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.
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.
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.
There’s an old saying that “it’s the poor craftsman who blames his tools,” but remember that most old saying are bullshit. The right tools are not only critical to doing a job well, they increase your enjoyment and reduce your frustration in getting jobs done. Cheap tools or the wrong tools are just nightmare makers. A crappy screwdriver can ruin your whole day in an instant. Sometimes we have to make do because a specific tool is unavailable or simply because tools are expensive. It takes time to learn the tools you like and to acquire a good tool library, but whenever you have a choice, get the best quality tools you can. If you half-ass your choice of tools, you are half-assing every job you will ever do with them. Work piece by piece to build that library. Appreciate the honest aesthetics of well-made tools and do not abuse them. This investment will pay rewards to your machine and your soul.
It is so tempting to dive in. All those pert, shiny bolts to be turned and coy covers to remove. The interfaces of most consumer products today are so well designed that user’s manuals are superfluous, making the temptation to play with the machine even greater. Experienced mechanics are the most prone to this temptation, particularly with maintenance operations that we have done many times. But for new and experienced mechanics alike, the step of reading through the shop manual is a vital step of training or re-training, respectively. In addition to providing specific tolerance, quantities, and procedures, a good shop manual give you insight into the designer’s intent. Very little on your machine is superfluous, and understanding its why is the only way to understand its how. Good shop manuals are real pleasure reading.