The Fine Art of Puttering

Like so many of us, I know a little bit about a lot of things, but am really expert in few.  Oh, I can pass for a trivia maven, but real expertise requires more than breadth; it requires genuine depth in some concentrated area.  And even that would grant merely academic expertise.  Nice enough, but a trifle useless.

To be a true professional in some skill requires not knowledge alone, but natural skill coupled with concentrated practice stretched over many years.  By that measure, I can claim to be a professional in only one field: I am a professional Putterer.

For those who might feel that this is hardly an achievement to be proud of, let me describe the true nature of the art of Puttering and why it is such a vital life skill.

Imagine having some large, long-neglected project around the house, like my back yard (AKA The Jungle).  Depending on how you were raised, projects like this either loudly or softly send out guilt messages to poison the soul.  You know you should have started that project long ago.  You know that every day you delay it only gets worse.

Many would argue that it makes absolutely no sense to let the golden quality of each day be tarnished by the niggling voice of shame in the back of your head.  That the smart thing to do would be to at least start the bloody thing so that you would at least have that much satisfaction. Clearly, they would argue, both logic and common sense dictate….etc., etc.

All too true, if human beings were strictly logical creatures.

For most of us, a big project is like a swamp.  You can safely live alongside it only so long as you never venture inside.  But let your rashness take you into it and it has an irresistible suction that will draw you deeper and deeper in, never letting go.  Decide to weed some small section and another will open up, made far worse by the contrast to the fresh section you’ve just made.  Start working on that and an ever larger perimeter is born, sucking stronger and stronger. [You can change the analogy to working on your car, painting your house, or whatever you like.  They all seem to work the same, although household plumbing appears to hold the crown for having one difficult problem lead into another, even less accessible, and infinitely more expensive problem.]

Then, too, every real project is also like a giant compressed spring, dying to grow bigger and bigger.  Clean a section of your back yard and you discover that plumbing problem you didn’t know about.  Start digging that out and discover the root problem you didn’t know you had.  Follow the root and, sure as shooting, it will run under the foundation of your house.

About this time that same group of “logical” advisors might tell you that you should simply quit and go back to feeling guilty.  After all, you’ve hardly begun and already you’ve made yourself sweaty and dirty, facing a whole batch of new bills you can’t afford.  That wasn’t the plan at all.

Once again, sound logic, but we are not logical creatures.  Once we have started, quitting will just make us feel more guilty, not less.  Then, too, we can’t forget those new problems we’ve uncovered.  They have been automatically added to our worry list.  And, being fresh, they have an urgency beyond mere niggles to actual pangs.

So what are you going to do?  All those big projects you’ve been procrastinating about are still there, whispering their songs of guilt.  Unless you manage to kill off that rich uncle and inherit all his money, you can’t afford to hire the work done.  You are neatly trapped between your own guilt and those swamps that surround you.

And that, you see, is where Puttering comes in.

For the true professional, Puttering is not simply a matter of wandering around, aimlessly poking and prodding your world.  Instead, Puttering is the fine art of selecting exactly the right series of small jobs to keep the Guilt Angel away while avoiding being trapped in the big jobs.

It works like this: Suppose you have some big job whose cries are getting a little hard to ignore.  You know that starting it will mean getting sucked into a daily grind of expanding tasks, with “job done” satisfaction months (at least) away.  Clearly, giving in to your guilt would be folly.  Still, your conscience tells you should be doing something, particularly something useful.

So you look around for some small, bite-sized job.  In my own case, it is usually something needing repair.  But, really, it could be anything.  Those cobwebs you just noticed in the living room, or all that mess in the back seat of your car, or whatever.

The only rules are that it has to be some job that needs doing, will take enough time and energy to fill up all your project time, and, most importantly, can be completed quickly enough that satisfaction is clearly in sight during the whole task.

Trust me, a good putter can drown out the guilt of the largest, most demanding project for days at a time, while giving you the solid reinforcement of a job well done.  Granted, the big jobs are still waiting, but at least you have pushed them down the calendar a bit.  Besides, you’ve probably postponed most of them so long a few more days won’t make that much difference.

But you must persist.  A few simple successes don’t even qualify you as an amateur Putterer.  True Puttering takes devotion.  You can tell a real Putterer by the rhythm they achieve.  A master will move seamlessly along, doing a job, basking in the satisfaction, doing another, basking again, to a steady beat whose goal is to never leave even the smallest chink for thoughts about serious work to slip in.

Mind you, I can’t claim that kind of perfection.  A perfect, unbroken rhythm is the mark of the Zen Master Putterer, and I’m not there yet.

But I’m working on it.

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