When I started boxing classes I was told, at my level, I could do just as much good for my form by doing core exercises such as crunches, running, push-ups, and pull-ups for a month as I could by doing the class. I consder habits like safety, cleanliness, and documentation to be habits that influence the quality of hacks much the same way. They’re not really related, and the work can get done without them, but their implementation alone improves the quality of everything you do at the workbench.

The best mechanic I’ve ever met had a well-organized shop. All of his employees wore nitrile gloves when they worked on engines to protect their hands from the chemicals inside. They used ear protection and safety glasses. His rates were low, and the car was always repaired fast. I never had to go back for the same repair twice. He knew exactly what repairs were done, and even kept the parts removed from my vehicle to show me if I desired. I got some of the most fantastic explanations of why parts failed from him. Two blocks down the street was a shop which was unorganized and had double rates. The employees were always sitting on the waiting chairs in the lounge. It took one trip there to never return.

The best factory I’ve ever worked in is the FastCap factory in Bellingham. It’s breathtakingly clean and organized. The people do good work and don’t waste time. Safety glasses and ear protection were ready and waiting. Everyone looks for things to improve around the factory and spends time in the morning to share their results with the other employees. It’s amazing how much effect good corporate habits have on the end product.

I’m not the first to notice this pattern. There’s a story about the turnaround of Alcoa, made famous in the book, “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg, that follows along the same line.  The company was losing money. To combat this they hired a new CEO who shocked the board by saying he didn’t care about profits at all. The company had a terrible safety record and it needed to be fixed. In the end a clean and safe shop filled with employees who were engaged with their environment ended up turning the company around. Not only did the CEO leave a company making five times the profit, the product quality also went up.

My father's actual tool box. I don't know how he does it.
My father’s actual tool box. One day I will get to this level. As far as I know he is not OCD, just disciplined.

I’m not a psychologist, (Dammit Jim, I’m an engineer!) so I hesitate to make any sweeping proclamations about the human condition. However, it’s been interesting to see where applying peripheral habits in my own work has encouraged more regular success whereas previously it was hard won.

For example, cleaning. Growing up, I used to internally scoff when my father insisted that tools go back to the place where they came from. What’s the difference between a screwdriver on a desk and a screw driver in its place on a shelf mere feet from each other? Of course it was an internal struggle, he was very clear on the subject. The tools went back to their place!

However, when I began to work more seriously on projects, I quickly realized that following his example doubled not only the amount and quality of the work that was done, but also the pleasure I received from it. No longer would I have to pause in the middle of my work to search for a tool for fifteen minutes. I know where it is. I’ve now taken it to the point where no matter how deep I am into my project, I’ll clean every desk and put away every tool before bed. After all, I only know what needs to be done today, tomorrow is a mystery. Having to move one project out of the way to start another is difficult when you’re in the moment.

Safety has now become one of my core virtues. The vast majority of our readers are vehement supporters of the concept, if our comment section is any indication. However, I notice a few commenters scoff at safety. They usually fall in two categories. Either the premise is that it negatively affects their manliness. They learned in a shop run by Johnny-two-fingers and those were all the fingers he ever needed. He only lost three fingers once, and after that he paid attention around the machines! I don’t really understand, I’d wear an OSHA standard pink spandex tutu, sequined vest, and steel toed boots if I thought It would increase my chances of making it to the grave with all my fingers. These people cannot be helped.

I'm not kidding. I measured the steam want to be louder than the OSHA noise level floor. I worked in heavy industry, no way a coffee machine is going to take away my ability to hear high pitched noises.
I’m not kidding. I measured the steam wand to be louder than the OSHA noise level floor. So now a pair of  certified ear muff live beside the machine. I worked in heavy industry, no way a coffee machine is going to take away my ability to hear high pitched noises.

The other premise is that it’s unnecessary, and gets in the way of work. This is a stance with which I agreed in some regards for quite a while, but I’ve found, as I work on more projects, that a safety oriented mind is a more organized one. It’s weird, but my personal experience is that thinking about how to do something safely, tricks my brain into higher orders of thinking about how to do the task.

For example, when cutting a large piece of plywood on the table saw. It’s quite easy to get it done unsafely. Simply rip that sucker through the spinning blade. While quick, this method does not produce the best results. A side is cantilevered over the edge causing a slightly out of square edge. Dust is blowing in your eyes and distracting you. You’re also having to use your strength against the gravity of the part, reducing your control of the cut. So, while yes, it was possible to just throw the work on the table saw and get it done, the best result wasn’t achieved and more work may lay in the future to correct any errors this produced.

However, a safety minded person, without even considering the additional benefits to the quality of the work will get a roller stand to support the work so they don’t have to. Will make sure that the operation is set-up so that a push-stick will suffice to provide all the necessary force to push the piece through the blade. The guard is in place and safety glasses are on, negating the chance of dust distracting from the focus. More attention can be focused on the task since the fear of knockback is diminished with the guard in place. The floor is clean providing a good footing for controlled movements.

In the end, the things used to accomplish the task safely overlapped with the things needed to perform the job well. A supported work piece cuts straight. A controlled cut has less burn marks and tearout. Even the wear on the bearings and blade is lessened in this approach. However, the reasons for doing those things had nothing to do with the quality of the work. Same with sharp blades being safer; they also cut better.

My all time worst instructional book purchase after Practical Electronics For Inventors. It cannot, and will not teach C++ in 24 hours.
My all time worst instructional book purchase followed only by Practical Electronics For Inventors. It cannot, and will not teach C++ in 24 hours.

The last example habit I want to discuss is documentation. I’m still lax about this, but I’m working hard to implement it as a habit and finding that I’m better off even with these early efforts.

For example, while working on my 3d printer I took pictures along the way as well as making sure to copy useful information and notes into Evernote. When I wanted to write my Fail of the Week article, I had all my information there as well as pictures of the build process to help me get along. Even better, if I have to drop the project for a month, I can simply read my notes and get right back to it. And years from now, when working on an unrelated project with a related problem I can return to my own documentation to figure out how I previously solved the issue.

I’ve spent a lot of time in life looking for ways to get directly better at something quickly. I would order books that promised to teach the subject in a few hours. I would spend hours just doing the work. I produced a lot of sloppy work. When I began to focus on my work habits (instead of just my knowledge and raw ability) I started to see the craftsmanship I wanted in my work developing. I still have a long way to go, but I’m curious to know if any of you have had similar experiences?



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