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From the Kitchen to the Office: Putting Productivity in Its Place

Author Dan Charnas on how mise-en-place, an organizational philosophy popular in professional kitchens, can help you be more productive and efficient.
August 30, 2017

Like so many successful entrepreneurs, author Dan Charnas found a solution to his own problem by applying lessons from a different field. In his 2016 book Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind, Charnas explains that principles driving efficiency in professional kitchens worldwide can apply in any setting, empowering people to thrive.

Highlighting ten major elements of the universal kitchen philosophy mise-en-place (French for "putting in place"), Charnas translates their functions for organizing one's whole life and work. The three central values of mise-en-place, he says, are preparation, process and presence. Figuratively and literally, that could mean clean as you go, or work efficiently in space and time with focus and discipline.

I joined him recently for a chat about productivity in his Manhattan office, where I learned about his multifaceted life as husband, father, New York University associate professor, and executive producer and co-creator of The Breaks, a TV show inspired by The Big Payback, his book about the history of hip-hop. He also demonstrated how to navigate the Work Clean iPhone app, which allows users to prioritize by moving tasks, organized by mission, from back to front burners, as if on a stovetop. I left our conversation struck by the potential contained in the tools, lessons and behaviors Charnas has distilled from years spent studying professional chefs at work.

Since you haven't worked as a professional cook yourself, why did you turn to chefs for inspiration?

I became a music executive at Warner Brothers at the age of twenty-four. I was troubled, because I didn't know how to do budgets, P&Ls, or how to manage people.

When Tony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman brought mise-en-place into the public consciousness with their books, I thought, "Oh, I wish I was a cook." But not really—I just wished that we had that work ethic and cooperation in our office and on our teams. I also liked that you generally don't have to suffer fools in a kitchen, because they get weeded out.

Why did mise-en-place resonate so much with you?

Throughout my life, I've been attracted to systems. That's partly what drew me to the physical and spiritual practice of yoga, which I practice daily and have also taught. When I encountered mise-en-place, I wanted to determine its rules and principles, and how to be human in that system.

Planning, listmaking and squaring your list with the calendar or clock should also become non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth.

—Dan Charnas, author

I like mise-en-place because it's not a top-down management solution. It's a set of principles that can only be implemented—or "fired," as they say in kitchens—by you. You're the one who has to show up for yourself at 9 a.m. when no one else is expecting you to write that chapter and not be on Twitter, or wherever.

Why did you see a need to build on existing productivity frameworks?

I think mise-en-place is the most holistic of organizational systems because, like yoga, it unites mind and body. If you have a list of actions, they're more likely to get done if you put them on a schedule on your calendar.

The list is the province of the mind—it's about what we want to do. But the calendar rules the body. It's about where the body is in space and time. If you don't square mind and body, you'll let yourself down. If you schedule twenty things, but can only accomplish five in the time designated, you'll disappoint yourself and lose momentum.

What do chefs have to teach us about management?

A chef generally delegates a realistic amount of work to his direct reports because he knows what can happen in time and space. In my experience, such realistic expectations are less common in corporate office environments. Things tend to get piled on folks.

After assigning tasks to his staff, a chef also acts as traffic controller. As I mention in the book, Eric Ripert [chef and co-owner of New York's Le Bernadin] purposely slowed down the pace at his restaurant, turning fewer tables so his people in the kitchen wouldn't go nuts. Pacing can be more challenging when dealing with abstract ideas or information, but the corporate world still has something to learn from chefs about managing workloads.

What is the number one actionable takeaway from your book?

Reserve thirty minutes of each day for your planning ritual, what I call the "daily meeze."

There's no way a chef can forego planning and expect to feed 200 people coming into his restaurant for lunch or dinner. He has to open on time and be ready to go.

Planning, listmaking and squaring your list with the calendar or clock should also become non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth. When I do my daily meeze, my day goes a lot better. When I don't, things fall through the cracks.

The first half of those thirty minutes is spent clearing all your inputs—the stuff in your inbox, in email, on voicemail and in your bag or wallet. In the second half, you quickly organize all of that. On really busy days, you won't get to everything, but you will come out of your planning session with your three most important to-dos.

How might you coach an executive or employee resistant to planning and prioritizing?

Storytelling is great teaching tool for people with blocks. Any of the stories in the book can inspire, like the one about chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley. Faced with a long list of tasks, she kept getting distracted while making mushroom soup. She had to take herself by the collar and put herself back into the task. Just knowing that others are experiencing similar challenges can be helpful.

The more of a chef you are, the more you have ability and autonomy to silo things off. Eric Ripert references the pie of his life: one-third work, one-third family, one-third self. I'm not there yet, so I think of life as more of a dynamic. Different elements shrink and expand. Especially as an entrepreneur, you can't do the same thing every day.

Nearly everyone faces technological distractions these days. Any tips for focusing?

Sometimes I have the luxury of walling myself off from the internet, and sometimes I don't. I gave a talk recently, where I said, "There is no solution for email. It's the challenge of our generation. There is no easy answer for it; no algorithm that will perfectly sort the wheat from the chaff."

But here's what you can do: Create a simple moving and marking system. If I see an email I need to act on, I flag it and archive it, along with all un-flagged emails. That gets me to an empty inbox. Rather than use my inbox as my to-do list, I act on flagged emails by adding any related items to my task list.

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