Building Operational Excellence

Help, I’m super disorganised
Or, how a system for cookery can help us become better designers

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As ‘creatives’, we’re often thought of as messy or disorganised. There is something about the concept of creativity that intuitively feels weird to bind up with order and structure. A cursory google backs up this idea, with plenty of articles intertwining creativity and disorder like strawberries and cream.

 But just because something is oft-repeated, does not make it true. Personally, I’m not one to embrace the idea of the chaotic creative. I actually believe that for me, when I maximise order, it better allows my creativity to flow through unimpeded, and I’m a better designer for it.

The problem is, is that I’m often not very good at keeping order! I definitely enjoy the idea of keeping organised at work rather than actually being organised.

This ongoing mental battle is why a friend recommended me a book to tackle this very problem. The book is called (big breath), Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organise your life, work and mind, by Dan Charnas.

Creativity in the kitchen

Charnas’ entire book rests on a single premise: that chefs owe much of their gastronomic success to a way of working that is drilled into them all from the earliest stage of their career. That way of working is known as mise-en-place.

Mise-en-place is a system that holds to a single mantra: everything in its right place. By carefully arranging their tools for maximum efficiency, using those tools in the most effective manner possible, and cultivating a discipline to replace things to where they belong, chefs find it a lot easier to produce world class creations under tight timeframes and huge pressure.

But chefs are not the only profession who can profess to be creative whizzes who have to work inside tight constraints. Us designers too can be found working under similar conditions. So I started to think, what can we learn from this concept of mise-en-place that can help us perform better at work?

But why work ‘clean’ at all?

Before we start looking at what we as designers can learn, lets rewind and talk a little about why we would want to learn anything in the first place.

Charnas believes that there are huge mental benefits of using this system to work clean in your workspace, that apply to any profession. That by taking care of your physical and virtual territory, it can seep into your psychological territory too.

Consider a messy desktop, littered with old screenshots, versions upon versions of Sketch files, and the occasional PDF that you’re never going to read. When you’re working ‘dirty’, every time you visit that desktop to try and find something, it’s adding a tiny mental load.

That load might increase further when you open that super-heavy Sketch file that you’ve decided to try and cram every single piece of work into for your project. You’ve not added Symbols, your layers are a mess, and you mis-labelled something right at the start which scratches at your brain every time you notice it but you can’t ever be bothered to correct.

Then there’s the matter of your note-taking. Or should I say, the 2 notebooks, your Evernote, the Notes app and the mountain of random papers that are on your desk. You’ve never managed to actually stick to one way of taking notes, so you’re currently juggling multiple ways that you’re recording knowledge during the day. Its so exhausting to try and find where you’ve written something down!

This all might sound like an exaggeration, but these are all real things that I’ve done (and maybe still do). Over the course of a day, your brain is dealing with loads of all sizes, that can all accumulate to manifest in various unpleasant ways (oh hey, tension headaches!)

Working dirty also means you’re always losing time. A couple minutes to find that screenshot, a few more to find that folder in Dropbox, even more time to locate the right artboard, and a full 10 minutes where you were trying to find where you put your Moleskine this time.

If only there were a tried-and-tested system for managing workspaces that we could borrow to eliminate these (sometimes literal) headaches.

Enter the magic of mise-en-place.

Introducing order to your workspace

The craft of mise-en-place, as applied to the life of a busy working designer, can be distilled to three main principles:

  1. Understand what you need to make your workspace work for you
  2. Invest time in setting up projects for success
  3. Always return to a zero point state

Let’s take each one in turn.

Understand what you need to make your workspace work for you

Charnas tells anecdotes of chefs who are trained to set each spoon, knife and ingredient in a specific order and at certain key points in the kitchen so that as they are cooking, they have everything they need at every exact point that they need them. This investment of time upfront saves untold time during the actual cookery process when chefs just don’t have the time to be wondering where their tools or ingredients are. Chefs are primed to see their workspace as an extension of their cookery process, so they take care to ensure that their workspace works in perfect harmony with the culinary activities that take place within it.

Why shouldn’t we approach our design work the same way? Rather than see our desks and our desktops as dumping grounds, and our notebooks and macbooks as mere containers, embracing the things that facilitate our design work might allow us to work smarter and better.

