Day 29: ‘A degree in pottering’

Contributor: Jo:

During virtual coffee with a good friend last weekend she asked me “what have you achieved today?” As she went on to express her frustration and boredom at life under lockdown, and how she was rapidly running out of things to do, it occurred to me that firstly we were not experiencing lockdown in the same way emotionally, and that in a strange sort of way, my recent life had been preparing me for emotionally coping with ‘lockdown’ conditions long before they were imposed.

So how did I come to this mental place? After working full-time since 1995, about 7 years ago I reduced my hours and began to work part-time. This decision was in part triggered after finding myself in ‘Sainsbury’s’ doing a big food shop at 9.45pm, flying around the store before it shut, on my way home from an evening playing badminton, which I had gone to less than an hour after I arrived home from work. As I stood under the fluorescent lights, stressed and frazzled, wondering at the madness of that situation I decided to take a step back and live some of my life in the ‘slow lane’, to give myself time to actually enjoy it and do some of the things I wanted to do with my life. Now here unexpectedly in lock-down we are all to an extent being forced to do the same.

Sharing a day-time coffee with another friend soon after this, we discussed her new retirement lifestyle and how to achieve ‘the slow life’ on my non-working days, and she made me promise to ‘get a degree in pottering’. In attempting to achieve just that; – continuing to do the housework and DIY, see friends and family regularly, get more exercise, yet build in space to spend an hour or three reading a good book without feeling guilty, taking time to develop new hobbies – finding the balance between feeling like I haven’t wasted the day, but also living my life and taking ‘me’ time – I have found the skills and attitudes that now serve me well in our current situation.

What I initially found hard to deal with was the need to feel ‘productive’. When I first went part-time, people kept asking me what new things I had achieved with my 2 days off, as my friends ask me now ‘what have you achieved in lockdown?  Part of developing ‘a degree in pottering’ is considering ‘what is being productive?’ Who sets the measurement parameters for productivity? How have we all become innately measured by the marketplace, by the terms of business and busy-ness?

The pressure to fill every minute with ‘useful’ tasks as judged by ourselves and society now haunts us in lockdown.  As we are all now suddenly and unexpectedly confined to our homes for an extended period I hear rumours of landfill over-flowing, refuse collectors over-whelmed by the national frenzy of decluttering in order to be productive with our time; there is a national shortage of flour and yeast as the nation collectively bakes enough cakes to feed the five thousand. Certainly, ‘enforced leisure’ is a great time to catch up on those outstanding jobs. Since lockdown began I have achieved some ‘tick ‘em off’ items on both my working and non-working day lists. However, these are largely lifestyle changes for the better, and also things I should have done ages ago – such as sorting out ordering organic meat from a local farm, buying more things direct from local businesses, and holding more phone calls with friends; ‘pottering’ can also disguise a good deal of procrastination… as the pile of junk in the dining room not taken to the tip before they shut also testifies…

So over time I have re-framed what I consider ‘productive’. Is it achieving lots of ‘goals’ or having a good day? I consider the notion of the things ‘to do’. I look it up in the dictionary and see several different interpretations including ‘to take action’, to complete a task’, and ‘to be occupied with something’. I think we get too hung up on the notion of ‘complete a task.’ On an alternative Covid-19 lockdown to-do list,  we could include, I didn’t get ill today, I supported a friend having a hard time, I cooked a delicious (if I say so myself) and nutritious meal without ‘popping to the shop’ for any missing ingredients, or I relaxed and read some of a book (not even a whole one).

I am thus in no danger of running out of things ‘to do’. As we enter lockdown for another 3 weeks, I realised that from the start I have been mentally prepared and ready for 3 MONTHS of lockdown, ever since the first rumours that the elderly and those with health conditions might have to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Way back in early March I made a huge ‘lockdown list of things to do’, including many activities I have been meaning to find time for for a while which keep me busy alongside the usual weekly and daily sourcing and preparing of food, and house-cleaning (which now takes a lot longer than it used to!), and the seasonal gardening tasks. And I am working from home 3 days a week, and that comes with its own comprehensive list of things to do. My virtual coffee friend teased me that I probably still wouldn’t have finished all the jobs on my ‘lockdown list’ by the time the pandemic is over, and to be honest with you she’s probably right!

This is underpinned by my habit of writing more on the list than could possibly be achieved in the given time-frame, even by superwoman! Plus, I don’t feel the pressure to have them all the items done on the allocated day; they will keep for another day, and time is one thing we have a lot of currently. This is the beauty of the ‘pottering’ paradigm. I also have a simple solution to the pressure of completing the ‘things to do list’ – before all this started, another friend and I laughed as we both admitted that we secretly add things on to our lists that we have already done that day, and then immediately cross them off just to satisfy the psychological need to feel like we’ve been useful.

So gaining my ‘degree in pottering’ has involved recalibrating what ‘productive’ means for me It has involved stepping away from the pressure to ‘achieve’ in terms of constantly complete tasks, and gained acceptance of the process of ‘doing’ as equally valuable. I am not bored, I have plenty to do, and time to do it in. I am not ‘filling my time’ for the next 3 weeks, but adapting my life to the on-going situation. This isn’t to say I don’t have bad days too, when the enormity of the global situation, the inability to physically visit friends and family, and the long-term possibly permanent nature of these changes hits me, but on a day to day basis for now, I am pottering along reasonably well.

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