The Law of the Hammer

The Law of the HammerRecently, I have witnessed what I can best describe as overuse injuries – in a cognitive/psychological sense.


One person who is very generous was on the verge of burnout. She kept giving and prioritizing other people to the point that she had no time to take care of her own needs.


Another young man assumed personal responsibility for everything bad that was happening around him. He believed he was causing (and should be blamed for) situations that were completely out of his control.


A woman’s deep desire for independence and self-sufficiency led to alienation of those who loved her and deserved her trust.


Generosity, taking responsibility, and independence. Those are strengths, right? We want to raise our children to have these traits. We want to display them ourselves.


But what happens to a strength when it is overused?


Authoritative people become dictators.


Faith turns into intolerance and hate.


Productivity becomes obsessive.


If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ~Abraham Maslow



The Law of the Instrument


When we over rely on our strengths, the cognitive bias that we are displaying is called the law of the instrument (a.k.a., the law of the hammer).


In 1868, a London periodical described what would happen if you gave a boy a hammer and chisel. Once he knows how to use them, he will hack away at doorposts and chisel away the corners of shutters and window frames. The boy must be redirected to apply his tools in a better way. He must be given boundaries in which to use this skill.


From these early observations of human nature, researchers developed theories of how we overuse our strengths.


While studying computer simulations, Silvan Tompkins noted that we are often adapting jobs to the available tools rather than constructing technical solutions to fit the job.


Robert Kagan suggested that there is an opposing force in the law of the instrument: if you don’t possess a hammer, you fear and avoid all nails.


In 1984, Warren Buffet commented that the overuse of mathematical models for financial markets is due to the difficulty of acquiring the academic skills to perform the numeric manipulations. He said, “Once these skills are acquired, it seems sinful not to use them, even if the usage has no utility or negative utility.”


Reading these descriptions above may sting some mathematicians or IT specialists, but no one is immune to the law of the hammer.



How Productive is too Productive?


A potential client called me a few months ago. I conducted my initial assessment with him and asked him questions that typically result in a list of goals for a coaching engagement. Forty-five minutes into the phone call, I had no coaching goals listed. He was getting everything done that he needed to do, was meeting all his objectives, and had a satisfying work/life balance.


“What problems are you trying to solve?” I asked him again.

“I feel like I waste time. There are minutes, every day, where I’m not productive. I’m wasting those minutes.”


This man is one of those lucky people who was “born” organized. Being systematic and productive came naturally to him.


I am *not* one of those people. I had to learn the skills to be productive. And, it is a daily effort for me to apply them.


This man was born with a hammer. I had to smelt my hammer of productivity like a blacksmith of old.


Perhaps that is why he felt like he had to be hammering something every minute of every day.


If a skill comes easily, are we more likely to overuse it?



Should you Hammer Every Nail?


I was speaking to a room full of school counselors last month. One topic that inevitably comes up in the professions dedicated to promoting the wellness and/or welfare of others is the issue of saying “no” appropriately.


NOTE:  For those of you who doubt my ability to overuse a metaphor, read on friend. Read. On.


Whatever your hammer is, there are always nails that could use your attention. You are tempted to say yes to every need for your hammering abilities. One coworker asks you to help her build a fence, you pound in the nails. A friend needs you to help him build a birdhouse, no problem.


So, if you have this well-functioning hammer, aren’t you obligated to use it as much as possible?




Maybe building fences isn’t your passion. Perhaps you really love birdhouses. If you don’t decline the opportunity to help build fences, you won’t have time or energy to build any birdhouses. Every time you say yes to a fence project, you are saying no to many, many birdhouses.


It’s okay, even necessary, to say no to the fences. Like the boy with the hammer and chisel, you must have boundaries.



Hammers Need Good Balance


Overuse injuries are common among elite athletes. They are doing something that they love and are good at doing. Sometimes their motivation to perform exceeds the ability of a shoulder or a knee to keep up.


They end up on the bench.


While healing, the athlete’s body can become deconditioned. Coming back from an injury can limit, or even eliminate, a career.


So, like almost everything else in life, we need to achieve balance. If we underuse our strengths, they are no longer strengths. It we overuse them, they become weaknesses.



Aren’t you proud of me for concluding with something other than the hammer metaphor? After all, that would have been a bit too much…


Perfect Target

Is perfectionism your productivity barrier?

Check out my online course, Unwrapping Perfectionism.

Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.



  1. MJ Whitt

    Great article! Thank you!

  2. Seana Turner

    I am more like the man you were speaking with. I feel the internal drive to be productive every minute. My battle is to schedule downtime, to recast my definition of productive to include rest and solitude and curiosity. We each have to adapt to both our natural inclinations and our weaknesses, right?

    • Lucy Kelly

      Me too, Seana. It’s something I’ve become more conscious of lately – I used to see it as a strength but as Melissa says, balance is the thing. I make myself laugh by how productively I schedule my “downtime” though.

      • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

        I love your “productively scheduled downtime.” That makes me smile. You may be using your hammer, but at least you are using it gently!

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      Absolutely. It’s like there’s a sweet spot for both strengths and weaknesses. Overexposure to areas in which we are weak can lead to frustration and giving up. Too little exposure to our weak areas, and we have no opportunity for growth.

  3. Linda Samuels

    I appreciated your use of metaphors because it drove the point home. 🙂 Seriously, though, your points are eye-opening. We all have strengths, but we need to consider how to put them best to use.

    While it’s not exactly what you were saying, something that happened over the weekend, came to mind. My husband recently purchased a saw attachment for a battery-operated tool so that I could more easily do some hedge trimming. Up until this point, I had only used hand tools, so he wanted to give me instructions so that I used it carefully. Besides, he knew how much I’d enjoy using it and didn’t want me to get overzealous with the trimming.

    He stood there as I started, watching to make sure I was safe. There was a lot of power in using this tool. The wood quickly cut, and it was so satisfying to reshape this overgrown shrub. But it also was so much fun that I wanted to keep cutting, even after I had cut enough. With Steve’s help, I stopped at the right point.

    But that experience connected to what you were saying. Tools (strengths) are powerful. We have to guide them carefully, so we promote rather than stunt growth.

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      “drove the point home” I see what you did there! Thanks for the groan. And, I’m glad your hedges survived your fun, new tool. When I was 21, I used a nail gun at a worksite in order to build a fence. I loved it so much that I’ll bet that fence is still standing because of the latticework of nails I fired into the wood. Or, it has crumbled to the ground because the overuse of nails turned the wood into Swiss cheese. Hard to say…

  4. Janet Barclay

    This is great, Melissa! There’s so much here I can relate to – thanks!


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