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different from detailists; that they have no time


  1. There is no doubt that a large number of persons spend too much time in puttering. They, like the rest of us, suffer from the defects of their virtues, but though this be true, puttering is none the less a defect. It is seldom noticed in those of reckless, idle disposition, but almost always in those of industrious, careful, conscientious make-up.
  2. Putterers are different from detailists. There is such a thing as spending a lifetime on details, but this is not necessarily “puttering.” Details must be attended to, carefully attended to, in every line of work, and there are always persons suited to the task of looking after them. They become detailists, but so far as their work is necessary and is well accomplished it is not puttering, though we sometimes so speak of it. The dictionary gives as definition of the word “putter” : “to work inefficiently or idly; to work without energy or effect; to trifle.”
  3. The habit of puttering comes from various causes and must need different cures. To some the habit has come through natural indolence (of mind rather than of body). They put off the evil hour of beginning any important work and cheat themselves by continually puttering over unnecessary matters. I am inclined to think that this variety is small in numbers.
  4. Many more persons acquire the habit because of the opposite characteristic — industry. They naturally like to be doing something, but their way of living brings them too much leisure; they perhaps lack initiative in seeking large tasks, and so they busy themselves over small matters, spending hours in doing what should have been accomplished in a short time. The habit grows on them and in the end they become putterers, and if any one suggests their doing a thing really worth while they smile and say they have "no time."
  5. The life of one such person, an English woman, has been accurately set forth in a recent novel:
  6. “She rose at eight. At nine she poured out coffee. From halfpast nine to ten she attended to the housekeeper and her birds. From ten to eleven she attended to the gardener and her dress. From eleven to twelve she wrote invitations and acceptances, drew out cheques, and secured receipts within an elastic band. From twelve to one she walked with her dogs to the village. From halfpast one to two she lunched. From two to three she rested on a sofa in the white morning room, with the newspaper in her hand, trying to read the parliamentary debate and thinking of other things. From three to half-past four she went to her dear flowers or, getting into her carriage, was driven to some neighbor's mansion where she sat for half an hour. At half-past four she poured tea, at five she knitted a tie or socks, and from six to seven she received from the squire (her husband) his impressions of things at large. From seven to seven-thirty she changed to a black low dress with lace about the neck. At seven-thirty she dined. The house in which she dwelt was well supplied with literature, but she often said with gentle regret: ‘My dear, I have no time to read.’”
  7. This is the usual defense of putterers — that they have no time. They imply that in the conduct of their households and personal lives there are numberless small details which must be attended to, and that it is their misfortune that they are unable to take part in any of the large affairs of life. They never seem to reflect that the same details are necessary to other households and other lives, but that by bringing mind and energy to bear their neighbors have learned to dispatch them and so command time and strength for affairs of equal if not greater importance.
  8. A third variety of putterers is composed of those who become such as the result of a lack in judgment. These persons cannot seem to judge aright of the relative importance of things; they may be brainy and even intellectual, but they lack a proper sense of proportion. The writer remembers one such person, a lady of marked literary ability and scholarly mind who used to spend one hour, by the clock, in basting fresh ruching into the neck and sleeves of a gown. The friend whom she visited basted hers quite as accurately and daintily in fifteen minutes. No wonder her ability to bring things to pass was a constant marvel to her puttering guest. Puttering is supposed to be a habit of old age; but one seems to fall into it as easily at one age as another. Old age is certainly the only time when it is excusable. But have we not all seen the child holding on to his stocking while he tells you a story, laboring under the delusion that he is dressing himself? He dawdles through absent-mindedness, as his elders often do.
  9. Some of the worst putterers are girls in their teens and young ladies. They spend three times as long in making a toilet as is needful, and they perform no more operations and appear no better dressed than their quicker friends.
