Stop Trying to Be Productive

Jenny Odell, author of "How to Do Nothing," wants you to stop giving into the pressure of getting shit done

An 1,800-year-old sarcophagus lid depicting sleeping Ariadne by Carole Raddato via Flickr
An 1,800-year-old sarcophagus lid depicting sleeping Ariadne by Carole Raddato via Flickr

“I hope you have a productive day!” 

Over the past few years, I’ve been noticing how this phrase has crept into common use: not only in workspaces, but as a wish we frequently send each other. Where earlier we may have said “a good day” or perhaps a softer “lovely day,” today it seems like the best thing we can hope for each other – and for ourselves – is productivity.

But writer and artist Jenny Odell asks: “Productivity that produces what?” 

It often appears that we don’t care. Optimization has always been at the heart of capitalism—the word productivity literally means the rate of output per unit – but now it’s become an ethos woven deeply into the fabric of our lives. So much so that the question of what (if anything) we’re producing is besides the point. 

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy asks us to pause and look again. Odell’s debut book is a rich and expansive work born from her “interest in using art to influence and widen attention.” Spanning music, literature, art, philosophy, and a deep awareness of how the attention economy is disassembling our selves, How To Do Nothing is both perfectly of this moment and a text that takes a remarkably long view. 

This isn’t a book about meditation, digital detox or turning away from the world. Instead, as Odell writes: “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” 

What does happen? I reckon we’ll have to stop being so relentlessly productive to find out. 

I spoke to Odell about the gig economy, filter bubbles, context, and the pressure to get shit done. 

Richa Kaul Padte: Can we start by talking about productivity? There was this slogan everywhere a few years ago: “get shit done.” Laptop stickers, co-working spaces, t-shirts: it felt like a call to action, but less “workers of the world unite” and more “workers of the world keep…working.” And what’s especially incredible to me is that this phrase felt, and sometimes still feels, empowering. How do we, as you put it, “survive usefulness”—and why should we? After all, shit isn’t going to do itself, right? 

Things like maintenance (of an individual, of a community) aren’t seen as ‘getting shit done,’ although they require as much work and are just as important.

Jenny Odell: I think my main problem with the usual language around productivity and usefulness is that it’s somehow both too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow in the sense that things like maintenance (both of an individual and a community) aren’t necessarily seen as “getting shit done,” although they require just as much work and are just as important. It also privileges things that can be seen—sort of like the idea of “deliverables.” For example, I consider sleep hugely “productive” in the sense that I need it in order to live, and all kinds of important mental and physical processes happen while I’m asleep. But because I can’t point to and measure that value in an obvious way, it gets left out of what we consider useful.

This conception of usefulness is also too broad in that it can frame working itself as the source of value, rather than what you’re working toward. There’s so much to say about where this mentality comes from; personally, I find it interesting to trace it all the way back to the Protestant work ethic, in which wasting time is seen as immoral. But the idea of spending or wasting time is bound up with the idea that time is money. If you can (even just temporarily) give up on that idea, you can maybe apply your energies where you need to, or where you can, without feeling like you should always be “getting shit done.”

RKP: I live with chronic illness, and this year I fell sick with a whole new set of symptoms. I spent a terrible few months lying around in a haze of pain and fear, feeling so adrift in my private spirals—and that’s when I read How To Do Nothing. You write: “This is real. Your eyes reading the text, your hands, your breath, the time of day…I’m real too. I’m not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force; I’m lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next.”

Jenny, your book has been such a lifeline for me: a reminder that I am not the sum of my Google symptom searches, but also that I am here and now, inhabiting a physical reality that I share with others. Given our tendency to try and escape embodied reality when it gets uncomfortable, why does a return to this same reality feel so restorative? 

JO: There are probably a lot of reasons, but for me it always feels a bit like grabbing hold of something. To be put back into your body is also to be put back in the place where your body is, whereas a lot of my time spent (over)working, especially online, makes me feel comparatively small and adrift. So it’s not just that you’re reconnecting with yourself (and all of the forms of intelligence that reside between the body and the mind), but you’re also reconnecting with (and expanding into) the things and beings around you—grabbing hold and being reminded of the ways in which you are actually situated. 

RKP: There’s this great moment where you take us through your Twitter timeline: an advertisement for t-shirts right next to an article about Rohingya Muslims pressed up against photos of Yogi Bear nestling beside promotion for an anarchist book. You write: “The information I encounter [here] lacks context both spatially and temporally…the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.” 

This makes me think about an idea many of us hold closely: information is power. But online, it seems like the power arising from all this information belongs to internet companies, not to those of us accessing it. In light of this, is there simply no purpose to “staying informed”? 

Attention is like breathing: it’s always going to be directed somewhere, but you can direct it intentionally.

JO: In terms of staying informed, I don’t think it’s so much a question of “either/or” as much as “how.” Both as an artist and a writer, I have made so much use of information online, and I’ve learned about things from people I’m connected to at a great distance. I just think it’s important to pay attention to where you seek information and why, because the platforms where many people encounter it are designed in a way that removes a lot of agency. For me, this goes beyond the sort of “conscientious consumption” model applied to information (e.g. the common wisdom that you should double-check the source of an article shared on Facebook). I think ideally you would remove yourself long enough to decide what matters to you, what communities you feel responsible to, and where you find traction—and then use that as a starting point for seeking information in an intentional way. For example, some of the time I might otherwise spend on national news, I spend on forums dealing with local environmental issues—where I feel that my being informed actually makes a difference.

RKP: I used to be one of those people who said they “live online,” but these days I’m not sure if that means anything at all. You describe context as something that ties our experiences “to this place and not that place, this time and not that time” – which is very much what we’re missing today. 

