How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

I had a difficult time getting into this book, and not because I disliked it in any way, but more so because it’s written in a “philosophical” style, which has always been hard for me to follow. However, because I went back and typed up my notes and was able to summarize them in short form, I think I was able to make sense of Odell’s thoughts and really came to appreciate her way of thinking. This is certainly not a self-help book in any way, nor is it a “guide” with bullet points for reading or discussion groups, but Odell makes us re-think the amount of time we spend trying to accomplish or achieve something — anything — without actually taking the time to appreciate anything else along the way. We, as a society, have become so product and results oriented that it is detrimental to self, the environment, and the people around us, and not only do we not recognize this destructive cycle but we perpetuate it by spending hours and hours refreshing our Twitter feeds and engaging in online chatter. Odell takes care not to be totally anti-social media or anti-establishment — she readily acknowledges that some people have the time and privilege to totally detach from the world and other’s don’t — but she wants all of us to recognize and appreciate context, nuance, and complexity in everyday life, and embrace the ecological world around us as a gift to be shared, not taken for granted. Along the lines of Braiding Sweetgrass and Silence: In the Age of Noise, How to Do Nothing is a primer for getting us to, quite literally, stop and smell the roses. Hopefully without our iPhones buzzing at the same time.

  • nothing is harder to do than nothing in a world where our value is determined by our productivity
  • we have an impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious
  • solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive
  • what is productivity?
  • rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more than human community
  • wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm
  • villain here is invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction
  • resistance in place — make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system
  • recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time
  • disengaging, and then reengaging with something else
  • bioregionalism — awareness of not only the many life forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans
  • familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together
  • when you spend time with someone who pays attention to something, you start to pay attention to some of the same things
  • patterns of attention — what we choose to notice and what we do not — how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time
  • nothing is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech
  • to hear is the physical means that enables perception; to listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically
  • Deep Listening — heightened sense of receptivity and a reversal of our usual cultural training, which teaches us to quickly analyze and judge more than to simply observe
  • eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours of what we will (poem)
  • public places are places for “what we will”
  • time became an economic resources that we can no longer justify spending on nothing; provides no ROI, simply too expensive
  • NOSMO — the necessity of sometimes missing out
  • doing nothing sharpens our ability to listen — hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there
  • connectivity is a share or conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in person conversation, whether pleasant, or difficult, or both
  • selfless care defines the human experience — people do not become desperate and selfish after disasters (myth)
  • real disaster is every day life, which alienates us from each other and from protective impulse that we harbor
  • Epicurus found that he trouble of a troubled mind came from unnecessary mental baggage in the form of runaway desires, ambitions, ego, fear
  • man actually needed very little to be happy, as long as he had recourse to reason, and the ability to limit his desires
  • friendship was a subject of study, requirement for the kind of happiness in Epicurus’ school
  • Hannah Arendt — an escape (retreat, commune) amounts to seeking shelter from actions calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his domain from beginning to end
  • communes didn’t work so well because they became political, and they were mostly havens for the privileged anyway
  • no such thing as a clean break or a blank slate
  • legacy of communes is that they opened up new perspectives on the society they had left
  • mainstream society needs the perspective of its outsiders and recluses to illuminate problems and alternatives that aren’t visible from the inside
  • removal and contemplation are nice, but one comes back around to responsibility to and in the world
  • question of how vs. whether
  • social media is a reaction driven by fear and anger
  • what drives the machine is the rate of engagement, not content
  • impossible to hear your own voice
  • the world needs participants, but is not a question of whether, but how
  • contemplate and participate, leave, and come back, when we are needed
  • to stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving, always oriented toward what it is you would have left
  • stand apart — look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future)
