Non-Fiction for the New Year: How Do We Remain Rooted when “Normal Life” Returns?

Non-Fiction for the New Year: How Do We Remain Rooted when “Normal Life” Returns?

A review of HOW TO DO NOTHING by Jenny Odell.

This past year my everyday life was whittled down to the essentials. Almost every choice was predicated with, “But is this necessary?” I know I’m not alone in that experience. And as I look forward into this new year — with COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the nation and in their wake a glimpse of the distant horizon where some semblance of prior “normalcy” will return — I also know that I am not alone in looking forward to a less stringent daily decision framework. I crave doing something totally pointless, like buying a latte and letting the ice melt as I endlessly browse office supplies or activewear that I don’t need and probably won’t buy.

Yet, I can also recognize that in 2020 I was grounded for the first time in my adult life. Both in the sense that I was confined to my room(s) and couldn’t go out with friends, but also in the sense that my roots were deepened in this vibrant city I call home. As I consider resolutions, goals, and ambitions for 2021, I wonder, will I carry forward the positive habits and priority shifts of this past year? Or will I rush into busy-ness with open arms, delighted to be drowned in the noise of “normal”?

These reflections have been profoundly woven with the words of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. To be clear, the book is not a manual on being a successful couch potato, nor is it a poetic treatise on extracting yourself from modern society. As the author clarifies herself, “The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.” Throughout last year, I found myself repeatedly gripped with anxiety about my apparent lack of pandemic productivity. After reading Odell’s work, I began to wonder what I was taught to define as “productive” and how I have learned to measure my worth by this definition; thoughts that continue to cycle in my mind as I consider my goals for this new year.

Odell goes on to say, “…[T]he ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.” Per the book’s full title, its primary foundation is the understanding that our attention is something that has been commodified and monetized. The “attention economy,” as Odell puts it, has a far-reaching grasp. How we engage with social media, online advertising, our own “personal brand,” and work in general (but especially in a digitized workplace) deeply defines how we engage with the people and places immediately around us. Our capacity for compassion and empathy, both for ourselves and others, is directly connected with our ability to pause and pay attention. In a world designed for distraction this kind of “doing nothing” is not easy to do. However, as Odell says, “If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.”

As you look forward to what the future might bring, give yourself this moment to take a breath, take in your present surroundings, and consider How to Do Nothing.


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