Thriving – on pottering and creating space

I do not talk to my clients about pottering. I fear few would understand it and fewer rate the activity. But it has important lessons to teach. Procrastination also. High performers in any field usually have passion for their work; they know what to do and how to go about it – they enjoy exercising their skills.

In the businesses I work with procrastination is virtually an infamy. But when writing I get really good at procrastinating – my house is never so tidy as when a difficult topic looms. Herein lies the clue: my body-mind is telling me I am not ready to tackle this. While I potter – pull up a weed or two, tidy the kitchen, sort my books – my mind is gently ruminating, ranging beyond its normal routes. New Leadership for new times means consigning machine-forged concepts of efficiency to the trashcan of bad ideas. It requires a more nuanced understanding of human effectiveness.

I suggest we reconceptualise pottering and procrastinating as mindful behaviours, and add them to reflection, rumination and stillness as states of being that lie at the heart of Regenerative Leadership. As always it begins with ourselves. When we potter our attention becomes softer and more diffuse. We notice things we weren’t looking for: famously penicillin, Velcro, Teflon, vulcanised rubber were all ‘discovered accidentally’.

George, head of finance in a global financial services company, was successful, liked and valued. He enjoyed his work but he also procrastinated. Over and again George would put off various tasks, at home and at work, until deadlines pressed hard upon him. Our work over several sessions focussed on helping him understand why.

Through our coaching conversations George discovered that he had built in no time to dream – aimless activity was an alien concept. Procrastinating was his way of stealing space by the back door. Meaningful work mattered to him. George was a regenerative leader; he needed a sense of purpose to inject the vital energy to act and complete a task. So he also procrastinated in the unconscious hope that the task would become meaningful. In our conversations he confirmed that he felt joyful when his work served others; tasks that did not were relegated to times of the day when his energy was low.

All of this helped George redesign his day, delegate some jobs and re-formulate others within a bigger vision. He learnt to create and value empty space which led to what he described as a ‘radical two months’ where he gained clarity on his career direction, finally had the conversation with his CEO he had been putting off for 18 months and was able to delineate the job he wanted. Everything shifted in the crucible of the empty space he allowed himself.

If we aren’t tuned in to the three elements of our rhythm, our triggers, and our relationship with the outside-inside, then we can slip into stress damage before we realise it but we also miss out on the generative value of empty space. Learning to say no, to delegate and prioritise are well- known essentials to be acquired or refined in the coaching space. To value these skills enough to practice them, we need to place the spaces between activity – the interstices – on a par with the activities and objects of our work. We need to elevate pottering, procrastinating, ruminating and reflecting to the same level as doing.

This re-ordering of working hierarchies has popular appeal – hence the oft repeated and probably apocryphal story about the visitor to Microsoft who, looking through the glass door of an office saw an employee with his feet on the desk gazing out of the window. ‘If he was working for me’, exclaimed the visitor ‘that man would be fired!’. ‘Oh no’ said the guide ‘he’s doing just what we pay him to do, thinking.’ Coach and racing driver, Clive Steeper takes this further ‘Slow is the new fast’ he says. ‘We train racing drivers to think slowly, to access all of their senses, so that on the track they react intelligently at speed’. Making space to think slowly and fully can save lives.

So now George and I speak more kindly to our pottering, procrastinating selves. Now and then I tap into the ruminations of my brain while I tidy the kitchen or sit in the garden; as often as not I find that it has been surfacing new ideas and preparing the ground for writing perfectly well by itself – without conscious effort. Honouring the wisdom of my personal wave curve, including making space rather than champing at the bit or berating myself to get on helps me not only with the work but becomes a crucial exercise in self acceptance.

The art of pottering links to one of the four threads of New Generation Coaching: the reconception of the spiritual. Embracing a secular spirituality within our everyday lives means letting go of notions that the spiritual looks a particular way. New Generation Coaches talk of a more fluid and varied understanding of mindfulness: less siloed practice and more integration of mindfulness in every activity. Pottering can be reconceived as part of this lexicon of mindfulness practices. It adheres to the principles of paying attention to and enjoying the spaces between activity and of infusing all activity with meaning beyond the instrumental. Reframing pottering and procrastination from wasting time to gateways to the emergent helps us value new ways to usher in creativity.

Pottering is a transitional space: it gets us off the hamster wheel. It isn’t just a de-stressor, it reduces the noise of our busy brain and constant activity. Once the noise abates we can hopefully listen to the deeper questions. We re-find our centre. Link this with coaching and together leader and coach create an intentional, reflective space in which to realign activity with core values, with meaning and overarching purpose.