  • Diogenes — neither assimilated or fully existed in society, lived in the midst of it, in a permanent state of refusal — “third space”
  • Bartleby — “I would prefer not to”
  • Thoreau: “If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
  • if enough individual people exercise their moral judgement instead of playing the game, then the game might actually change
  • Third Space = refusal, boycott, sabotage, noncompliance that registers on the larger scale of the public
  • bus boycott = meaningful acts of refusal have come not from fear, anger, hysteria, but rather from the clarity and attention that makes organizing possible
  • refusal needs a degree of latitude, however; nearly ruined Rosa Parks and her family
  • in the global market, companies are driven by the need to remain competitive, passing tasks on to individuals to remain producing bodies
  • closes the margin for refusal and leads to a life lived in economic fear
  • when we withdraw attention, we need to invest it somewhere else, enlarge and proliferate it, improve its acuity
  • deciding what to pay attention to can mean the discovery of new worlds, new ways of moving through them
  • reality is strange when we look at it rather than through it
  • curiosity = differential between what is known and not known
  • attention and duration — what I see depends on how I look, and for how long (art, for an example)
  • inattentional blindness = drastic difference in our ability to perceive something if it lies outside our field of visual attention
  • even if people don’t believe racist stereotypes are true, those stereotypes, once absorbed, can influence people’s behavior without their awareness or intent (study)
  • bias is a condition to be adjusted — make unconscious patterns conscious and intentional
  • to break a habit, you have to be aware of it, motivated to change, and have a strategy for replacing it
  • sustained attention is a series of successive efforts to bring attention back to the same thing, considering it again and again with unwavering consistency
  • bias starts as a flicker, unseen, unchecked, taps at behaviors, reactions, and thoughts
  • sometimes from data, we draw conclusions based on our past experiences and assumptions
  • changes in rendering — you notice something once, or someone points something out to you, and then you begin noticing it everywhere
  • bioregionalism = observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors
  • ecology of strangers
  • lived realities of other people, whose depths are the same as your own
  • we should care about those around us because we are beholden to each other in a practical sense
  • if we stay in our bubbles, we will never be surprised, challenged, changed — never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege
  • less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe — those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it
  • do we have a close friend that we can have real and substantive conversations with?
  • social media exploits public opinion, and public opinion that has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition
  • indigenous stories animate the world — gratitude, stewardship (Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass)
  • sweetgrass suffered not from over-harvesting but from under-harvesting
  • plants were dying from non other than lack of attention
  • difference is strength, a prerequisite for creativity that allows individual growth and communal political innovation
  • diverse community with a complex web of interdependencies is not only richer but more resistant to takeover
  • mixed neighborhoods create public simultaneous thinking
  • with acts of attention we decide who to hear, who to see, who in our world has agency
  • to seek context is to acknowledge that you don’t have the whole story
  • social media lacks context, both spatially and temporally
  • both have to do with the neighboring entities around something that help define it — context also helps establish the order of events
  • context collapse — lowest common denominator of sharing that limits users to topics that are safe for all possible readers
  • would you want to be friends with someone who never changed their mind about anything?
  • instantaneous communication creates information overload, impossible to keep up with the pace
  • no political elaboration on social media, immediacy of it
  • weak ties — common reaction/emotion
  • strong ties come from action on the ground, face to face interaction, discussion, deliberation, confrontation
  • Next-door — tech being harnessed to facilitate local interactions, but local interactions that are being harnessed to produce revenue
  • library = non commercial and non productive space so often under threat of closure, allows for browsing and close attention/contrast to a “news feed”, which is being researched (you are)
  • Arendt — space of appearance = any collection of people who speak and act meaningfully together
  • dividing power does not decrease it, plural interplay increases it
  • relearn how to care about place
  • parks — very existence, especially in the midst of a city or on the former sites of extraction, embodies resistance
  • emotional and physical survival is bound up with “strangers”
  • manifest dismantling — undoing the damage wrought by Manifest Destiny
  • do nothing farming recognized that there was a natural intelligence at work in the land, most intelligent thing for a farmer to do was to interfere as little as possible

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.