This Summer, Try Doing Nothing

Ben Dumbauld, Director of Content

My summer reading regiment began last week with Jenny Odell’s recently published book, How to Do Nothing. It seems almost scandalous that Odell, a teacher, would publish an action plan for doing nothing – and dedicate it to her students, no less!  But as I’ve come to learn, doing nothing requires effort, and inactivity can reap great rewards.

Odell’s core argument in How to Do Nothing is that our attention span is our most precious resource, and, as such, must be protected. Technology has deterritorialized the workplace–as long as you have a smartphone, you’re never away from work. Our free time, too, is increasingly feeling like work: the notifications tab on my social media pages seem like another to-do list; as soon as I finish dining out, my phone requests I write a review of the restaurant. From humblebragging about work exhaustion to feeling the need to Instagram yoga pants, we find ourselves in a culture that tells us we should be having the time of our lives being productive.

Odell, on the other hand, advocates the virtues of being unproductive. “For me,” she writes, “doing nothing means disengaging from one framework not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework,” that is outside the “attention economy” of social media, email, and the 24-hour news cycle. But Odell concedes that disengaging is not easy. Running off and joining a commune isn’t necessarily a good life choice, nor is throwing your phone against the wall. Even vacations and work retreats are preconditioned on the assumption that you’ll return invigorated, and work all the harder.

The solution for Odell isn’t then a radical removal from the world, but a focus on reclaiming our own attention when we can. For her, that meant spending time sitting quietly in a neighborhood rose garden, and feeding local crows peanuts from her balcony. The rewards for such activities, she discovered, went well beyond just a moment to decompress. From her time among the roses and with the crows, Odell became increasingly fascinated by the plant and bird species of her Oakland neighborhood, and from there, the migration patterns and natural geological and meteorological processes that unnoticeably conditioned her daily life. Ultimately, her time being unproductive unveiled not just an interest in bio-regionalism, but also a greater feeling of interconnection and being within the natural world. Her perspective on reality blossomed.

Doing nothing can be educational, even necessary. Odell makes the point that, in the face of potential ecological collapse, one’s interconnection with the natural world (rather than the online world) may be a skill necessary for the survival of the species–more important, I dare say, than learning to code.

Musically, few have made more of nothing than John Cage. The composer’s most famous piece is 4’33’’, in which the performer is asked to not play their instrument for four minutes and thirty three seconds. The composition  reconfigures  expectations of what a piece of music is. But more importantly, the silence and inaction of the work awakens the audience to a world that they largely ignore. As Odell writes after witnessing a John Cage performance :

“More than just the conventions of the symphony hall were broken that night. I walked out of the symphony hall down Grove Street to catch the MUNI, and heard every sound with a new clarity – the cars, the footsteps, the wind, the electric buses. Actually, it wasn’t just that I heard these clearly as that I heard them at all. How was it, I wondered, that I could have lived in a city for four years already – even having walked down this street after a symphony performance so many times – and never actually heard anything?”

This summer, I wish all of you the chance to do nothing. And if you have a hard time doing that, how about some homework. Perhaps the best part of Cage’s 4’33’’ is that it demands no musical training to perform – anyone can do it. During the summer, try to rehearse 4’33’’ once a day, at home, in the park, or on a walk. You might never know what new worlds appear.