Throughout the first three chapters of How to do Nothing, Odell’s project has been about protesting the attention economy, different ways of thinking, and the idea of refusal. She also talks about the world becoming hyper obsessed with production and efficiency while it neglects people and how they feel. These ideas are prevalent in my everyday life, as they directly apply to experiences I have had and my position as a student-athlete here at Delaware.
In chapter one, Odell’s project is all about protesting the attention economy. The ‘attention economy,’ as Odell describes it, is this idea that so there are so many pressures put on people and places in life to be productive and to have a function. That pressure put on takes so much attention and energy to combat.
Odell talks about how people are constantly obsessed with being productive and improving which is part of the attention economy. She makes references to renovating public areas to give them an economic function and how people should always be working. When talking about public spaces, Odell says, “those spaces deemed commercially unproductive are always under threat, since what they ‘produce’ can’t be measured or exploited (14).” This is in reference specifically to the Rose Garden, and how although the Rose Garden isn’t necessarily economically efficient, it still has much value to the community and those who use it. It gives people a place to step away from all the pressures put on them and relax in a beautiful place that is untouched by industrialized society. Even though the Rose Garden does not produce anything concrete, it is invaluable to people that use it.
Odell argues that the act of ‘doing nothing’ can be beneficial to people who are constantly pushing themselves too hard in life or at their jobs. She constantly references the capitalist society that people live in and that the drive for efficiency can burn people out. For example, Odell references her father, who took a couple of years off from working, and when he came back he had “renewed energy and a different perspective on his job”(11) and “filled around twelve patents so far (11).” Her father was able to take a step back, almost ‘do nothing,’ able to take time for himself and reflect, and come back better.
The Rose Garden “is beautiful in part because it is cared for (25),” and Odell makes the same argument about people; in this intense society, people are constantly being pushed to their limits to be ‘productive’ and ‘efficient.’ She argues that if we want to be able to enjoy life, we need to ‘do nothing’ and take time to care for ourselves and heal.
This idea of burning yourself out is something that I have witnessed firsthand. I have a younger brother who battles anxiety daily. If he pushes himself too hard and gets too stressed out, he will have a panic attack. I will not go into too much detail, but as his older brother, it is difficult for me to watch someone I care about go through something like that. Even though there are a lot of stresses in my life, I always try to keep him in the back of my mind and not push too hard without taking some time to relax.
With that being said, when Odell says ‘doing nothing’ she does not mean to become lazy and completely unproductive. “I am not encouraging people to stop doing things completely (22)” she says, “I consider ‘doing nothing’ both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully (22).” Odell only suggests that time to heal and reflect will allow you to recharge and return to your life with a new purpose and drive, similar to that of her father.
Odell also argues that listening and feeling the world is being lost by people who are so overworked and that part of this is because of the rapid increase in technological change. “I look down at my phone and wonder if it isn’t its kind of sensory-deprivation chamber. That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one (29).” She also references computers, how it makes work easier when in reality it just allows people to do more work and take less time for themselves. She is saying that people are so obsessed with technology that people cannot take the time to just listen and feel the world around them. People are so caught up in the tasks that they must complete that they are ignoring what is actually around them. In the first chapter, Odell describes the practice of ‘doing nothing,’ and how people could benefit from taking the time to listen and feel what is around them without being so caught up in constantly working or improving.
In chapter two, Odell’s project is all about giving people new perspectives and different ways of thinking about the world through the lens of communes. Odell writes about how she dislikes communes and retreats because they inevitably end up becoming similar to the society to which those people ran away. In the 1960s, the idea behind a commune was to escape the problems and pressures that a capitalist society caused. Many people wanted to just leave it all behind and live in a world where they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. However, many of these communes were too idealistic and naive as they ended up becoming exactly what they wanted to run away from in the first place. For example, Odell discusses Woody Ransom’s commune and how it had failed at first, as they could not sustain themselves. To fix the problem Ransom’s commune ended up having a “tyrant running the diametrical opposite of leaderless, ruleless Bryn Athyn”(51). The people in this specific commune had created it to be free of laws and authority but instead created the very thing that they feared most.
Odell also talks about how retreats or communes could be a good way of resisting the attention economy. She refers to Levi Felix “one of the early proponents of digital detox”(31). For Felix, his commune allows people to ‘unplug’ and get away from technology and all that is happening in the world. It allows people to clear their heads and take in the world around them. In this case, Odell argues that communes are a good thing and could be beneficial to society.
“Felix’s dream of a permanent retreat registers a familiar and age-old reaction to an untenable situation: leave and find a place to start over… this dream involves not only renouncing society but attempting to build another one with others, if only in miniature”(35).
However, she also argues that communes are unrealistic, as they are “unable to withstand the weight of reality”(52). The idea behind starting a commune sounds like a good idea; a way to get a fresh start, to not have to listen to anyone, to be able to make your own rules, to be able to govern yourself, and many more freedoms. “Probably the biggest problems that the communes faced, though, was the idea of starting from scratch”(41). It is difficult for these people to start their communities with little to no money and no real idea of what they want their community to be like. They just wanted a way to escape.
