Month: November 2020

In defence of pottering

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.”

Be kind, always.

November 13th is World Kindness Day, a day for us all to come together to consider the ways in which we can all help to make the world a kinder place. I’ve been celebrating it since I first became aware of it in 2011 when my own exploration into the remarkable power of acts of kindness began. This year it feels even more important than ever for us to be kind to ourselves and others as we each manage the challenging and uncertain landscape ahead.

So many of us feel overwhelmed, right now. In the face of the huge challenges many of us are experiencing, it’s easy to feel powerless and despairing. Whenever I start feeling like this, I come back to this quote from Brad Meltzer, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always”. It reminds me to always have compassion for others and that kindness is always the answer. I promise you, whatever is going on for you, being kind will change things for the better.

In his recent book, Human Kind, Dutch Historian Rutger Bregman argues that humans evolved to be what he calls ‘pro-social’. In order to survive, we have had to cooperate and trust each other, to be kind, to love and care for each other. Yet we so often hear and share a bleaker version of the story of us: and it makes us fearful, causes division and anxiety. If we can learn to believe in human kindness and altruism and learn to trust each other we can achieve true and meaningful changes in our relationships and in society as a whole.

Practising kindness on a daily basis introduces you to a different version of the world. Really focusing on being kinder can fundamentally change the stories we tell and share about ourselves and others which in turn helps us to feel more hopeful that as challenging as things are, a better world is possible, and that we can all contribute to it. World Kindness Day offers us an opportunity for once to fill our social media feeds with joyful, inspiring stories of love, kindness and compassion, instead of conflict, discord and anger. This isn’t a fairy-tale version of human beings, we are as complex as life is, but that complexity includes kindness, empathy, love and compassion. We just don’t hear those stories as often and because of this, we’re in danger of losing hope and faith in each other.

It’s interesting to ponder: do the stories you tell yourself serve you and make you happy, or do they make you fearful and anxious? Hearing stories of kindness, or even better, being part of these stories ourselves, boosts serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters in the brain that give you the warm glow of well-being, lighting up the pleasure and reward centres in your brain. Acts of kindness can also release endorphins, a natural pain killer. Allowing yourself to connect with kindness can literally help lift yours out of a low mood. Even when things are tough, there is always something you can do to make things better. It needn’t need much time or money to do something nice for someone or indeed for yourself. It just needs you to find the courage to try it, and the rewards are immediate and transformative.

So, to help get the ball rolling, for World Kindness Day, I’ve got some ideas of fun and COVID proof things you can try. It’s worth emphasising the fun part – giving yourself permission to find pleasure in being kind is really important, kindness should bring you joy too, it shouldn’t be seen as a chore but as an act of love. Right now, when things seem so dark, you can discover the real magic and power of kindness: it can make a bad day good, put a smile on a sad face, bring comfort to a lonely heart or bring hope to a despairing soul. If you don’t believe me, try it…

COVID Kindness

A lot of the things I used to practise as daily acts of kindness aren’t appropriate now: but it made me think about the opportunities for the kindness that the pandemic has revealed. Here are some ideas: you will no doubt have some of your own brilliant ones – so think of these as a starter kit.

