This Is Not a Life Hack: Jenny Odell Discusses the Nature of Doing Nothing

Here’s what I think of when I think of self-help: Dr. Oz and Men’s Health magazine and a former coworker of mine who filled almost every conversational impasse with a quote from Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. And it’s not that I’m anti-self-help, per seself-improvement guides have been around since the dawn of recorded history, from the Tao Te Ching to the Republic to Emerson’s essays, all historically and culturally essential texts that offer maxims and meditations on how it is we confused humans should live our lives. But the self-help genre’s billion-dollar postmodern boom has become a suspect enterprise, the stuff of capitalistic fantasy. Many industry-generated self-help books often proctor advice inextricable from the market in which they thrive, creating a choir of one-size-fits-all, optimize-your-life (and wallet!) type feedback.

Jenny Odell did not write that kind of self-help book. In fact, she didn’t write much of a self-help book at all. During our recent phone conversation she told me that she sometimes warns people that not only is her book “not a self-help book but you might be more confused when you finish it.” Despite its title, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House) is self-help only in the most generous, complex of ways: it is a companion text for relearning how to listen, for reestablishing place and community, for needing to put your phone down so you can pay attention to life in a more meaningful, reality-expanding way.

In this interview, Odell discuses many of the core concepts at the heart of her brilliant new book. She breaks down the “dark space” of doing nothing, the power of public refusal, and the political significance of reclaiming attention from capitalism’s death grip. She also discusses Silicon Valley’s obsession with mindfulness and the “naive and magical vacuum” in which she wrote How to Do Nothing.

Jenny Odell is an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford University, has been an artist-in-residence at places like the San Francisco Dump, Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department, and has exhibited her art all over the world. She lives in Oakland, California.

Brady Brickner-Wood: Can you first explain what “doing nothing” entails, and why you think it is an antidote to our contemporary cultural myopia and dissatisfaction?

Jenny 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: In the book you examine how “doing nothing” has been commodified by the gig economy under the guise of digital detox vacations, which are like these retreats where technology deprivation is used as a way for people to be more productive when they go back to work. How do you differentiate between this detox version of doing nothing and the “dark space” you just spoke of?

Odell: That’s a good question. I think it has to do with the end goal. If someone’s end goal is to either be more productive when they come back to work or to use ideas of self-improvement as a way to see their life a product that can be optimized, then I think it’s pretty easy to identify those instances. The current Silicon Valley obsession with mindfulness is a really good example of that, where it’s like, “Oh, I’ve discovered this cool new life hack where you meditate.” I was actually just talking to a friend yesterday about what’s happened with Esalen. I don’t know if you know about Esalen.

Brickner-Wood: No, I don’t.

Odell: It’s an old retreat in Big Sur where for a long time it had a countercultural association to it. Very California, very hippy—you know. I guess it’s been redone or rebranded and now it has become very popular with probably the same Silicon Valley people who have gotten into Burning Man. But in this case, it’s literally in the same place—I’m sure some things about it have changed—but the most important difference now is why someone would want to go there. And I think the why of what I’m proposing could not be more opposite to the life hack mentality. I’ve warned people before about my book that not only is it not a self-help book but you might be more confused when you finish it. That’s personally why I would go to a place like Esalen, which I haven’t been to. But I would want to spend that time thinking about my own mortality or how strange it is to be alive or the fact that I don’t even know what “myself” is. These are not things that are going to optimize your productivity.

Brickner-Wood: In the book, you don’t condemn social media as being inherently evil, but instead consider how its capitalist nature contributes to a much larger problem. I’m curious how you think sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could become noncommercialized. Or, if they can’t, how can they serve communal, public interests rather than privatized, corporate ones?

Odell: I’m not sure. It remains to be seen whether that’s even possible. Maybe you’ve heard about this, but there’s an experiment where some people using Instagram can’t see the number of likes they get on a post. I’m very curious to see what the reaction will be to that.

There’s a group of former tech people called Time Well Spent, which is this deign ethics group trying to fight against persuasive design in technology. They just came out with this whole new initiative. It’s funny—a little bit of coverage has invoked my book as the counter to their argument. Or not necessarily a direct counter but it’s obviously a different approach. Yet it seems like the biggest difference between me and them is what we think is possible within a capitalist framework. For me, the problem is inherent in the idea that the platform is making money and as long as it has shareholders and needs to demonstrate growth we will always have some new problem like this. Whereas the Time Well Spent argument is that we need to find a way to make it profitable for companies to not make themselves so horrible. I don’t think that’s a bad argument, but it’s a difference of opinion at that point, what you think is possible. And as I said, it remains to be seen; maybe their initiative will end up working.

To give another example, you look at something like Craigslist where Craig Newmark specifically disavowed this path of growth. And even though people were constantly suggesting to him to sell the company, he was like, “No, I made this thing and it’s useful and I’m going to leave it essentially how it is,” even though he could have made tons and tons of money off of it. Craigslist is still useful; it is what it is. It’s a bulletin board service. There’s nothing about it that wants to keep you on Craigslist. You need to sell something, you look for something, and then you leave. To me that’s proof that platforms like that could work.

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. Unfortunately, in the moment, we have these super commercial platforms and that’s where everyone is. It’s funny, because when the book first came out people were like, “Well, you have a Twitter,” and I was like, “Yeah that’s not what my argument is about.” There are certain other books that are making that argument, but mine is not one of them.

Brickner-Wood: And you actually argue that loudly deleting your social media account is counterproductive.

Odell: Yeah.

Brickner-Wood: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the concept of refusal, which recurs a lot in the book. You cite Bartleby and Diogenes and several public labor movements as these exemplars for public refusal. Why is refusal such an important factor in both restoring attention and doing nothing?

