In Praise of Dawdling (Now There’s a Word You Don’t Hear Everyday)

The title of this post was originally In Praise of Puttering. But as I was out on a walk that can only be accurately described as being of the ‘dawdling’ variety, I opted to switch gears. As much as I love an opportunity to showcase some alliteration (thank you Mr. Howland, Grade 12 English), I think dawdling is an underutilized word and wanted to give it a brief moment in the spotlight.

(Puttering makes me think of an old grandfather out cruising around in a tiny boat on the lake wearing a tattered fishing vest with a thermos of coffee at his feet. Which does, admittedly, sound charming. Dawdling, on the other hand, seems to have a slightly rebellious edge. As if to say: “I see you, clock, and I raise you a good old-fashioned dawdle.” Though I don’t think there was much time for dawdling a few generations ago – what with no electricity, centralized plumbing, or supermarkets.)

Whatever you want to call it – dawdling, puttering, happy idling, wasting time – I think we would all do well to have more of it in our lives.

Twice last week I came home from the walk to school in a…mood? I wasn’t grumpy, per se, but still felt an unsettling discontent I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The sun was shining, the kids were back in school. What was amiss?

For starters, I had a lot of accumulated work tasks, my floors were a disaster and the garbage can under the sink was overflowing and smelled funny (never a good sign in a house with small children). My boots and entryway were leaking. But despite all these things, I couldn’t actually identify the common theme; I just knew I was feeling “off”.

One glance at my to-do list felt rather crushing. It was all doable, but I didn’t want to do any of it. And I knew if I wanted to have any chance of getting it all done before the kids arrived home from school, I needed to get cracking.

But what I really wanted to do was putter.

If you’re not on speaking terms with these states of being, count yourself in good company. These character traits don’t exactly make the evening news. Yet one of my favourite things to do is to putter.

Here is the internet definition: to spend time in a relaxed way doing small jobs and other things that are not very important.

Why do I feel ashamed to admit, then, how much I enjoy puttering? This definition sounds pretty wonderful to me.

Maybe my shame stems from the fact I’m hard-wired to seek out those things that are “important”. Maybe it’s because I live in a society that tells me I need to produce more, do more, experience more?

For some, puttering might be tinkering with an old computer, knitting a dishcloth, sitting down with a tote full of LEGO, or doodling on the back of an envelope. And, sadly, puttering can headline as “wasted” time.

Of course in hindsight, we might conclude Steve Jobs’ puttering led to an tech empire. I hazard a guess that a large number of architects got their start “puttering” with a basement collection of vividly-coloured Danish building blocks.

Might puttering, then, be a key to fostering creativity and, perhaps, even more efficiency? When I read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, one of the biggest takeaways for me was the (often staggering) amount of time people spent walking or puttering around their homes/gardens (or inebriated; there was also a lot of inebriation).

Do I dare set forth here the most important, the most useful rule of all education? It is not to save time, but to squander it.

Jean–Jacques Rousseau

When I putter, I lose track of time. I’m often in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow”. I move from activity to activity without much thought. Folding the towels in the bathroom, wiping down the counter, lining up the shoes in the entryway, opening the stack of mail on the counter, pulling weeds out of cracks in the front walkway.

So last week, before I tackled my to-do list, I spent a chunk of time…puttering.

I know that the kids will pull down the hand towel in the bathroom and leave it in a pile by the sink (if they wash their hands at all, sigh). I know the shoes will spill off the boot tray again. The fridge will get disorganized, the dishes in the drainer will end up dirty again, the clothes will find their way back into the laundry basket (or inside out on the floor, double sigh) and LEGO will get pulled from bins.

But I did these sorts of tasks anyway. It was light and easy. I didn’t rush. I just moved from room to room, quietly resetting the spaces. Watering plants. Pushing chairs in around the table. Nothing was on a list, nothing happened in a set order and I wasn’t working toward a singular goal. But I gave myself a break – engaging my mind in an activity that was so undemanding and cathartic, it felt like I’d finished a yoga routine by the end of it all.

And then I went downstairs to the office with a cup of tea, put on some tunes, and churned through my to-do list with a level of efficiency I know I couldn’t have achieved without allowing myself the “luxury” of time spent puttering.

Perhaps, then, the rationale for saying Yes to something doesn’t have to be based on the outcome? Sometimes the answer can be: it’s for the journey and what that experience offers me.

