Tapestry

Instead of working harder, people should consider doing nothing, says author

There’s plenty of advice out there on how to accomplish more and more each day. Instead, author Jenny Odell argues if you want to live a better life, you should focus on doing nothing "productive."

Jenny Odell says focus on multitasking, productivity can detract from our ability to think clearly

Despite the book's name, How to Do Nothing, Odell is not advocating to do literally nothing. She is arguing for people to do nothing 'productive.' (Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Whether it's the pomodoro technique, with its cyclical focus on work, or self-help books that teach people to multitask better — there's plenty of advice out there on how to accomplish more and more each day.

But Jenny Odell is making the opposite argument. She says that people should probably focus on doing nothing.

Odell described to Tapestry's Mary Hynes that multitasking promotes a state of perpetual distraction from personal fulfilment and societal change, and instead pushes attention toward work.

Odell is the author of the book How to Do Nothing. (Ryan Meyer/Melville House)

"We're faced with some problems of a scale and complexity that really require time and space for reflection rather than sort of a constant knee jerk reaction," said Odell.

Odell argues in her new book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy that this reactionary tendency keeps us busy and detracts from our ability to focus on ourselves.

Despite the book's name, Odell is not advocating to do literally nothing. She is arguing for people to do nothing "productive."

"By nothing, I just mean a kind of receptive state of mind rather than a knee jerk reaction or judgmental analytical state of mind which is something that our culture certainly encourages," said Odell.

To choose to do nothing

In mid-May, Odell, who's based in Oakland, Calif., went on a six-hour hike up a hill. The avid birdwatcher saw a rare bird feed its young. She saw wildflowers. She described the experience as feeling "full."

"From the point of view of what we would traditionally consider productive, I didn't do anything that day," said Odell. "However, I was gone for about six hours and I honestly felt like that was three days long."

Odell pointed to another example of purposeful unproductive behaviour from a Finnish artist. Pilvi Takala spent most of her internship at the accounting giant, Deloitte, staring into space and riding the elevator.

When Takala was asked what she was doing, she would reply, "It's good sometimes to try to do the work in your head."

(Melville House)

Odell noted that what made the incident so galling to most of Takala's co-workers was her refusal to do nothing in a socially acceptable way such as scrolling through Facebook.

Staring into space provokes a strong reaction from people, she said, because of its apparent purposeless.

Odell added that during her six-hour hike, she stared at a hill in the distance, taking in its beauty. Yet she felt awkward when she saw a group of hikers approaching, and feared they would be taken aback by her stillness.

So she took a photo of the hill.

"I actually took a photo... not because I wanted the photo, but because I thought it might make them feel less weird," said Odell. "That's what you're supposed to do when you stand and look at something, right? [You're] supposed to make a representation of it or try to record it."

A new kind of productivity

Odell is proposing a new kind of productivity — one that allows a person to be conscious of their surroundings and their wellbeing.

I'm motivated by this fear of sleepwalking through my life. And so anywhere that I can go to get that reminder [that I'm alive], I think that's pretty important.- Jenny Odell

She poses a question to herself every day.

"I ask myself if there was a time in the day when I was aware that I was alive, which sounds really kind of simple, but I'm often amazed at how long it's been since maybe the last time I was aware of that," said Odell.

In particular, she found that focused, quiet activities like reading about history and exploring her bio-region enable her to acknowledge that she's alive in a way that social media and work do not.

"I'm motivated by this fear of sleepwalking through my life. And so anywhere that I can go to get that reminder [that I'm alive], I think that's pretty important."

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