Odell: In that chapter [“The Anatomy of Refusal”], one of my favorite examples is the Finnish performance artist [Pilvi Takala] who got a job at Deloitte and then just sat there doing nothing. It was so galling to everyone at the company that all these urgent interoffice emails were sent asking about this mysterious employee who just sat staring out the window. On the most basic level, within the image of doing nothing, there is often a very humorous refusal of the onward push that we take for granted. The other example I give in the book is Tom Green lying on the sidewalk for his public access show, where everyone is assumed to keep walking forward on the sidewalk. You don’t have to refuse very much before it becomes a big spectacle. Those are the moments in which it is revealed how much we assume we should just keep going on the path that we’re going on at any particular time. Doing nothing is refusing to do something, often times the something that everyone else is doing. I think a reason I was trying to dig up different historical examples of interesting refusals is because I think they provide important images for us to go back and look at moments when many subsequent refusals were often times refusing something very similar. I think it gives some kind of grounding to an attempted refusal in the present. When I was reading about the 1934 waterfront strike, the quotes from the workers showed how subject they were to the whims of capital and commerce, and that they might work two days straight and then not have any work for three days. It was every man for himself. Then there’s the story about how they banded together in this very democratic way and coordinated with all these different groups up and down the coast to create this spectacle of not working. It was so inspiring to read about. There are these moments when you read something from history and it doesn’t feel like this dusty historical moment but actually quite urgent and relevant to the present.

Brickner-Wood: I’m glad you brought up the waterfront strike because one of the tensions I found myself grappling with while reading your book was how to take these individual habits of attention—even if cultivated and practiced successfully—and make them collective habits of attention. Obviously, you’re arguing for this sort of collective attention throughout. But I’m curious how you imagine meaningful political change to occur through the kind of practices the book advocates for.

Odell: That’s something that I’ve continued to think a lot about after the book was published. It’s a really difficult question and I don’t think I address it in a satisfying way. There is a part where I say that it’s an activist book disguised as a self-help book, but then right after that I say it’s not really either. The book itself and the things that I’m describing are not activism, obviously, but some sort of preliminary, hopefully restorative step that maybe not everyone needs, but, from my own experience, there are some people who feel the need to do something and to stay organized or at least have certain types of dialogue that feel, at present, too disassembled to be able to do any of that effectively. So this book is aimed at that moment, where you’re just trying to be able to think straight and be able to have certain types of conversations with a) yourself and b) the people around you.

I’m also making an argument for locality in the book, which is helpful for me to think about. Since so much of the book is environmental—it’s kind of an environmental argument—I’ve personally been inspired, since writing it, by going to talks and field trips with the Golden Gate Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society, groups of people who gather and pay attention to a specific place and are all concerned about the same things. This is all sort of under the umbrella of climate anxiety and thinking about climate change, but to me it feels like a different way of engaging with the anxiety. To be able to have in-person conversations with people who live in the same place as me and where I feel like we all have a similar stake in that place—that has been very grounding for me.

Brickner-Wood: Along the lines that How to Do Nothing is neither activism nor self-help, and kind of exists, as you say, in “a third space,” it seems to me that the book has a philosophical kinship with Eastern philosophy, although you rarely if ever align your case for attention restoration with any sort of spiritualism. Are you at all influenced by Buddhist or Hindu writings?

Odell: I’m fairly influenced by it. I have the Taoist story of the useless tree at the beginning, which is one of the most important metaphors for me in the book. Personally, this is something that I have been reading about for a while, and not for research or work. There’s no specific reason that I don’t touch on spiritualism more specifically in the book other than that I think maybe in my head I was trying really hard not to fall into any particular bucket. Like I said earlier, mindfulness is so big in Silicon Valley right now. Similarly to not wanting to fall into self-help, I didn’t want to fall into that category either. Also, there are more interesting and effective books about that than I would be able to write. But it’s something that throughout the writing process was in the background for me, so it probably had a very strong influence, though it’s not often identified by name.

Brickner-Wood: What insights or advice do you have for artists, of any medium, who are negotiating between the noncommercial space in which their art is being made and the market in which their art is being sold?

Odell: I actually have the opposite of an answer. This is a question that has recently opened up for me and it’s one that I’ve been struggling with. Up until now, I was pretty much a visual artist. I was lucky that because of the types of things that I do—I don’t really make anything, which I talk about in the book—I didn’t sell a lot of work. I did a lot of residences and would be invited to speak somewhere about something that I did, but there wasn’t a lot in terms of products that I had to sell. You have issues of having a persona or something like that, but I never had to deal with the hard reality of selling artistic products.

Before I wrote the book, I published the essay “How to Do Nothing” on Medium. That was just something I put up by myself. I wrote this book in a kind of naive and magical vacuum. I didn’t know anything about what happens after you wrote a book. I never had a publicist before, none of this. I’m still extremely fortunate that the book is getting any attention at all. But at the same time it has been psychologically and artistically a struggle to have to participate in the reification of what initially felt like a subtle and complex idea. That’s something that seems inevitable in putting anything out into the world and the reality of having to sell books. So it’s an open question for me. I actually find dealing with this to be harder than writing the book itself. That might just be a personality thing.

Provisionally, for now, it’s been really important to do whatever I can to protect some sense of interiority and know that some experiences and thoughts are just for me, that I don’t owe that to anybody. I have a Deleuze quote in chapter one [“The Case for Nothing”] about the right to not express oneself. So I think in moments of feeling threatened by having to sell something or the prospect of having to sell something or the necessity of that, in whatever way possible hold onto something that is just yours and may never be seen or read by any one.