What us wheel-running gerbils can learn from chefs

“It’s like a very … Zen-like thing. All my knives are clean. Clean cutting board. Clear space to work. Clear mind.”

– Greg Barr, sous-chef at New York City’s Esca

One of the tenets of living successfully with ADHD is staying organized.

I use various tools and practices which I previously wrote about (see “Where is … uh, what was I looking for again?“). But this morning as I was on my way to join some friends for an open-water swim (in an effort to exe(o)cise the distraction devil), I heard a story on National Public Radio that was quite interesting.

Though the story didn’t mention a thing about attention deficit, apparently, we all, not just us distractible types, could learn something from highly trained chefs who use a system known as mise-en-place (French for put-in-place). It’s a technique taught and practiced in just about every culinary arts school and high-end kitchen. It is a way to marshal the culinary troops, so to speak.

The practice, as described by several chefs for the NPR story, involves gathering all the tools and ingredients necessary (and ONLY those things) for a certain job and place them at your work station in such a fashion to enable a chef to conserve movement, energy and time.

Culinary Institute of America instructor Dwayne Lipuma told NPR that a chef’s every minute and every motion is accounted for:

“Every component of one single dish is in one single corner so [a student’s] hand literally moves inches,” he explains. “Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here. “

Same should apply for wily writers who should be working on other things rather than writing a blog post (ahem). When I prepare to sit down to work, whether I choose my couch, the kitchen counter or my deck as office of the day, I usually spend about 10 to 20 minutes setting it up — pen, paper, documents and phone on my right, computer on my lap, coffee and/or a glass of water nearby … you get the idea.

One could surely argue that I’d be more productive if my workspace wasn’t so mobile. But I have a good excuse besides the lack of a desk or comfy chair in my home office.

Writing is hard and the right environment is critical to my getting anything accomplished. Some days outside with the birds chirping and a view of the mountains is what my creative soul needs. Others it’s the austerity and coolness (it is summer after all) of the living room. But wherever I end up, my office rarely moves until I pack it in for the day.

Getting back to the chefs, they also say it is important to clean as you go. It keeps your workspace organized and makes clean up at the end of the day, so much easier.

Same goes for us average ADD folk who have a tendency to lose and/or forget things. Clean-as-you-go is a parallel notion to OHIO (which I also previously wrote about). OHIO is an acronym for “only handle it once.” If you take something out, use it, clean it and put it away. Mail: toss all the junk into the recycling bin on the way into the house, pay bills immediately or place them in the same spot every time so they aren’t lost when it is time to pay them.

You can, of course, reduce your paper inflow by receiving and paying most, if not all, your bills online. But that takes a certain amount of disciplined order on your computer (which is another discussion).

But in essence, the OHIO principle simply suggests you take that extra step or two to put things away immediately rather than placing them at the top of the stairs so you’ll take them next time you go down — that typically leads to a pile of stuff at the top of the stairs which gets forgotten, ignored and grows! Not terribly efficient or attractive.

According to the NPR story, other principles of mise-en-place include becoming “one with your list,” being punctual and time-aware and, somewhat ironically, slowing down enough to get things right the first time.

Now if I could only figure out how to stop procrastinating …




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