I watch a lot of TV.

My TV habit often surprises people, because I seem like a pretty productive person—and it’s true, I get a lot done in a day! But I also watch a lot of TV: four or five hours a day, according to both subjective experience and hard data.

If those two facts seem to be in conflict, it’s because we tend to associate TV with life as a couch potato, or at the very least, think of TV watching as downtime. But my TV habit is one of my most effective productivity secrets: It helps motivate me, structure my time and even find inspiration!

Don’t believe me when I say I watch a LOT of TV? Here’s the data to prove it: A chart of my past 30 days of TV viewing, based on exporting my viewing history from multiple streaming sites (and in the case of Disney+, estimating my episodes per day). (View chart online.)

Stacked bar chart shows TV view by context, January/Feb 2023

For ratings and reviews of all these shows (many of which are terrible!) visit TV for every occasion.


Here’s how to make TV part of your workflow:


1. Separate your queue by context.

I keep my TV watching in different buckets. The handful of shows that are really smart and engaging are the shows that I save for dedicated viewing (or the closest I get to giving something my full attention: watching while I knit).

Then I have a huge pile of mediocre shows that are perfect background viewing while I’m doing low-attention work—even if they would not be able to keep me engaged if I gave them my full attention, but If you only watch “good” shows, you’ll find it hard to combine TV and work.

To dip your high-brow toes in the waters of mediocrity, try: Burden of Truth, Ginny and Georgia, Rutherford Falls.

Find all the shows I recommend in this post in this one handy table.


2. Get workplace insight.

Recently the Wall Street Journal published My Favorite 25 TV Shows about the Workplace; writing the story reminded me how much my fictional TV friends have influenced my thinking about workplace relationships, managers and pathologies.

Even a frequent cycler will only work in one or two dozen organizations over the course of a career; paying attention to TV workplaces gives you a chance to think about other workplace dynamics, and what kind of environment or boss would appeal to you.

Get insights from: Succession, Severance and Call My Agent.


TV for every occasion

My TV for every occasion site grew out of a piece I wrote many years ago about how to organize TV viewing by context. Now I maintain it as a database of all my TV show reviews and ratings, with lots of playlists.

screenshot of table showing "best shows for..." by genre


3. Structure your day.

One of the things a lot of remote and hybrid workers struggle with is the lack of structure. TV has played a key role in giving my days some kind of consistent rhythm, and also, helped me make a long-sought shift from night person to morning person. (Being a morning person works a lot better for me as a West Coaster working primarily with folks on the East Coast.)

My day begins with about 45 minutes of TV: I get up, make coffee, and then knit while watching my favorite show of the moment (that is, whatever I don’t want to multi-task). That gives me a reason to look forward to waking up early—it’s my “me” time!

At the other end of the day, TV also gives me a reason to look forward to getting in bed. My day ends by watching an hour of old sit-com re-runs (so I don’t stay awake just to find out what happens), often while getting a foot massage (I prop a foot massager up on a wedge pillow), completing the day’s redactle and enjoying a bedtime snack (chili lime Quest chips, or peanut butter caramel chip Rebel ice cream). I use a 30-minute timer to turn the TV off automatically so it doesn’t wake me up once I fall asleep. Yes, it’s an elaborate routine, but after forty years as a hard-core bedtime avoider, I’m finally eager to get in bed each night!

Best bedtime bets: FrasierBlack-ish, The Golden Girls.


4. Ease into work.

On days when I don’t have a morning call or meeting, I often ease into my day by watching a not-very-demanding show while finishing my coffee or wrapping up my morning’s knitting, and then pull out my computer to deal with whatever’s in my inbox.

Knocking out some routine work with the TV on gets me into a groove, and if I find myself getting so absorbed that I’m no longer paying attention to what’s on screen, I just hit pause and come back to my show later. The secret is to pick shows that are fun enough to put you in a good mood, but light enough that you can divide your attention.

Ease into work with: Offspring, Being Erica, Bel-Air, Younger, or Trying.


5. Binge and grind.

In my recent post about tedious work, I talked about the inevitability and value of tackling boring tasks. When I have a big pile of tedious work—like a giant dataset that needs cleaning, or a huge volume of financial transactions to categorize—I pick a show to binge-watch while I grind.

I have a second monitor set up at my desk, in large part for this very purpose, because I find I’m much more likely to stay at my desk and keep on grinding if I can watch some endless show while I work. Just don’t choose anything very good, or you’ll end up paying too much attention to the TV, and not enough to your work.

Multitask with: Covert Affairs, Republic of Sarah, Houdini & Doyle or The Fosters.


6. Meld work and family.

As you can see from the chart above, I do quite a lot of TV watching with my kids—though this tends to ebb and flow, depending on my kids’ moods and viewing tastes.

Hanging out with my kid while we (vaguely) watch a TV show has turned out to be a really nice way of increasing our time together, in a way that’s compatible with my own work obligations and my teens’ increasingly limited willingness to hang out with their parents. If my younger kid is in the mood for companionship (but not interaction), he’ll suggest watching a show together; since he mostly likes to re-watch the same five or six shows in endless rotation, it’s easy for me to give my work 95% of my focus while a show unspools in the background and my son sits next to me, gaming.

What makes it worthwhile—even in months that feature endless re-runs of Night Court, which does NOT hold up, it’s the two- and three-minute conversations that are inspired by each show, and which give me and the kiddo a chance to re-connect or share a laugh.

Connect with: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Better Off Ted, Young Sheldon or The Good Place.


7. Find inspiration.

This is a tough one to admit, but TV shows frequently inspire me! These days, TV shows are most useful in inspiring me to actually leave the house, either because they remind me of how nice it is to have an actual circle of friends, or because they remind me that it is super fun to get dressed up and go somewhere.

Find both sorts of inspiration in HarlemThe Bold Type and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

And while most TV shows are pretty formulaic, there are a handful of shows that are inventive enough that they’ve given me fresh ideas for how to structure my own writing or creative work— like Irma Vep, The Leftovers, Making It or Fleishman is in Trouble.


8. Gear up.

Looking around my living room, I realize that I have made quite a few investments geared towards my watch-and-work habit. I swear by the Roku, a streaming device, because it’s easy to watch via headphones: Just use the Roku app on your phone, and you’ll hear your show through whatever headphones (or hearing aids!) you have connected to your phone. (The Roku is unique in allowing multiple family members to each use headphones while other family members are spared the TV sound.)

I have a power bar with a bunch of computer and phone cables right next to my favorite TV-watching chair, so I can charge my phone or laptop while I work and watch. And I just purchased a pair of bifocals so that I can switch between looking up at my TV and down at my laptop, because my progressives don’t work well at laptop-in-lap range. Getting the right gear makes it easy to harness TV as a productivity tool.

Unleash your inner shopper with: I Love That For You, Emily in Paris or Schitt’s Creek.


Snapshot of webpage with all the TV recommendations in the preceding newsletter

Find my ratings and reviews for all the TV shows mentioned in this post on TV for every occasion.

If you’re wondering why your very favorite shows are missing from my recommendations, that’s not by accident: The very best shows for watching are rarely the best shows for boosting productivity!

You can find my very favorite shows at TV for every occasion—and I’m always happy to get fresh suggestions.

This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.