If you’re working in the kitchen of Anthony Bourdain, legendary chef of Brasserie Les Halles, best-selling author, and famed television personality, you don’t dare so much as boil hot water without attending to a ritual that’s essential for any self-respecting chef: mise-en-place.
The “Meez,” as professionals call it, translates as “everything in its place.” In practice, it involves studying a recipe; thinking through the tools and equipment you will need; and assembling the ingredients in the right proportion—before you begin. It is the planning phase of every meal, the moment when chefs evaluate the totality of what they are trying to achieve and create an action plan for the work ahead.
For the experienced chef, mise-en-place is more than a quaint practice or time-saving technique. It’s a state of mind.
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks,” Bourdain wrote in his bestselling Kitchen Confidential. “As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system….The universe is in order when your station is set."
Chefs like Bourdain have long appreciated that when it comes to exceptional cooking, the single most important ingredient of any dish is planning. It’s the “Meez” that forces Bourdain to think ahead, that saves him from having to distractedly search for items, and that allows him to channel his full attention to the dish before him.
Most of us do not work in kitchens. We do not interact with ingredients that need to be collected, prepped, or measured. And yet the value of applying a similar approach—deliberately taking time out to plan before we begin a task—is arguably even greater.
What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at your desk each day?
For many of us, checking email and listening to voice mail is practically automatic. But in many ways, this is the worst way to start a day. These activities hijack our focus and put us in a reactive mode, where other people’s priorities take center stage. It's the equivalent of entering a kitchen and looking for a spill to clean or a pot to scrub.
A better approach is to begin your day with a brief planning session—an intellectual mise-en-place. Bourdain envisions the perfect execution before starting his dish. Here’s the corollary for the rest of us: Ask yourself, at the very moment you sit down, The day is over and I am leaving here with a sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?
This exercise is effective at helping you distinguish between tasks that simply feel urgent from those that are truly important. Use it to determine the tasks you want to focus your energy on.
Then—and this is important—create a plan of attack by breaking down complex tasks into specific actions.
Productivity guru David Allen recommends starting each item on your list with a verb, which is useful because it makes your intentions concrete. For example, instead of listing, “Monday’s presentation,” identify every action item that creating it will involve: collect data, create slides, incorporate images, etc. (This applies equally to students, parents, anyone who needs to get something done—in other words, all of us.)
Studies show that when it comes to goals, the more specific you are about what you’re trying to achieve, the better your chance of success. Having each step mapped out in advance will also minimize the need for complex thinking later in the day and make procrastination less likely.
Finally, prioritize your list. When possible, start your day with the tasks that require the most mental energy. Research indicates that we have less willpower as the day progresses, which is why it’s best to tackle challenging items—those requiring focus and mental agility—early.
This entire exercise should take less than 10 minutes. Yet it’s a practice that can yield significant dividends throughout your day.
By starting each morning with a mini-planning session, you frontload important decisions to a time when your mind is fresh. You’ll also notice that having a list of concrete action items (rather than a broad list of goals) is especially valuable later in the day, when fatigue sets in and complex thinking is harder to achieve.
No longer should you have to pause and think through each step. Instead, like a master chef, you can devote your full attention to the execution.
Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is an award-winning social psychologist and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.
To get the opening chapter of his book for free, click here.