A French culinary phrase which means "putting in place" or "everything in its place". Mise-en-place is about bringing together all the tools a chef needs in close proximity, prepped for immediate use, so that they can just execute – quickly, consistently, and sustainably.
There are 6 practices that mise-en-place has to offer us:
In a kitchen, sequence is everything — the meat can’t go onto the chopping block if it’s frozen; the pasta won’t absorb the sauce unless it’s been cooked; the garlic can’t be added until it’s been chopped.
In knowledge work, the importance of sequence isn’t always so clear. Does it really matter whether you send that email or write up that report first? But once we realize the importance of sequence, it becomes apparent that not all moments are created equal: the first tasks matter much more than the later ones.
In a kitchen, the few seconds it takes to start heating up a pan or start defrosting the chicken will have the biggest impact on the overall timeline, because these steps can’t be accelerated. They take as much time as they take.
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.
For a chef, every physical object serves as a placeholder. That pan isn’t just a pan. It is also a placeholder reminding him that a dish is in process. The sizzling of the oil is the alarm bell cueing up the next step.
Every time we capture an “open loop” - a new email, or a spontaneous thought in our mind - we are placing artifacts in our environment to serve as reminders. And that should trigger an immediate "first move" such as adding an appointment to the calendar or creating a digital note. Each of these items serves as a reminder of an action you might want to take, and they are all preserved in a trusted place outside your head.
Not all time is created equal. Immersive time includes stirring, mincing, seasoning. These require focus and involvement. Processing time includes grilling, heating, marinating. These continue to happen even when the chef turns his attention elsewhere.
We tend to overvalue immersive time (deep work) because it feels like we are doing our best, most important work. 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.
In cooking, a dish that is 99% finished has zero value. Finishing actions clear the mind – a finished plate does not require ongoing attention or memory.
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 in our subconscious mind.
These small frictions, multiplied by every unfinished task and accumulated over time, can eventually add up to an overwhelming burden that grinds your progress to a halt. We need to adopt a finishing mindset. You can’t always finish what you start, of course. Knowledge work is inherently unpredictable.
What you should avoid at all costs is “orphaned tasks.” These are tasks that continue to take up mental and physical space because they haven’t been tied up in the easiest possible form to be resumed later.
Small moves doesn't take much time. Precise moves has exactly its intended effect. They can be repeated quickly, which helps the body memorize the muscle movements and turn many of them into automatic habits. They can be standardized and measured, which leads to further gains in efficiency.
As knowledge workers, we know how important it is to break down our projects into smaller parts in order to make them more feasible. But what is less appreciated is that it’s equally important to break down the repeated, habitual actions we take every day.
In the modern economy we are taught that speed is antithetical to quality. Excellence is supposed to require long, slow, deliberate thought. But for a chef, speed is an essential component of quality. An otherwise perfect dish 5 minutes too late isn’t perfect.
Until we deliver, there has been no value created, no lessons learned, no feedback received, and no improvement realized. Being able to compress time and deliver sooner is thus an essential part of the feedback loop that leads to true quality.
A chef will arrange her workspace to reflect the movement of food. Unprocessed ingredients move in from the left side of the cutting board, cutting happens in the center, and processed ingredients move to the right.
As knowledge workers, our working environment is changing all the time. This has even been touted as a major benefit of remote work – that we can do it from anywhere, at any time. But there is a hidden downside: we don’t get the opportunity to internalize our workspace and master the space in which we move.
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.
It’s up to us to curate, design, and arrange our virtual workspaces to provide the predictability that our work inherently lacks. The boundaries tell you what you should be focusing on, and just as importantly, what you should ignore.