The way to the park is an important part of the experience.

Linda Akeson McGurk

Here comes my turn for some self-talk. How often do I tell the kids to pick up their pace on a walk…to the park? How many times do I tell them to stop chasing the butterfly so we can finish our game of pick-up soccer? How many times do I try to maximize the efficiency of our bedtimes or baking routines or just about any other activity I can try to hack and tweak to edge it ever closer to the stage where it reeks of efficiency and productivity?

Often, friends. I do this often.

Most of life seems like a means to an end. But the way to the park can be just as much fun as the park itself. I know this, of course, but need regular reminders.

I move at a slower pace than many – I’m an introvert with low energy. Yet I still often feel like I’m moving at a pace faster than ideal.

It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.

Eddie Cantor

Sometimes I put on music and clean up the house with relentless efficiency; in essence, I drill-sergeant the experience. And that approach has a place.

But when I putter, I think I’m better at remembering the underlying purpose behind those “small jobs and other things that are not very important“.

I put the house back in order so it’s a calming place for our family to make memories. I putter with the book collection on my bedside table so they’re displayed where I’ll see them, making me far more likely to pick them up. Or I might spend time chopping up veggies for the week and simmering a soup; when I do these tasks slowly and mindfully, without the pressure of hungry bellies, I remember the purpose. I cook and clean and shop so that we can eat together, nourishing our bodies and family relationships (outside of bedtime, the dining room table is the main venue for deep conversation in our household).

Our society – myself included – has become so outcome-directed. Even our hobbies have to produce something; turn those knitted Star Wars characters into a booming Etsy shop, train for an Ironman, day-trade on the side, start posting yoga videos to a YouTube channel. And this can be great…until it’s not.

I’m not promising every time you putter you’ll end up becoming more efficient and productive at the other end. I’m not promising a transcendent experience while you wipe down the kitchen counters. I love those outcomes too, but sometimes they can’t be the only reason we say yes to adding something to our schedule.

What if we didn’t go to bed early so we could wake up early to get a jumpstart on responding to work e-mails? What if we went to bed early because it feels nice and so we can wake up early (or not) and relax in bed with a book or organize our sock drawer (I really do love doing this) or sketch or talk on the phone with our Mom or play with our cats or spend an hour drinking a single cup of tea or browse workout videos on Pelaton or play Beethoven on our piano or pick the lint out of our belly buttons if that’s what we so desire.

Just like we might need to learn to fail on purpose, I think we have a lot of work to do in learning how to…not be so efficient.

I’m sure I will continue to do many things more productively than necessary because I enjoy being productive. I enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from checking off boxes and helping others and contributing to a cause. I have obligations to meet – at work, in my relationships, at home.

But I’m trying to set time aside each day to putter, dawdle, and indulge in unstructured time. It can be hard to remember that life is made to be lived, not simply managed. And puttering might just be a good first step toward recognizing this distinction.

As any parent knows, children do this instinctively. I don’t have to cajole my youngsters to stop to look at the ants marching across the sidewalk, beg them to throw a rock off the bridge into the river below, or take an hour to put on two socks and a pair of pants.

So let’s raise a glass to Puttering, Dawdling, and Idling. Let’s welcome them like long-lost friends and get reacquainted…they have a lot to offer.

What about you? Anyone else enjoy puttering?

Photo by Rayson Tan on Unsplash

31 thoughts on “In Praise of Dawdling (Now There’s a Word You Don’t Hear Everyday)”

  1. I love puttering! I think for me, it’s the days when A and I are at home together with nothing we really have to do, but a few errands we can do. I just love those days when we might cuddle and chat in bed for a while, then go and take back library books, then just drive around and chat and look for cool things, then post a few letters, etc… I get a huge amount of happiness and sense of achievement from those days!

  2. Ah… puttering. Yesterday I had a bunch of errands to do and I was very aware of the time, how much I had left before I picked up my daughter. As I left the library, hurriedly glancing at my watch, I had a sudden longing for the days when the kids were little, and sometimes it felt like all we did was dawdle. If they wanted to spend a half hour in the library parking lot looking at rocks, fine! I was usually trying to stretch out every activity to fill the time. I don’t think I fully appreciated how luxurious that was, when we were rarely in a hurry (I’m talking about little, little kids- before school schedules.)
    Your post reminds me that I occasionally need to under-schedule a day here and there, to experience that incredibly luxurious feeling of having “too much time.” Thank you!