  • Create a Hope Box. I made myself a box of reminders of all the things that cheer me up and make life worth living as a way of being kind to myself. My box includes objects, words, images, photos, old tickets all sorts of bits and pieces that I can reach for them whenever I need to take care of myself and to remind myself of all the things, I’m grateful for.
  • Window dressing. Fill your windows with funny, kind, inspiring quotes or drawings for passers-by on World Kindness Day – explore your creative side.
  • Revive the art of letter writing. Imagine how lovely it is to receive a handwritten letter instead of a pizza delivery leaflet or a bill? Think of someone who’d really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and writing to them rather just texting ‘Wassup?’.
  • Send a hug through the post. For this, you need a roll of paper and a marker pen. Lay outstretched on the paper and get someone to draw around your outstretched hug. Post it to a loved one. Not as good as the real thing, but pretty good. This is a great one to do with kids as well. Imagine how lovely it would be for a grandparent to receive a hug from their grandchild in the post.
  • Create a playlist. Nothing moves people more than music, so why not send someone a link to the songs and music that you find uplifting and pass on the joy.
  • Send a care package. A friend recently sent me one of these: it had sweets, a face mask and a book of poetry. So simple and beautiful to receive.
  • Help clean up your local area. Do something kind for the environment. Channel your inner Womble, put some gloves on and pick up some litter in your local park or green space. You’ll be amazed at how many people thank you and how many people you inspire to do the same.
  • Feed the birds. If you can do this regularly, you’ll find your feathered friends will wait for you. Feed them things like black sunflower seeds, fatballs and oatmeal – visit for details.
  • Pet plan. Offer to walk someone’s dog who can’t get out and get some daily exercise. Or join and volunteer your dog walking skills
  • Hello gorgeous. Leave an uplifting chalk message or an inspiring quote on the pavement to make someone smile.

Lastly, don’t forget to wave! We can’t see each other smile or say hello with masks on! Look after yourself and each other and share your stories of kindness with us on the day – I hope you have lots of fun joining in. Kindness can change the world, and you can be part of that change.

Don’t worry, be happy.

A new biography has just been released, charting the life of Prof Anthony Clare, best known perhaps for chairing the popular Radio 4 programme ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’. However, he also offered his Seven Steps for Happiness, a guide to finding and maintaining that most elusive of emotions. I thought they were wonderful and, I’m going to read them regularly as we head towards shorter, darker days and, sometimes, spirits dip. Enjoy!

“Number one: cultivate a passion. It is important in my model of happiness to have something that you enjoy doing. The challenge for a school is to find every child some kind of passion — something that will see them through the troughs. That’s why I’m in favour of the broadest curriculum you can get.

“Number two, be a leaf on a tree. You have to be both an individual — to have a sense that you are unique and you matter — and you need to be connected to a bigger organism — a family, a community, a hospital, a company. You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. A leaf off a tree has the advantage that it floats about a bit, but it’s disconnected and it dies.

“The people who are best protected against certain physical diseases — cancer, heart disease, for example — in addition to doing all the other things they should do, seem to be much more likely to be part of a community, socially involved. If you ask them to enumerate the people that they feel close to and would connect and communicate with, those with the most seem the happiest and those with least, the unhappiest.

“Of course, there may be a circular argument here. If you are a rather complicated person, people may avoid you. If, on the other hand, you are a centre of good feeling, people will come to you. I see the tragedy here in this room where some people sit in that chair and say they don’t have many friends and they’re quite isolated and unhappy, and the truth is they are so introspective they’ve become difficult to make friends with. Put them in a social group and they tend to talk about themselves. It puts other people off.

“So that’s my third rule: avoid introspection.

“Number four, don’t resist change. Change is important. People who are fearful of change are rarely happy. I don’t mean catastrophic change, but enough to keep your life stimulated. People are wary of change, particularly when things are going reasonably well, because they don’t want to rock the boat, but a little rocking can be good for you. It’s the salt in the soup. Uniformity is a tremendous threat to happiness, as are too much predictability, control and order. You need variety, flexibility, the unexpected, because they’ll challenge you.

“Five, live for the moment. Look at the things that you want to do and you keep postponing. Postpone less of what you want to do, or what you think is worthwhile. Don’t be hide-bound by the day-to-day demands. Spend less time working on the family finances and more time working out what makes you happy. If going to the cinema is a pleasure, then do it. If going to the opera is a pain, then don’t do it.

“Six, audit your happiness. How much of each day are you spending doing something that doesn’t make you happy? Check it out and if more than half of what you’re doing makes you unhappy, then change it. Go on. Don’t come in here and complain. People do, you know. They come and sit in that chair and tell me nothing is right. They say they don’t like their family, they don’t like their work, they don’t like anything. I say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

And, finally, if you want to be happy, Be Happy. Act it, play the part, put on a happy face. Start thinking differently. If you are feeling negative, say, ‘I am going to be positive,’ and that, in itself, can trigger a change in how you feel.”