Productivity tip: Begin with a cleared surface

After seeing our post last week about his book Twenty, Michael Ruhlman sent me a message saying I’d left out one of the essential components of mise en place. He was right, I had left out one of the best parts! (His message was very nice, by the way. And, it means he actually read the post, which is quite flattering to this fangirl.)

The first step of mise en place, before you pull out a single ingredient from the cupboard or turn a dial to heat up your stove, is to:

Put away everything that you don’t need.

Clear your counter top. Get rid of the clutter. Or, to co-opt an artist’s metaphor, start with a blank canvas.

You run a much smaller risk of making a cooking mistake and adding an unwanted ingredient or missing a step if there isn’t anything else out on the counter to distract you. At the end of the cooking process, you’ll know if you forgot to salt the food because you’ll see a little bowl with salt in it sitting next to the stove. If your counter is piled high with junk mail, dirty dishes, and your child’s art projects, you could easily overlook the missing item.

Clearing the counter top also allows you to focus on exactly what you’re doing. There isn’t anything to distract you, at least that you can control.

This concept of putting away everything that you don’t need applies to a lot of projects that you may encounter throughout your day. It’s perfect for working on a project at work — close all programs and windows on your computer screen that aren’t related to your work, clear your desk of all materials that you don’t need — or even your hobby work surfaces at home. Mise en place is a great way to help you be productive even outside your kitchen.

16 Comments for “Productivity tip: Begin with a cleared surface”

  1. posted by Kevin on

    I’ve just recently started doing this on my computer at work. Instead of opening the 20 or so files that I commonly use in a day and constantly switching back and forth between them, I just open files as needed then close them right away. It’s been an amazing little productivity boost and dramatically reduces visual stress.

  2. posted by Debra on

    I like the idea where work is concerned. I like to start my day with a clear desk and computer desktop. But in the case of cooking, I don’t necessarily agree.

    I frequently come home from work to find the kitchen has a lot of bowls and plates in the sink etc. I need to get dinner started. I frequently need to make rice or potatoes or pasta plus fish or something like that. If I take the time to cut up the potatoes, I can put them in the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes, then attack the kitchen. The same goes with marinating fish or boiling water for pasta. If I were to clean the kitchen first, dinner would be 15-20 minutes later. With 2 kids under the age of 10, 15-20 minutes later can be the difference in a pleasant meal at 6:00 and kids melting down at 6:20 or kids demanding a granola bar at 5:50 when they find out dinner won’t be ready for another 30 minutes.

  3. posted by Lisa on

    I love when I can cook that way… but trying to do that usually means I just pick up the entire mess and put it somewhere else – on the table – which I then need to clear for dinner. It is just one more thing that makes me less likely to actually cook (instead of just reheat) dinner… but I have a lot of (not so good) excuses…

  4. posted by Thrift Store Mama on

    We have a super small kitchen and tend to hand-wash most of our plasticware and pots & pans, so there are ALWAYS a few plastic things resting on a small dishtowel on the counter. Always.

    I also cook dinner about five nights a week and make my kids lunches most days, so the limited counter space in our kitchen gets a lot of use.

    I can barely make a bowl of cereal, much less a meal, if there are drying dishes on the counter – it’s just too distracting, so I agree with Mr. Ruhlman’s edict to start with a clean surface.

    P.S. With limited counter space we often set our damp pots&pans on the stove to dry before putting them away.

  5. posted by Kelley on

    I absolutely agree. Even as a child I noticed that the state of my desk had a dramatic effect on my creativity. I want to a avoid a messy desk. But a clean, clear desk, with a single piece of blank paper in the middle, makes me want to create art! So I try to clear off my desk every evening, so I can wake up to a fresh desk that makes me want to tackle my art.

  6. posted by Lauren on

    This is a great tip that applies in many different scenarios. I strongly recommend it for something as simple as going grocery shopping. I used to leave the house “as is” when I went to the store, figuring I was going out, so what difference did it make what my counters were like?

