I behave differently when I visit my family. I’m not referring to the way in which I revert to Sulking Teenager mode when I’m near my parents and away from my cigarettes; more significantly, I watch television differently. At home, I tend to let shows pile up on the TiVo for a while, and then spend an evening blasting through a big block of Arrested Development or Joan of Arcadia. I can’t watch TV that way when I’m visiting my parents; the closest I can get are the Mad TV and Battlestar Galactica marathons that tend to crop up this time of year. What happens when I’m given a remote control, a hundred channels, and nothing to keep me focused? I channel-surf.

Channel surfing is not just a matter of mashing on the clicker; it’s a skill that requires years of practice in order to keep your attention span as short as possible without losing your ability to concentrate on what you’re watching. Here are a few guidelines for successful surfing:

  1. Know your channels. You can flip through the full range of stations more efficiently if you can remember that the high 20s are just public access channels that can be skipped entirely, or that the low 40s are news networks that should be avoided if you want to remain in denial about the end of the world.
  2. Don’t stop when you find a show you like. If you’re going to watch one show and give it your undivided attention, you might as well wait for it to come out on DVD. Keep flipping until you find at least two shows you want to watch.
  3. Make use of the “alternate channels” button. Most remote controls have a button that switches back and forth between the two most recent channels, and it’s there for a reason. If you’re flipping between two shows, save your thumb and your remote a little wear and tear.
  4. If you can’t find two decent shows, make use of headline channels. ESPN, CNN, the Weather Channel: anything with a ticker will make you feel vaguely informed, if not entertained. If you’re really bored, you can compare the Fox News ticker to CNN’s and learn a little something about — ahem — “spin-free zones.”
  5. Avoid MTV. It’s not worth the heartache.
  6. Pay attention to what you’re watching. Most television is mindless pap, but that doesn’t mean you can completely zone out, especially when you’re watching more than one show at once. It doesn’t take more than three seconds to figure out that Pacey will never really win Joey’s heart or that Starfire is going to have to teach Robin a lesson about friendship and teamwork, but you do have to make a little effort if you’re going to follow a show without actually watching it.
  7. Don’t underestimate commercials. Commercial breaks are like the Lightning Round for channel surfers. Flip rapidly through your favorite channels. If you’re lucky, you might catch one of those artsy Bombay Sapphire spots; or the Adidas ad where Chauncey Billups dribbles his way through a morphing, attacking hardwood court; or — this month’s grand prize — the Baz Luhrmann-directed, sublimely overproduced Chanel spot starring Nicole Kidman.

Remember, kids: sophisticated, novelistic shows like The Sopranos and Lost are the exception, not the rule. Most television is designed to support and promote Attention Deficit Disorders, so don’t be afraid to watch as if you have one.