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Learning how to do nothing

staff note

I spent this summer in New York, a cesspool of sights, sounds, and — mostly to its detriment — smells. Armed with a class and an internship and living just a few blocks from Union Square, my days filled quickly. Coming from Duke, I was used to this nonstop mindset, this rapid pace of living. It wasn’t until attending a poetry reading at a bookshop on Prince Street that I began to understand what this excessive busyness seemed to be leading me toward. A book with pink flowers on the cover caught my eye, along with its intriguing title: “How to Do Nothing.” While the book first piqued my interest through this attractive promise, the subheading, “Resisting the Attention Economy,” ultimately made me buy it. 

Rather than arguing in favor of retreating from society and abandoning one’s responsibilities, Jenny Odell emphasizes the importance of being intentional with one’s attention, rather than aimlessly following a to-do list. She first maps an attention economy that encourages constant productivity and virtual engagement, thus sacrificing sustained and purposeful attention. “Doing nothing” then becomes an act of what she calls “resistance-in-place,” a disengagement with the toxic systems that aim to capture every bit of our attention, leaving us disconnected from ourselves and our communities. She concludes that without taking back our attention, we have no chance of making the kind of inter- and intrapersonal connections required to address our largest issues, including climate change, systemic racism and our mental health crisis. Without stopping to connect deeply with the physical and emotional terrain of these realities, we will continue to rush toward dated and harmful practices in the name of productivity, ultimately hitting the same walls we have for decades. 

While sustained attention can certainly address these larger issues, I felt encouraged by the ability to immediately begin incorporating more intentionality into the minutiae of my daily life. I realized just how much importance I place on being busy, on feeling productive, so much so that my self-worth has come to depend on it.

After reading Odell’s book and being lucky enough to meet her a few weeks later at a book signing, I experienced New York much differently. During my lunch breaks, rather than rushing back to the office so I could prove just how dedicated I was to my supervisor to ensure a glowing recommendation letter, I soaked up every minute of time they gave me, sitting against a tree with my eyes closed in the sun in the quietest spot I could find at the park. I didn’t feel guilty on the days where I stayed in bed well into the evening because New York was just too much for me that day. Doing nothing became my new prerogative.

A key tenant of “doing nothing,” according to Odell, includes reconnecting with one’s temporal and spatial environment. Putting conscious awareness towards these most valuable resources we each have allows intentionality to surface. Odell addresses that this kind of disengagement is of course much easier for certain people with certain privileges than others. But because she advocates a mindset shift rather than sending her readers on expensive retreats or assuming everyone can drop their lives to “do nothing,” the message of taking back one’s attention can be more accessible than it may seem. With intention and awareness at our disposal, we will certainly be much better equipped to live the lives we always claim we want, lives not governed by the benchmarks of productivity we set for ourselves, which seem to conveniently take a new shape as soon as we reach them. 

I knew that arriving back at Duke would challenge my newfound sense of awareness. The way most people here interact with both each other and themselves suffers from a deep lack of intentionality, authenticity or sustained awareness. With our heads down — both literally as we gaze at screens and metaphorically, bumping into each other like sharp-edged bumper cars, racing toward some vague finish line  — we miss out on taking advantage of our internal and external resources. It’s not that all Duke students must meditate daily (although I think everyone could benefit from it) or take copious amounts of time away from studying to ponder in the gardens, which is simply unrealistic for most of us, it’s just that there must be a mindset shift as to where our values lie: Are they in what we produce or who we are?

“How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell taught me that attention is powerful, and placing your attention on what our capitalist systems have labeled “nothings” — taking time for yourself, engaging in activities that are intellectually, culturally, mentally and emotionally stimulating but don’t necessarily advance you toward your productivity benchmarks — are not only important to reach your goals, but are actually the crux of life, and without which we sacrifice our full humanity. At Duke, I’ve found refuge in the blurriness of spaces that welcome rounded-edges, mostly by getting out of my comfort zone and this sizable bubble. By paying more critical attention every day, to the physical place I’m living in, to the people around me, and to my own and others’ emotional world, rather than allowing all of my time to be sucked away by the forces that be online or even by homework, by going to talks or concerts off-campus or simply asking the name of the woman who serves me coffee every morning, I hope that I can consciously decide where my values actually lie, and maybe get to do a little more “nothing” in the process. 

Miranda Gershoni is a Trinity sophomore and Recess managing editor.

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