• Elspeth Robertson

How to Do Nothing: Book Review

It's been 3 months since I read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, a book that was named one of the best books of the year. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Did it change my life? No. Would I recommend it to a friend? I honestly don't know.

On the one hand, I am taking it as a good sign that it took me three months to sit down and write this review. I have succeeded in "doing nothing", focusing my attention elsewhere, rather than on the supposed productivity of writing a review for a book right after reading it.


On the other hand, the writing style is a little bit like sitting through a university lecture, one where the professor assumes you have the same dedication to the material as they do, and forgets to bring that material down to your level. You know those lectures. Thankfully How to Do Nothing is in book format, so you can highlight, and pause and look up the big words and go take a nap when your brain feels too heavy, but the feeling of over intellectualization still remains.


With that caveat, let me tell you what I liked about the book.


Jenny Odell is very clearly passionate about the attention economy. She breaks the book down into distinct chapters that summarize how attention is one of our last commodities, and how it is being systemically taken from us. She explores the concept of "doing nothing", gives examples of groups of people who have tried to escape this culture, only to find that true escape is not possible and describes an alternative: refusing in place, choosing to live within the culture, but diverting attention from capitalistic structures and towards community care. Her understanding is nuanced and intersectional. The book is insightful, thought-provoking, and timely. There is no rock left unturned in the author's exploration (and maybe this is why it feels very academic - the tangential exploratory nature of the book sometimes makes it hard to keep up).


In the first chapter, The Case for Nothing, Odell writes:


"There is nothing to be admired about being constantly connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your eyes in the morning - and in my opinion, no one should accept this, not now, not ever".

This statement alone is such a counter-narrative to what we are told in our society. You must be doing something to be worthy. And it is just not true. She goes on to write: “Doing nothing” - in the sense of refusing productivity and stopping to listen - entails an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental and economic injustice and brings about real change". The culture that grips our attention - offices that value workaholism and perfectionism over health, Facebook and Instagram fuelling #FOMO and comparison, the constant need to keep scrolling, is the very culture that makes us lose focus of what it means to be a human, connected to a community. The attention economy is isolating, and in its isolation, we are less powerful to change our culture into something softer, lighter, less stressful. Odell proposes that #FOMO must be replaced with #NOMO - the necessity of missing out, as a way to think, reflect, heal and sustain ourselves - individually and collectively. I can get on board with that.


A part of this book that I found so endearing was Jenny Odell's descriptions of her own practice in doing nothing. She would go sit in a rose garden, look at flowers and watch the birds (and people) that came across her path. Surely there are cultural messages that would equate this practice to laziness, wasting time and ultimately selfishness (how dare a woman not contribute to her society every second of every day!), but I thought it sounded luxurious. So every time I picked up this book, I also put on my shoes and walked to the little park near my house. And sat on a bench, phone off, soaking in the sunshine and brisk spring air, looking up every time a dog or bird crossed my path, basically doing nothing, but ultimately resisting the attention economy.