Two years ago, when I quit the competitive life to embrace the creative life, I went full throttle on several creative projects.
I wrote prolifically to populate my website, dusted a three-year-old manuscript, started working on it, joined multiple courses, started writing on Medium, commenced a Substack newsletter, and began a publication.I am not working, I told myself. I have no excuse to slack. My output should be double or triple as before.
On the contrary, my productivity dropped, and I reached a near burnout stage.
I tend to overcommit to the extent that I become obsessed with productivity. I worked more than ten hours a day and still couldn’t finish the tasks I had assigned myself. I was continually stressed, exhausted, and feeling un-creative.
I didn’t know what to do; until I read Anna McGovern’s story.
Six years ago, Anna McGovern was struggling like me. Working full time as a digital producer, she raised three children and took care of her aging father, and later on, when he passed away, dealing with the grief.
She recognized that she had “done a bit too much for a bit too long.” She needed things to be different. Although she would have loved to pack her bags and travel, the family commitment wouldn’t allow that to happen. Instead, she decided to take one day a week off work, during which she listened to the radio, flicked through magazines, and slowly worked her way through minor DIY projects.
A couple of months into her new routine, McGovern realized that what she was doing could only be described as pottering.
Such was the restorative powers of pottering that she decided to research the activity further and ended up writing a book about it — Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life.
What is Pottering?
A peculiar British pastime, pottering is any gentle activity – that could be done in the home or outside, without a definite plan or purpose, where you meander from one thing to another.
Potter about, in short, is the thing which we should all be doing. It might seem like a total time-waster when being productive every minute of the day has been drilled into our psyche, yet it is the thing that makes us most productive. It gives the mind a break it needs from the continuous demand we make of it.
“I think you can lose yourself entirely while you’re pottering. It’s a mental break. It’s completely unpressured and it frees you momentarily from all responsibility. It may seem inconsequential, but it has a uniquely restful effect, which I only discovered by chance.” — Anna McGovern
But not every activity can be pottering.
Although there are no hard and fast rules pottering does have some characteristics.
It has to be something you enjoy.
Mike Powell loves doing dishes. He called it a welcome ritual, a ballast against the chaos of the everyday. (His article in New York Times is worth a read.)
A friend of mine loves cleaning her fridge. The act of wiping the glass shelves, arranging the bottles in the door in height order, and arranging the vegetables in transparent boxes in the bottom drawer is her thing. My sister-in-law finds peace when she is ironing. Give her a stack of clothes, and she is a happy bee.
One person’s pottering may be another person’s domestic drudgery. If ironing clothes, doing laundry, and mopping floors do nothing for you, it is not pottering.
Improvisation is the key.
Pottering is different than a hobby. You don’t need to learn a new skill or make something. Pottering is about making the best of your circumstances and the resources you have to hand. Being inventive and making do with things at hand is the key. If you have something to mend, and it can keep your finger moving, it is pottering. But if you have to follow a pattern and make a dress that fits you, it is not pottering.
“The distinguishing feature of pottering as opposed to ‘jobs around the house’ is the slow pace at which you do it,” claims McGovern.
Pottering is not glamorous.
You don’t have to put too much effort in, go very far, or even do it with others. It is not a lifestyle concept, and it doesn’t require practice.
Unlike mindfulness, there is no technique to be mastered.
First and foremost, “a chance to have a moment free of responsibility and free of the tyranny of pressure.”
Bring in some movement.
Pottering also implies movement, but not a lot of movement. Slow, light, fluid motion is what is called for. Movement causes a “cascade effect.” The unplanned, improvised sequence can send you into a “meditative state.” Once you are in this state of flow, you feel the calm set in. You live in the moment, just like in a bird or a fish who are satisfied in whatever state of being they are.
For movement, think of Buddhist monks making mandalas. There is something utterly soothing and meditative about making intricate patterns with slow fluid movements.
You can’t try too hard.
Another characteristic of pottering is not trying too hard. “There is no such thing as ‘doing it well,’” McGovern writes, reassuringly. “There are no benchmarks for success… no one is judging your performance when you find a matching lid and plastic pot in the odd assortment of containers you use for freezing leftover food. It’s just not something you can ‘excel’ at.”
There is nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to potter about. And since no one is there to judge, there is no pressure on you to get it right.
While you can’t fail or succeed at pottering, embracing the act can help you flourish. — Lana Hall, Psychologist at Sage & Sound
Pottering is not ‘doing nothing.’
Sitting around on your phone or watching a box set isn’t pottering. Neither is surfing on the internet or social media scrolling. Being digital-free means, you are not bombarded with messages, new information, advertisements. It means you have some time in a day that is truly yours.
Pottering is relaxing precisely because you are occupied in the gentlest of ways.
“It’s as though you’ve lent a sheen of legitimacy to your unstructured downtime by doing something ever so slightly useful.” — Anna McGovern
Leaving something to soak, executing a minor repair on clothing, rearranging objects on a shelf are all prime examples of this.
How does pottering help with productivity?
There is a lot to be said for the satisfaction you gain from pottering, but pottering can help productivity by engaging the creative brain.
Often, when we are on the go, to be productive, we are, in fact, standing in our own way. Here are a few ways pottering help with productivity:
- Pottering helps to hit the pause button. It enables us to pause and let things fall into place. It is a way of making the unconscious mind find solutions to problems.
- When our brains are busy, we stay in a “stress response,” which leads to exhaustion and burnout. Pottering gives our brain a break allowing us to process and integrate our experiences in a way we can’t when we’re on the go. So when we come back to the task, we come back renewed and rejuvenated.
- Moments of inspiration tend to happen when our bodies are busy, but our minds are not. When we take a break and engage in some apparently mindless activities like walking, knitting, or shoveling snow, creativity kicks in. We are much more productive when we are in a creative state of mind than in a competitive state of mind.
Pottering is one of the coping strategies that you can do when you feel a bit frazzled. It is one of the things in the armory of self-care that happens to fit in with how we are living now.
How have I incorporated pottering in my life?
I used to give work the first preference and fun and relaxation as the filler activities between work commitments. Now I have turned the other way around. I now prioritize life over work.
I walk, clean the fridge, wipe crumbs off the cutlery drawer, and arrange plastic containers in a particular way. I iron clothes till there are no more, take photos of the neighbor’s flowers when going for walks and sketch them when I get home.
I flick through books like one flick through magazines with no pressure to finish them. All hangers in my wardrobe face the same way, all towels in my linen cupboard are folded facing the same way. I fold my underclothes as Marie Kondo teaches in her videos, and I fold my tops and bottoms in packets so they can be stored in an upright manner.
What difference has it made?
I am happier. I am not rushed. I still get the same amount of work done but in an unrushed way.
Now I plan less and reflect more. I am a different person, much more pleasant to be with.
Do I feel guilty?
Because pottering has made me happier than ticking items off my to-do list ever did.
Weekends were meant to be for pottering, and yet, since working from home started with the pandemic, we have filled them with work too.
We need to allocate at least one day of the week to potter about. Sundays can be those days.
But if you can’t devote a whole day to pottering, don’t stress. Even a few minutes of “micro-pottering” can offer peace. My favorite micro-pottering activity is lying down on a picnic rug in my backyard and watching the clouds pass by while listening to my neighbor’s water cascade.
What is your pottering activity?
If you haven’t any, why not start something.