How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Book Notes)

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards and may receive a commission. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned.

Even though I spend a lot of time online reading through forums, blogs, e-mail newsletters, substacks, and so on, I don’t spend much time on Twitter or Facebook. Slowly reading a detailed review or educational article is one thing, but 100 different people making short, forceful, absolute statements within 5 minutes quickly overwhelms me. There is surely a lot of good discussion, but in a terribly noisy room.

I checked out How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell for a different perspective. This blurb was intriguing:

Odell sees our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. And we must actively and continuously choose how we use it. We might not spend it on things that capitalism has deemed important … but once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress.

While I didn’t agree with many of the arguments made in the book, as usual I just tried to find what was useful to me and leave the rest.

What is meant by the goal to “do nothing”?

The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

What are we trying to avoid?

But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users themselves.

Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

People read a tweet or a headline, react, and click a button—thousands and millions of times over in a matter of days. I can’t help but liken the angry collective tweet storms to watching a flood erode a landscape with no ground-cover plants to slow it down. The natural processes of context and attention are lost. But from the point of view of Twitter’s financial model, the storm is nothing but a bounteous uptick in engagement.

An short bit about John Muir, “Father of the National Parks”:

Muir had already developed a love of botany, but it was being temporarily blinded by an eye accident that made him re-evaluate his priorities. The accident confined him to a darkened room for six weeks, during which he was unsure whether he would ever see again. The 1916 edition of The Writings of John Muir is divided into two parts, one before the accident and one after, each with its own introduction by William Frederic Badè. In the second introduction, Badè writes that this period of reflection convinced Muir that “life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.” Muir himself said, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields.”

On Epicurus, “epicurean”, and unhappiness:

More generally, Epicurus observed that people in modern society ran in circles, unaware of the source of their unhappiness:

“Everywhere you can find men who live for empty desires and have no interest in the good life. Stupid fools are those who are never satisfied with what they possess, but only lament what they cannot have.”

Quite contrary to the modern-day meaning of the word epicurean—often associated with decadent and plentiful food—what the school of Epicurus taught was that man actually needed very little to be happy, as long as he had recourse to reason and the ability to limit his desires.

On giving others (and ourselves) space to change our minds:

This is one of the things I find the most absurd about our current social media, since it’s completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things. Think about it: Would you want to be friends with someone who never changed their mind about anything?

But because apologizing and changing our minds online is so often framed as a weakness, we either hold our tongues or risk ridicule.

Weird stuff happens when attention = money. Creating hate = attention = money. Creating dissatisfaction = attention = money. Creating distraction = attention = money.

There are many things going on in the book, but I support physically go outside and hang out with people in-person, and preferably both at the same time. I will put more effort towards these pursuits. (I would say it’s a cheap form of entertainment, but booking an AirBnb within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park was not cheap! 😁)

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

User Generated Content Disclosure: Comments and/or responses are not provided or commissioned by any advertiser. Comments and/or responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser. It is not any advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Speak Your Mind