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Mise-en-place: My Word of the Year for 2017

I do love a good Word of the Year. Some of mine in the past have been Strategy, Chillax, Stardust, Reunion, and Fly. Last year’s was just a sound, a wordless moan. Words of the Year are not always transformative, but they’re always evocative and comforting, like a smooth stone carried in a pocket.

This year I was feeling more energized, and I started paying attention in December for a Word of the Year to cross my path.

The word I met was mise-en-place, a French phrase from the world of professional cooking that literally means “to put in place.” But mise-en-place is so much more, as I am discovering.

In my systems work with Cairene MacDonald, we have talked about mise-en-place in its strictest sense, which involves assembling all of one’s tools and ingredients before beginning to work. We’ve also talked about it in a larger sense, of doing whatever planning and preparation is required to make the work go smoothly. These were useful ideas that I aspired to but could never consistently apply.

The revelation of working clean

Then, in the last days of December, a book title flitted across my computer screen, I don’t even remember how. Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work, and mind by Dan Charnas (affiliate link). Hmm. Sounds interesting. Is it one of those fluffy productivity books that recycles random tired ideas at a shallow level? Well, it’s only $1.50 on Kindle, let’s check it out.

To my surprise and pleasure, I found it to be a solidly researched, well-structured, and useful book. Through interviews with top chefs in New York and beyond, Charnas absorbs and transforms old productivity saws into a comprehensive paradigm that struck me as fresh and original.

There are stories to hold my interest and demonstrate principles, helpful exercises, and examples that translate kitchen practices to home and office life. I read quickly through the opening chapters and have slowed down now as Charnas is going through the ten “ingredients” of working clean.

My thought is to make each “ingredient” a focus for one month and do the exercises. But the concepts have already flooded me with new ways of seeing some of my problematic work habits.

I’m just naturally messy. Is that true?

For example: In recent years, I have not been good at tidying up as I go or cleaning as I cook. I make a mess, throw things all over the place. I leave all the pieces of a project out, intending to pick it up again, using the physical stuff as a reminder of what I have left undone. “I’ll come back to that later,” I think to myself. “If I stop to put things away, I won’t be able to keep myself going.” I live with the mess until I can’t stand it any longer, and then I do a marathon cleaning session.

This aversion to cleaning up as I go drives my husband nuts. It strikes him as disrespectful when I leave a mess, especially in a space that he has just cleaned. “Who are you expecting to deal with this?” he asks when I ignore a spill or leave a can to rust in the sink. “We live in a small space, we need to keep it tidy.” I try to explain myself, “It’s just how my brain works. I get distracted. I’m thinking about something else. I’m just trying to get the important stuff done. The rest can wait.”

I revisit advice to writers that says, “The dishes can wait,” and “No one on her deathbed ever wished she’d done more housework,” and “Cleaning is just a form of procrastination,” and I feel justified in my messy ways.

Then along comes Work Clean. It’s right there in the title. Dan Charnas and his chef-experts are very compelling at explaining WHY cleaning as you go is so important, and how it impacts your work from beginning to end.

“Even the most refined systems become useless unless maintained. It is not enough to find a ‘right place’ for everything. Cooks can’t use a static system; the system must move. So the real work of mise-en-place isn’t being clean, but working clean: keeping that system of organization no matter how fast and furious the work is.”

This rings true with me, because I know from Cairene that time management is change management, that no ritual or solution stays put for long, but they must all be tweaked and adapted and pruned continuously.

“What many chefs seem to be aiming for, then, is not cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, but rather cleaning as a spiritual practice. Chefs see a direct correlation not only between the condition of one’s station and one’s mind, but also between the tolerance of dirt and the tolerance of distractions, and between the disposition of oneself to cleaning and to responsibility in general. Thus the idea of ‘working clean’ is not only personal but collective. Our roommate’s mess becomes our mess. Our mess becomes our co-worker’s mess. … This holistic view of cleaning — that it should be integrated into every moment of a chef’s work, and that cooks clean not just for one but for all — creates the foundation for excellence in the professional kitchen.”

I couldn’t clean while I worked just because I knew I ought to, or because my husband wanted me to. But I’m finding that I can do it when I’m doing it for the order of my mind and for the excellence of my work. Just a few days of applying mise-en-place to my daily habits and chores has felt SO different, so meaningful and yes, empowering.

A year of mise-en-place

Mise-en-place. Charnas calls it a philosophy and a system, a setup but also the practice of preparing that setup and the mind state of someone who knows exactly how to think, plan, and move. I am looking forward to a year of learning how to embody all of these aspects of mise-en-place, in service to my life and health and writing.

How about you? What’s been your experience of mise-en-place? And do you have a Word of the Year? I’d love to know.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Stacey Callahan February 12, 2017, 4:36 am

    Hi Alison, I stumbled on your blog/website when I found your page on Walking Depression. It really spoke to me ( as a sufferer, as a psychologist and as a professor of psychopathology). Thanks so much for writing about it. I am glad you got things in place for 2017. I look forward to reading more from you. Take care.

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