Mise-en-Place for Knowledge Workers

I keep re-reading this article by Tiago Forte. It starts with a line that I fundamentally disagree with and gets better and worse from there:

Knowledge work is unique among skilled professions in that we lack a culture of systematic improvement.

I like the overall concept of the article which is why I keep re-reading it. I’m torn. From one angle I feel like the concepts are a complete mismatch. The work of a chef is nothing like the work of an analyst or software developer. I also know how encumbered I feel when I have bad organization of my environment and processes.

In cooking, a dish that is 99% finished has zero value.

That’s simply wrong. I know from personal experience that a salad that is 99% done is still a passable salad. A steak that is 99% done is still a pretty fantastic steak.

On the flip side, I think this is very true:

The same situation applies to knowledge work. It seems harmless to start and stop tasks as new information becomes available. But there is a hidden cost each time we do so. The unfinished task has to be managed and tracked and updated. It takes up space on your to-do list, on your computer or desk, and most importantly of all, in your subconscious mind.

The metaphor is making the lesson worse, but there are still some good ideas to steal from this article, like this:

As knowledge workers, we know how important it is to break down our projects into smaller parts in order to make them more feasible. But what is less appreciated is that it’s equally important to break down the repeated, habitual actions we take every day.

I’d also add that, just like with Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann did it first. He’s spent years talking about the application of Mise-en-Place to pretty much any other job.