The Joy of Puttering

(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)

(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original home town of Rolla, Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek.)

Is it possible to go too far with being efficient, focused, and productive? Can we become too concerned – obsessed, even – with being productive and filling every waking moment with carefully prioritized, high-value activities? We make our cars and public transportation into rolling universities and diligently use transit time for self-education by listening or reading on our digital devices. We break down the day into small blocks of time and try to optimize the use of each block. But… are we making ourselves happy with these frenzied attempts to fill every minute of the day with baby steps of progress – or are we making ourselves crazy?

Photo by Aerd Altmann

In his story Nothing to Do for Three Weeks, Gordon MacQuarrie wrote about spending some time alone. He wanted to be away from home, family, and work; he needed a break from his routines and his busy life in the bustling city. The setting for his story was a small, isolated cabin on the shores of a beautiful lake. Nice; I am envious. But, while a small, isolated cabin on the shore of a beautiful lake is ideal, the location does not really matter. The most important element was being able to get away from his daily routines so he had time to relax… and putter.

“What is this puttering?” you may ask. Well, my dictionary says it is originally a British English term meaning “occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks or not concentrating on anything in particular. For example: Early morning is the best time of the day to putter in the garden.”

In that story of his three-week holiday, MacQuarrie wrote, “After the dishes, I put in some licks at puttering.” Note that he cleaned up the dinner dishes first, before he began puttering. Puttering is not intended to be an evasion of duties. An essential prerequisite for peaceful puttering is to have your work completed so it is not lurking in your mind, distracting you while you are trying to relax. It was only after the necessary work was completed that MacQuarrie could look around to see what caught his attention. He had no more to-do lists, no plan of action, and no deadlines. Now, he was truly free to relax and putter.

He wrote about his puttering. “Around the cabin there were incessant chores that please the hands and rest the brain. Idiot work, my wife calls it. I cannot get enough of it. Perhaps I should have been a day laborer. I split maple and Norway pine chunks for the fireplace and kitchen range. This is work fit for any king. You see the piles grow, and indeed the man who splits his own wood warms himself twice.” Splitting chunks of firewood may not be your idea of puttering so feel free to substitute your own set of small, desultory activities that “please your hands and rest your brain”.

In reviewing my published articles and my personal library, there is an abundance of evidence that I take efficiency and productivity seriously – despite a frequently dismal level of actual output. On the other end of the scale, I find only a few books that urge me to spend more time thinking about how I should live, rather than what I should be doing to fill up the hours of my day. (There is a difference.) I recently saw a short video of older people saying that their biggest regrets are the many things they didn’t do (lost opportunities and lost pleasures) because they were too busy spending all their time working. One lady summed it up perfectly, “I would have spent less time doing and more time being.”

Photo by yogesh morew

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl led the Kon-Tiki expedition on a drift voyage from South America to the Polynesian Islands, a trip of almost 8,000 kilometers – the distance between Beijing and Rome. A drift voyage meant that their balsa wood raft had no motor, only sails. There were no engine noises; they could hear the trade winds blowing across the water and they traveled exactly as fast as the wind and currents carried the raft. The crew of six took 101 days to travel to reach a tiny atoll near Tahiti. During the voyage, they had time for some world-class puttering.  As Heyerdahl wrote in his best-selling book, Kon-Tiki,

“The weeks passed. We saw no sign either of a ship or of drifting remains to show that there were other people in the world. The whole sea was ours, and, with all the gates of the horizon open, real peace and freedom were wafted down from the firmament itself.

“It was as though the fresh salt tang in the air, and all the blue purity that surrounded us, had washed and cleansed both body and soul. To us on the raft the great problems of civilized man appeared false and illusory – like perverted products of the human mind. Only the elements mattered.”

I recently began my own drift voyage, a 100-day adventure in simplifying and reinventing myself. No, I did not run away from home to sail across the Pacific; I could not abandon my responsibilities. I could, however, conduct a serious review of my behaviors and values – and I didn’t like some of what I saw. Much of my life was good and simple; most people would envy me. Still, I found that I wasn’t happy. Why not? Further self-examination provided some answers. Perhaps they will be true for you also.