    1. I had a HARD time with the dawdle stage with the kids, especially once we had two kids at slightly different stages. I do love efficiency, so it was sometimes a hard pill to swallow. But I think I’m getting better at this as they age? Maybe because there is slightly less dawdling, but also that I’ve got more life-awareness and realize that when I get to the bottom of my to-do list, it’s just more to-do’s. Better to sprinkle life with lots of white space, as I’m able, and to even leave that white space open with no strings attached (e.g. I MUST nap on Sunday afternoons, when what I really feel like is reading a book or watching a movie).

  3. I’m a slacker from way back. I embrace my slothiness, and feel that because I can putter and dither like no one’s business, I actually accomplish more when I get around to doing it. It’s all about focus. Do nothing for a few hours, balance it with doing something for a few hours– and just like that I’m feeling good about my life. Great topic for a post, btw.

    1. Please write about this! I’d love to see your take.
      Glad you’ve learned (or maybe always have) to embrace your “slothiness.”
      I will say that I’m learning that regardless of how I approach my official to-do list, it almost always gets done. But often, but being slightly lazier about it, it’s faster. For example, I have some very big email threads with various people on a project. When each new thread would come in, I’d try to chime in. Now, I let them stack up for a while (say, half the day), and then read the 10 emails at once. Generally, anything I would have asked gets answered and I can really concentrate on all the information which is in a more complete form.
      It’s hard for me to do this because I feel like I need to pounce on any outstanding task…but in reality, I’m often far better served to leave it to simmer for a while.

  4. This is why I have a dog! Three times a day, I get to go outside and meander with nothing else on my mind. The dog is allowed to sniff and stop and stare and do whatever she wants while I just do a whole lot of nothing. We do have a “no lollygagging” rule when crossing streets and she seems to understand that this is the only time she has to hustle (I misspelled this word three times before I stumbled on the correct spelling, so now I’m starting to doubt that any of the words I have typed so far are actual words).
    I also love a random day when I can put these puttering things on my to-do list and just slowly cross them off. I just want a to-do list with everything crossed off!!

    1. Oh. my. goodness. How did I miss lollygagging? I really need to get you to start reading the drafts of my posts because you always end up having these killer suggestions (like the one about not forgetting attachments which definitely struck a chord with lots of people). Lollygagging is as good a word as Ralph and Margeurite were names.

      I can never remember how to spell accommodation or occasionally. I cheated now and looked up the occasionally. I always want to add an extra “s.” The single “s” just looks very lonely.

      Great point about having a dog!! Your descriptions of your walks sound lovely. I have to admit dawdling with kids can really, really stress me out. I get antsy because I have to keep my mind engaged (Oh. Look at that shiny beetle on the ground. or NO! You absolutely cannot jump off that 10-ft post). But maybe that just goes to show that I have a long way to go in my dawdling skills.

  5. This perfectly describes why parts of the pandemic were such a blessing for me (recognizing fully that NOT ALL PARTS OF IT were/are). I went from commuting 2 hours/day to not at all, for 15 months, and now I only go into the office 2-3 days a week. The days at home, where I can allow myself to ‘putter’ while getting geared up for productivity (which I also enjoy) are a total game-changer because the puttering actually makes me feel like I have a handle on our home. When I need a mental break, there isn’t much outlet in my office but at home I can fold a load of laundry or sweep the kitchen. I know this sounds like absolute torture to some people but man – it is life-changing for me. I don’t do well with clutter or things being out of place and enjoy being able to re-set everything…and now there’s time/opportunity to do so! Which means in the evening, I get to sit on the couch and drink tea and be idle. Winning all around. Thanks for articulating this concept so nicely!

    (important note: this is only possible because we have had full-time daycare throughout the pandemic and my now-kinder-aged older son is in full-time in-person school…so the house is empty during the day while I’m in it. I know not everyone has this luxury)

    1. This is a great point. The tasks that we do that can be considered “puttering” vary significantly. I’m so glad that elements of the pandemic have really helped you capitalize on this approach to life; there have been some silver linings.
      I like to putter and write out cheques.
      I love to straighten pillows and books, but don’t really like to sweep or do laundry.
      I’m not into gardening, but know this is a HUGE draw for many people.
      I loathe ironing (one of my least favourite tasks in the house and I do it about once a year and still begrudge it the one time I engage in the activity), but other people find it very calming.

