How Leisure Time Became Work

The rise of the attention economy has accelerated our habit of engaging with our hobbies in a data-driven way.

An old-school TV sitting on an office desk displays a shifting TV test card on its screen.
Shutterstock; Alamy; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

When Jon Schneider watches Saturday Night Live, he doesn’t just tune into NBC at 11:30 p.m. eastern on Saturdays. He also takes notes on his laptop, and as soon as the episode ends, at about one in the morning, he goes live on his YouTube account to discuss the sketches for a small but dedicated following. During the week, he rewatches every sketch and tracks show-related data on a spreadsheet, including the number of appearances each cast member made.

Watching SNL by doing more than simply watching SNL began as a personal project to appreciate the series on a deeper level, Schneider told me. What he does—participating in obsessive, sports-like analysis of a TV show—might sound uniquely intense, but he’s not alone. Since late 2018, he’s found a community of like-minded SNL superfans, including Mike Murray, who has about 85 spreadsheets and creates charts every week for each performer’s screen time. This isn’t typical fan behavior, or even superfan behavior, such as going to conventions or cosplaying as favorite characters. This also isn’t behavior meant to make the viewing experience more entertaining—such as playing drinking games or, in the way an audience watching the cult film The Room traditionally does, tossing spoons at the screen. This is work, the kind of hard-core analysis that yields beyond in-depth knowledge. Schneider and Murray can tell you when Pete Davidson said “Live from New York!” for the 16th time and when Mikey Day appeared in his 100th sketch. And to an average TV watcher, such activities might sound like too much work.

Yet these intense TV watchers aren’t such a niche group; making leisure time productive has become a habit for many. Apps and sites such as Goodreads and Letterboxd encourage users to track and evaluate the books they read, the films they watch, and the music and podcasts they listen to, while those same forms of entertainment can be streamed at faster speeds. The rise of the attention economy, which encourages optimizing everything a person does toward efficiency, accelerated our tendency to engage with our hobbies in a worklike, data-driven way.

The coronavirus pandemic only pushed more people toward this impulse to hustle. Murray is a musician, but when gigs dwindled, he poured his energy into his SNL fandom, turning a pastime into a task—and practically a job. His evolution tracks with a larger shift. “During the pandemic, we doubled down … Instead of working from home, everybody was living at work,” Celeste Headlee, the author of the book Do Nothing, which explores the way American culture revolves around efficiency, told me. Americans have been told “both explicitly and implicitly that we shouldn’t be wasting time,” she explained. “Anytime you’re just entertaining yourself, [like if] you’re just watching a movie, you’re wasting money.” Perhaps without noticing, more and more viewers have been learning to actively engage with what they watch. “This is a generation that will seek out the ability to control the settings, to change it, to play with it,” Neta Alexander, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Colgate University whose research focuses on viewing habits, told me.

Chad Kultgen and Lizzy Pace, for instance, never thought they’d “hyperbinge” every episode of The Bachelor at 2x speed while taking notes. But amid the pandemic, Kultgen and Pace, both TV writers who’d been co-hosting a Bachelor-related podcast during their downtime, saw their job opportunities fizzle out as productions shut down, so they spent far more time than usual engaging with the show. “I don’t know if we could do it if it were a circumstance other than when we did it, which was deep COVID,” Pace told me. Watching The Bachelor, a pastime, became an opportunity for productivity. They came up with an idea for a book that would analyze the show statistically, and in their hyperbinge, they gathered the necessary data. Now The Bachelor, Kultgen told me, “literally is our job.”

Even when the act isn’t a means to make a living, optimizing leisure time is no longer the work of an obsessed few. “We’re living in increasingly data-driven worlds,” Murray said, adding that crunching numbers, as a fan, can invite more insightful conversations about a show such as SNL. “Using data to predict [cast-member trajectories] is better than just asking someone who their favorite person is.” Meanwhile, Pace has been struggling with relishing her leisure time without thinking about how to make the most of it. She once had to remind herself not to change the playback speed while watching an episode of The Real Housewives. “I was like, You know what, I’m going to really let myself enjoy this one,” she told me. “This was a weird decision, because theoretically, it’s all leisure … but I was like, I’m going to really let myself relax.”

According to Alexander, who referenced a paper by Mara Mills and Jonathan Sterne, one of the first times people altered the playback speed of recordings, they did so out of necessity. In the 1940s, she explained, children in a school for the blind hacked a phonograph to play their audiobooks faster. They had to get their homework done, and audiobooks at the time involved far too much fluff.