For example, many of us say that we can work from “anywhere”—but at what cost? Places like Bali have become freelancing havens, building the “anywhere” of gig economy workers right over the “somewheres” of local populations—both human and nonhuman. Goa, the Indian state where I live, is going a similar way, being stripped of its context in favor of people like me who “live online.” But when everything from work to community seems to exist digitally, it feels almost impossible to imagine something different. How can we begin to try?

JO: I think that physical and digital communities can actually overlap in some interesting and useful ways. For example, I regularly attend the (in-person) gatherings of Living Room Light Exchange, a new media salon that started in the Bay Area. At some point, it spawned separate salons in New York and a few other cities. When someone is visiting from New York, they might come to a Bay Area LRLX, and vice versa. And the whole thing is connected through a sort of online network of artists and writers. I realized how important this was when, in the rose garden (that I mention in the book), I met a few disabled artists, one of whom was in a wheelchair. They told me about how being online was so important for them to be able to participate in an artistic community. So I think there are ways in which online and physical community-building can have a symbiotic relationship.

I also think there are opportunities for anyone who moves to or is living in a place to try to just look around at the communities and histories of that place. Conferences are usually an example of people rolling into town, talking about something totally unrelated to the place, and then leaving. But I’ve been really inspired the past few years at XOXO, a conference for people who are largely making things in or for an online context. The first time I went, the conference was in a civic center typical of the 1960s-era redevelopment and “slum clearance” that happened in many American cities. The program began with a local speaker addressing that difficult history in the context of race and class, something I have never seen at any other conference. This last year the conference was kicked off by a nonprofit that donates books to the sizeable unhoused population in Portland. They’re small gestures, but I think things like this can invite an acknowledgment of the place in which you find yourself – so that you might feel more responsible, and less like you’re just floating on top of it.

RKP: I rarely tweet on polarizing topics, but when I do, the replies I receive momentarily shock me out of my filter bubble: the process by which I’m algorithmically served up beliefs and ideas that mirror or confirm my own. You extend this concept to all our experiences, to “not only social media bubbles, but the filters we create with our own perception and non-perception.” How do our offline filters mirror our online ones, and what role can reclaiming our attention play in dismantling them? 

Spending or wasting time is bound up in the idea that time is money.

JO: It’s a bit similar to what I mentioned earlier in terms of intentionality in seeking information. I see attention as similar to breathing, in that it’s always going to be directed somewhere, but there are moments in which you can direct it intentionally instead of having it directed for you. I take a lot of inspiration from Rob Walker, who wrote The Art of Noticing. One of the exercises in that book is to pick one thing and look for it all day; his example is security cameras. I did that, and I was amazed at not only the number of security cameras I passed, but at the variety of types. But just as important as the security cameras themselves, there was also the sensation of being knocked out of my habitual ways of looking at a habitual route. In my experience, just loosening your patterns of attention a little bit (through whatever means necessary) – just the reminder that there’s more you’re not seeing – is one big step out of the bubble. The point is that looking and noticing can be part of a decision, and one of the most useful decisions is to look for what you haven’t been seeing.

RKP: I recently read an essay by Alice Walker on the 1985 MOVE massacre, in which Philadelphia police murdered eleven black people, including five children, who had “dropped out” of society. Described as “radical, black, back-to-nature revolutionaries,” complaints against MOVE included wearing their hair in “ropes” (dreadlocks) and refusing to send their children to school. There’s a parallel here to the largely-white commune movements you trace in your book, yet the price exacted from the all-black MOVE household was incomparably and terribly high. This, in a sense, reflects what you call “the margin for refusal,” or how “some can more easily afford to refuse than others.”

Walker writes that the violence against MOVE was so brutal that “what [authorities] were trying to kill had to be more than the human beings involved; it had to be a spirit, an idea.” Are refusals by those with the smallest margins in fact the greatest threats to power? How can we hold these spaces open for each other?

JO: That would certainly make sense, since those with the smallest margins are often the ones who are already (even without having “dropped out”) existing outside the normative constraints of a racist, capitalist society – thus even just their existence is seen as a threat. This difference in the price of refusal is why it’s so important for anyone with any kind of margin to put it to use. As I mention in the book, all kinds of exploitation are bound up in a complicated knot, and there are many points of entrybut I think the point is to contribute whatever time, money and/or attention you can to opening that margin for others. The first step might simply be realizing that you have any margin at all – then thinking about how you can take a risk on behalf of someone else who can’t. I also think it’s important to take the time to look at the work that’s already being done, and has already been done, and see how your support can fit into that.

RKP: I’ve recommended your book to so many people, but I still don’t know what to say it’s “about”! Which I guess is part of the point, right? You say of the self, that “slippery thing”: “Resisting definition…we emerge from moment to moment, just as our relationships do, our communities do, our politics do.” And that is exactly what reading How To Do Nothing feels like: a profoundly wonderful, complex resistance that keeps unfolding in unexpected, surprising ways. 

But I’m so curious, Jenny: how do you describe your book to people? Or to put it another way: is it hard to promote a book that refuses to become a brand?

JO: I usually “prefer not to” describe it! But if pressed, I say it’s a book for someone who feels too disassembled to think or act meaningfully.

And yes, it can be difficult to promote a book that refuses to become a brand. I feel that I did some of the work beforehand, just by structuring it in a way that can’t be easily reduced to one subject. I have also been extraordinarily lucky with regards to the patience and understanding of readers, some of whom I’ve heard will recommend the book to friends without trying to describe it (e.g. “just read it”). In my own experience with books I’ve loved, I often ended up valuing something for reasons that were different than the reason I bought it. So even in cases where I’ve had to promote the book in some particular light, I know that ultimately, the reader will take what she needs from it, regardless of what I say.

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