  10. The habit of puttering is a poor one; there is no virtue in spending an hour dusting a room which could be thoroughly dusted in twenty minutes. There is nothing gained by spending three times as long as necessary in getting one's lessons or doing one's shopping. To do nothing gracefully, to spend one's leisure delightfully is an art, but puttering is an abomination. It not only wastes time and energy, but it forms bad mental habits, prevents alert thinking and concentration of mind.
  11. The cures for the puttering habit must be as varied as the causes, and indeed each case is so largely a matter of temperament, that it is difficult to make suggestions. The child who dawdles through absent-mindedness is not so difficult to cure as his elders, for any incentive will usually have the effect of making him put his mind on his small task. The game of “Who’ll finish first” or the offer of the largest orange to the winner has quickened the pace of many a small boy. Necessity is the surest cure of those who putter through natural indolence. If a task is forced upon one which will consume almost his entire energy and time, he quickly learns to let minor matters take care of themselves. But necessity is difficult to invent. A wise mother might possibly cure her dawdling daughters by the dismissal of a maid, now and then, thus forcing upon them the habit of getting through work expeditiously. For younger people there is no method more effective than a good example, and many a child and many a servant, too, prone to putter, has been cured by an energetic, early-rising mistress, who went about as if she intended to accomplish something and expected others to do likewise.
  12. When we come to the reforming of ourselves the matter grows even more difficult. If we can only “see ourselves as others see us,” and realize that we are puttering too much, a great deal has been gained, and we can always do something by using our will power, more by using good judgment and system. Limit oneself to a certain number of minutes for the performance of a given duty and somehow it gets itself done. Of course this is tiresome, but it will help to cure the habit. Sometimes, however, neither will power nor system will work. Sometimes it takes a case of nervous prostration to cure us.
  13. A clever young lady, a putterer through too much leisure, suddenly faced the necessity of earning her living. She was well-equipped for her work. She was full of ambition and enthusiasm. But her work was hard and when she sat up nights to a late hour to do her puttering, and rose an hour and a half earlier than most persons would — in order to perform her slow toilet and dust her room “properly” — the girl broke down. Even necessity did not cure her. But after an attack of nervous prostration, she learned to keep things in their right proportion, and realized that in a full life minor details must be dispatched quickly.
  14. Perhaps the best cure of all is to assume some responsibility, interest ourselves in some work really important even though we do not see how we can command the time for it. It may be in the line of personal culture, in making more of our best selves; it may be in doing for others or in helping them do for themselves. Then if we really give our strength and enthusiasm-perhaps to the literary club, or to the conduct of a missionary society or to helping in a day nursery or a working-girls’ club we shall find that the minor affairs on which we formerly spent so much time have assumed their really small place and that by hurrying through them to reach our larger work we have ceased to be putterers. a woman with barely enough to live on isn’t in much danger of being confronted with one.”

ex Grace Dickerson, her column “Hours at Home,” in The Standard 57:25 (“A Baptist Newspaper,” Chicago; February 19, 1910) : 750-751
NYPL copy/scan, via hathitrust : link

This fairly analytical (and critical) treatment of “puttering” is probably the most extensive so far encountered. It is transcribed entire above; paragraphs are numbered to ease reference to passages within.

Grace Dickerson (1874-1917), was the daughter of an owner of Goodman & Dickerson, publisher of The Standard, a weekly Baptist newspaper based in Chicago. She lived in and wrote from Boston (Newton Center). Her death (of pneumonia) was reported in that paper (64:41; June 9, 1917), as a kind of obituary.
U Wisconsin-Madison copy/scan, via google books : 25 : link

A further recollection of and tribute to her was provided in the next issue of The Standard by Dr. Emory W. Hunt, of the First Church, Newton Center.
64:42 (June 16, 1917) : 26, 31
same volume and copy as above : link

The example of a putterer of the second type — one who busies oneself over small matters — described in paragraph six above, is taken from John Galsworthy, The Country House (London; 1907) : 97
NYPL copy via hathitrust : link

9 November 2023