When rearranging a drawer is restful: the magic of ‘pottering’

How small tasks can benefit our state of mind

For Anna McGovern there is a satisfying, sensory pleasure to be had in rinsing milk bottles: “The very best thing about getting your milk delivered is ‘rinsing and returning’. Don’t cheat by putting your bottles in the dishwasher. Wash them, by hand. Put a small amount of water in the bottle, slosh the water around, put your hand over the top, shake it up and down, upturn the bottle, glugging the water out, then head for your doorstep and put out the bottle with a ‘plink’”.

This is one of many meandering, seemingly mundane tasks that McGovern delights in describing in her new book. Another is pegging out the washing (“Pull it out of the basket in a long, sweet-smelling, damp lump.”) In fact, when we speak about pottering, McGovern tells me she has done just that to “help order her thoughts”.

Pottering – a peculiarly British pastime that evokes the shuffling sound of someone (quite possibly in slippers) going contentedly from one thing to the next – is something McGovern is good at. “I think you can lose yourself entirely while you’re pottering,” she says. “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.”

Three years ago, McGovern had a full-time job, three young children and an ageing father she was caring for. She recognised she had “done a bit too much for a bit too long” and decided to use her holiday to take the same day off each week for several months. “After a period of intensity in my life, I felt I needed some time off and it was incredibly beneficial – more than I ever thought, because I’d given myself permission to have a rest.”

That rest involved downing her digital devices, staying local and filling her Tuesdays with easy-to-achieve tasks. A couple of months into her new routine, McGovern realised that what she was doing could only be described as pottering. For her the restorative powers of regular pottering were such that she decided to interrogate the activity further. Written pre-pandemic, her book is an eerily prescient guide to the mercurial activity of – well, what, exactly?

“Pottering is personal,” she explains. “One person’s pottering may be another person’s domestic drudgery.” While the book is peppered with examples of what might be considered pottering – picking bobbles off a jumper, arranging the bottles in your bathroom cabinet in height order, going for a day trip with only a vague idea of your destination – it is more concerned with distilling the characteristics of pottering and the effect it can have on our state of mind.

McGovern suggests that one of the defining characteristics of pottering is honesty, or lack of affectation. “Pottering is not glamorous,” she states. “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.” Unlike mindfulness, say, there is no technique to be mastered. It is, first and foremost, “a chance to have a moment free of responsibility and free of the tyranny of pressure”.

There are, according to McGovern, five fundamentals of pottering. First, pottering is about “making the best of your circumstances and the resources you have to hand”. Improvisation and compromise are key here. In fact, there is an element of make do and mend.

Making do with what you’ve got inevitably anchors pottering to the home. That said, pottering is not the same as carrying out household chores. “The distinguishing feature of pottering as opposed to ‘jobs around the house’ is the slow pace at which you do it,” claims McGovern. There is also a lot to be said for the satisfaction you gain from pottering. (Compare hoovering the carpet, say, to hoovering the crumbs out of a cutlery drawer and you’ll begin to see the distinction.)

Another fundamental 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.”

Pottering is not doing nothing, however. “Sitting around on your phone or watching a box set isn’t pottering,” says McGovern. 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,” she says. Leaving something to soak, executing a minor repair on clothing, rearranging objects on a shelf are all prime examples of this.

Pottering also implies movement (“admittedly not a lot”). Movement causes a “cascade effect” as unplanned, improvised micro-jobs beget more micro-jobs. McGovern argues that this sequence can send you into a “meditative state” and that, once you are in this state of “flow” an interruption can “cause a sensation of intrusion” – proof that what you are doing has created a sense of contentment. But remember, says McGovern, there’s no pressure with pottering, you can always pick it up where you left off tomorrow.

Localism is another defining characteristic of pottering. During her own weekly potterings, McGovern became more connected to her local community. She didn’t have to travel to the city each day; instead, she was able to pass the time of day with neighbours and local shopkeepers. By staying local, she writes, you may discover a newfound appreciation for your immediate surroundings and those who live near you. “Staying local bonds you to the people who surround you in a way that’s really reassuring, calming and pleasant,” she says. “There’s no going back from that.”

For McGovern, the final fundamental of pottering is that it is, on the whole, digital-free. “Ignoring digital devices means you are not bombarded with messages, information, unrealistic images of perfection…” she says. “Without witnessing all that, you can have some time that is your own.”

There is much comfort to be had in reading about the positive effect of pottering. “Think back to the first lockdown when we were all making banana bread and sorting through the contents of our drawers,” says McGovern. “None of those things were strictly necessary, but doing them helped us sort through our thoughts and gave us a sense of control over the situation.”

While pottering results in a constructive, physical outcome (you may have given a bag of clothes to charity or there may be a cake on the table), it’s the “mental rumination” that occurs during pottering that McGovern believes is beneficial to wellbeing. The effect for her was a change in mindset that enabled her to move on from the impasse she had reached in her career.

What about those of us who are longing to reorder our clothes hangers so that the hooks all face the same direction/reorganise the medical cabinet in a state of meditative flow, but are struggling to get through even the most immediate of professional and/or domestic tasks? “Just do what you can manage,” she says. “If you don’t have time that is your own, there are still benefits to be had from micro-pottering.” Micro-pottering is defined as “those moments in the day when you do something that is not strictly necessary but gives you a short break… to readjust your thoughts.”

So sharpening pencils when you should be making a difficult work call is OK. Pottering, however, is not to be confused with procrastination. (Home-workers, I think McGovern may be talking to us.) “Pottering is guilt-free,” she asserts. “If you have been occupied for a while to avoid doing something necessary and you are beginning to feel guilty, you are procrastinating, not pottering.”

Ultimately, says McGovern, “pottering is one of a number of coping strategies that you can do when you feel a bit frazzled. While it is by no means a substitute for professional help, it is just one thing in the armoury of self-care that happens to fit in with the way that we’re living now.”

Pottering: a Cure for Modern Life, by Anna McGovern, is out now (£12.99, Laurence King )


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