Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Defense of Puttering

Of course, there's a lot to do. To be fair, your life and obligations are different from mine, and so you have different imperatives. Still, a list of some type is staring you in the face as we speak. In my case, there are bills to pay, dishes to be put away and laundry to be done. OK, OK, in truth, I'm prohibited from helping with the laundry; throw a red shirt in with white socks just once (well, actually multiple times), and you're branded for life.

But you get the idea. Regardless of how your household runs and what tasks you are entrusted with, draw by default or pick up the slack when somebody else forgets it's their turn to take out the garbage, and the truck is coming, and if you don't get it to the curb in time it'll stack until next week and the cans will overflow and the raccoons will get into it and then what happens? Huh? Then what? Huh? Sorry, I digress. Personal issues. Where was I? Oh yes: the point is that there is a never ending list of things to do.  

Still, why is it that we can always find something else to occupy us? To be sure, it's partially because there are so many things to be occupied by. Doesn't have to be anything shiny or new, just something that has the potential of going from ignoring to focusing. Something that brings us pleasure to delve into, perhaps because unlike so many other to-do's, there's a start, an end and an actual result, all compressed into a tight time frame. And that is the very definition of puttering: "To occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks."

I should point out that, for me at least, this has historical roots. Let's say for school I had to look up some word in the dictionary, like "philosophy." When I flipped the pages, I came to "pharyngology" (the study of the throat), then "phenotype" (the way something looks), and so on. Each was certainly at least as interesting as philosophy, and demanded attention. And that's just because I wound up in the "ph's." If I had flipped differently and would up in the "j's?" Well, I might never get my homework done.  And don't even get me started on the encyclopedia.

Now, you can argue that that is distraction, not puttering, and you'd have a point. But it's the root. Now, I have a myriad of projects that are just lying there, many I don't even know exist until I stumble onto them. I'll be working away diligently at my desk, creating a budget or crafting a proposal or reviewing a draft, all good, productive things. I'll reach for something, like a stapler, and notice that that once again, I put it behind the calculator. A flash: wouldn't be it be nice if there was a slot for each so they reduced the clutter on my desk? And I seem to recall that, yes, in the storeroom down the hall, I saw a small shelf. Not quite right, but if I remove the left side, change the screws to something a little longer, and add some spacers, it might work! And voila! Before you can say "afternoon wasted" I'm deep into it.

Perhaps wasted is too strong. Many of these little projects actually do have a benefit. By figuring out a better way to prop up my pad in front of my exercise bike, I can read with less eyestrain as I pedal and make that downtime more productive. By sorting out the piles of cables in my office, I can more easily grab the one I need when I need it. By hanging up all my hats, I keep them in better shape and can more easily grab the one I want when I want it. Hardly on par with inventing Facebook, I know, but I'll take my triumphs where I can find them.

So putter on, I say. Just learn to keep it in perspective, and master the ability to tamp it down when something needs to get done, be it cooking dinner, cleaning out my backpack or writing a... hmmm. That fan on my desk would work a lot better if I hung it over there.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves projects, as long as they're his. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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