When Doing Absolutely Nothing Is the Greatest Luxury

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Take note: The hot new trend is puttering. Yes, puttering. To "putter" is to 1) move or act aimlessly or idly, 2) to work at random, or tinker. And who has time for that in this 24-hour-news-cycle life? That's precisely why it's a hot new trend. While many must work, only the truly lucky can putter. Puttering also seems to be the a "thing" that women "do," perhaps because "puttering" does not sound particularly masculine. As Lisa Miller writes in New York's Intelligencer, "As fantasies go, this one is beyond innocent, involving neither a bemuscled UPS man nor an indulgent yoga boot camp with my best friend in Tulum. In it, husband and child are elsewhere but safe, returning home soon but not imminently. I have an hour alone in the apartment, with which to do what I please. And what pleases me is to putter."

Doing a little of everything, and accomplishing almost nothing, is indeed pleasurable. Recent puttering excursions on the part of this blogger have included checking bank account information repeatedly, Swiffering, making a second pot of coffee but not drinking it, and contemplating buying a copy of the Sunday New York Times. This might also be called, less favorably, "wasting time," or more favorably, "relaxing" or "enjoying the weekend." Instead of jumping out of bed to plow through the list of things to do as you must on a weekday, you have the freedom of time without restraints, and you can waste the morning and even afternoon as you desire. Even if that's just changing the water in your vases and making your bed with perfect hospital corners; or making perfect bubble-free ice cubes and sitting and watching the morning light pass through the trees. Puttering, in this way, seems a pre-digital behavior, a throwback to another time, and maybe that's why it's so enjoyable. Or, as Miller writes, maybe it's simply that the act of wasting time is in itself a modern luxury: "Modern life has elevated puttering to an aspirational necessity. Just as generations of working men yearned for their Sunday-morning tee time, now overbusy people choose to celebrate their individuated Sabbaths with a round of fussing about."
You know, because we can. But is puttering really just for women? Doesn't everyone relax and move a little slower on the weekends? It seems unfair, even sexist, to designate it as female behavior, especially when wasting time knows no gender bounds. After all, according to a Real Simple survey Miller cites on how American women use their free time, 71 percent most enjoyed “just relaxing" -- more than "reading, watching TV, seeing friends, playing sports, or listening to music." The only thing women liked more is to spend time with children or a partner. You'd assume that male leisure time preferences would skew in the same direction. 
Miller posits that women especially like puttering because it's a way of feeling like we're doing chores, even if we're really not. And many of us cannot relax until the chores are done. This makes our hobby of doing nothing seem a little bit sad, though a step above responding to Real Simple surveys on how we enjoy puttering.
It would be the antithesis of puttering to say so, but puttering is not new. The New York Times expounded upon this trend in an editorial called "On the Art of Puttering," in which they described it as a uniquely New York habit: "Even [New Yorkers'] leisure time is focused, and there is something proactive about our procrastination.... But every now and then there comes a day for puttering." After such a day, "You feel as though you’ve accomplished a lot, though you have no idea what. It has been a holiday from purpose."
Whether needing a holiday of nothingness as an escape from daily life is a sign of progress or something more sinister is not a conversation meant for puttering time. 

Image via Shutterstock by Diego Cervo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.