      Also, a great point about childcare (for readers with children). Puttering with the kids home is rarely relaxing for me and they don’t really enjoy puttering in the same way I do. So my best puttering happens when the house does not include anyone under the age of 12.

  6. This and the comments have been a great read for me. As the mom of a 2 year old, so much of my day is a push-pull between extending out every dawdle (“you want to keep scooping sand for another 15 minutes? wonderful!”) to OMG PLEASE STOP STALLING AND ALLOW ME TO HELP YOU WITH YOUR SHOES ALREADY! 😉 I hope that, like one of the commenters above, I will look back on this phase as sweetly slow. And I can certainly do more in the moment to recognize that I’m the only one who pays if I’m getting frustrated by having to cajole/jostle/harass.

    1. Isn’t this so true. The sand AND the shoes example – every mother can relate to these exact experiences.

  7. This is GLORIOUS! Huzzah for puttering! I so enjoyed this piece of writing, Elisabeth. The opportunity to delve into why everything—as you say—has to be based on the outcome. Thank you for reminding me that we can just do things…because. I do try to keep a mindset towards this, but oftentimes I forget and find myself caught in that cycle. Glad to be connecting with you!

  8. Oh, how I love puttering. And how ‘guilty’ I sometimes feel for it… but the more important question is “why, and when did we stop seeing puttering as something normal? Because as you point out, kids are natural putterers! And we were once, too.
    I think you hit the nail no the head when you said that our society has become very outcome-directed and unless you have something “to show for”, why even do it? But I agree with you that there is a lot to gain from just puttering. In fact, I feel puttering makes time “slow down” and let our minds wander (and sometimes come up with the most amazing thoughts – and sometimes even solutions to bigger problems ;)).

    It’s comparable to the experience of “sleeping on something”… when you let your mind go still for a moment, it’ll (s)putter into gear again with full force.

    1. A great connection – just like sleeping, I think “puttering” helps our brains disengage long enough to refresh our outlooks. Even if we don’t/can’t consciously go into puttering looking to get solutions to big questions or challenges, it does often give that very result.

  9. I love to potter (the word we use in these parts) it is my favourite way to spend a weekend. I totally hear you that it is a great way to reset your brain when you have work to do. Pottering at the weekend is my reset after a busy week. I am sure that we feel ashamed to admit that we enjoy it as you so rightly say later in the post that we are so driven by results and pottering does not produce results, it produces an ‘absence’ as no one but you knows that you have done that thing, as most often no one notices. In fact they have that annoying habit of only noticing the things that you haven’t done!

    Pottering is a breathing out/expansive activity one that is self led/free form, a focused activity is one that is a breathing in/contractive activity, we need both during our day to help us feel balanced.

    Dawdling is an interesting one, I hear you on getting frustrated I so remember feeling that way. I miss that time now, something I never thought I would say. However I would expect that children do not see is as dawdling, they are living in the moment, so if we frame it as dawdling does that mean that we are not living in the moment? Are we onto the next thing before what we are doing now is over? Is pottering/puttering not a form of dawdling to those that are focus driven as you are not getting on with the work you are meant to be doing? I am being devils advocate here and not at all critical of what you did, I potter/putter when I need a break, it is vital as I have said above with the breathing in/out activities. We need our potter/putter time lets all celebrate its wonderfulness (if that is a word!)

  10. I like to walk around the yard in the middle of the day. There’s no particular agenda, and since I’m just in my yard I’m not exactly doing much by way of exercise, but it’s good to just let the mind wander for a bit. I tend to think that anything you enjoy doing isn’t a waste of time.

    1. Great idea!
      I’ve been trying to leave for the bus a little early so I get to fit in a short leisurely walk around nearby neighbourhoods before the kids get home.
      Fresh air and “puttering” is a winning combo.

  11. Oh, how I love to putter! That may be my favourite hobby (kept the ‘U’ in favourite, for your benefit). Slowly, somewhat mindlessly setting things in order restores my soul. Highly recommend it, especially to people with noisy heads like mine.

    1. Do you not write favourite the correct way? And now that you’re a dual-citizen? This may be a deal-breaker, Joy!

      “Slowly, somewhat mindlessly setting things in order restores my soul.” – Yes. This exactly.