Over the years, I had evolved into an increasingly efficient consuming/producing economic unit. The implied promise was that if I produce more and consume more, I will get more happiness. It wasn’t working out that way; despite all the good things in my life, I wasn’t happy and fulfilled. Instead, I felt resentful, guilty, and overwhelmed. In one of my daily walks, I asked myself what had happened. Why was I not happy and excited with my life? I had abounding freedom and opportunities. Most people around the world would eagerly exchange places with me. What was missing? What had changed? What was wrong?

Photo by Arek Socha

Upon further reflection, I realized that I had almost completely stopped doing many of the things that were my greatest pleasures in the past. Why? Too busy. What a sad excuse. Furthermore, I realized that, most of my day, I wasn’t even doing anything constructive and worthwhile. I was just checking items off a to-do list. That was when I identified the real villain, my greatest time robber. That was when I began to examine how routines become rituals.

I have long advocated the conscious formation of habits and routines. Routines are simply habitual actions in their optimum order. They reduce the time and energy required by the constant monitoring, selecting, and adjusting of activities. Really, we could say that routines are an alternative to thinking. There is nothing inherently wrong with routines. As labor-saving devices, they are highly effective; you don’t have to take time to think about how to do something. Plus, by having a specific, unvarying order, they keep us from forgetting something that might be important. For example: My morning routine is smooth, unvarying, and efficient. I don’t have to think about my first actions in the morning. I do things the same way, in the same order, every day.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

However, there is a danger in using those routines. Over time, conditions change. Even values change. Problems can arise when those routines become rituals. It is a short step for our routines to become fossilized into rigid patterns. Subsequently, it is easy for our days to be completely filled with endless repetition of those routines. Rituals are familiar and comfortable; they require no thought. However, if our life has changed, the rituals may actually be counterproductive. Huge blocks of time can be spent in religiously following our rituals merely because they are familiar and comfortable – no thinking required.

When routines have outlived their usefulness, they can hold us back with rituals that are not appropriate for our current conditions or values. Maybe they just have become filled with items of lesser importance. There is a great danger that, in allowing most of our day’s activities to become mere rituals, we may become fossilized ourselves and spend more time living in the past than looking forward into the future.

In my ruminations, I recalled some non-digital, non-desk activities which had been a pleasure in the past. I promised myself that I would make more time for them again. I have already begun. In the coming weeks, I will be spending more time on fun, non-digital things and spending less time in front of a computer screen. I spend more time being and less time doing. I will walk away from my desk and spend more time working with my hands – and I’ll be making more time for puttering, too.

Photo by Free Photos


(对于国际读者,请允许我解释一下。我是一个美国人,但我从2004年开始就住在中国。我的城市重庆,通常缩写为CQ,发音为Chong Ching,与Wrong Ring押韵。CQ是中国中南部的一个拥有3000万人口的特大城市,位于长江边上。我从我原来的家乡密苏里州罗拉市(Rolla, Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek)走了很长很长的路,准确的说是走了13个时区。)


在他的故事《三个星期无所事事》中,Gordon MacQuarrie写到了独处的时间。他想远离家庭、家人和工作,他需要从繁华都市的常规生活和忙碌的生活中解脱出来。他故事的背景是在一个美丽的湖畔的一个与世隔绝的小木屋。不错,我很羡慕。不过,在美丽的湖畔建一座与世隔绝的小木屋固然理想,但地点其实并不重要。最重要的因素是能够远离他的日常工作,所以他有时间放松……和推杆。

“什么是推杆?”你可能会问。嗯,我的字典里说,它原本是一个英国英语术语,意思是 “以一种无聊但愉快的方式占据自己,做一些小任务或不专注于任何特别的事情。例如:”清晨”。清晨是一天中最适合在花园里玩耍的时间”

