I had the idea to write this article while I was transplanting irises in my backyard.
It’s not a taxing job, physically or mentally. No heavy lifting, no mental strain, no rush. In fact, it was pleasant to dig in the soil and insert the plants that I hope will take hold over the winter months.
Like many people, I find that interesting ideas pop into my head while I’m occupied with easy jobs around the house or garden. It’s called puttering, and while I was puttering with the iris-transplanting job, I decided to investigate why it’s so pleasant and beneficial.
Merriam-Webster defines puttering as to “spend time in aimless activity.” The Urban Dictionary proposes a more irreverent definition: to “busy oneself around the homestead pretending to look busy.” Finally, the Oxford American dictionary weighs in with this description of puttering: to “occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks or not concentrating on anything particular.”
Aimless Activity. . . Not Concentrating. . . Pretending to Look Busy
Do we see a theme here? To master the art of creative puttering, you need to have no goal or aim in mind, stop concentrating, and act like you’re busy doing something (but you’re really not).
My title “Master the Art . . .” is intended as tongue-in-cheek. When we see that phrase, it’s usually followed by something describing a skill that takes effort and study to master. Think French cooking, public speaking, or playing the piano.
Puttering is exactly the opposite of busying oneself with lofty goals to master anything. It’s all about letting go of deadlines, expectations for results, and yearnings for achievement.
The magic of puttering happens when your mind is at ease and free to float from one pleasant thought to the next. At the same time, puttering involves mild physical activity. It keeps you physically moving at an unhurried pace while you’re busy with small tasks.
In this way, puttering does not mimic traditional meditation. We generally sit still to meditate. Instead, puttering requires that you maintain a level of productivity and activity, using your body to perform little jobs that require minimal physical and mental exertion.
Puttering and Thinking: A Kinesthetic Learning Style?
For more than 30 years, educators have been aware that many of their students are kinesthetic learners. They think and learn better when they’re moving and physically interacting with whatever they’re focused on.
This awareness of a kinesthetic learning style is based on the work of Dr. Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences, as explained in his book Frames of Mind (1983). Educators quickly realized that their students with kinesthetic learning styles could be more successful when they moved around the classroom and performed hands-on tasks. For these students, sitting still at their desks made thinking and learning more difficult.
According to Gardner, you don’t need to have a particular strength in any one type of intelligence to prefer that style of thinking and learning. In other words, you don’t need to be a gifted athlete or dancer to enjoy physical movement and hands-on activity when you’re thinking and learning.
I suspect that my tendency to spark new ideas while I’m puttering around the house and yard is connected to my kinesthetic learning style preference. I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t have research data to back up this claim. It simply appears to be a logical explanation, and for me, it’s true.
Puttering and Creativity: A Mild Form of Body Thinking
In their 1999 book Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein discuss the phenomenon of body thinking. When we perform physical tasks so often that the movements become automatic or unconscious, we no longer need to think about what we’re doing, and our minds become free to imagine and create.
In their chapter on body thinking, the authors present examples of body thinking by famously creative people, such as Mozart, Martha Graham, and Rodin. They describe “body imagination at work when the feel of muscle movement or physical tension or touch is enacted in order to think and create.”
I’m far from a genius, and my puttering in the backyard with the irises is far from the work of famously creative artists. But I think there’s a connection between easy physical activity (automatic or unconscious) and creative thinking.
Puttering through the Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges for all of us. Limiting our interactions outside of the home, we’ve been met with long, idle hours. What seemed novel and perhaps relaxing at the outset of the lock-down has become an exhausting burden.
Some people have occupied their time during the pandemic with multiple projects: cleaning and decluttering, gardening, painting, repairing, and improving their homes. Others of us have struggled simply to get dressed every day and accomplish minimal chores. Then, we feel guilty because we haven’t kept up with our busy friends and neighbors. So here’s a thought…
Puttering: The Antidote to Doldrums?
Schedule a few hours of creative “puttering.” Make sure it’s aimless and devoid of deadlines or expectations. The only requirement is that it should be pleasant, easy, and mildly active. Let your mind wander and see what creative ideas might pop into your head.