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Busy Doing Nothing

Jenny Odell’s search for a better way to resist productivity

Like diet books, published and read in a steady stream despite—or thanks to—their near-total ineffectuality, manuals like Digital Minimalism (2019) and How to Break Up with Your Phone (2018) seem destined to appear year after year. Readers seek reprieve. They find individualized solutions ill-suited to breaking the habits that big technology companies have built into systems. It’s a recipe for recidivism.

But what’s the alternative? Artist and writer Jenny Odell suggests: nothing. Her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, looks at first glance like another contribution to the literature of digital detox. But Odell deliberately positions herself against this tradition. “All too often, things like digital detox retreats are marketed as a kind of ‘life hack’ for increasing productivity,” she writes. The result is a loop, in which a step away from your devices doubles as a step toward using them more efficiently, often for the ultimate benefit of bosses and shareholders. For Odell, “doing nothing” means breaking this cycle by resisting both the social media-driven “attention economy” and the “unforgiving landscape of productivity.”

The double meaning of her title’s “resisting” suggests how the “nothing” that precedes it might play out. Just as a person might resist the urge to open Twitter and then join others in the street to resist an injustice, Odell yokes together the two senses of the term. She presents the possibility of “a total and permanent reevaluation of one’s priorities”—made not in isolation, but in conversation with others alongside whom one can live out one’s new values. Odell defines these values largely by example. Her collectively oriented self-help—attuned to a moment in which many of her likely readers are groping toward more communal forms of living from behind capitalist barricades—does not offer advice so much as a series of inspirational parables and ideas, drawn from her wide reading and her own life. Grouped into thematic chapters, these stories model the potential of activities conventionally considered to be unproductive.

In her first chapter, “The Case for Nothing,” Odell recounts the near-daily visits she began making in 2016 to the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses (a.k.a. the Rose Garden) in Oakland, California. Seeking post-election consolation, she sat in the public park, whose fragrant bushes are meticulously tended by volunteers, whose branching paths invite meandering, and whose architecture “holds open a contemplative space against the pressures of habit, familiarity, and distraction that constantly threaten to close it.” The difficulty of holding open space in the mind is mirrored by the difficulty of holding open space in public. Built by the Works Progress Administration, the Rose Garden was almost turned into condos in the 1970s. Local residents had to work together to block construction. The parallel Odell draws between the two struggles—for private, mental space and public, communal space—is characteristic of her method. She routinely finds formal similarities among seemingly disparate phenomena, thereby bringing them onto the same plane. In this case, the individual’s time to think and the public good become two bright points in the same constellation. “’Doing nothing’—in the sense of refusing productivity” entails both enjoyment of roses and birds, and “an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental, and economic injustice and brings about real change.”

The difficulty of holding open space in the mind is mirrored by the difficulty of holding open space in public.

By collecting stories of people who have resisted productivity, a chapter called “Anatomy of a Refusal” explains in greater detail how such different forms of “nothing” can reinforce each other. For a performance piece called The Trainee, the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala took a job at Deloitte just to stare into space at her empty desk and take the elevator up and down—to the consternation of her “coworkers.” The ancient philosopher (and proto–performance artist) Diogenes, famous for living in a tub, enacted a similar “aesthetics of reversal,” walking backward down the street, hugging statues covered with snow, and rolling over hot sand in the summer. By “refusing or subverting an unspoken custom,” Odell writes, people like Takala and Diogenes reveal its “often-fragile contours.” Custom, for a moment, “is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives.” Odell’s great strength as a writer is her ability to convey art’s unique power without overestimating or misstating its social impact. Here, Takala and Diogenes are one step on the continuum of refusal, dependent on other steps for real material change. She devotes much of the rest of the chapter to civil disobedience and organized labor resistance.

Resisting or refusing current conditions is one way to “do nothing.” Paying attention to them is another. In “Ecology of Strangers,” Odell proposes bioregionalism as one model of “unproductive” existence. Rooted in the appreciation of interdependence among humans, plants, and animals, bioregionalism calls for “observation and recognition of what grows where.” Such careful observation can change your sense of the world, delivering you to a new reality. Throughout the book, Odell enumerates the many ways this can happen. After experiencing a live performance of a John Cage composition in which the orchestra “plays” everyday objects like a typewriter, a set of cards, and a blender, Odell steps outside and notices, as if for the first time, the distinct sounds of “the cars, the footsteps, the wind, the electric buses.”

She thinks corporate social media platforms keep us from these types of noticing. Whereas her increasing acuity as a birder grows out of the attention she pays to the times and places birds appear, her Facebook and Twitter feeds move her mind in the opposite direction. They distance information from its spatial and temporal contexts, she argues, producing “not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.” Her case occasionally comes off as dogmatic. You could argue, for counterexample, that Twitter creates temporal contexts as much as it erases them; think of the real-time collective responses it engenders to any major event. But it’s hard to argue that it’s not also, often, dulling and stupefying. And, ultimately, Odell proposes not deleting our accounts but using the social media we have more thoughtfully while building alternatives that help ground us in our communities.