在那篇关于他三周假期的故事中,麦夸里写道:”洗完碗后,我在推杆上投入了一些舔舐。” 请注意,他先把晚餐的盘子清理干净,然后才开始推杆。推杆不是为了逃避职责。安心推杆的一个基本前提是要完成你的工作,这样它才不会在你想放松的时候潜伏在你的脑海里,分散你的注意力。只有在完成了必要的工作之后,麦奎利才能四处看看有什么引起了他的注意。他没有了待办事项清单,没有行动计划,也没有最后期限。现在,他真正可以自由地放松和推敲了。

他写了他的推拿。”在小木屋周围有做不完的杂事,让手高兴,让大脑休息。白痴的工作,我妻子称之为。我对它百看不厌。也许我应该当个日工。我为壁炉和厨房的灶台劈开枫木和挪威松木块。这是适合任何国王的工作。你看这堆木头越长越多,事实上,自己劈木头的人可以让自己暖和两倍。” 劈柴块可能不是你的推手主意,所以你可以随意用自己的一套 “悦手安脑 “的小活动来代替。


1947年,挪威探险家托尔-海尔达尔率领康提基探险队从南美洲到波利尼西亚群岛进行漂流航行,行程近8000公里,相当于北京和罗马之间的距离。漂流航行意味着他们的轻质木筏没有马达,只有帆。没有发动机的声音;他们可以听到吹过水面的贸易风,而且他们完全按照风和洋流带着木筏的速度行驶。六名船员用了101天的时间,到达了大溪地附近的一个小环礁。在航行期间,他们有时间进行一些世界级的推杆运动。 正如海尔达尔在他最畅销的书《康提基》中所写的那样。






我一直主张有意识地形成习惯和常规。常规只是习惯性的动作,以其最佳顺序进行。它们减少了对活动的不断监控、选择和调整所需的时间和精力。真的,我们可以说,常规是思维的一种替代。例程本身并没有错。作为省力的设备,它们是非常有效的;你不必花时间去思考如何做某件事。另外,通过有一个特定的、不变的顺序,它们可以让我们不至于忘记一些可能很重要的事情。比如说 我的晨间例行公事是平稳的,不变的,高效的。我不需要考虑我早上的第一个动作。我每天都以同样的方式、同样的顺序做事情。




Author: Randy Green

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Puttering”

  1. Hi Randy, Glad to read your new blog. Your words always give me a power of peaceful life, and I also saw the video of older people saying that their biggest regrets are they don’t have courage to live the life they really want to, rather than the life others wish them to live. It’s also my problem those days, hhhha.
    My parents wish me to get married quickly, but I don’t meet the right guy and be ready to have a family. They also think school teachers are high status work, but the competition for becoming a school teacher is intensely. Life for me those days are full of stress and confusion. It’s a common sense for young people nowadays, hahaha, normal small thing.
    Hope I can get rid of all the work and life matters, everything will be better and better. Hope we all can follow our heart and go straight.
    Best wishes~

    1. Well, this is always a problem having been existing all long. It does exist and I can feel it, but I have never thought about it deeply and never tried to balance between the enjoyment and efficient also hard work. In my high school days, I was sure that college life would be easy and have so much free time. It’s so wonderful that I can escape the terrible and exhausting high school life! However, I suddenly realized that I must work hard for my study again, work for my new life and deal with so many unexpected things after entering the college. That means I went back to the busy and tiring pattern of high school days again! What’s more, what surprised me was that I was truly addicted and accustomed to that life pattern. I knew I give in. So, I think maybe in the future, when I go to career or something else like that, I will be still devoted to my career, which makes me energetic and positive for life. And at least at my present time as a student or teenager, I think, the busier my life is, the more precious my leisure time is and I will value it more. I haven’t found too much worries about the problem Randy meets so far. Perhaps I haven’t experienced as much as Randy or someone else, so I look like content and say words above. But I have a feeling that maybe I will encounter the same serious problem in the future(with myself aging). Still, I won’t change for the time being.

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