Review: Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing”

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At any moment in the day, it is likely that I will hear a handful of phones vibrate around me, and flip mine over to see if someone has reached out to me. The prioritization of the potential text message or work group chat is on an infinite loop throughout my day until I take definite measures to “be present,” like putting my phone on airplane mode. These distractions are what Jenny Odell addresses in her book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.”

“How to Do Nothing” centers around Odell’s love for birdwatching, and the ways looking for birds have altered her concentration abilities. 

“Even if brief or momentary, these places and moments are retreats, and like longer retreats, they affect the way we see everyday life when we do come back to it,” Odell wrote. 

Odell was born and raised around the San Francisco Bay area, where tech companies dominate the culture, as well as the landscape. For her, looking for the natural environment where she now lives has made her realize how much she has taken for granted. For Idahoans, this might not seem like a profound experience as we are surrounded by nature, but the concept rings true in any environment. 

The book walks the line between self-help and cultural criticism, and Odell interweaves a variety of thinkers from Epicurus to Michael Pollan to deconstruct the systems that steal our attention from day to day. Rethinking what words like “concentrate” mean in a contemporary context, Odell leads the reader through a process of unlearning ideas that may be taken advantage of or skipped over in everyday discourse. 

By doing this, she not only encourages a greater public dialogue about how we interact with each other and the world around us, but she also suggests that we start to refuse the elements of the status quo which technology and, more specifically, the internet take for granted. 

By being aware, by looking up and listening to bird songs, Odell says we are committing a sort of repetitive refusal to have our attention simply led from social media jingle to email notification. Referring to a labor strike in 1934 that ultimately led to 150,000 employees leaving their jobs, Odell discusses the ways collective, deliberate control of our individual attention can lead to dramatic social change. However, she notes that refusal is not a one-time decision, not simply deleting an app or choosing not to shop online. 

For Odell, refusal is the acknowledgment of the inner-workings of our schizophrenic world, and the ability to continually make deliberate decisions about what we are paying attention to. 

Though the treatise is a well-researched and deliberately constructed project, the book is fairly pedantic and could probably have been condensed to the size of an essay with a similar impact. Odell’s work acutely critiques a world in which people have little autonomy over how they use their time, and this trenchant critique makes the book a worthwhile read. 

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