  12. Such a good reminder about the value of puttering. When I was home with my two youngest kids, I would periodically track my time and there would be huge swaths of my day that were labelled: “Putter and keep kids alive.” “Putter” feels like a good catch all phrase for the things I do when I feel like I should be doing other things but can’t because i need to keep half an eye on the toddler.
    I might take a little offense at the notion that these tasks are “not important” though. Perhaps a small putter spree will save me from having to dedicate a half hour later of deep cleaning, or looking for my keys or socks or what not. It’s that “if you can do it in two minutes do it now” idea. Though maybe without the intentionality of being productive.

    1. Absolutely regarding “important” – that was simply the internet definition. And you’re so right; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

  13. I love puttering – but my definition of that is only doing things that don’t need to be done. For example – folding laundry, picking up all the toys and putting them back in their place, or any type of cooking is firmly in the “chore” camp for me. Puttering is rearranging all my books by color, or re-organizing my yarn collection, or looking through my stationary box just to see what’s in it. On the very rare occasion that I take a day off of work when the kids are in school, this is what I end up doing, despite the to-do list I had planned. But whatever you consider puttering, continue to do it!

    1. Hmmm. I call those things chores when I’m aiming to get them done vs puttering when I’m just doing them mindlessly without any clear goal (i.e. I need to scrub the toilets and put away the laundry). I might “putter” by putting away the pile of socks on my dresser because I happened to just see them there. But I can definitely see where my puttering (mostly household tasks) can very quickly switch into “chore” zone.

      Color-coding books is such a fun activity! Or arranging books by height on a bookshelf is something else I really like doing.

  14. Wow – you’ve picked up lots of followers/friends through your blog! Have to admit I’m not much of a putterer or a dawdler – I think because of some health issues over the years, I approach each day as if it might be my last, which can be overwhelming, but it’s my truth these days. My goal in life has become figuring out a way to spend more time in Toronto/Kingston with the kids. I’m keeping busy with my soul smiles cards and making little outfits for baby Noelle and baby Ada – before I got into the writing business, I made toddlers’ clothing for 15 years, which allowed me to stay home with my kids – such a privilege. Happy to hear your news – we’re off to Georgia for March, but I’d love to have coffee, maybe in April! Hope spring comes soon.

    1. Hi Jan,
      Always lovely to hear from you. What exciting news about the two grandbabies. Enjoy the time in Georgia; that sounds like a great way to spend the last big month of Canadian winter and I’ve gone ahead and made a note in my planner to reach out in April to arrange that coffee date!

  15. I just used the word dawdling in a text today to a couple of friends to describe Paul’s behavior when we are trying to get out of the door in the morning! You are right that kids are excellent at dawdling or puttering. I am always trying to maximize efficiency so this a major challenge to me. We had a really awful bedtime last night, probably because of the time zone switch. As I was laying there waiting for Paul to fall asleep, I kept thinking how I wished I had my phone so I could read while laying there. I hated that I couldn’t make the most of my time! That is something that I really need to work on. It’s definitely completely self-imposed but I am sure our ‘go go go’ culture has contributed.

    1. To be fair to you – sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to enjoy and when you’ve been around your child all day, it isn’t necessarily going to be enjoyable to spend even more time together…so I don’t blame you for wanting to “make the most” of your time which would be nicest if you were reading.

  16. I had NO idea that dawdle was such a commonly used word. The only family that ever used it growing up was… mine. 🙂 We were very much a go-go-go kind of family. What’s fun is that my parents – and my father in particular – are now champion putterers, dawdlers, ditherers, and dinkers. (All of which are relatively synonymous in my chaotic mind. :>)

    Thank you for this, though I truly, truly stink at puttering. I cannot just, well, BE. I have to BE DOING. And it drives me bonkers. I wish I didn’t have this constant need to do, to achieve, to… move forward doing something, anything.

    I do putter on Sunday mornings, though. Cleaning things up and out. Recycling the stack of magazines/papers/whatever have piled up that are bugging me. Finding things to donate (always…). Cleaning out the sock drawer (yes! I love it, too!)… those are some of the best and fastest hours in my week.
    Thanks for reminding me how important they actually are. <3

    1. I do love puttering. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay to putter because I tend to be hard on myself for doing it. Ironically, I’m almost always far more productive at my must-do tasks when I’ve given my brain a break and spent time puttering.
      Sock drawer cleaning for the win! And yes, I know lots of work/life balance gurus talk about making sure to reserve the weekend for leisure, but puttering around on tasks that set my week up is very relaxing and helps me enjoy my leisure time more.

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