It’s hard to do nothing in the age of everything
Last week I finished reading How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell. The book caught my attention because of several reasons: 1. Great title 2. Beautiful cover 3. I’ve read a really interesting interview with the author on Offscreen magazine. Then I realized it’s already a New York Times best-seller. She began writing it after this Medium essay got viral.
How to do Nothing is a book that tries to redefine what we think of as productivity and shows us a new way to connect with our environment. The notion we have of productivity is closely linked to the idea that as we spend more and more time working we’ll earn more and more money. Odell states that “The point of doing nothing isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.”. She changes focus just as Jason Fried and DHH do in their book It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. What the three of them want to tell us is, basically, that stress is not something to be proud of and that if you are always busy there’s something you are getting wrong.
Odell focuses on how technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding and products to be monetized. She suggests we battle this and resist techno-determinism by becoming more meaningfully connected with ourselves and with each other. This does not mean deleting your Facebook account, staying out of Twitter, stop posting Instagram stories and not checking your email, but doing it all differently. By “doing nothing” she means taking time out of your day to engage in an activity without considering whether or not you are being productive. She clarifies this idea on her Offscreen interview:
“There is an underlying notion that time is a resource that you can and should try to squeeze results out of, whether those results are for your work, or for work you do on yourself.
There is now the feeling that every moment and every experience could and should be capitalized upon. Maybe it’s not that you’re literally trying to make money off of everything, but that you are submitting it for evaluation on social media. So everything becomes hyper-visible and available for consumption, rather than merely existing for its own sake.”
In times of self-isolation I see this clearer than ever. As soon as I have free time I feel guilty because there’s this idea that if I have more time I need to use it for “self-betterment” or “self-optimisation”. There are infinite lists of TV series and movies you should watch, books you should read, apps you need to download, physical exercises you ought to complete and so on. There’s no time to actually do nothing. Also: if you bake bread and don’t upload it to Instagram, have you really baked bread?
The promises keep coming. More time management hacks. More ways to communicate. More information spread across separate platforms and disparate places. New demands to pay attention to more and more conversations happening at the same time. Faster and faster, for what?
Odell writes: “The villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media. It is the invasive logic of commercial social media, and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” The business model of platforms like these — which rely on advertising and clicks and “engagement” — has created what she calls an “arms race of urgency” that “abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think.”
As Jason Fried puts it: “People and companies shouldn’t be fueled stress, or ASAP, or rushing, or late nights, or impossible promises, or high turnover, or over-collaboration, or consistently missed deadlines, or projects that never seem to end, or manufactured busywork, or incorrect assumptions that lead to systemic institutional anxiety.”
Of course life can be stressful and there may be days in which you can’t stop and do nothing. But stress and hustle should be exceptions. We tend to stay online too much because digital platforms are structured to keep us connected and we tend to understand time as currency simply because all throughout history that’s the conception that has earned more fame.
It is necessary to escape to engage in sensitive, actual human interaction. We must try “to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed,” she writes. Odell calls this standing apart. “To stand apart,” she observes, “is to take the view of the outsider without leaving (…) It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world but the channels through which you encounter it day to day.” By standing apart, one may be able to refocus attention on the world. In this time of extreme overstimulation, Odell suggests that we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out, or if that bothers you, #NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out.