One of the very best things we’ve read in the past while is Jenny Odell’s ‘how to do nothing’, a long  online read. We read it in several tranches, like chapters of a very satisfying book. Its deep-dive into the fraught and very taboo idea of “doing nothing” is so compelling and thoughtful that it didn’t seem long at all.  Writes Odell,

Nothing is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

A spot in China Camp State park where my dad spent a lot of time (Google Street View) —Jenny Odell


In the course of the 45 minute read, Odell meanders through rose gardens and labyrinths and bird-watching and mp3s of thunder and numerous art works from James Turrell to Richard Prince and “public non-commercial spaces” as she examines the subtle impacts of the media-filled world we all navigate…

In a situation where every waking moment has become pertinent to our making a living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.


The early Labor Movement in 1886 fought for an 8 hour work day, with 8 hours of “what we will”: rest, thought, flowers, sunshine.  How did we get from there to here?

What We Will: graphic and song by Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, 1886




At James Turrell installation — Jenny Odell

She makes sense of the issue of entitlement that can come with the exhortation to “do nothing”. In situations of racial, environmental, and economic injustice…

…I believe that having recourse to periods of and spaces for “doing nothing” are even more important, because those are times and places that we think, reflect, heal, and sustain ourselves. It’s a kind of nothing that’s necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something.

Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Franciso (photo: Erik)

Ultimately, Odell talking about why it is essential for everyone to “do nothing”, and just what that means:

It turns out that groundedness requires actual groundedness, in the ground. “Direct sensuous reality,” writes Abram, “in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.”

When I realized this, I grabbed onto it like a life raft, and I haven’t let go. This is real. The living, breathing bodies in this room are real. I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force. I’m lumpy, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next. I hear, I see, and I smell things that hear, see, and smell me. And it can take a break to remember that, a break to do nothing, to listen, to remember what we are and where we are.

Pauline Oliveros (with the accordion) and the ♀ Ensemble performing Sonic Meditations, 1970, Rancho Santa Fe, CA (scan- Bradford Bailey)


We especially love her proposal to reimagine #FOMO —Fear of Missing Out— as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out, “or if that bothers you, #NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out.


Sunset — Jenny Odell


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3 replies on “How to Do Nothing (Jenny Odell)

  1. My mantra for 2019… How do I get a T shirt?

  2. Love this post. My sister gave me a t-shirt that says “Staying in is the new going out.” Kind of the same sentiment.

  3. The t-shirt is great. My former assistant Mira Keras wore it to work one day and I took the photo. I’d don’t know where to get one but sure do love it.

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