105. Read: How To Do Nothing

books mental fitness Jan 14, 2021

By: Michael Beiter

Maybe I'll stop saying it. Because my clients have to be tired of hearing it. I hope it doesn't come off as a jockeying of sorts - a kind of way to establish that I'm higher up on the fake hierarchy of books read. But this woman was holding back tears as she said "I don't know how to handle boredom. I don't now how to not do something." 

My response: "I read a book on that." 

Followed by advice to 'Be a human being, not a human doing.'

The opportunity was almost too perfect. The book I had in mind and that I finished just a week ago is titled 'How to do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy' 

The title alone suggests it would be a remedy to exactly what this woman is experiencing. A phenomenon I can't imagine has been present for very long - the belief that if you aren't doing something you aren't being an effective human. It is unquestionably a product of western ideals and capitalism. Unique to the beginning of the twenty first century when everyone is transitioning to a digital world for work, education, social interaction, news, and I hate to say it, but fitness and nutrition too. 

Especially in the time of Covid. 

So how was the book? 

It was good. It's about the sixth book I've read about fighting the tide of the attention economy. Technology has reshaped out lives in innumerable ways. At the bottom of all our current gadgetry use lies an economy that is exploding: the attention economy. It's not a new economy. Print media, radio, T.V. and then the personal computer have been the main grabbers of our attention historically.

The smart phone, which combines all of them into a neat device the size of a deck of cards and places it in our pocket is the most recent advancement. And oh my has it been successful. In less than two decades since being introduced smart phones now command at minimum 20% of our waking attention. For some people that number can balloon to 50% or more. That equals 8-10 hours daily. The average is 4 hours daily. This is true for Americans aged 4 - 60. 

What this means for our physical and psychological health is not known yet because the change to our attention has been so swift. It's safe to say that the initial prospects aren't promising though. Rates of anxiety and depression are through the roof. And less time being a human, which involves plenty of 'nothing' like grooming yourself, washing your body, exercising, sleeping, observing, and eating means more diseased and fat people. And the feeling of "I don't know how to do nothing" my friend talked about. 

Author Jenny Odell writes:

Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personalized branding - anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching - does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed.

I agree with this observation. Social media and our smart phones isolate and individualize us more than we are used to. Humans are a social species meant to flourish through social connections. The connections provided by tech are false facades for the real, in-person ones we evolved with. 

Competition can be healthy but not when it's viewed as a zero sum game like it is promoted as with likes, shares, and views. There is plenty of these things to go around for all of us to feel wanted and needed to other people - which psychologists know is an important component to well being. It doesn't feel that way when we are online though. The competitive nature of a free market economy creates enemies of neighbors and colleagues and one persons gain is easily looked at as our loss. "If SHE is getting all the attention that means I am not!" we think. Wrong. Thanks social media. 

Furthermore, capitalism creates a treadmill of production and consumption that is hard to break. One where we are encouraged to be on and available 24/7 in a way that has never been demanded in human history. Wrong again. But tough to beat when you see everyone else's success and wins on the highlight reel that is social media. What isn't shared are the struggles, down time, and relative nothingness that fills so much time in our lives. 

With these ideas in tow I told my dear friend to get a massage - get touched and feel real human connection. And to silence the inner critic that tells her boredom is a sign of complacency - an acceptance to stop striving and therefor be defeated. 

Odell offers this advice: 

Avoid marinating yourself in conventional wisdom like Facebook, Twitter, and even the New York Times. Having a close friend to have real and substantive conversations with is important to avoid the undue influence of public opinion. 

The very public opinion social media exploits and that has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition. Public opinion is not looking to change or be challenged. It wants bands to keep making songs like the hit they once made. 

Conversations with yourself and others helps beat back against this influence. 

Sound advice I think. 

Fortunately for my teary eyed friend we were doing just that and she left feeling lifted compared to when she arrived. At the lowest denominator I tell my clients if we have a good, face to face conversation I'll have done my job simply because the act is becoming less and less prevalent in our society. If that's the least we do we'll have done well. If fitness and food are improved too that's all the better. 

Have a read and learn to do nothing. It's part of being human. 


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