Radical self care: On doing nothing

Jan. 13, 2021, 8:20 p.m.

I recently stumbled upon a Medium article curiously titled “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell. Having recently entered the relative tranquility of winter break, the idea of “doing nothing” served as an alluring contrast from the bombardment of tasks and news media that characterized my first college quarter. Though I previously used the prospect of break as a motivational mechanism, a rightfully earned reward for my tireless work, now in the midst of it, sitting at home without the need to log onto Zoom classes and scramble to update my Google calendar is far less restorative than I had initially anticipated. Rather than truly relaxing, I still find myself incessantly, almost subconsciously, refreshing my school email and pondering how I can most effectively maximize these seven weeks of time. 

I hoped that reading the article would help replace a bit of my inescapable productivity-related guilt with some much-needed solace. Perhaps, my reluctance to let loose stems from structures far broader than myself, ones I ultimately have little to no control over. 

In the essay, Odell discusses the personal import of her local rose garden as a space where she… wait for it… does nothing. Of course, the specifics of “doing nothing” seem rather enigmatic and even paradoxical given that the activities she describes, such as Deep Listening, or “listening in every possible way to every thing possible to hear no matter what you are doing,” can themselves arguably be considered active processes, far cries from nothingness. Nonetheless, Odell’s suggestions illuminate that doing nothing does not equate to mindless passivity. Rather, it involves redirecting our attention away from the ceaseless distractions of our information economy and toward the intricacies of our surroundings in order to unleash unforeseen potential.

There’s a bit more to this idea than what meets the eye. Our world is constructed on the artifice that we are very much in control of our own narrative. Take the mall for example, a space constructed to provide people with a refuge from the disorder of the outside world. Though the individual shopper seems to exercise a great degree of agency in their navigation of the space and buying decisions, the mall preserves panopticon-like control of each consumer through seemingly ubiquitous signs, advertisements and infrastructure. 

It isn’t just shopping malls. Nearly every single manufactured component in our world is designed to oil the capitalist machine, gosh, even our chairs need to be ergonomic nowadays. Sadly, we are pretty much programmed to subscribe to the information economy’s relentless demands for efficacy. With that, how do we go about renegotiating or deconstructing these scripts, given how deeply we have all been entrenched in them? Where do we pin down the blurry line separating hard work from toxic hustle porn?

Borrowing from personal experience, while doing nothing seems incredibly self-explanatory on paper, it proves surprisingly difficult in practice. I attempted to take a break from staring at my laptop to sit outside for 15 minutes with no outside distractions, simply the crisp air, clear view of the Seattle skyline and my own thoughts. Nevertheless, I found it nearly impossible to clear my mind. For one, I couldn’t stop thinking about how bitingly cold it was outside and how much I wished I could return to the warmth of my home.

The tragic reality is that every second of the day can effectively be monetized. As Odell’s treatise points out, we often can’t justify taking a real break since it “is simply too expensive.” While doing nothing, for most of us, we can’t escape the consideration of the activity’s return on investment or lack thereof. As I sat outside, I couldn’t stop pondering what “better” things I could’ve been doing or what I intended to accomplish after the achingly slow quarter hour. Ironically, treating this time as a designated session seems to defeat its purpose, but I suppose that’s one of the only ways to fit it into our busy schedules. Doing nothing, despite how elementary it sounds, requires continual commitment and repetition for it to become a natural part of our everyday routines. Maybe it isn’t about merely emptying our minds; potentially, the act intentionally forces us to wrestle with the thoughts constantly whizzing through our minds that we otherwise ignore or suppress.

Though Odell’s conception of “doing nothing” is more focused on semiotics and challenging the ways in which capitalist notions of productivity have forged the bedrocks of our identities, I began furthering pondering the phenomenon of activist burnout that has become increasingly relevant. There’s a particularly illustrative quote from Audre Lorde I found pertinent that reads: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Though this declaration is a potent reminder, especially for marginalized folks overwhelmingly susceptible to exhaustion due to the emotionally taxing nature of social advocacy and educating others around them on issues regarding their own livelihood, I’ve unfortunately noticed just how much this message has been co-opted by the mainstream.