But changing speeds or turning a piece of entertainment into something resembling work isn’t really about completing assignments anymore—people aren’t listening to podcasts or watching The Bachelor for homework—though efficiency remains “the go-to explanation,” Alexander said. Instead, the habit affords the modern user a sense of discipline, a feeling that many people find inherently satisfying—and, in the case of those who generate some income from it, valuable. “Speed watching gives people the illusion that they can control temporality,” she explained. “There is the idea that I am rewiring my brain … I am improving and upgrading my own cognitive skills to be able to add time, to be able to put more into my day.” She relates the rise in such strategies to the way athletes eventually master a skill; the more a person practices a certain approach to whatever they’re doing, the better they get at employing it—perhaps even turning it into a reflex. “It’s the pleasure of just being able to train your body,” Alexander said, an analogy echoed by Kultgen, who described his and Pace’s hyperbinge of The Bachelor in comparable terms: “I’ve never run a marathon,” he said, “but I assume it’s kind of similar.”

Some forms of programming boost this sensation more than others. Live TV such as award shows and reality series that involve competition mechanics invite the viewer to extract data—how many times a contestant on The Bachelor has received a group-date rose, for example, or how many trophies a film has racked up over the course of the night—and to predict winners and losers. That method of “algorithmic watching,” as Alexander put it, makes the viewer feel like a productive participant—a TV optimizer, if you will, rather than a mere TV watcher. Schneider certainly feels this way about SNL, as well as series like Survivor and Big Brother. “The television shows that I enjoy the most are the ones where there’s an extra, almost meta level to the show,” he said. “We can take ourselves out of it and then evaluate whether it works or whether it doesn’t.”

Headlee has a less charitable view of this drive to optimize TV watching. She told me that when people engage with entertainment as if they’re doing work, or going further and turning it into a source of income, they’re not discovering a new way to process information. They’re merely finding a way to cope with the constant societal pressure to be productive, which they’ve mistaken for a natural impulse. Headlee doesn’t blame them for wanting to feel more efficient; boredom can be uncomfortable. Just look at what happened amid the pandemic, she said: For those who began working remotely, the line between work and play blurred further, exacerbating the instinct to use time constructively even during moments away from their desk.

In other words, leisure time is beginning to seem like a waste of time. “When you’re burnt out, you’re basically in fight-or-flight mode all the time,” Headlee explained, referring to how, during lockdown, brain fog and fatigue crept into people’s homes. “People weren’t ready [for such a shift], and they were, not surprisingly, starting to feel super anxious. And then they started thinking, Okay, how can I use every single minute of my time?

By keeping productivity in mind as the end goal, Headlee posited, we’re perhaps misinterpreting what we watch. Artists don’t intend for their projects to be exercises in efficiency, which is why filmmakers such as Judd Apatow and Brad Bird protested Netflix’s decision to test a playback-speed-altering feature in 2019. “You’re not immersing yourself” in the story, she said. “You’re trying to get through it as quickly as possible.” Headlee experienced this firsthand when her habit of live-tweeting her favorite TV shows started stressing her out, rather than adding to her enjoyment. “I was turning something that I really, really like into something that I didn’t like anymore,” she said.

Still, the optimizers I spoke with say that when they dissect and speed through what they watch, they’re not distracting themselves from the actual shows. In fact, all of them expressed that when they analyze a show they love in real time, they feel they’re paying closer attention to it than most people do. “You definitely feel like [you’re having] a more intimate experience,” said Murray, who has watched SNL sketches so often, he thinks he could recite entire scripts. That sensation of closeness and understanding, Alexander pointed out, has become harder to achieve amid so many distractions—and reveals why more people are trying to analyze what used to be passively enjoyed. “We live in a second-screen viewing culture,” she said. “Normally when we watch Netflix, we’re also on our phones, we’re also getting back to email, we’re also checking the weather, we’re also playing a video game.” Turning leisure time into work may seem like a heavy price to pay, but in a world with little control, delving so deeply into anything provides, perhaps, a means to seize that control back.

For many superfans, that’s enough to stave off burnout—for now. “You could fly a little bit too close to the sun when it comes to doing something you love,” Schneider conceded. “But I think that so far, up until this point ... I haven’t lost the love for SNL.” Or for those spreadsheets.