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Blog // Productivity
April 6, 2018

A Broken Guitar And Decision-Fatigue

How a broken guitar drove home some lessons about managing energy levels at work and the danger of depletion and decision fatigue.

It was late in the day. The fading sun found me trying to tick off the last few tasks in a long session of “emails I didn’t want to answer” and “stuff I’ve put off figuring out what to do with.” There’s always a day like this soon after coming home from holidays, a consequence of the things not dealt with before going on a break and the things that piled up while away.

One project I’d been putting off for some time was modifying my Tacoma Papoose 12-string guitar. This odd little instrument is like half a 12-string guitar, in a package the size of a mandolin. With a fresh set of strings it sounds wonderful. It’s popular in many recording studios, with good reason. But mine was never set up properly, and because of a few design issues, such as having 12 heavy tuners on a short neck, with a tiny body, it’s very hard to play.

So, in amongst the rumble of emails and post-holiday blues, I had finally managed to order the parts I needed to modify the guitar. I had brought it into the office with me, so I could check the measurements of the parts I was buying.

I was almost finished for the day when I noticed the guitar sliding from where I had left it, resting against the desk. I reached out to grab it but the instrument’s neck slipped from my fingers. It fell to the floor, flat on the neck and body, with a loud crack, like a cricketer striking a ball, or a thick tree branch snapping under the weight of fresh snow.

The crack in the neck of the guitar was massive, wide enough to put a finger into, and I couldn’t straighten the neck back into place either. Within minutes of ordering parts for a fun DIY modification, something I might do in a few hours one weekend, the guitar had become a project for a costly professional repair.

Marshall Goldsmith, Depletion And Decision Fatigue

This accident was avoidable. Of course, we always tell ourselves that, in the wave of regret that follows. But in this case it’s true, because normally I wouldn’t keep the instrument there, resting against a desk that way for so long; it would be taken back to the studio, or put in a case, or something.

The cracked guitar reminded me of a book I read during the break, Triggers: Creating Behaviour That Lasts, by Marshall Goldsmith. He is a business coach with a impressive resume of CEO clients, and his book is one of the better self-improvement books I’ve read by a business writer.

One thing Goldsmith talks about, which resonated with me deeply even before the guitar misadventure, was the problem of depletion, the way our decision-making and emotional self-management can crumble as we get more and more tired during the day.

It reminded me of a study about the errors made by professional footballers in the final minutes of games. As they grew tired their decision-making skills faded. They would make mistakes, like being out of position, or making the wrong kind of pass, miscalculations they would have been far less likely to make earlier in the game. Even for seasoned professionals, physical depletion led to poor choices.

Creating Environments To Avoid Depletion

Goldsmith talks a lot about the environment we find ourselves in. So often, when he asks people about the failures and shortcomings, they are prone to blame their environment, the context around them, the situation they’ve inherited. But when we look at our environment as something we can manage, we can improve, we can try to fix, then personal change and improvement becomes possible.

Of course, creating perfect environments for everything we do each day is impossible and perhaps a recipe for miserable failure. Goldsmith doesn’t ask his readers to do that, but rather to reflect on whether they tried or not.

This question, “Did I try?” is a wonderful way to sidestep the excuse-making we often engage in when we fail at something. Ask me why the guitar broke and I could easily dig up all sorts of excuses, from the light in the room, to the design of the desk, or the impending need to get up and make dinner. But ask me if I tried to keep the guitar safe and the answer is a simple, clear, no.

Looked at from the perspective of simple rooms I wrote about recently, the home office is no environment for a guitar, and certainly not a poorly balanced guitar resting against the slippery side of a desk, from where it could easily fall to its doom.

But it is a good environment for the work I was doing, for grinding through emails, online shopping, admin and organisation.

So the guitar was the wrong thing in the right place. Or the right thing in the right place for too long, so it became the wrong thing.

Asking Ourselves Questions

What was missing was another thing Goldsmith devotes a lot of time to: asking questions of ourselves. A few minutes before the guitar fell I had bumped it. The instrument didn’t move but that might’ve been the moment to ask “Does this thing belong here?” That’s a question I might have asked myself, had I not been so tired. I knew I was tired, since I’d been feeling I should stop for at least an hour before. I wanted to get through the to-do list. Before dinner. Before the end of the day.

I was being greedy. It was productivity gluttony.

Why was I still doing email at 6.20pm, more than an hour after I had told myself I was going to stop, and 20 minutes after I had planned to start cooking dinner? Time is part of the environment and I was managing it badly.

The hardest paradoxes to face are those bad habits that can create good outcomes. I can work myself into the ground to get stuff done. But then I’m down on the ground like a broken guitar. It’s productive in the short term but damaging in the long run. I’ve done it for years, the classic musician who could work through the youthful nights and then float through the next day on a caffeine high.

But that doesn’t work anymore.

This was a timely reminder that ending the day well, simple spaces, and staying thoughtful about the task at hand are still habits to work on.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

Sometimes I feel like a broken guitar myself. It’s funny because I used to work in marketing and always struggled to get the work/life balance right there, and then I went self-employed which theoretically should have helped but which ultimately just left me turned on 100% of the time, you know?

I love the idea of “productive gluttony”, although I also hate it because I think it’s super relevant to me in my own situation. I actually struggle to turn off, I feel as though I should always be doing something and sometimes I risk being counterproductive. I guess it’s always important to take a break, even if you really don’t want to.

I guess as a guitarist you know exactly how much of a bad idea it is to keep playing if you can feel blisters popping up on your fingers. It’s better to stop if you can and try again the next day than to keep playing and put yourself out of commission for a few days while they heal. It’s the same with anything whether it’s emails or phone calls or whatever. But sometimes it takes a broken guitar to make you realise it!

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – yes, I’ve been there as well. It’s so tempting to think more effort is always better.

June 6 years ago

Trying to force myself to keep working when I am exhausted almost always ends with something going wrong.

Moreover, I find myself taking ages to complete a task that would have otherwise taken a few minutes.

Short breaks spread throughout the day greatly help especially on days that I don’t end the day well. Asking questions does help gauge the level of my productivity.

fernando 6 years ago

June – yes, this is so wise. More work, or pushing on when we are exhausted is risky and seldom in a good way.

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