Book Review: How to Do Nothing

Photo: Erin Attkisson

When I’m stressed, I fantasize about the Big One hitting the Bay Area. Everything about modern society has failed, and my family’s sole mission is to pool food with neighbors and survive. I find it relaxing. But it’s a weird fantasy that in actuality would be a living hell, so I don’t tell people about it. 

This is my oddball version of running off to join a commune. In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (which, blessedly, does not suggest scheduling “nothing” time), artist Jenny Odell, a lecturer in Stanford’s art and art history department, explains humans’ perpetual desire to escape the pressures of society and its increasing obsession with productivity. Our current situation is not unique, Odell says, and retreating in space—physically opting out of whatever we perceive to be the problem—neglects our responsibility to the very society we are so fed up with.

To stand apart . . . means giving yourself the critical break that media cycles and narratives will not, allowing yourself to believe in another world while living in this one.

In an age when every part of our lives is judged by our productivity, Odell acknowledges the appeal of a weekend retreat or Facebook detox, and challenges us to do something more profound: to retreat in our minds. To refuse “to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough” and to reclaim ownership of our most precious commodity—our attention.

To Odell, life is “more than an instrument and therefore not something that can be optimized.” She cites the importance of allowing space and time to orient ourselves and escape from a habitual state of alarm. This is why a channel like Twitter, void of context, makes us crazy, or at least leaves us stressed and unfulfilled. And why a block party—for which you grumbled about finding time to bake brownies and talking to strangers, er, neighbors—can expand your world in a positive way. In “resisting” by shifting our attention, we can know our enemy, Odell says, “which turns out not to be the world . . . but the channels through which you encounter it day to day.”  

Great books leave you thinking about them. The best books leave you thinking about your own life. With small shifts in attention, we refuse, if only for a moment, to take part in a society that values productivity above caregiving and creation above restoration. Our lens on life can be adjusted such that we look for opportunities to undo rather than to do. And the goal in How to Do Nothing is not to be more productive after some period of break. It’s to make a shift simply because we will be better for it, and because there is more to life than the next distraction.


Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org. She plans to do nothing just as soon as she can fit it in. At press time, July 2029 looked promising.