On Instagram, fitness and yoga influencers preach this rallying cry to their relatively affluent, white audiences, to the point at which what is supposed to be radical self-care has metastasized into the branded backing for more self-help books. Self care thus appears antithetical to Lorde’s “act of political warfare,” instead functioning as a form of self-coddling to shield oneself from harsh external realities. The notion of self-care, as manifested in mental-health days, fitness classes, or skincare regimens is undeniably laden with privilege, that might help explain why we tend to feel guilty about it. 

Nonetheless, does the term necessarily need to uphold its utmost radical potential at all times? It seems wrong to designate who can or cannot perform self-care and what it should look like for each individual, but it is also critical that we acknowledge the luxury inherent in being able to opt out of the busy world outside and do nothing. Regardless, as Odell herself reminds us, during this period of “so much racial, environmental, and economic injustice to be angry about and to be acted upon right now,” it’s more important than ever to do nothing, look after one another and recharge in order to avoid inevitable burnout. 

I’m curious as to just how much our immediate environment shapes our near fanatical attitudes towards workaholism. Imposter syndrome, a phenomenon many of us are all too familiar with, impels people to constantly prove how long and hard they work in an anxious attempt to compensate for any perceived sense of inadequacy. Especially at an institution like Stanford, doing nothing often feels like a crime, or at least a grand waste of time, especially when we tend to fixate on our peers seemingly zooming through life at inimitable rates. While I understand that most of us are principally here to make money moves in one way or another and the school itself has been systematically designed to maximize that purpose, Odell’s article made me wonder if institutions themselves could do something to help ease the tense, efficacy-driven environment. To be totally honest, I don’t know if mandated seminars on the importance of periodically taking time off for example will do the trick, but I’m led to believe there might still be some unearthed latency here.  

So what does this all mean? Should we all chunk out an hour a day to stroll aimlessly outside? Is it ok to ignore my steadily piling email notifications for the next few weeks? To be honest, I’m not too sure. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of self-care itself has been so thoroughly steeped in the edifice of capitalism to the point at which the primary justification for it is to make individuals more productive after their brief hiatus. Perhaps that’s the real problem: screen time limits, meditation, and social media detoxes likely won’t fundamentally alter our perspective towards grind culture that inevitably leads to burnout. Realistically, while Odell doesn’t think that we can all break free from the attention economy’s magnetic force, being mindful of where our focus is being directed and accepting the necessity of saying no to certain tasks as a means of making space for self-care might at least help alleviate mental exhaustion. Maybe the goal isn’t to facilitate a broad cultural shift, at least for now. Rather, I think it is to habituate ourselves with this idea of “doing nothing” that has grown to appear almost foreign to so many of us. Doing nothing for the pure sake of doing nothing rather than expecting instant payoffs or grand epiphanies will inevitably feel more onerous than expected simply due to just how much we have subscribed to such a heavily results-oriented culture. 

At the end of the day, if there’s a singular takeaway from all this, it’s that remembering to do nothing at times is undeniably crucial; our bodies are not designed to be well-oiled machines 24/7. Rather than wallowing in the guilt that so much of us experience in regards to any perceived lack of maximum productivity, we should learn to be unapologetic about it. No, I’m not just saying this to rationalize my copious amounts of time spent on the couch these past few weeks. Well, maybe a little. Sure, self-care isn’t always radical political warfare, but that doesn’t mean we should feel ashamed for it or that it must always be rightfully earned. Go ahead, enjoy your break. Maybe you don’t find your respite while chilling at a rose garden like Odell, but please feel free to bake something, run around, light a candle or whatever else floats your boat. You absolutely deserve it.

Contact Sarah Xu at sarahx27 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sarah Xu is a staff writer for The Grind section and a contributor to the Daily’s Social Media. She is a freshman from Seattle, Washington seeking to major in sociology or public policy on a pre-law track. You can catch her constantly trying and posting about new recipes or at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com for more mildly existential inquiries.

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