Puzzles

I just finished replacing the entire wiring harness in one of my motorcycles. This was an upgrade to the next model-year’s setup, which resolved a charging system deficiency. Now my battery receives a robust 14.1 volts at idle, instead of the measly 12.8 V provided by the original parts, which apparently reduced the stator’s net output by way of some components later deemed unnecessary by the manufacturer. This job took me about ten hours, though if I had to do it again, I could cut my time in half (which might still be twice what a factory-trained mechanic would require). While there was certainly a considerable amount of tedious, time-consuming labor involved, most of my ten hours were spent solving puzzles, not actually accomplishing physical tasks.

After removing the multitude of parts necessary just to access the wiring harness, there was the little matter of dealing with four dozen connectors of every conceivable design. Most could only be unplugged after figuring out each ones unique, arcane latching arrangement, with hidden or disguised tabs and levers repeatedly confounding me. No doubt the designers responsible for these inscrutable mechanisms considered them both elegant and obvious (and now I might agree), but to me they were needlessly enigmatic and endlessly frustrating as I worked my way along the loom’s length.

Compounding these difficulties were the sadistically calculated positioning of many of the plugs attached to fixed structures. These plugs might have been easy enough to slip into place, but their removal was impeded by an adjacent part that either blocked access to the releasing element or prevented human hands or common tools from grasping the plug with sufficient might to unseat it. More parts would have to be removed, or special tools fabricated, when it would have seemingly been soooo easy to simply orient the plug with its latch on the opposite side. Particularly upsetting were the times a plug turned out to be a couple millimeters too large to fit through a narrow orifice where the loom, like a slithering python, otherwise passed unencumbered. What should have been a quick and straightforward part of the replacement process – unplugging and re-plugging connectors – was therefore a nightmarish series of curse-worthy halting disruptions. Clearly, the wiring harness had been initially put in place before most of the rest of the motorcycle was assembled.

Having now unraveled all the mysteries, replacing the wiring harness a second time could be accomplished with vastly greater efficiency. I’d know where and how to massage the secret buttons, what sequencing would avoid the need to undo and redo my work, and which sections of the bike truly had to be disassembled. Of course, I’ll never get to capitalize on my newfound expertise, since there’s no chance this operation will ever be needed again. Sure, I may have to trace a connection in the future and be able to do so more easily, and I’ll know how to disconnect any plug on this particular machine needing attention, but the lessons of this project are more generic and global. They are the same lessons learned and re-learned during most every garage project I’ve ever completed.

Are the puzzles which invariably present themselves on our bikes sources of grievance or gratification? Is the glass half empty or half full? Answering is a function of attitude and perception. While I was genuinely annoyed by many of the obstacles I encountered while swapping out my wiring harness, I managed to keep my cool and continuously exercise my curiosity instead of my sense of persecution. This is definitely not how I always do, and I wondered what makes it possible some times and not others. Several of the variables I discerned are not within my sphere of control, but many are.

When I recall the mechanical (or electrical) projects that have provoked the most extreme consternation, they share certain problematic features. The first and worst is time pressure. This might be due to needing a functioning motorcycle for a scheduled ride with others, a narrow window of opportunity afforded by weather conditions, delays in getting parts or tools, or my own impatience. Time pressure increases our level of anxiety, which may be helpful, like a cup of coffee, in focusing our minds – up to a point. Beyond this threshold, anxiety (like too much caffeine) is counterproductive, fragmenting and scattering our attention, increasing our emotional reactivity, and precluding the employment of calm and steady reasoning. I cannot count the times I’ve made catastrophic, utterly bone-headed decisions with a deadline bearing down on me, decisions I would have made far more sanely and constructively when not in such a bind. This is why I now try, whenever possible, to take care of maintenance and repairs the moment such needs becomes apparent, rather than waiting until they’re actually required for an outing. No matter how simple and quick a task may seem to be at the outset, there’s always a strong chance of encountering unexpected hurdles. How many times has a 20-minute chore ended up swallowing your whole afternoon – or weekend? The less time available, the more likely mistakes occur, which then require more time to correct; it can be a wickedly vicious cycle.

The second factor making an enormous difference in whether a project’s inevitable enigmas will be approached as fun riddles or infuriating frustrations is our level of preparation. Is the work area clean, uncluttered and reasonably comfortable? Are all the required tools and materials handy? Do we have clear and complete instructions? Have we arranged our schedule to minimize interruptions? Are we well-fed and watered? Obviously, emergency last-minute fixes may have to be pursued in less-than-ideal conditions, but the more such questions can be answered in the affirmative, the better our odds of success and the more enjoyable (or at least less upsetting) we’ll find the process. Even in a pinch, it pays big dividends to invest in these variables at the start. Rushing into a new project while the pieces of a prior one still litter the same space is a recipe for disaster. Dropped parts take a few seconds to retrieve on an empty floor, but always find uncannily obscure resting places when other objects provide cover, wasting huge amounts of time in unwelcome games of hide-and-seek. Having to re-invent the wheel, rather than simply follow instructions, multiplies the hours necessary (see wiring harness example above). Having to run out for supplies or order parts midway through a project, or just stopping to take of some domestic duty, can destroy flow and require a lot of additional time to reorient upon resuming the task later, although taking strategic breaks often improves efficiency. Low blood-sugar, dehydration, and uncomfortable temperatures all interfere with cognitive functioning and mood regulation, both of which must be in good working order to optimize progress.

Finally, there’s the issue of our general psychological state. Starting a garage project amidst some disturbing emotional upheaval can go either of two ways. The project may offer a much-needed respite from other worries, exerting a valuable calming influence overall. Distraction can be an excellent method of modulating acute distress, although it becomes problematic as a long-term solution. The other possibility is distraction will work in the opposite direction, with turbulence from outside the garage detracting from our concentration and patience inside it. In this case, pressing on is apt to be self-destructive, with bad results for the project and, consequently, our mood elsewhere, too. Better to wait until the storm has passed, or perhaps forfeit whatever event had necessitated the project. Some things just have to be surrendered; applying more and more force usually breaks something.

Even with all my irritation, the wiring harness project was a net-positive experience. I solved puzzles effectively, if not efficiently, and I maintained a (mostly) good outlook because many of the factors listed were set up to my advantage. Motorcycles provide us with countless challenges. It’s up to us to address these as opportunities to learn and take pleasure in overcoming. Otherwise, we’re better off with a car requiring less of us.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.