At my absolute busiest in my 40s, with three children and a seriously ill father, my life was a constant mad juggle.
When I look back, I don’t know how I did it all — rising at the crack of dawn to make dinner for later, flinging together breakfasts and packed lunches, getting to school for 8.10am and then commuting across London to work a full day.
Then there was my dad. Often in the evenings I sat and watched TV with him, but there were hospital appointments and stays, too. One time he was in hospital at the same time as one of my children (so that was handy).
And though I don’t regret a single minute of that period of my life, because I was pleased to have spent so much time with him, I found myself quite isolated after such a long period of caring and then grief.
In her 40s, Anna McGovern was looking after her three children and her seriously ill father while working a full-time job and commuting to London every day. Picture: Stock
So I overcompensated by being a people-pleaser; I did things for others that were a massive effort for me and no one even seemed to notice. I said it was no problem at all when people cancelled at short notice or turned up late.
Around the same time, I was applying for new jobs and not getting them. I had the right experience and skills, but probably didn’t come across as having the required energy and ‘hunger’, because I was so emotionally tired.
When I didn’t get an interview for one particular role that I’d thought I would be great for, it triggered a ‘why am I even bothering’ moment, and I booked off one day a week for several weeks to get some time back for myself. It was nearly always a Tuesday.
I lent a sheen of legitimacy to this part-time career break by ‘having some plans’. I was going to do two things: clear out the loft and build a very small brick wall around the flowerbeds in my garden. To this day, I have done neither of those things.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those Tuesdays would become my pottering days. And they changed my life.
How? It’s not that much of a mystery. A woman who has done too much for too long gets totally overwhelmed and then allows herself to have a rest.
And yet pottering is more than just restful — it’s an opportunity to take pleasure in small things. It teaches you to be resourceful, patient and slow. Crucially, your time is your own.
I don’t have a lot to show for my Tuesdays, because faffing about having a think doesn’t look all that productive, but giving yourself time and effort is hugely beneficial, no matter how you choose to do it. After six Tuesdays off, I was more relaxed and had a different outlook — and I got that new job.
I feel so strongly about the benefits of my Tuesday pottering, and how it can be the perfect antidote to the chaos of midlife, that I have written a book about it — my tribute to a gentle art.
Anna defines pottering as keeping herself busy but without a plan or purpose – such as completing a household task like the laundry, or something else non-essential
So what exactly is pottering? I would say it’s occupying oneself in a pleasant way, but without a definite plan or purpose.
It could be a small household task — something non-essential, but pleasurable to do, even if the pleasure you derive from it is tiny. Oiling a hinge, for example. The act may seem inconsequential, but you’ll find yourself swinging the door to and fro in a satisfied manner, then standing back to admire your work.
Pottering is not glamorous. It is not a lifestyle concept and it doesn’t require practice. Instead, it has an honesty and lack of affectation about it.
Here are my key principles of pottering to give you the best chance of contentment:
Don’t try too hard
Pottering is a flexible activity that exists on a spectrum of thoroughness. It can take a moment (sweeping crumbs off a tablecloth), or you could spend weeks doing it (discovering new places as you wander along a coastal walk on holiday).
BE FREE FROM YOUR PHONE
Relaxing with your phone is not pottering.
The pull of social media, the stress of comparison and the fear of missing out can make you feel empty and overwhelmed.
Give yourself the freedom to let go of all that pressure.
With pottering you are usually doing one thing at a time, so you can’t be on social media, too.
Plus, the activities are often so inconsequential that you’re unlikely to want to post about them online.
Has Kim Kardashian ever shared a picture of herself flicking a tea towel at a cobweb on the ceiling? No, she has not.
Not trying too hard doesn’t mean not trying at all, however. It is not about sitting in your onesie in front of the TV. Pottering is relaxing because you are occupied.
Use what you’ve got
When you potter, you don’t need any special equipment. It’s about living simply and making do with what you have.
‘Got to wait in for a delivery,’ you sigh to friends, who nod and sympathise. However, on the inside you’re quite looking forward to seven hours of being at home with not much to do.
When ambition is slight and requirements are limited, making do with what you’ve got keeps the pressure off.
You can potter about by folding the laundry or tidying the cutlery drawer, for example. Decant all spoons, knives, forks, peculiar utensils and old prosecco corks. Extract the tray, tip it upside down and bang over the bin. Put everything back in, minus the fluff and crumbs, then move on to the next thing.
Keep it local
The ebb and flow of pottering activities sometimes requires you to ‘pop out’ to get or do something, such as having a pair of shoes re-heeled or going to the shop to get bin bags.
Keeping it local is as much about a state of mind and a sense of community as it is convenience. The Southern African word ubuntu alludes to this: ‘I am because we are’.
When you take a short walk you start to become connected with the people around you: neighbours, local businesses and people walking their dogs.
Try not to rush
The distinguishing feature of pottering, as opposed to jobs around the house, is the slow pace at which you do it.
Do you find yourself doing something small ahead of doing something important? You cannot start filling in your passport form until you have wiped down the kitchen and emptied the bin, for example. You’re setting easy targets in readiness for the more difficult task ahead.
Movement is a key part of this. It is this movement, while doing something the tiniest bit useful, such as removing lint from a dryer, that can help to empty your mind — much like tai chi.
When you potter, you are absorbed in a task and, because there are no demands upon you, you can achieve a sense of freedom and relaxation.
Adapted from Pottering: A Cure For Modern Life, by Anna McGovern (£12.99, Laurence King), out on October 26.