However, the main point that Odell is making by talking about the communes is that although relatively unsuccessful in running away and creating a new society, the commune movement did serve its purpose. The movement had its flaws; it was dysfunctional, lacked a clear objective, and had logistical problems, but through all of that, Odell argued that they showed people that there is another way of looking at life, a new perspective, that allows people to “periodically step away”(60). With the attention economy stronger than ever, with mass media and social networking, Odell argues that rather than running away from everything forever, like the people in the communes, people should take time for themselves in small increments, thus resisting the attention economy by gaining a fresh perspective. “We absolutely require distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we thoughtlessly submit to”(60). By stepping away, people allow themselves to refresh themselves and see what is going on in the world around them. In this way, people can think differently and gain a new outlook on living a life of purpose and meaning.
In chapter 3, Odell introduces the idea of refusal. Specifically, she talks about how to resist the attention economy, society needs to first refuse the “pedal to the metal”(93) capitalist society that consumes so much of people’s lives with work and worry.
Odell talks about how strenuous and difficult the capitalist society is and can be on people, and Odell views this problem through the lens of college students. An example of this is the student who studied for two days straight, with no sleep, which was not good for her overall health. Odell also adds, “Even though Stanford emphasizes self-care in its new student orientation, it seems to have been lost on everyone here”(88). Odell argues that because of the immense social and economic pressures that are put on people, students have no choice but to disregard their own health and live in “this toxic grind or die atmosphere”(87).
As a college athlete, I feel that I have experienced this straining type of lifestyle, especially in today’s times. Early morning workouts, practices, team film, and other activities take up large amounts of time throughout the day and week leaving us with barely enough time to do school work. This also provides us with minimal time for ourselves, which does not allow us to take a break from the attention economy. This is something that I did not even realize until reading this book, and it dawned on me when Odell talked about the “Stanford duck syndrome. This phrase, which imagines students as placid-seeming ducks paddling strenuously beneath the water, is essentially a joke about how isolated struggle in an atmosphere obsessed with performance”(87). I think that this directly applies to my life as there is a lot of pressure to perform well on the field and in the classroom. This has provided me with a lot of stress over the past few months which has been hard to deal with. At the beginning of the year, since there is not enough time to step away, I have found that getting up each morning and trying to go through each day with the same focus and intensity has become progressively harder, as you do not have the energy to push forward at the same pace.
However, reading Odell and her message has helped me to combat this unhealthy way of living. For me, I have tried to live in the present and pace myself every week. I schedule out rest periods in which I do not use any sort of technology and just focus on myself. The main ways in which I do this are relaxing outside or taking a walk. Even though I do not have a lot of time, I find that I am more productive and ready to work after these breaks, and because of this, by taking time for myself, I end up creating more time for myself in the end. In this way, I have found that protesting the attention economy has benefited me.
Even though being a college athlete is hard, I still do enjoy it. I do not want to refuse it all together but for something unjust and unfair, Odell argues that refusal is the first step. This is best shown through Odell’s description of the longshoreman. The longshoremen were people who were forced to work long hours for very little pay in grueling conditions. They were forced to work themselves into the ground because of the pressures that society had placed on them to be as productive as possible. Because of these unfair circumstances, many longshoremen left to join the “International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA)”(78). With this new union, the longshoremen were refusing the conditions that had treated them so poorly. They organized a strike which ended up “tying up almost two thousand miles of the waterfront”(78). The longshoremen were able to refuse the conditions that they were put in and able to make a statement to those commanding them.
“The problem is that many people have a lot to fear, and for good reason. The relationship between fear and the ability to refuse is clear when we consider that historically, some can more easily afford to refuse than others. Refusal requires a degree of latitude-a margin- enjoyed at the level of the individual (being able to personally afford the consequences”(82).
Odell is saying that the act of refusal has consequences, and not everyone can refuse. People on the poorer side of the spectrum cannot refuse certain things that people on the richer side of the spectrum may be able to. In the case of Bartleby, who refused everything with ‘I would prefer not to,’ was thrown in prison where he later died.
The refusal has consequences; if you refuse you could be fired from your job, fail out of school, or in the extreme case be thrown in jail. This is why refusal and resisting the attention economy is so difficult because it has consequences. While it may not be possible for some to completely refuse everything unfair in their life, Odell argues that people should at least keep the thought in the back of their minds, as the ability to refuse may always be something useful.
Odell talks about resisting the attention economy, the idea of people need to think differently, and refusal. All of these ideas tie back into protesting what current society is like for everyone. People are being worked too hard in an unhealthy way where they are not getting paid enough and not having enough time to enjoy life. This is because of the intense capitalist society that we live in everyday where people are competing against each other for everything. There is conflict everywhere, with people being unable to accept new ideas and new ways of thinking. This past summer with the Black Lives Matter Protests is a great example of refusal and how people need to think differently. African Americans are tired of being treated so poorly, and they decided to take a stand against what is unjust. If people want change, they need to accept the idea that their personal view of the world does not apply to everyone and that everyone does not have the same experiences as they do. People need to think differently about the world around them if they want progressive changes that benefit the entire world.
Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Brooklyn: Melville, 2019.