How To Do Nothing


I’ve been off from work since Tuesday, and I’ve got two more weeks before I return to slacks and emails and zooms and the pandemic remote work struggle of balancing work and personal time.

As far back as 1886, decades before it would finally be guaranteed, workers in the United States pushed for an eight-hour workday: ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of what we will.’

— Jenny Odell

During this extended leisure period, I’m still thinking about work or, more accurately, I’m thinking about how we spend time, how we value time, and how I show my team that I respect theirs. To show proper reverence for our most valuable commodity requires me to appreciate my own time and what I do or don’t do with it.

Ah, let’s see what fresh horrors await me on the fresh horrors device.

Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing opens with a Twitter quote that encapsulates how I often feel when I’ve spent too much time scrolling. Despite efforts to better manage the experience, the algorithms are better than I have been, and I will find myself in the doom loop refreshing and refreshing to find some new nugget that will spark a reaction in me. Joy is rarely the return on investment of that time.

Yesterday, though, I made some different choices with my time. Instead of endlessly swiping through tweets, I read up on the squirrels that roam the trees outside my home office window. That led me down a path to understanding more about the San Fernando Valley ecosystem. Later in the afternoon, when I opened The Wild newsletter from the LA Times, I read it more deeply, identifying things that might help me feel more grounded. Odell writes about having a stronger connection to the physical world around you is more real. It is an actual reality.

Our social media spaces generally lack the contexts necessary to feel real. They present distractions and solicit reactions but rarely in a meaningful way. Odell is quick to point out that she’s not suggesting quitting them all and never returning. “We have to be able to do both,” she says, “to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed.”

Which raised for me this question: what do I go to each of these spaces to do? On Twitter, I most want to interact with my friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, I want to be entertained by digital culture (though maybe I’m getting that dopamine from TikTok more these days) or be in the mix of basketball chatter or Los Angeles happenings or catch up quickly on breaking news.

However, I rarely am looking to do all those things at the same time, and that is the social media platform trick. I come to see what my friends are sharing, and now I’m lost in covid news or trying to understand a meme or reading a trending topic. There’s no context. It’s a noise storm that I willingly walk into and remain for far too long.

I have different specific intentions for other platforms yet haven’t treated them with care or discipline either. I’d love an algorithmic reset button for Facebook and Instagram, but I will settle for revisiting my follows and actively thinking about my purpose when I enter them.

And to get engrossed in more soul-satisfying pursuits, including the act and art of doing nothing.

There is so much more to Odell’s book than merely a discussion of dealing with social media. It’s part philosophy, part history, part naturalist, part adventure. It is not, however, a how-to book.

It kept my mind ablaze throughout.

I highly recommend.

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