The gentle art of pottering: How to stay sane in a crazy busy world

Pottering around the house

We live in a fast paced world.

Many of us are sacrificing the quality of our lives by going too hard at living.

It’s drilled into us that in order to succeed, we need to be constantly working, striving towards our goals and improving ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of self improvement. I’m all for doing things more effectively. But sometimes you need a little time out.

In team sports, coaches will often call ‘time out’ as a way to regroup, reflect and recharge.

But we’re not so good at taking time out for ourselves. And it costs us. There is plenty of research to show overwork is bad for your health (see here, here and here).

In the book The Inner Self: The joy of discovering who we really are, author Hugh Mackay describes busyness as being a health hazard. He states:

“ . . . it robs us of the sanity-restoring time for reflection on our inner life, and may even dull our awareness of the need for regular encounters with the self.”

My quest to slow down

Over the last few months, I’ve been engaging in an activity that allows me to slow down, take pleasure in small things and rest while still being somewhat productive.

It’s called pottering.

Pottering: a cure for modern life

In the book Pottering: A cure for modern life author Anna McGovern describes pottering in the following way:

“Pottering is not glamorous. You don’t have to put too much effort in, go very far or even do it with others. Pottering is not a lifestyle concept, and it doesn’t require practice. Just be.

The consequence of pottering – a feeling of relaxation and contentment- is usually achieved when you make do with what you’ve got, get moving but don’t go too far, don’t try too hard and keep it digital free.”

Pottering allows you to recalibrate to a saner and healthier pace of life. It reminds you that there’s so much more to life than being productive.

When you potter, there’s no pressure to achieve results or a perfectly clean room/home. And there’s also no need to share your pottering experience on social media. That would defeat the purpose. Why? Because pottering requires you to take time out from screens.

What I love about pottering is you get to set the bar extremely low. In fact, you don’t have to accomplish much at all.

The Fundamental Principles of Pottering

According to Anna McGovern, pottering involves adhering to the following five basic principles:

1. Make do with what you’ve got

When you potter, there’s no need to rush out and buy new things. Pottering is about being resourceful. It’s about thinking on your feet and making do with what you’ve got.

For instance, instead of buying takeaway for lunch, you challenge yourself to pull together a meal with what you’ve got in your fridge and pantry. In some ways, pottering can be a very creative practice.

2. Don’t try too hard

When you potter, there’s no where to get to. Nothing to achieve. The aim of the game is to slow down and enjoy doing one activity at a time.

McGovern offers this wisdom:

“Consider the words that define pottering ‘without definite plan or purpose’. Let those words really sink in . . . You have the freedom to make tea any way you like. You be you. No one is going to judge. It’s just you and the tea.”

3. Move your body (but not a lot)

Pottering doesn’t involve vigorous exercise but it usually involves simple movements like pulling things out from cupboards, rearranging items in rooms, folding clothes, filing away or tossing papers, etc.

You get to go with the flow. Let’s say you’re putting away an item and you stumble across something else that needs attending to (e.g. a drawer that need rearranging), you can change course. Remember, you don’t have to be efficient or productive when you potter.

All that being said, it’s also totally fine to plonk yourself down in a cosy chair and enjoy a cup of tea.

4. Keep it local

Keep it local

Pottering days are chill days. You are unauthorised to rush around. McGovern recommends you do things locally on your pottering days.

On my pottering days, I like to keep away from my car and use my bike and legs as transport. This helps me feel more connected to my local community. With the car off limits, this means I can’t travel very far. When I’m in full pottering mode, an epic journey is the local library.

5. Keep it digital free

It’s time to dial down the noise in your life and brain. Keeping away from your phone, Netflix and social media will help. As McGovern states:

“ . . . ignoring digital devices and limiting your access to them also means that you are not constantly bombarded with messages, information, unrealistic images of perfection and pictures of social occasions that you haven’t been invited to.”

McGovern recommends finding old-school alternatives for your phone for the times when you potter. She suggests using a calendar, alarm clock, radio, TV, a landline, newspapers, notepad and pen, map and cash.

To sum up

Life is short. Don’t run yourself ragged trying to get ahead and be a productivity machine. Slow down. Take a day or afternoon off and give yourself the freedom and space to potter.