In an incessant info-environment, find your space and excuse to do absolutely nothing, for a while

It’s the weekend. Have you programmed in any time where you do… absolutely nothing? Not exercise, not elaborate hobbies, not play-hard nighttime recreation—but just: nothing?

Sitting or walking, but noticing and being aware, drinking in the under appreciated environment (urban or rural) that you’re in, and - crucially - disconnected from your digital devices or interactions? Absolutely, completely nothing?

This is the clarion cry from artist Jenny Odell, whose 10,000 word Medium essay on How To Do Nothing was a web sensation last year, but has now become a book (subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy”).

Her original essay (written after Trump’s election) was an impassion artistic cry to detach yourself from the 24-hour news cycle, or the endless informational and career updates - and regard your local park (or in Odell’s case, a rose garden in Oakland, California).

But the new book has become a wide-ranging and systemically-literate handbook in how to reassert your right to your own reality, in the midst of so many projected and manufactured realities. And Odell’s key practice is seeking to do… nothing.


She’s even coined a meme for it - not #FOMO (fear of missing out) but #NOSMO (the necessity of sometimes missing out).

In this Guardian interview, Odell explains further:

“My own experience was one of self-observation, which I think is happening to a lot of people right now – you can only do something that makes you feel so bad, for so long, without starting to ask why. The original talk came out of me wondering why I was going to the rose garden so often, and why that felt necessary – I think this cultural moment, this kind of reckoning that’s happening, is maybe related.”

Many commentators have zeroed in on our relationship with technology as the source of the problem: Some advocates a 30-day “digital declutter”, while others suggest using apps to monitor or restrict screen time. But Odell sees that approach as too limited, not only inadequately isolating tech as the cause but also framing it as the answer.

Her proposal is that we train ourselves to assume a different perspective, one that allows us to see familiar things in a new way and in the process find momentary relief.

“When I try to articulate it, it sounds really abstract, but I think it’s actually very practical,” Odell says. “If you think about your mindset when you go to a place you’ve never been, especially on vacation, the way that you look at things is quite different than how you would normally look at things while on your way to work. A lot of what I’m describing is trying to apply that same mindset to things that you’ve seen many times – you will always be surprised.”

Many will recognise that slightly out-of-body sensation of being confronted by limitless possibilities in an unfamiliar place, and the refreshing, restorative effect it can have; the trick to surviving this modern world, Odell says, is to be able to access that plane as and when necessary.

“Once in a while, I will go and stay in a cabin somewhere for a couple of days, but oftentimes that’s not possible. With a lot of will and effort, you can do that without leaving – you can make a decision to look at everything a little bit off-kilter. If you just expand out from the 24-hour news cycle, the notifications, even a little bit, it no longer feels like just another day.”

Odell herself finds this state of mind most easily accessed in nature, losing herself in the study of a single leaf or patch of earth, or going on meandering hikes. “I can’t even call it a hike, because some of that is just me sitting on a rock or under a tree somewhere. I’ll be on some other planet in my head, then I’ll see some trail runners who clearly just got off work, and it’s their exercise ... whereas I was having this almost psychedelic encounter with very specific plants.”

It is a kind of mindfulness that Odell is describing, albeit stripped of any connection to the wellness industry; the practice of simultaneously seeing more and zooming in with hyper-precision. “I think it gets easier, the more you do it. But sometimes it’s the really simple thing of just asking, ‘OK, what in this scene have I not noticed before?’”

In this earlier interview with Porterhouse Review, Odell answers the question about what “doing nothing” entails - and in doing so, echoes with our A/UK associate Maria Dorthea Skov’s article last week:

Odell: I think the easiest thing I can compare doing nothing to is listening. It’s obviously not literally doing nothing but it’s nothing compared to the mentality of needing to do something or say something or make some kind of judgment. So really doing nothing is a state of openness and willingness to be surprised, to take some time to understand the details of what’s in front of you.

I often compare doing nothing to sleep, as sleep is something that is obviously necessary for the functioning of waking life, even though we still don’t really have a grasp of what happens while we’re sleeping. We at least know that it’s important—that it has a very important place in how we ultimately act throughout the day—and in a way, I think it’s important that sleep remains in a realm of mystery.

So doing nothing is almost this kind of dark space or off time that is necessary for emotional survival, as well as other kinds of survival.

…Brickner-Wood: I know you have a Twitter—I don’t know what other social media platforms you use—but has your relationship with these services changed? And how do you use them after leveraging such a staunch argument against their capitalist ethos?

Odell: It hasn’t changed that much. I feel like my book exists in the meantime where I’m holding out imaginatively for some noncommercial decentralized network, but also recognizing that this is what we have until that happens, if it ever happens.

As I talk about in the last chapter [“Restoring the Grounds for Thought”], I think something like social media is quite useful. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

The more we’re going to have extreme climate events, events that are unfolding in real time, people will need to be communicating information to each other very quickly, so something like a social network is very important.

Obviously, what I’m talking about is not needing to be on social media all the time, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use it at all. 

More here. Of course, Odell has many antecedents for her insights - Paul Lafargue (Marx’s cousin) and his Right To Be Lazy, or Tom Hodgkinson’s Idler empire, or Carl Honore’s works on Slow culture.

(There’s also a flurry of contemporary books, as the Guardian notes, like “Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, a social critique of millennials as human capital, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, BuzzFeed journalist Anne Helen Petersen’s forthcoming book on “millennial burnout” , and another on “the art of rest” by Claudia Hammond.”)

Odell is alive to the activist charge that we don’t have time to “do nothing”, and cites (in the original essay) the thoughts of civil rights activist Audre Lorde:

You simply could file my talk simply under the heading of self care. But if you do, make it “self care” in the activist sense that Audre Lorde meant it in the 1980s — self preservation as an act of political warfare – and not what it means when it’s been appropriated for commercial ends. As Gabrielle Moss put it, self care “is poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”

We’d only note, finally, that the chance for such powerful self-reorientation might be expanded, if recent UK bids to reduce the overall hours in a working week (without loss of pay) actually came to pass…