When Jenny Odell talks about “saving time,” she doesn’t mean what you might think—finding ways to live more “efficiently,” to optimize your life, to fit more hours into every day.
Rather, the Bay Area-based author of the New York Times bestseller How to Do Nothing wants us to discover a conception of time that isn’t “painful.” From the small-scale time of our workdays under late-stage capitalism, to the larger looming clock of the climate crisis, our time is in many ways more legislated than ever. And, particularly in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s proving more unsustainable than ever.
“Without exploring the social and material roots of the idea that ‘time is money,’ we risk entrenching a language about time that is itself part of the problem,” she writes in the introduction of her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. Unpacking the clock as a tool of domination from the earliest days of global conquest and colonization to the modern-day work week which seeks to colonize our minds and attention spans, Odell goes in search of a conception of time that isn’t painful—but rather, liberatory.
Ms. spoke with Odell about her new book, feminist conceptions of time, and writing within your local environment.
Oliver Haug: Did you set out to write a book about time, even before the pandemic, or did the pandemic inspire this idea to write about time?
Jenny Odell: It’s from before the pandemic, which seems surprising. After How to do Nothing was published but before the pandemic started, I was getting a lot of feedback about How to do Nothing, where someone might read it, and agree with it, but not have any time. And I just didn’t really have a good, satisfying response to that. I also just personally was experiencing feelings of time scarcity, and also climate dread, and being squished between those two. So the proposal was actually written before the pandemic, but then I started writing it after the pandemic started.
I was noticing that there was so much about our relationship to time that felt really painful. Like, there’s the feeling of always running out of time, there’s the feeling of the ecological clock getting further and further out of balance, and then there’s just mortality. And it seems really hard to square those things.
Haug: Has the process of writing Saving Time changed how you feel about time, or answered any questions for you?
Odell: One thing I do feel has substantively changed is that the way that I think about time, and feel about it, is more sustainable than it was before. I was coming from a place of either feeling paralyzed, or hitting a wall when I tried to think it through, and I do feel like I made it through some of those walls.
But it definitely just leads into other questions. One thing that became clear to me in writing and researching was how much an individualistic sense of time management—like, ‘I have my hours and you have your hours’—really doesn’t make sense, and has this kind of awful history. And knowing that points in the direction of collective solutions that would influence individual people’s experience of time—like the working moms [Facebook group] admin that I talked to, who had the insight about how it would make way more sense to have six other moms join her in a group and make dinner for everyone one night of the week.
So then it leaves me with the question of, what are other things like that? What are the things that become possible when you start thinking about not ‘my time’ and ‘your time,’ but ‘our time’? But to me, that’s not a paralyzing question. That’s an exciting, promising question.
What are the things that become possible when you start thinking about not ‘my time’ and ‘your time,’ but ‘our time’?Jenny Odell
Haug: What were your entry points for the portions of the book that deal with gender, and what influences made you think about gender and time in new ways?
Odell: The seed of some of that was something that I came across when I was writing How to do Nothing, which is the Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the conceptual artist, who was Artist-in-Residence with the [New York City] sanitation department. Her maintenance manifesto is very much about that—it’s her saying that, you know, ‘my work is the work.’
So I think that was already there, it was just something that I wanted to look further into. I knew a little bit about Wages for Housework, from researching How to do Nothing, but I wanted to learn more specifically about that, as well. Also, a lot more of my friends have children now than when I wrote How to do Nothing. So I was spending a lot more time seeing all of the labor that goes into childcare, and all the problems that that causes, and even the effects on my friends’ attention, and how long their attention span is.
Haug: I feel like a lot of this became more stark in the pandemic, with the failures of social safety nets, and the discourse coming up around care work and time demands… How did the pandemic influence how you wrote about time and gender?
Odell: It definitely was something that was in my proposal, but then [with the pandemic] there were these really extreme concrete examples of it playing out in the world. So, that was one of them—what happens when childcare is returned to the homes? And then, isn’t it interesting that it’s the women in those households that are like doing the majority of that, are leaving their jobs, so they can do that. It throws into contrast how much more sense it makes to have this be a collective effort.
So, I think that it became more foregrounded for me—it wasn’t just something I was reading about in papers, and stuff. And then, there also was this kind of distinction of, whose time is considered valuable, or whose time exists at the disposal of other people’s time. That was also a division that I felt became really stark, in terms of who was doing what kind of work.
I wrote the book basically here [in her home], because I couldn’t go to my studio, which had shared airspace. And just watching delivery people on the street, and thinking about the difference between what I was experiencing, and the type of work that a lot of people were doing, and that temporal experience. Again, that’s a contrast that already existed—it just became much more palpable during the pandemic.
Haug: I was also wondering, how did being an author shape your understanding of time during the process of writing the book?
