the simplest terms, it says that for a system to function well, there has to be an element of it that can stand apart from the ever-increasing anxiety of those in it, and help the system operate more effectively through the safety value of a non-anxious presence.
Could it be that in an increasingly anxious world, in which we are struggling to find a non-anxious presence around or within us, we are creating a kind of pseudo version through entertainment – a looping storyline of relaxation, warmth and familiarity?
Something that, even if we know it will not ultimately alter the levels of stress in our real lives, will at least push pause and allow us a bubble of non-anxiousness. Is there something about repetitiveness and familiarity we crave in the midst of chaos – and are our subscriptions the easiest place these days to find it?
Because if we are operating on cognitive overload, as most of us are, simple margin doesn’t automatically help. As Blaise Pascal famously said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”, and if there is a backlog of cognitive stimulus to process that will require some meaningful space and time to do so, we may avoid what can feel too daunting. Instead, we put in place a non-anxious, non-demanding buffer that will distract us long enough to not have to process.
Instead of a reflective stillness, which feels like it can only be achieved on the other side of all that is overwhelming us, we settle for resting stimulus.
Stressed to Distraction
Circling back to tv, there is a three-part docu-series streaming on Netflix at the moment call Inside Bill’s Brain, about Bill Gates. There is one moment where, recounting how much stress was on Gates during a particular court case, a friend and colleague of his remembers that Bill leaned over to him and, in confessional tones, admitted – “for the first time in my life, I actively sought distraction.”
Considering how much distraction most of us reach for daily, that’s a bit of a confronting ‘confession’. Yes if one of the most focused, high-processing men of our time can be pushed by the rising tide of stress to reach for distraction, there is clearly a link between an overwhelm of stress and the temporary relief of an artificial non-anxious presence.
Now of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with watching repeats of feel-good tv as a nice way to wind down. It’s one of my go-tos as well. This isn’t actually about sitcoms. Nor is it about scrolling, the other way we tend to distract ourselves from pressures, stresses and cognitive overwhelm – by, ironically, pushing it out of mind with more stimulus and therefore more cognitive load.
No, it’s not about sitcoms or scrolling. It’s not about our distractions of choice. It’s about why we choose distraction.
Is it to transition from work mode to home mode; to create a shared relaxing experience with loved ones; to generate a good chuckle and lighten our hearts after some tough discussions and decisions? Great! Relax and enjoy the brilliance of the Ross ‘pivot’ scene.
The ‘Why’ Matters
However, what’s not great for us long term is when we choose distraction – whether it be sitcoms, scrolling, or per the Bill Gates doco, solitaire – to suppress instead of process.
I think most of us know, honestly.
I think that when we take a step back, we know when we are operating from a generally clear headspace versus a headspace that is always buzzing and never settled. We know if we’ve gone weeks with 100 open loops in our heads and a sense that all the stimulus coming at us each day isn’t finding a place to settle.
And when, out of that space, we choose distraction as a way to simply press pause and choose resting stimulus, because it feels too overwhelming to get to the other side of all that actually needs to be processed and make it to reflective stillness – that’s when it’s not great.
And unfortunately, it can often be counterproductive. It fills the very-much-needed gaps of stillness with more external stimuli.
So one very simple question we can ask ourselves, when we go to stream or scroll, is simply this – is there something stressful I’m trying to ignore by distracting myself with this content?
If the answer is yes, then when and how am I going to take time to process it properly?
There are many ways to do this kind of processing work, but just three examples are:
1 – Schedule a concrete window of time for self-care through processing
I was chatting about these ideas with a friend of mine who’s a very high-capacity executive with a busy travel schedule and very demanding work responsibilities. He said that he has a recurring meeting in his calendar for exactly this kind of processing –
“I have 45 minutes permanently scheduled in to my diary each week where I hide away in a cafe nobody in my office knows about. I leave my laptop and phone at work. I turn off the cellular data on my watch and take only a notebook and my favourite fountain pen.
I sit. I sip coffee. I think. I write.
What do I need to do? What can I delegate? What’s stressing/annoying me? Why does it stress/annoy me? What can I do about it?”
Sometimes 45 or 30 or even 10 minutes getting things out of our head and into words, then turning them into some kind of action steps, can make the world of difference.
2 – Invest in a ‘processing coach’
Okay, processing coach is a term I just made up, but that’s very much what a psychologist does, at least in my experience.
I have a regular recurring appointment with mine, and she can help me process in an hour what would have taken me six months on my own. Psychologists bring –
- a huge toolkit of paradigms and frameworks for understanding a situation
- an understanding of common dynamics in areas like change management, conflict styles and common self-awareness blindspots
- years of practice in helping people ask good questions and locate the answers for themselves
In the words of the same friend, “every high-functioning executive I know sees a psychologist every month or two months, or at least a quarter… It’s preventative health. A fresh perspective. Hearing a hard truth.”
Psychologists can help you get beyond the issue you thought you needed to process and jump right to the underlying assumption that was tripping you up in the first place.
3 – Classic mentoring and coaching
This can take many forms. I have a regular executive coach I skype with every two months and another I schedule ad-hoc times with to navigate particular challenges.
A couple of friends are part of peer-coaching mastermind groups of professionals in similar roles. Some people are part of professional development networks where they gather every couple of months for intensive mentoring and coaching.
Older friends who are further along our life path can also play a coaching role in helping us process, as can spiritual advisors like chaplains and pastors.
I’ve even been ‘coached’ very helpfully over the years by many leaders I’ve never met, through their books, teachings and tools like this.
Sometimes just one tiny step towards beginning to resolve something that is causing us stress can help us feel as if a huge weight has been lifted. There is a feeling of peace when you know that, even if there are still a lot of things to conquer, you’re now moving in the right direction towards tackling them.
Conversely, in the words of Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “chronic distractions erode your sense of having control of your life”, and indeed can make it harder to tackle those really big things in your life that need processing. Indeed, “Once the brain becomes accustomed to having multiple inputs and distractions it’s difficult for it to settle down ad do a single complex task.”
So ask yourself – why am I choosing this distraction? Am I embracing a moment of relaxation, or delaying a needed process of reflection?
And then let’s choose deliberately.
Because it matters. Letting your brain breathe, giving your soul space – these things matter, because your contribution to the world matters, and the wholeness of your own inner world matters. Let’s choose the peace that lies on the other side of the processing.