In the daily battle to get your work done, it can sometimes be useful to review the way you do things and to take a fresh perspective. For the past 15 years or so, I have — very broadly — followed David Allen’s Getting Things Done method. It has served me reasonably well, but I have often found that it is better at helping you to organise the work you do than to actually do those things. By chance, I noticed a few people talking about a book called Work Clean by Dan Charnas (also called ‘Everything in Its Place’ in the paperback edition). I was more than a bit sceptical that processes and systems designed for people working in professional kitchens would translate well into knowledge work, but I decided to buy a copy and find out for myself.
The basic argument Dan Charnas makes is that kitchens are extremely high pressure, busy environments, in which a series of processes have to occur in a specific order and in a timely way in order to get a delicious plate of food in front of a customer. Therefore, there might be things people working in other fields could learn from professional kitchens which would help others faced by a daily deluge of things to get done.
As I said, I was sceptical that the analogy was a helpful one, but gradually the book won me over. The key components that Dan writes about when committing to good quality work are preparation, process and presence. For preparation, he writes a lot about the system of mise-en-place that chefs use, preparing and organising ingredients and writing down detailed lists of what needs to be done, in what order, for successful food service the next day. Process is about the physical set up of your work area to avoid unnecessary actions and to have everything at hand, and by presence he means committing to the best quality of work you can achieve. If you agree to do something, you have to start it and finish it to the best of your ability.
There are a lot of anecdotes about situations faced by chefs in kitchens, which are then related to the way that these situations might — by analogy — help those of us who work in other fields. These stories were certainly interesting, but after a few, I felt that I had got the point being made and became a bit impatient to move on. If you end up reading the book, I think you can safely skip some of these stories later on if you feel the same. Similarly, I felt that the advice about the physical workspace was stretching the analogy a bit far, and that advice about setting up a ‘Magic Triangle’ to access the tools and ingredients you need is not very relevant for people working almost entirely with digital tools.
However, a lot of the other material made a lot of sense to me, and seeing things from a different perspective made me re-evaluate my working practices. For example, he talks about the difference between ‘process’ tasks and ‘immersive’ tasks. Process tasks are ones that you need to put some initial energy in to, but then they continue without your input or attention for a while. In the chef’s world, this is something like putting the oven on to pre-heat, or heating a pan of water or oil. These things need to be done early so that you can make progress with the next steps, but you can get on with other tasks once they are started. Outside the kitchen, tasks like emailing or calling someone to ask for information, or to ask them to do something would be a process task, as would passing on a document you have drafted to another team member for their comment or input. In contrast, immersive tasks are those that need your focus and continuous attention, like making a complicated sauce (or programming, writing, or creating presentations outside the kitchen).
I have always left writing emails and so on until later in the day, wanting to get the ‘real’ work done first while I have focus. Just visualising these process tasks as putting the water on to boil completely flipped my attitude to them, as I could see the benefit of doing them first and letting them work away for me while I was — metaphorically — making my hollandaise sauce. I’ve also found that doing them first clears my mind and lets me focus better on the immersive tasks. Over the few months that I’ve been doing this, I have been able to keep a clean (or nearly clean) inbox, which is something of a miracle…
The other thing that has worked well for me is the idea that once you start on something, you finish it, even when you come up against some tiredness and psychological resistance, because it is always better to finish it now than to have to pick it up another day. When I find myself losing momentum now, I do try to get the task finished, and feel much better for doing so. I’ve also started to think more about breaking down my tasks into more components so that it is possible to finish it during a block of work. I’m also better at taking a short break after completing a task to first clean digital files away in the right place and perhaps step away from the computer for a moment to refresh before the next task.
There’s a lot more in the book about longer-term planning and how to organise your day, some of which I found really useful and some less so, but overall, reading the book and thinking about how I work has really helped me. Often these kinds of systems work well until you hit a busy patch and then get thrown out of the window as you scramble to get back on top of things, but it worked really well for me in a recent intensely busy period. Sometimes shifting the way you see things can be very helpful!