I’ve been working from home for the last four out of five days this week while a small swarm of contractors, clad in combinations of denim workshirts and white Tyvek coveralls, have been shuttling back and forth above and below me into attic and crawlspace, upgrading our modest 1950s home into an more energy-efficient, climate controlled living space. It’s fantastic to finally see all this much-needed work happening around me and observe how these practiced trade crews approach their jobs.
It’s also been a huge distraction.
In the abstract, working from home for most of the week seemed like it would be rather easy to do: I filled my sweet heavy-duty HighEdWeb tote bag with all the paperwork and files I thought I might need and brought it home. All that plus my laptop and wifi and I could do all the work I need to do from the comfort of my kitchen table. Or so I thought.
I did okay for the first day, catching up on email, and even participating in a meeting via phone. But by day two I was losing serious ground, and going a bit stir crazy. There was something about the change in environment I wasn’t used to at all, and it became almost physically difficult for me to stay focused on work for more than 10-15 minutes at a time.
Sure, part of it was due to the fact that there were workmen noisily installing ductwork in the space below me for much of the day, coming in and out of the house with tools and listening to rock radio at a modest volume—nothing I couldn’t block out with my own headphones, and hey, whatever they need to do their best work I’m not going to tell them to change.
And if that had really been the core of what was distracting me, it would have made me anxious or agitated, but instead my lack of focus was more like a listlessness, an inability to move from one task to the other without getting up to rummage for snacks. I got really good at that part.
It wasn’t until midway through Day Three that I realized what was missing, the one thing I have in my office that didn’t and couldn’t pack in my tote bag to work from home: my mise-en-place.
If you’re familiar with my “Human At Work” talk you know that this was a concept I learned from chefs; mise-en-place is French for “put in place” and in professional kitchens (where it’s often just referred to as mise) that means to having a workstation that is clean and organized, with all your tools within reach, and all the ingredients you need prepared and ready to use. NPR did a great exploration of this a while back if you want to learn more, but the takeaways for me have always been the importance of optimizing your workstation for the work at hand, and then cleaning as you go.
I have really good mise at my office. I had zero mise working at home, and it took me too long to realize it, but once I was able to set that up I found my workflow moved so much better. Suddenly I didn’t have to keep getting up to look for something, which inevitably led to distraction chain reactions. Instead I got all my pens and pencils and charging cables where I needed them; set up my notebook and folders in the right spot to review while I typed. Coffee mug on my right for fueling through my database building, Rubik’s cube and deck of cards on my left for deep thinking.
And the “clean as you go” part of mise-en-place can’t be forgotten either. Part of what really makes the whole philosophy work is to be continuously cleaning up your workspace between tasks. Now, working electronically may make that seem less important, but I like to think of it not so much about cleaning away debris as it is about resetting the workspace for what’s next. Sometimes just taking a few extra breaths, a quick stretch, walking to the kitchen for a coffee refill, makes doing what’s next easier and more efficient over time.
And that’s the real goal: not neatness, but efficiency. In fact, mise-en-place doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to mean your entire working environment is organized. You can have a really messy office or desk, but your “workstation” will still run really efficiently if you make the prep part of your routine and set yourself up to get stuff done in the way that works best for you.
Since I got my mise on at home, the work is getting done again. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can actually do my work from home with just a laptop and an internet connection, no matter how many workmen in heavy boots are clamoring above my head removing old insulation. Okay, it helps to have headphones, too.
Doing any job well takes focus on the task at hand, but it also takes having the right tools at hand as well. Just like the men working in my house can pull the exact screwdriver or pliers they need from their toolbelt behind their back without looking. There is far less distraction when you get your mise on.