Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+: A recovering addict offers advice on controlling streaming overload

Food gluttony might have a different effect on your body than mental gorging, but you can get indigestion all the same.
Image: With shows like Netflix's "Stranger Things" and "Russian Doll," we've reached peak streaming saturation.
With shows like Netflix's "Stranger Things" and "Russian Doll," we've reached peak streaming saturation.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Netflix
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By Bryan Reesman

I have a confession to make. I recently realized that I had not watched anything on Netflix in two months. I’ve been a subscriber for years, but the endless scroll of streaming content has started making me anxious. And it’s only getting worse with the proliferation of streaming services themselves, with everything from Disney+ to Shudder coming online to capture audiences as Amazon Prime and Hulu ramp up their inventory.

We have reached peak streaming saturation, and viewer fatigue is setting in. There is some amazing content being produced for sure, but there is simply too much out there to absorb. Even professional critics like me cannot possibly keep up with everything that floods our screens.

“Saturday Night Live” captured the phenomenon best in a brilliant parody of an ad promoting Netflix subscriptions last December: “We’ve got so many shows, even we haven’t seen them all. … And hey, we’ve still got movies, thousands of them — 12 of which you want to watch. It’ll take 12 human lifetimes to watch all of our content, so start watching now!”

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If you saw the movie “Diner,” you might remember the guy who is ordering selections down the whole left side of the menu while eating his way through a half dozen plates in front of him. Food gluttony might have a different effect on your body than mental gorging, but you can get indigestion all the same. A recent joint American-European study found that excess media bingeing can disrupt sleep patterns, induce insomnia and increase fatigue. It’s weird to think that, even if you’re not a critic, entertaining yourself is becoming work. It really shouldn’t be, but here we are. And as the work efficiency experts of years past advised, the trick is to streamline your approach. So the following are some tips from a seasoned streamer who is downsizing his digital overstock.

Let's be honest: Buzz does not always equal quality. I’d like to think we all learned that lesson from “Bird Box.”

Let's be honest: Buzz does not always equal quality. I’d like to think we all learned that lesson from “Bird Box.” I love a good contagion movie, but its mixed allegorical mashup led us — well, me, for sure — on a journey with a less than satisfactory climax. And I didn’t get far into the shows “Russian Doll,” “Altered Carbon” or “The OA” either. They were, respectively, too annoying, too overblown and too convoluted for me to care. I definitely made the right move on nixing the latter; it’s been axed without a conclusion. The Fear of Missing Out and keeping up with the Twitter Joneses can lead you astray; pay attention to what you enjoy and crave instead.

The same goes for suggestions offered by the major streamers. If you go down that rabbit hole, you might as well be back in the video store era, wandering the aisles for an hour trying to figure out what to watch and in your confusion or exhaustion not always making the best choice. I say don’t spend more than 10 to 12 minutes scrolling through menus — after a certain point you’ll feel like you’re in a time loop — and don’t overstuff your queue. Try an initial limit of 50 selections.

At one point, I had up to 150 items in my Netflix queue, though eventually a big portion of them were simply removed after being on the service for months if not years. I was never going to watch most of them, even though I spent plenty of time going over them again. And again. (I also had a growing Amazon Prime queue.) Ironically, Netflix personality Marie Kondo inspires some insight here: Bid a fond farewell to those choices you know you’ll never get to.

Once you prioritize your selections, it’s important to pace yourself with what you do consume. My friend Talia Soghomonian canceled her Netflix subscription because she found herself getting sucked into too many binge sessions. She got caught up in, as she puts it, “the ‘right here, right now’ consumption craze. People want fast food, fast music, fast TV. And they want it now. There was an excitement when you had to wait a week between episodes, and I miss that.”

I concur with her point about waiting, although in Bingeland a week can feel like an eternity! Still, if I can sustain myself on just one or two episodes of a show per day, I get more out of it. I remember more of a show when I watch it over time. I regret devouring “Stranger Things 3” in two days. I should have savored it more. I won’t be making that mistake with the new season of “Mindhunter,” a series that I also adore.

People want fast food, fast music, fast TV. And they want it now. There was an excitement when you had to wait a week between episodes.

Some offerings are not so tasty. I’ve recently instituted the 15-Minute Rule. If my current movie or show is not grabbing my attention, I move on. I’m a big cult movie aficionado, and people like me tend to tolerate a lot while searching for that wild twist or unexpected subplot. But after taking four separate viewing sessions last summer to finish “Bedeviled,” a C-grade horror flick about teens terrorized by a phone app called Mr. Bedevil that preys on their greatest fears, I finally learned my lesson. (I don’t think I need to explain why.)

It’s also important to remember that shows tend to be the issue more than movies because they’re a long-term commitment. So I try to watch just one new season per month. July was “Stranger Things 3,” August is “Mindhunter” Season 2, and September will be “Disenchantment” Season 2. If you get caught up in too many shows, you’ll be playing catch up when they come back for another season. Sometimes all at once.

To recap: Be selective with new things. Moderate your daily intake. Don’t get sucked into duds. Don’t feel like you’re missing out because you can’t keep up — no one can.

Control the content. Don’t let it control you.