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Mise-en-Place for Knowledge Workers: 6 Practices for Working Clean

date Jul 6, 2021
authors Tiago Forte
reading time 5 mins
category blog

Definition of Mise-En-Place

The origin of mise-en-place: repeatitive vs creative parts

Chefs use mise-en-place – a philosophy and mindset embodied in a set of practical techniques – as an “external brain.” It gives them a way to externalize their thinking into their environment and automate the repetitive parts of cooking so they can focus completely on the creative parts.

Who created this concept?

By the time he died at age 99 in 1935, Escoffier had transformed French cuisine into the global standard and elevated the work of a chef from manual labor to something approaching artistry.

Roles in the kitchen

the strictly defined roles he created for the kitchen: the chef de cuisine was the commanding officer; underneath him were his lieutenants the sous-chefs; and underneath them were various chefs de partie who ran the various stations, including garde-manger (pantry), sauté (range cooking), saucier (sauces), patissier (desserts), rôtisseur (roast or grill), poissionnier (fish), and friturier (fryer).

How cooking resembled manufacuting assembly line

These positions made up the culinary equivalent of a high-volume manufacturing assembly line. Each ingredient, tool, and dish flowed according to a precise plan.

System that includes

  1. philosophy – what chefs believe
  2. standard of excellence – what chefs adhere to
  3. arrangement of ingredients – how chefs set up their environment
  4. The practices of cooking – how chefs cook
  5. mindset – how chefs think

Work conditions

We likewise have to contend with a deluge of tasks, under uncertain conditions, with tight deadlines, using tools and resources that weren’t always built for the task.

6 practices:

  1. Sequence
  2. Placeholders
  3. Immersive vs. process time
  4. Finishing mindset
  5. Small, precise movements
  6. Arrangement

Linear list of todos

But consider that we can never do more than one thing at a time. The flow of time is linear, which means at some point, even our most complex thinking and planning has to get distilled down to a simple, linear to-do list: what comes first, what comes next, and what comes after that.

First task is most important

Likewise, in knowledge work, the first tasks matter the most. The first acts of your morning will set the direction of your entire day. The first thing you do when starting your workday will set the tone for everything that follows.

First move from input

Every incoming input – whether it comes from a new email or a spontaneous thought in your mind – should trigger an immediate “first move,” which could include adding an appointment to your calendar, capturing an open loop in your task manager, creating a digital note, or saving an item to read later.

Immersive vs Process tasks

Immersive time includes tasks that require the chef’s full focus and involvement… Process time includes tasks that can be completed without the chef’s direct attention.

Challenges in process task

Unlike immersive time, process time is highly sensitive to when it gets started. If I don’t start cooking the rice now, and wait to start it until I need it, I might have to sit around and wait for 15 minutes for it to finish.

Process unlocks

But it is actually process time that offers us the most leverage. Because the small actions we take to kick off process time unlock the efforts of others on our behalf.

Finishing == 100% complete

In cooking, a dish that is 99% finished has zero value… Because of this brutal reality, chefs must adopt a “finishing mindset.” They loathe the incomplete. They don’t start what they can’t finish.

Unfinished tasks clutter our mind

Finishing actions clear the mind – a finished plate does not require ongoing attention or memory. In contrast, when unfinished tasks are allowed to accumulate, they clutter the mind and make even the task you’re focused on difficult to complete.

Beware of starting and not finsihing too many tasks / projects at the same time

The same situation applies to knowledge work. It seems harmless to start and stop tasks as new information becomes available. But there is a hidden cost each time we do so. The unfinished task has to be managed and tracked and updated. It takes up space on your to-do list, on your computer or desk, and most importantly of all, in your subconscious mind. These

Repeated moevemtns == standardised

Small movements can be repeated quickly, which helps the body memorize the muscle movements and turn many of them into automatic habits. Repeated movements can be standardized and measured, which leads to further gains in efficiency.

Note what are the small tasks we can do faster

Being able to compress time and deliver sooner is thus an essential part of the feedback loop that leads to true quality.

Unprocessed to processed item positions

Unprocessed ingredients move in from the left side of the cutting board, cutting happens in the center, and processed ingredients move to the right.

Work desk is stable, but the work is not

But in another sense, our working environment is extremely stable: it happens on our computer, which can be thought of as a virtual staging area that extends past the edges of our screens to our mobile devices, tablets, smart watches, and even the screens of others.

Creating predictability:

  1. Creating a “start up” and “wind down” routine to begin and end your day
  2. Creating dedicated workspaces for each of your most important projects
  3. Finishing each day or week with “Desktop Zero,” closing all your browser tabs