    Time and again I would find it difficult to get groceries put away quickly and would occasionally miss a bag of perishables in the process–a very expensive mistake. Now I try to always clear off my counters and kitchen table BEFORE I leave for the store so I come home to clear counters ready for all my bags of stuff. It makes a big difference.

  7. posted by Gemmond on

    I recently redid my home office and in the process managed to put a lot of stuff out of sight and away from the immediate computer workstation area. This immediately made it easier to sort out various papers for current projects and focus on one thing at a time. It was physically and psychically freeing.

    We used to clear everything in every area but had gotten really behind once we had to share rooms (We have a biz library in the living room and a meeting room for clients in the same room. The bedrooms now house two sets of home office setups. Not great but it’s the only space we have. Life is tradeoffs. We get more work done and don’t have to commute. )

    Lauren, we thought we were the only folks to overlook items when unpacking groceries. Thanks for sharing and letting us know that we’re not alone in that challenge!

    We’re still challenged in the kitchen, though, given schedules and work demands (When you work from home, you would be amazed at how appealing cleaning and cooking becomes. You have to really remind yourself that you can’t do any of that on “office” time.) and space issues.

    All I know is that when stuff is cleared away, it’s easier to both start and finish any type of project. And that alone is a good reason to clear away stuff.

    The hardest thing is cleaning up after we’ve been sick, out of town or been too busy due to work to do the daily “maintenance” required to keep surfaces clear.

  8. posted by Sue on

    I find that starting with a clean work surface helps with everything. I make greeting cards, and my craft table looks like a tornado hit after a single card. I have to stop and put everything away before the next card or I end up misplacing items and working on top of the remains from previous cards. Not fun.

    I’m also convinced this is why several of my coworkers notoriously mis-file papers. They don’t clear their work space, and papers from different projects end up getting jumbled and misplaced.

  9. posted by pkilmain on

    Debra- I think starting the things that take some time (potatos, pasta, etc) and then cleaning the kitchen is a good trade-off. And it’s not like they have several ingredients so one might be overlooked. For baking or more complicated recipes, I highly recommend clearing the countertops of extraneous stuff.

  10. posted by Sue on

    I agree! I find it more calming to start clean, and I can stay focused. Having all the ingredients saved my batch of pumpkin bread this weekend. Was trying a new recipe, and realized I’d forgotten to add the baking soda because the box was still sitting on the counter.

  11. posted by Sue on

    As per putting away groceries, I clear table and counter, and clean out the fridge before shopping.

  12. posted by Dee at Home on

    Yeah.. we were raised to put things away as we finished with them, so usually by the time dinner was on, everything except the pots and pans were clean.

    I like that because for me it makes the meal more enjoyable knowing most of the work is behind me.

    dee 🙂

  13. posted by organizingwithe on

    I end every day by clearing off my kitchen counters completely – that way in the morning I’m faced with a clean slate – ready to attack the day. I never thought of it as mise en place, but I guess it could be considered that. All I know is that when I’m faced in the morning with last nights dishes sitting in the dish drainer, I feel like I’m carrying yesterdays baggage with me today.

  14. posted by cagey (Kelli Oliver George) on

    This made me laugh out loud — I always clean my kitchen BEFORE cooking. Something my husband still doesn’t understand.

  15. posted by Jennifer on

    After several incidents when my son got to the rink without one important piece of hockey equipment or another, we decided we needed to improve on our system of spread-or-hang-it-wherever-you-can-find-space. Most of the time, the forgotten item had simply been missed because it blended in with the rest of the clutter in the small area where he hung his equipment to dry after each use. Borrowing from Lean methodology, I placed one hook on the wall for each piece of equipment and labeled them all. Everything has a place. Now, when he packs, he knows that if all the hooks are empty, he’s ready. He hasn’t forgotten anything since.

  16. posted by threadbndr on

    My co-worker teases me about the state of my desk (cleared off except for what I’m working on). He’s exactly the opposite – stacks of paper everywhere. We drive each other nuts LOL.

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