I just finished the most ambitious project this year — I have written and self-published a book in one week.
Before that, I have been setting myself challenges after challenges.
I promised myself that I would take a break and “do nothing” for a while before starting another project.
But doing nothing is not easy.
I am finding it too hard to relax.
Why do I have to keep on doing something all the time?
The answer lies in the false sense of value we feel when we are busy. In a world where our productivity determines our value, we have become so driven that we have forgotten how to handle free time.
Yet much of what gives one’s life a meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters. The “off-time” is more useful than “on-time.”
In my desperate bid to relax, I decided to read Jenny Odell’s How To Nothing.
Frantic and obsessed with deliverables and results, Odell makes a case for the potential we can create by refusing productivity and redirecting our attention to active modes of listening and contemplation.
The book was something I was putting off to read because I was too busy with my “projects.” Even now, when I started reading it, I wasn’t reading for pleasure but to tick a box. To be able to say that I have read the book I wanted to read for a long time. It was a filler project — a mini project in-between real projects.
But something clicked while reading.
I could identify with the “not-doing-enough” feeling while constantly doing “something” all the time. The obsession with being present digitally as if my absence even for a single day will be counted as “sickie.”
A millennial, Odell belongs to the last generation born before the internet. She has seen the rise and slippery slope of the digital age.
Having worked in digital marketing, she understands how data can be used to see humans not as humans but as consumers.
From her position as an artist, writer, and teacher at Stanford University, she informs, ‘I find existing things more interesting than anything I could possibly make.’
She invites readers to consider the possibility that they can get a lot more out of observing rather than adding to the world around us.
By paying deeper attention to the context of the people and places of our world, we can move from connectivity (social media) to sensitivity (nature).
Doing nothing is not a case for passivity or squandering time but rather to redirect our attention.
Odell writes that the ‘externalities of attention economy distractions keep us from doing the things we want to do […] long term, they keep us from living the lives we want to live.’
It’s not about disconnecting, but rather taking greater care in how we connect and what we use those connections for. It is about what we communicate and how.
When we leave our connectivity and communication to technology, we allow algorithms to suggest friends, partners, lovers, and songs without leaving the possibility open for those things that don’t fit our ‘personal brand.’
Odell’s solution isn’t to call for a digital detox but rather shift and deepen our attention to where it matters most: our actual communities rather than online communities.