The Art of Puttering

When I was growing up, my mom used to spend time on the weekends “puttering.” She’d do things like fold laundry while watching TV, organize toy bins that had gotten out of control, or straighten the pantry. As a child, I always thought this was just cleaning, but as an adult who now putters myself, I’ve realized it’s a bit more than that. Puttering can be a form of self-care and mental health.

To be clear, I am very much on the “taking showers and running errands is not self-care,” side of things, and in that sense, I guess I shouldn’t be calling puttering self-care, but I am also very much a type-A, neat-and-tidy, don’t really know how to relax kind of person, so being able to mindlessly tidy IS relaxing to me. Chaos and disorder stress me out, and puttering allows me to set things right; plus, I can often get a lot accomplished, and I love to check things off my to-do list.

So what exactly is “Puttering?” According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, to Putter is “to move or act aimlessly or idly” or to “work at random.” In other words, it’s doing things to stay busy without a clear goal or purpose. For me, it’s finding time to get those never-get-done projects done without putting a whole lot of pressure on myself to finish them in entirety because the real goal isn’t the completion of the task, it’s me-time.

If you intend to putter, there are a few things you should consider:

  1. Start by identifying a task that doesn’t require a whole lot of brainpower. This could be generally tidying the house, folding laundry, or organizing your makeup. It should be something that won’t stress you out too much, but might it be something you would otherwise find tedious or that you find yourself regularly putting off because it’s not a high priority.
  2. Pick something else to occupy your mind. If you’re going to be sitting in one place, put on some Hallmark movies or catch up on your favorite show. If you’ll be moving around, listen to a podcast, a book on tape, or some nostalgic tunes.
  3. Get yourself a snack and a drink. Especially if you are moving around a lot, you may actually work up an appetite, but more importantly, you don’t have to share your puttering snacks with those tiny bottomless pits that you live with.
  4. Set expectations for the other members of your family. My whole family knows that when I am puttering (or “puddling” as they call it), I shouldn’t be interrupted unnecessarily and that if they do need something, they may have to be patient until I get to a good stopping point (either in my task or my show, but they don’t need the details). I usually ask them if they need anything before I start and remind them that Daddy is just as capable of getting them a snack as Mommy is.
  5. Don’t fret if you get distracted. Some might call this ADHD-cleaning, but the point is to work somewhat aimlessly. Let yourself do the tasks that present themselves to you and that you feel you can accomplish, rather than setting a goal to get a specific set of tasks done. If you start out with the goal of tidying the house but get distracted by the messy linen closet and end up spending 30 minutes refolding towels and blankets, that’s totally fine. You might not finish tidying the house, but you’ve probably been meaning to straighten up that closet anyway and might not have otherwise found the time or motivation to do so.
  6. Avoid the kitchen unless you are home alone. The kitchen is the heart of the home; Everyone is always in it and it always needs to be cleaned up. You may REALLY want to purge the kitchen cabinets, but your family will not leave you alone if you are there, and you will exasperate yourself by cleaning in circles.
  7. Reward yourself for what you get accomplished, even if it’s not much. As someone who always has a long to-do list, it can be easy for me to focus on all the things I didn’t get done, but when I putter, the goal is simply to get some things done, and more importantly, to have some time to myself. Instead of chastising myself for taking over an hour to fold a basket or two of laundry, I focus on the fact that I took some time to catch up on a TV show without experiencing that nagging sensation that my time could be better spent because I also folded laundry.

My husband has often expressed amazement over my ability to whip the house into shape when left alone to do so, but for me, being able to get things done without too much interruption is cathartic. It allows me to alleviate some stress by reclaiming some sense of order in my home, even if it’s just in the form of uniformly folded bath towels.

Happy Puttering!

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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