Column: Thinking about the act of puttering

It is really about a mindset rather than an action.

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Kathleen Murphy
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I’d like to talk about puttering.

We all know this term, correct? It means to move about aimlessly, ideally working on something, but in a random fashion. Emptying the dishwasher, but not getting around to filling it because you noticed the plants above the kitchen sink need watering. Watering the plants is a fairly mindless job, so while doing it, you remembered that one book you meant to look for and … oh! This would be a good time to rearrange that one book shelf in the den.

Puttering. Tinkering, some call it. When I use either word, my mind naturally goes to an image of an older man, balding and pants belted high up on his waist, in a woodworking shop. I have no idea where this image came from, but it is firmly implanted and has forever made me associate the word puttering with an old man.

I am a middle-age woman. Yet… puttering is my favorite thing to do. I live for those long stretches of time in my week, that rare five hours (or — gasp! — an entire day?) strung together where I have nothing else to do. It has to be a long stretch of time, of course. The act of puttering is not conducive to short bursts. I need time to ease into puttering, which feels weird to say now that I’ve written it down and am looking at my words, but it’s true. Have a cup of coffee, read a book, catch up on the news, then transition into puttering around the house.

I think it’s because successful puttering is really about a mindset rather than an action. You want to get things done, but have no preference as to what those things are. You’re feeling productive, but aimless. Energized, yet slow. Puttering can only be found in that sweet spot of conflicting emotions. When you find the right place, it is balm for the soul.


What if you are in that sweet spot, but you need to get out of the house? It can happen. No one said emotions have to be tidy and organized, after all. I like to putter on walks, though it feels more like a slow walk and carefully checking out my surroundings than puttering. And truthfully, there is something about walking and being active that counteracts the feeling that I am successfully puttering.

Which leaves the Sunday Drive.

It is capitalized, because this is a real thing. An event. A Sunday Drive, for those of you too young to have heard of this phenomena, simply entailed the entire family piling into the car, aimlessly driving around for a few hours, then returning home. It was considered a relaxing family activity.

As anyone with restless kids knows, it was rarely relaxing. Though I enjoyed those Sunday Drives and have a lot of good memories of them, I’m sure my parents have other Sunday Drive memories. Memories that entail them snarling at us to stop poking each other and no, for the final time, we are not going to stop at A&W for an ice cream. Because we are just out to enjoy a quiet family drive, that’s why.

We usually did end up stopping for an ice cream, though. We were puttering around town, after all. We had no formal agenda, but rather loosely formed ideas of places to go, should the hood of our ’79 Impala point in that direction. We were simply looking at neighborhoods, checking out that far-flung tree-lined street a neighbor once told us was beautiful, or hoping to hit the Oliver Bridge at the same time as a train. Puttering. We have goals, are doing and seeing things we want to see, but finding new things, too. It didn’t matter where we ended up or what we did. So why not stop for an ice cream?

I don’t hear people talk about Sunday Drives anymore. They were a popular form of entertainment in the 1950s and ’60s, when the family car was a newer idea and there were fewer screens to distract the kids. My husband and I took a lot of Sunday Drives when the kids were younger, which makes me wonder whether it has evolved into a form of puttering that one does primarily in an effort to contain the kids but still spend time together. Or maybe to get the youngest to finally go down for that nap.

Regardless of where you find yourself, try to find time in the next few weeks to reacquaint yourself with the act of puttering. Be aimless. Move from one thing to the other as the mood strikes you. Remind yourself that you are, indeed, being productive. Enjoy.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at

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