Searching for a word to describe the form Odell’s chapters take, I first typed thicket. Actually, they are more like the Rose Garden. Throughout, she samples frequently and generously from poetry, philosophy, biography, fiction, nature writing, and art. And she has tended this work carefully, shaping it into branching conceptual paths that frequently crisscross one another. Meandering down them, you don’t so much follow an argument as experience a sense of interconnectedness. You don’t know quite where you’re heading, but you’re happy to look around.

Of course, productivity, conventionally defined, has its own pleasures. (I certainly enjoyed adding How to Do Nothing to the Google sheet I keep to track the books I’ve read.) While Odell starts from the assumption that it’s inimical to meaning, Melissa Gregg’s 2018 book Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy considers what makes it so compelling, not only for companies looking to maximize profits but also for people doing the producing. An independent scholar and research director at Intel, Gregg observes that productivity can be “positive and affirming” in ways that “typical diagnoses of neoliberalism routinely ignore.”  At the same time, however, she argues that the imperative to productivity pits workers against one another, stymieing collective demands before they are even formulated.

Gregg begins by asserting that productivity schemes have infused life beyond the workplace for as long as they have dominated life within it. While Frederick Winslow Taylor and his acolytes were monitoring assembly lines around the turn of the last century, their wives were monitoring servants, children, and themselves at home. In Gregg’s reading, domestic handbooks written by middle- and upper-middle-class white women reveal themselves as productivity manuals. Featuring corporate-style org charts delineating household hierarchy and responsibilities, they “accorded structure to repetitive duties, touting incentive schemes and time-based competitions typical of today’s gamification techniques.” And, like mid-twentieth century productivity manuals that took for granted the existence of the reader’s secretary, they tended to assume the housewife’s ability to delegate. “In these visions of capital,” Gregg writes, “housewifery is a business run by a lady boss.”

If you can focus on checking items off a list, you’re absolved from having to think about why you’re doing them.

The authors of these manuals took the model to its logical conclusion. Lillian Gilbreth had as many as seven full-time assistants who helped her raise twelve children while becoming a recognized efficiency expert. Christine Frederick, in the words of her biographer, appears to have “delegated and supervised much of the work she urged other women to find fulfilling.” The pleasures of productivity, then, are tiered. There is the pleasure of efficiently offloading less desirable tasks so as to perform more meaningful work oneself; then there is the pleasure to be had by workers who identify with “management thinking,” competing with their peers to achieve externally imposed standards. Corporations and bosses of all kinds exploit these pleasures, which in Gregg’s actual analysis seem not positive and affirming so much as destructive and shallow. “Efficiency thinking,” she writes in her typically reserved, scholarly tone, “normalizes asociality and asymmetry in the guise of appropriate professional conduct.”

Overcoming this way of thinking, she continues, “requires a fundamental reckoning with the legacy of the corporate firm and the practices inherited from industrialization.” She goes on to show, in ways both intended and unintended, how difficult any such reckoning will be. Gregg devotes her central two chapters to a satisfyingly detailed critique of productivity books and apps, which have helped entrench not only the destructive pleasures of asocial individualism but the false comforts of mindlessness. She shows that the predictable content and structure of volumes like Getting Things Done (2001) give readers the impression that, by reading, they are simplifying the messiness of daily life. Apps take this consolation to a new, interactive level. When you swipe in Todoist, you experience a moment of resistance that the designers have intentionally added to generate “a fleeting sense of accomplishment.” Such features, Gregg argues, create an “aesthetics of activity” that makes the apps so appealing. If you can focus on checking items off a list (or adding them to a spreadsheet), you’re absolved from having to think about why you’re doing them.

Her concluding chapters serve as a cautionary tale about how hard it is to reclaim your brain. In “Mindful Labor,” a description of her own mindfulness practices—meditating, walking her puppy, doing yoga—leads directly into the prediction that such practices “may yet mobilize workers to issue new demands of employers, including the right to communal ritual and retreat.” This outcome will seem highly unlikely to any reader of the chapter, which spends less time recommending mindfulness than it does cataloguing all the ways it can be hijacked by nefarious interests. Mindfulness is, for example, “convenient for hardware and software developers in that the solution to excessive workloads is not to stop making technology, but to create products that support mindfulness maxims.” Subsequent objects of whiplash-inducing admiration-critique include WeWork and the morning dance event Daybreaker, which lets workers relieve stress before heading to the office. Though Gregg is acutely aware, here, of the same problem Odell identifies with digital detox marketing, her models for the future remain limited to the corporate-adjacent.

By sourcing her inspiration more generously, Odell gets much closer to articulating the conclusions Gregg seems to be reaching for. Aside from her visits to the Rose Garden, her efforts to “do nothing” depend on hard work and personal discipline. She repeatedly invokes Cicero’s “will, desire, and training,” suggesting these are the primary means by which individuals can gain control of their own attention and change their own sense of what is valuable and productive. Ultimately, what sets her book apart from self-help is not a less quixotic set of demands but a more life-affirming endgame. For Odell, self-discipline should lead to “a second-order level of discipline and training in which individuals align with each other to form flexible structures of agreement that can hold open the space of refusal.” Then, perhaps, something can come from nothing.