The Art & Health Benefits of Pottering

Self Care • April 7, 2022
health benefits of pottering, self care
Photo by Matthew Halmshaw on Unsplash

One Friday morning a couple of weeks ago, I woke up feeling completely overwhelmed.

Between working in my business, working on my business, and participating in various business development training workshops, my to-do list list was exhausting me – mentally as well as physically. Can you relate?

Well, in response, I made an executive decision to take the day off.

Maybe that seems counterintuitive to you. To me, it made perfect sense as I recognized that my current state of overwhelm was doing nothing to help my productivity. I was pushing through to get things done, resulting in fewer things getting crossed off today’s list, making tomorrow’s list even longer.

I needed a rest so that I could come back refreshed.

But I didn’t take a duvet day. Nor did I head off on a little excursion. Instead, I pottered around the house for the day. And it did me the world of good.

So, when I stumbled across a report this week that pottering is good for our health, I wanted to know more.

The research comes from the University of San Diego and a study of over 5,000 women aged 63 to 97. It found that four hours of gentle movement throughout the day – not necessarily continuously – significantly reduced the risk of cardiovascular events.

Encouraging news for those of us who don’t want to take up running when we move into our golden age.

Each of us is different, and physical fitness in the sense that is marketed to us constantly doesn’t suit all of our mind-body types. But we do know that movement is important for our physical health.

“The study demonstrates that all movement counts towards disease prevention. Spending more time in daily life movement, which includes a wide range of activities we all do while on our feet and out of our chairs, resulted in a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.” ~ Steve Nguyen, Ph.D., M.P.H

Mental Health Benefits of Pottering

I was curious if there may also be research to back up the mental health benefits of pottering, that I personally experience. The bad news is, I couldn’t find any. But I suspect it will come about, in time. Instead, what I found was what sounds like a delightful book.

Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life was written by Anna McGovern who discovered the power of pottering at a time when she was feeling overwhelmed in her life. There was a lot going on and she had overcommitted herself on a number of fronts. Seeking a way to deal with it, she chose to take her work leave one day a week over a prolonged period, instead of all together. And she used that day to potter about her home and her local community.

Over time, her Pottering Tuesdays made such an immense difference to her mental health that she wrote a book about it.

“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.

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.” ~ Anna McGovern

How to Potter

Pottering is something almost all of us do, a lot of the time. It’s the little household tasks that we complete without any sense of pressure. The way I see it, the difference between pottering and completing household chores, is in your intention….and your list.

Basically, bin the to-do list and instead have the intention to simply potter – completing tasks that you feel drawn to. Wherever your eye wanders and you feel an inclination to follow through on what you see needing to be done – that’s pottering. You take as long as you take, rather than rushing through to get on to the next ‘job’.

With this approach, some of the tasks that you have filed away in your head as needing to be done can effortlessly slip into ‘I want to do this now’ mode – on a given day, when the mood is right.

Pottering isn’t goal-oriented. It’s more about being mindful and intentional about the task at hand, while you’re going about it. Deriving satisfaction in the doing, as much as doing it for the satisfaction of having it done.

It’s the art of combining the state of doing with the state of being.

Pottering also allows for taking breaks, as and when we feel like it. To enjoy a cuppa. To watch the birds feeding or bathing. To flick through a magazine. To chat with a loved one. To move in and out of doing things at a casual and relaxed pace.

Pottering and Productivity

While the intention of pottering is not directly about productivity, it often feels like we’ve been productive with that time.

The plants are watered. The junk drawer is sorted. The garden patio is tidied. The pantry is organized. The shelves are re-arranged (one of my faves). The donations pile has been brought to the charity shop. Our home has become more orderly, without any sense of strain or effort in that process.

But because it’s been done from a place of wanting-to-do rather than having-to-do we don’t become burned out from pottering.

The best thing of all about pottering is that we don’t need any special equipment, or any level of expertise. Just go for a little wander through your house or garden and notice what needs doing, that you feel happy to do right now. Do it without needing to reach any standard of perfection. Do it for the simple pleasure it brings you at this moment.

My own pottering Friday turned into a full weekend of pottering, instead of the usual catching up on household chores. Yes, chores still got done, but at a more relaxed pace. And with lots of breaks in between, for a coffee and catch-up with a friend, to read the latest House and Home magazine, to cuddle the cat.

There were more leisure activities because I wasn’t putting myself under pressure to get a certain number of things done in a fixed period. I had time – and the mental and physical energy – to do more fun stuff than when I start my Saturday with a to-do list.

So, while I await some official research to back up the mental health and productivity benefits of pottering, I’m considering implementing my own Pottering Tuesday (though I may make it a Wednesday). Maybe as an experiment over one month, to compare productivity levels to those when I put in the full five days. I have ordered the book, and I suspect reading it will make the decision for me.

Right now, as I write, the sun is highlighting some streaks on a window. And while I “should” spend the next couple of hours on “work work”, the windows are calling to me. I may just give in and allow myself the simple pleasure of making them clean and clear.

First I’ll have a cuppa, and then I’ll see.

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