the art and joy of puttering.

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If waiting for an important telephone call, or stuck in writer’s block with a looming deadline, we’ll inevitably rearrange our record collection or clear up the papers dotted around your office – and it’s sometimes the most relaxed you’ll feel all day.

We’re not alone in this. As we faced pandemic stresses, many people reported finding renewed interest in looking after their homes as a way of coping with the uncertainty. On YouTube, there’s a huge audience for videos of people going about their chores, with millions of views for some of them. Psychologists suggest there are many mechanisms that might explain the perfect pleasure of puttering – and they may well encourage you to engage in it more often.

At the most superficial level, puttering may be useful because it occupies the mind, so that we devote fewer resources to the things that are worrying us. Even if we struggle with structured forms of meditation, for instance, we may find household tasks can anchor us in the here and now. But that will depend on where we place our focus.

In one of the few studies to examine the mental health benefits of washing the dishes, researchers divided 51 participants into two groups. Half read a text that encouraged them to focus their thoughts to the sensations evoked by the activity. “While washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes,” they were told. The rest read factual instructions on how to do washing up without explicitly encouraging them to focus their awareness on the sensations it produces.

Afterwards, the participants were asked to take a questionnaire about their feelings. Those who had fully engaged with the sensory experience reported a significantly better mood. This included reduced nervousness and even a sense of “inspiration”, as if the immersion in the simple activity had refreshed their minds.

Unlike other distracting activities – such as playing computer games or watching trashy TV – puttering also has the advantage of being proactive and useful, increasing our “perceived control”.

When we feel anxious, a sense of helplessness can heighten the physiological stress response, increasing levels of cortisol. Over the long term, the sense of helplessness can even harm the function of the immune system. Ideally, we would deal directly with the upsetting situation itself. But research suggests we can gain a perception of control from activities that may have little effect on the situation that’s bothering us.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to align with actual control, as long as we believe, or feel, we have control,” says Stacey Bedwell, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. Simply being able to change our environment can create a feeling of agency that is beneficial, she says – which may explain why cleaning and organizing our homes can feel so therapeutic.The benefits do not end there. If your puttering takes the form of organizing and decluttering, you may find that the tidier environment is itself a form of solace.

As the University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross writes in his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Heads and How to Harness It: “We’re embedded in our physical spaces, and different features of these spaces activate psychological forces inside us, which affect how we think and feel.” If we see order outside, it helps us to feel a bit less chaotic inside, he writes. “[It] is comforting because it makes life easier to navigate and more predictable.”

Brain imaging studies support this view. In general, you see much greater brain activity as you increase the number of distracting objects within a scene – with each object vying for our attention. This may lead your brain to tire so that it struggles to maintain its focus over long periods of concentration.

Importantly, you don’t necessarily have to remove the clutter to prevent this from occurring – simply rearranging it will do. Organizing objects into groups – by color, for example – may provide the brain with more obvious cues for navigating the chaos. This reduces some of that neural confusion – and may improve our focus as a result. By reducing anxiety, soothing stress responses, increasing focus and triggering the release of endorphins, it’s little wonder so many of us take to household chores as soon as we are faced with uncertainty.

Like all activities, the extent of these benefits will be influenced by your personal tastes and the associations that you link with the tasks. If you are housework-averse, and will only pick up a duster under duress, the pleasures of puttering may be forever elusive. But for the homebodies among us, we can now understand why fruitful fidgeting can be such a salve for the restless mind.

“the imagination needs moodling– long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering.”

-brenda ueland

what’s your go-to puttering activity?

BBC, David Robson, science writer, Ethan Cross, author 

82 responses »

  1. We call it ‘pottering around’, but it’s much the same thing.

    ‘pottered around/about; pottering around/about; potters around/about
    Definition of potter around/about
    British
    : to spend time in a relaxed way doing small jobs and other things that are not very important
    He spent his holidays pottering around the house/garden.’

    In my case, that mostly involves blogging. 🙂

    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lovely post.
    I love pottering around and find it soothing. My favorite one is rearranging nicknacks ( with sentimental value) around my living room. As I look around, the living room looks inviting and I feel refreshed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating read Beth … hmmm … Puttering!! … I suppose for me, I am always trying to keep the cataloguing of poems up to date .. and my fav’ piece of puttering is formulating and producing my next Tullawalla Booklet of poems .. I am now halfway into my 28th Tullawalla Booklet … each booklet contains about 50 poems, … I just drift off into my own little world of cataloguing my poems …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Like you, Beth, and my brother, I enjoy the task of washing dishes by hand! At a host’s for a meal, I am quick to jump up and head to the kitchen to start a sink of soapy water and feel happy and free when I’m away from the other people for a break. And I putter almost every single day – small tasks that only I know and can see have been done, but doing puttering every day means I’ll feel a sense of satisfaction over what I’ve completed every day. Win-win situation! Thank you for another interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Now that’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time: puttering. This was an interesting piece, which makes total sense. I will never view washing dishes as simply something I must do. Apparently there’s a reason I don’t have a dishwasher. I love clipping laundry on the line. Such a soothing task that simultaneously gets me out into the natural world.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmmmm. thesis or plant watering….oh, and I should check on the water temperature in the heater, and did I change out all of the towels in the guest bathroom in case we have a visitor, and I should make sure the coffee maker works….paper, what paper?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can totally relate to your post, Beth. The Power of Now. When you are doing something you only concentrate on that one thing. The quality of your action rises and you feel more fulfilled in what you are doing. This reminded me of the book called “The three questions” (Leo Tolstoy): When is the best time to do things, who is the most important one, and what is the right thing to do? The answers are: There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. The most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.
    Thank you for this inspiring post that proved how important it is to be in the now for our own sake.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I understand puttering, but I don’t think I’d ever watch someone doing chores on YouTube. Whatever floats your boat, as they say.

    My puttering jobs are mowing the lawn (I love cruising around Forrest Gump style on my riding mower) and vacuuming. Both are jobs that you can do while your mind is somewhere else.

    Liked by 1 person

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