Odell: It reminds me of gardening, or farming. You have a timetable, but you can’t make things go faster than they go. And then there could be a freak storm, and the harvest doesn’t work out—there are all of these factors.
It did mean that I had to have a lot of trust in—I want to say myself, but more like the mysterious process that happens when things come together in your mind. And that’s, as you probably know, so nonlinear. I remember Sara Hendren, who wrote What Can a Body Do?, which I cite a lot—she described the end of the writing process as like when a coin is like going down a funnel, getting faster and faster and faster. But if you have an industrial view of time and work, you feel like you should be steadily hitting these targets, throughout the years. But it’s just not like that—it could be very, very slow at the beginning, and it’s really, really fast at the end.
There were times when it reminded me of hiking on a trail that sometimes is very open and flat and easy, and other times you’re burrowing through the underbrush, and it takes a long time to go even five feet.
Haug: Community is a source of a lot of comfort and simultaneous resistance in your books. I was wondering why you chose to once again set your book in the Bay Area, and if that had anything to do with this focus on community and resistance?
Odell: I’m not sure that I ever even made that decision. I feel like my thinking is so rooted here that I can’t move—like, I can never move. Because I really believe, I mean, it’s probably clear in the book, but I really believe in the importance of the relationship between people and entities as being the thing of substance, as opposed to either of those individual entities. I don’t really think that there’s ‘me,’ there’s just ‘me, in the Bay Area,’ and then there’s ‘me, not in the Bay Area,’ and like this was written by ‘me, in the Bay Area’—that’s one thing. So I just feel like everything in the book grew here, and they’re all thoughts that I had here, while being somewhere here.
Something that I was really surprised by with How to do Nothing—because it’s similar, it’s grounded in the Bay Area—was that I don’t think people have a hard time applying that to the place where they are. There’s the kind of irony that the more specific you are about a place, actually, it almost becomes easier for a reader to relate to that, and look at their own surroundings through that kind of lens.
I really believe in the importance of the relationship between people and entities as being the thing of substance, as opposed to either of those individual entities. I don’t really think that there’s ‘me,’ there’s just ‘me, in the Bay Area,’ and then there’s ‘me, not in the Bay Area,’ and like this was written by ‘me, in the Bay Area’—that’s one thing.Jenny Odell
Haug: I really love the part where you talk about the experience of picking a spot, and just paying attention to that spot over time. Are there any spots you’re paying attention to right now?
Odell: There’s the tree that I mentioned in the book, the buckeye tree. I still pass by that tree quite often. It’s dormant for a large part of the year. I had COVID over New Year’s, and when I went into isolation, the buds had not opened yet. So I was not out and about for quite some time, and then I finally went on a walk. And not only had the buds opened, but the leaves were… I was surprised—I actually l gasped, and then I just found that I was smiling.
I was surprised by my own reaction to this thing. I know that’s gonna happen, but somehow still, I was so overjoyed by this. And since then I’ve been walking by it, and just sort of keeping tabs on the progress of this tree, which I’m reminded every year, is so nonlinear. Nothing happens for months and months, and then I saw it two days ago, and it just looks like a green orb, everything’s open. That whole time, this was somehow in there, but you can’t make it happen without time passing, and rain, and certain conditions.
I guess even more hyper-locally, I start the book by talking about the moss that invaded my apartment. There is unsurprisingly moss right outside the apartment, and after the huge rains that we had all of that moss was happy, it was everywhere. Even within a day—if there’s more rain, it will become more green… So I guess that’s the most local thing possible.
Haug: But those are the ones that are the most noticeable, because it’s a spot that you truly have to confront every single day.
Odell: I had this experience the other day where—I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but when you break a habit or like something in your life, or you have a breakthrough. When this happens to me, I visually notice things that I did not see before. And so recently, I had this epiphany, that my whole life, I’ve identified, at my core, as a loner—I identified that way as a teenager, and I just never really outgrew it. And then at some point in the last year, that just completely shifted—I don’t feel that way anymore. And it was such a fundamental part of my identity, that it’s really destabilizing—fundamentally on a felt level, I don’t see myself the same way anymore, or what I want the same way anymore. It was a big deal for me.
And then I was walking down my street, and there’s this tree. It’s called a Norfolk pine, which is kind of an odd-looking conifer. It looks like it has fingers, it’s striking—it seems like a tree you would notice if you were a person who cared about trees. I have lived here for more than six years, I’ve probably washed down the block almost every single day. It’s not hidden away, it’s right there—and I saw it for the first time, last week.
But I think I saw it because some other habit in terms of how I was seeing things broke, and it made space for something else to enter my attention. I don’t know, I was really freaked out by that. It’s big, and old. And it’s been there the whole time.
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