Some things to consider are:

  • What are the most frequently used programs and apps that I need in my dock? What order should they be in? What makes best sense for how you work? For me, I group all of my creative apps on one side of the dock (Creative Suite, Sketch etc) and all my admin apps on the other side (Outlook, VPN etc).
  • What frequent actions can your computer help facilitate? For example, I always have tons of windows open and it can be a pain to quickly find the one I want. Then I found that you can set ‘hot corners’ on your Mac that automatically perform set actions – now, when I fly my mouse to the top left-hand corner of my screen, it immediately displays all my open windows. I perform this action multiple times a day now without thinking, and saves tons of time. It only took a couple of minutes to set up. Investing time to set up good shortcuts is another vital timesaver of this nature.
  • Where and how should things be placed on your desk? And what doesn’t actually need to be there? Have you placed items with intention or are they just where they are because thats just what was already there or how you’ve unthinkingly placed them? Every single day over a number of years, I would come into work and immediately get frustrated that my computer charging cable didn’t quite reach. Until one day when my monitor was replaced and I realised that I could have easily moved the cable to emerge on the other side of my desk closer to where my laptop was.

There are plenty of examples where some upfront consideration about the optimum way to order and place our stuff would have resulted in our lives being made easier. Its very easy to just not do this, because its all so low-level that it doesn’t really seem worth it. But not only does all this cumulative time stack up, but removing these frictions actually unlocks even more time where your creative flow can reach its proper uninterrupted potential.

Invest time in setting up projects for success

Like a chef may arrange her general surroundings with intention, she also must set up specific things before she begins tackling a recipe. Similarly, we need to consider how we organise ourselves for projects.

At the start of a project, it is incredibly tempting to just jump straight in. However, it can be useful to pause and instead reserve a chunk of time to “set-up”. This time is to ensure you have everything you need to make the project a success and putting them in the right place. Some things this could include:

  • Setting up project folders in Dropbox and placing the right assets/documents where they are needed
  • Creating placeholder calendar events for key check-ins, meetings and workshops
  • Creating Trello cards
  • Gathering any inputs e.g. research documentation, analytics reports, previous work
  • Rearranging seating so that the project team are close together
  • Setting up design files with templates

The useful thing about this type of set-up stuff is that often, we’ll be using similar set-up combos across multiple projects. As you figure out what optimum set-up each type of activity or project requires, you can begin to ramp up new projects quicker because you’ll be able to re-use things from previous projects like project folder structures and Trello card templates.

Always return to a zero point state

One element of cooking that TV shows like Masterchef fail to accurately portray is the cleaning up! I’m always noticing how messy every chef’s station is at the end of each challenge, but yet, in the very next scene, every counter is gleaming and spotless!

Unfortunately, in real life, we actually need time to tidy up our messes and to return to what Charnas calls a “zero point state”. This is where everything that has moved out of position needs to be put back where it belongs, and anything new that has been gathered has to be dealt with.

If you’re anything like me, this is one of the things we neglect. At the end of a typical day for me, you’ll find random post-its strewn across my desk, 40 separate tabs have been opened in Chrome, and piles of emails lie unopened, all of which I’ll probably ignore. This problem compounds every day that goes by where I don’t clean up – till the end of the week when it is probably difficult for me to locate most things.

To prevent this compounding problem, the strategy that Charnas advocates for is “little and often”. By getting into the habit of resetting your physical and digital workspace once a day, it’ll stay manageable and the more likely you’ll be to continue to do it.

Some things to consider are:

  • What time of day is most optimum for you to reset? It might be that you get into work early and have more time spare first thing, or that you’re always super stressed first thing in the morning and would rather do it later on. You shouldn’t feel like this has to get done at the end of the day if that means you won’t keep it up. Charnas goes a step further than this and suggests that you try the following exercise: for one day, every hour on the hour that you are at your desk, take 1 minute to reset both your physical and digital workspace, no matter what you are doing. (I find this a little excessive for me personally but I’d be interested to hear if anybody gives this a go and what they thought.)
  • What is the minimum viable action? With things like unread emails and open tabs or windows, you might not be able to completely act on everything every single day. But there are some smaller actions you can take. For example, rather than just leaving an email unread, open it and skim it to find out what your next step should be (delete it, make a task for yourself to follow up etc).

Mise en yes-please

After reading Charnas’ book, I felt pretty inspired to give this a go. I’m committing to try these principles for 28 days of workdays to see if the habits begin to stick. But I’m also interested to hear from you. Do you have any strategies, tips or processes for keeping yourself organised at work? What am I missing? Please share in the comments!

I’d also love to hear from you if you are similarly inspired to give this a go!

Thanks to Dan Charnas and his book, Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organise your life, work and mind, for heavily inspiring this post.

Design lead, watermelon addict, Leuchtterm notebook obsessive. I just enjoy designing great experiences for people that just work, writing about my craft and connecting with designers everywhere. Find me on Instagram, Twitter and Google+.

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