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June 19th, 2019
In a kitchen, especially a successful restaurant kitchen, there is great emphasis placed on mise en place. This is French for ‘everything in it’s place’.
The logic behind this kind of practice is obvious. If you know where something is, then when it comes time to use it, there’s no time wasted trying to find it. In a place like a kitchen, or a workshop of some kind, this can become so beneficial that it allows for a seamless workflow to emerge that is otherwise impossible. When we are undistracted by disrupting and wandering tracks of thought like ‘where the hell is the spatula that I need,” our thinking is free to play around with novel and creative ideas that arise while more mundane tasks are efficiently executed through muscle memory.
The philosophy inherent in this kind of organization can be applied to things other than just tools that are arranged within arms reach.
Take for example anything on the perennial or hypothetical to-do list that is causing stress: something that we’ve been slacking on, or putting off just because it comes with a sense of dread.
All of us are subject to this odd form of self-torture and we are all aware of how much better we’d feel if we just get it over and done with.
But, perhaps one neglected aspect of this whole process is what might have happened in the absence of all that perseverating stress we experienced while procrastinating. Our thoughts were consumed with the dread, the difficulty, the feelings of unwilling and unwanting. What might have we thought about if there’d been no annoying task to dread and procrastinate on?
The annoying task that we put off is like a lost spatula for the chef. What creative idea might have arisen but never had the chance because the chef was busy looking for the lost spatula?
This brings us to a deeper reason why a to-do list, however simple, offers potential benefits that far outstrip the naivety of such simplicity. The to-do list certainly helps us get things done, but more importantly, it frees up time and attention and emotions for more interesting work that is easily hampered .
Imagine for example someone who is sitting at a computer trying to write the next chapter of their novel, but can’t seem to concentrate because they are worried about their credit card statement. We all waste innumerable valuable minutes everyday with this sort of inefficient division of attention.
We can wonder: if the writer took a few minutes to simply pay off what was possible in that moment, how much more free would the writer be to concentrate on the more gratifying task of working on their novel?
This isn’t so much having a to-do list, but more about an organization of that to-do list.
Where the chef as mise en place, we can think of task en place.
Is our to-do list in a thoughtful order?
If we leave all of the least desirable tasks till the very end, not only are they more likely to spill over into the next day when we fail to get them done, but anything we might try to do in the mean time is tainted with the dark cloud of such a future task hanging over us.
This episode references Episode 375: Two-Do