March 2023

Jenny Odell is right on time

Interview by
The bestselling author of How to Do Nothing returns with a brilliant, hopeful critique of our obsession with efficiency.
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Artist and critic Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was a New York Times bestseller and a critical favorite. The 2019 book considered the ways we spend our attention in a world full of technologies vying for (and profiting from) that attention. Now Odell returns with Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, a provocative examination of efficiency culture that encourages readers to rethink their relationships with time. 

Odell was inspired to write the book after hearing from readers who enjoyed How to Do Nothing but struggled to incorporate their new thinking into their busy lives. “That feedback became generative,” she says during a call to her home in Oakland, California. “I started to think, if it’s true that we don’t have enough time, how did we get here? And why? Why do we think of time as scarce? What is the difference between, for example, someone who feels like they don’t have any time and someone who really doesn’t have any time?”.

Read our starred review of ‘Saving Time’ by Jenny Odell.

Saving Time began with two inspirations that came together in a surprising way. First, Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Library, a privately funded public research library in San Francisco, told Odell that she needed to read E.P. Thompson’s 1967 work, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” “It’s an early building block for thinking about the relationship of time to capitalism,” she says, and how the Industrial Revolution required workers to be more disciplined with their time in order to maximize profits. The second inspiration was Odell’s burgeoning interest in geology, which also shows up in the book’s cover art. “I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and that’s obviously a very different way of thinking about time,” she says. Mountains offer a way of zooming out on modern life by contemplating layers of earth forming, colliding and eroding over millions of years. “Saving Time is about these two ways of looking at time.”

The natural world is of central importance to Odell’s work, and her careful study of nature feels refreshing. For example, birds played a key role in How to Do Nothing, and they remain important in Saving Time. “I don’t think birds entered my work until I was writing the original How to Do Nothing talk,” she says, referencing a keynote address she gave at an art and technology festival in 2017, which later appeared in the book. “It was unexpected; I was doing a lot of that thinking in the [Morcom] Rose Garden, which has a lot of birds, and I started to see parallels between the natural world and things that happen with attention and information.” 

That municipal rose garden in Oakland is an example Odell gives of a noncommercial leisure space, a “third space” where people can gather outside of work and home, preferably without spending money. It’s where Odell spends much of her time, and in Saving Time, she complicates her feelings toward the park and its troubled history. “I still find it utopian, even though when it was built, it would have been a de facto white space because of redlining,” she says. “But the current-day rose garden gives me hope for what places like this could be.” Places where people can spend time, gathering or sitting in quiet observation, without working or buying something. Places where people can be.

I read Saving Time at the end of 2022, just as people were posting their ambitions for 2023. I share this with Odell, mentioning how clarifying it was to read about Frederick Winslow Taylor, a 19th-century “efficiency bro” (as she calls the modern generation of productivity influencers) who advocated for carefully breaking down actions into small, trackable components, at the same time I was feeling tempted to write an extensive list of resolutions.

“It’s seductive,” Odell says when I ask her about why we love seeing Taylorist statistics like the number of steps tracked by a Fitbit. (Taylor himself counted his steps and timed his own activities.) “For a user who wants to have a sense of control in their life, it’s really seductive. It offers self-understanding. You’ll be able to see yourself at a glance and make changes accordingly.” But this data also leads us to try and make each moment as productive as possible.

“After you read [Saving Time] . . . the world feels filled with curiosity rather than dread.”

So then, what do we do? “The only way to counter this desire is to ask why you’re doing something and if you want to be doing it,” is Odell’s advice. This requires a level of mindfulness that most of us struggle to attain. But Saving Time is not a screed, and Odell has no interest in scolding her readers, nor depressing them with grim truths about modern capitalism. Instead she offers hope. “I walk around a lot with a pair of binoculars and a jeweler’s loupe,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m hanging out with a friend, I’ll give them the loupe. At first they say, ‘Okay, why do you have this?’ And then they’ll look at something, and every single time they say, ‘I had no idea it looked like this. It’s incredible.’ And then they want to look at everything with the loupe.”

“Unfortunately for a lot of adults, the last time they remember that feeling of discovery was childhood,” Odell continues. “That’s what motivates my work. I want the end of Saving Time to be the beginning. After you read it, you have to go back outside and look at everything with a new lens, and now everything looks different. And hopefully it looks different because the reader has a new relationship to reality, and the world feels filled with curiosity rather than dread.” 

I can attest to the sense of discovery offered by Saving Time. In Odell’s work, observation, both inward and outward, is sacred. Here, she proves that there are new ways to think about time and productivity, that we don’t have to always feel like time is hopelessly scarce. Saving Time presents a new vision, both through a jeweler’s loupe and a pair of binoculars, of what a better world could look like.

Headshot of Jenny Odell by Chani Bockwinkel

Get the Book

Saving Time

Saving Time

By Jenny Odell
Random House
ISBN 9780593242704

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