You imagine that your work should be a smooth flow of operations: confident, swift, and deft. At the least, you feel like you should always be moving toward that adept ideal. In reality, although you are learning and improving, you are also expanding your range of operations and challenges. You are still making mistakes. You are still re-doing things, getting frustrated with yourself. Sometimes even in simple operations you have done many times, you might skip a step or mix up some bolts. You might even break something. Steady on. This, too, is part of it, but it only becomes a deterrent and frustration if you allow it. By focusing on the kind of mechanic you artificially think you “should” be instead of being the imperfect ape you are, you create a conflict between desire and reality and thereby suffer. Steady on.
Young mechanics, especially men, are prone to overtightening everything. Too much torque is dangerous, as everyone learns sooner or later. The snapped-off bolt or stripped-out screw head is a real motherfucker, and you have no-one to blame but yourself. Now you learn the art of extraction, which is an opportunity to do some real damage if you’re not careful. Some fittings need to be tightened to specified torque and need a torque wrench, but for most of the bolts and screws you’re installing, you need to develop the feel for getting your fasteners mechanically tight. Not Grape-Ape tight. It is a feel, and it takes practice to develop. You will screw it up sometimes, so, yes, extracting broken fasteners is another skill you need.
Cleaning up shop at the end of a task or the end of the day is a way of extending courtesy to yourself tomorrow. Having things where you expect them to be when you start the next job is the best reason for cleaning up after this job; it makes work much easier and reduces frustration. Few things are as satisfying as putting in the last bolt or putting the seat back on the bike and seeing it whole again (then going for the mandatory shake-down ride), but that is not the end of the day’s work. The half hour or so that it takes to wipe things down, put tools away, take care of the rags, &c., is last act, and it can be a very pleasant, low-mental-energy, reflective way to wind down. It is also a great time for a beer.
Distraction has become our normal psychological state. Focusing attention on one thing for more than a few minutes is now the exception, and this has interfered with our enjoyment of activities, our ability to see things to completion, the quality of our work, and our sense of peace and happiness. Distraction breeds anxiety and poor workmanship. Focus when you work, and prepare to focus for the duration of the work. If you need to gather information, such as, say, finding a video to walk you through a task, gather it all beforehand so you’re not searching at the same time you’re trying to work. Do one task at a time; if another task occurs to you, write it down and set it aside. Avoid the manic temptation to jump from one to the other. You can only do one thing well at a time.
Spread out, make some room. Get out everything you think you’ll need. You are in your space, so make yourself comfortable. Have plenty of rags handy. It’s OK to have crap all over the place when you’re working. When you’re in the middle of a task, you grab things, put things down, and your focus tends to me more on the problem than the organization of the space around you. As you develop a style and pace of movement, you’ll find your natural level of mess while working. Some people are more comfortable in the immediacy of clutter, with everything close to hand. If that’s you, let it work for you. Don’t assume a messy workspace equates to careless craftsmanship.
Mechanical instinct: it seems like some people have it and others don’t, but the truth is that while it does come easier for some, it must be cultivated and consciously developed. The way to do that is to listen to the inner voice and reward it when it is right. The most common thing your inner voice says is, “something’s not right here.” At first that voice may be too cautious or too reckless. You need to calibrate it by paying attention and checking it. The more you calibrate that voice, the more you can rely on it and the better your instincts become. Why do I feel like I’m forgetting something? Why is this panel cover not sliding on easily? What’s wrong with this picture? The voice can’t explain; it can only sound the alarm. By practicing, you will learn to tell the false alarms from the real ones and develop a keen mechanical instinct.
Something you’ve never done before can be daunting. You should consciously seek tasks that challenge you. Skill is an ascending helix that requires energy and a little daring, without which it flattens into a circle of boredom. This doesn’t mean you should completely disregard your skill level. You don’t want to take on too-difficult problems that will lead to inevitable failure. This takes judgment and self-awareness. Push your limits – don’t burst through them full-speed like Wile E. Coyote. Go bravely but with care. It’s not just learning new tasks: push yourself to perform everything a little better. Even routine tasks might be done with more precision or efficiency. It is up to you to escape the circle of boredom. Be undaunted.
Sometimes you get frustrated. Some part is really hard to access, or the instructions weren’t clear, or it just isn’t going right. Maybe you can see yourself getting careless, tossing tools around, skipping steps. Maybe you’re trying to hold too much in your head at once and forgetting details. Sometimes you get that feeling that the ground is rocky, so you just have to plow deeper. Force your way through. That’s the feeling you get right before you break something. So stop. Just stop and stare for a few minutes. Maintenance is a game of mental strategy, rarely a game of force. If it feels off, if you’re confused, if you feel like you just want to get through it, just stop.
This is going to take research. Every source will have a little different take – the manual may not make sense until you see a video of someone performing the task; one person might have a clever-sounding shortcut that you learn elsewhere is a bad or dangerous idea. A step-by-step guide may not be enough. You might need to go back and, say, get some theory on how a carb works. You need both theory and practice. The amount of information available is effectively limitless, so you need to seek, sort, sift, and above all evaluate. You are smart. Act like it.
The most inept mechanic is not the beginner but the reckless intermediate. A few years’ experience, a bit of success, and you start to get impatient and careless. You can see how much you have learned, but all that you don’t know is invisible. Your growing confidence is admirable, but see that it doesn’t grow faster than is warranted. Keep it in check. Watch yourself for the temptations to make shortcuts – temptations to which we are all subject. Force yourself to maintain those careful habits that got you this far. The swiftness and deftness of the expert is developed by the practice of care, not by careless shortcuts. As you gather momentum, downshift early or you will have to slam on the brakes when it is too late.