(warning: there are several more alliterations in this post 😉)
What can we learn from chefs (and musicians) to improve achieve peak productivity in our work?
Chefs produce dishes reliably and consistently while working with perishable goods, under tremendous time pressure around hot stoves and sharp knives. Peak productivity is a requirement for them. They have to have a finishers mindset, because a dish that is 99% done, is not done at all.
On this page:
- A Chef’s perspective on peak productivity
- Ok, now what?
A Chef’s perspective on peak productivity
It can be helpful to look at our productivity system from a chef’s perspective: Our publication schedule causes time pressure and we could look at motivation, inspiration, and creativity as perishable goods.
Reading Dan Charnas‘ “Work Clean” made me look at my work from this perspective. So, if this post resonates with you, consider reading that book.
What resonated with me most was this sentence:
Mise-en-place comprises three central values: preparation, process, and presence.Dan Charnas in “Work Clean”
The reason it resonated is that it is the same in making music for me. Process and preparation are what music practice is all about. Mastering your instrument, training your ears, and adding musical ‘vocabulary’ to your toolbox are the preparation and process stages.
A musical performance is like creating a one-time live art piece. To do you best in that moment, means you need to be fully present with your attention. In other words: Peak performance requires peak productivity.
When it comes to productivity for content creation (such as writing these blog posts), I added 2 additional “P’s” to the list: Planning and Pruning.
Together, these 5 P’s are a productivity system on a meta level, you can adopt and adapt to your situation.
Productivity is not about the latest and greatest apps, or stringing together a bunch of API’s for services that you are hardly using. Productivity is about optimising for clarity and focus by cutting out the unnecessary.
“You plan what you can so you can deal with what you can’t.”Dan Charnas
Most businesses make plans either once or twice a year or as a reaction to something going wrong.
Making plans focus on what to do. Usually the outcome is some sort of large chart with one plan in one direction.
Another way to look at planning is the plan for different possible scenario’s. Think about what can happen up front, so that you are equipped to deal with different situations.
For a chef, once the guests start to show up, there is no time to plan. It is crunch time, orders start rolling in, and dishes need to be produced accordingly. Investing time in planning thoroughly up front, allows the kitchen to consistently produce dishes day in and day out.
Planning is thinking before moving. Movement is that thought embodied.Dan Charnas “Work Clean”
What to plan is up to you of course. But plan time to put in effort. Do not plan results. What seems to work best for me is to plan everything that I have to do in a way that leaves the biggest chunks of undisturbed time to spend on helping other people. Whether through coaching, teaching or creating content.
Planning also makes me aware of the moments in the day that are best suited for a particular type of work, this directly helping to achieve peak productivity. I tend to start the morning doing a few tasks that other people depend on me doing. Next, I keep my mornings as free as possible to carve a few hours of undisturbed (creative) work.
After a lunch break, I spend some more time on tasks where other people depend on me moving a process forward. The rest of the afternoon is usually spend with meetings or doing tasks to get content created, such as editing, outlining, scheduling posts, SEO optimisation, etc. That is what peak productivity is for me. A well-planned day so that there is as much undisturbed time as possible.
Having a plan, any plan, also helps to overcome the feeling that you are not doing enough. Because you make conscious decisions on what to work on, rumination on “what if I had…” is reduced.
Preparation is important to a chef so that performance during crunch time is optimal. Having all ingredients prepped and in the right place, work station clean and all tools in the right place, etc.
For creators, preparation may mean setting up your work space properly. Maybe a little routine or ritual to switch off notifications, have a playlist, etc. But also: having the outline ready when you start writing, for example. Or having done the research, having read the book and processed the notes.
When giving training, it means I know what information to present, in what order and what the slides may look like. I often do training with another trainer, so we prepare these things beforehand. Even if we have done this training before.
For a coaching session, preparation means I am fully familiar with the situation of the person I am coaching. What we have worked on before, what challenges may have come up, etc.
Proper preparation allows you to be fully present when “doing the real work”.
Also, preparation for tomorrow starts today for me. I often have a little routine to “reset the room” after work. It means putting back the stuff I grabbed during the day. Clean up the desk. My office is not a clean room by any means, but creativity is several hampered in a messy environment.
Messy and clean may mean different things to different people, so find out what works for you. A well arranged space makes for frictionless work. Imagine a chef with a steak in the pan having to go look for the proper knife.
Don’t make preparation an afterthought, or optional activity. Peak productivity is highly dependent on proper preparation.
(I just can’t help myself with these alliteration today)
Creating a process is removing friction for repeated and important tasks. To consistently produce the same amazing dish, a cook needs to follow the same steps in the same order every time. A recipe is a documented process.
Having a process for a repeated task is the first step. When I started writing, I would just start a new post, and stare at a blank page. Now, the process for writing a blog post happens in different steps: finding content topics, planning them out ahead of time, creating an outline for a post, etc. This process does not happen every time I write, but rather at different moments during the week or months.
For training I have a process too: having a meeting to determine the topic and goal, asking for input for a training, gathering case studies from participants beforehand if possible, etc. This process is the same every time. Steps can sometimes be skipped or merged, but those are conscious steps in the process.
There are three ways to approach a process:
Commit the process to memory. This will happen naturally when repeating the same or similar actions on a regular basis. Retrieving the process from memory makes it quick and easy and does not require external tools. The downside is that it can be hard to update an internalised process, because the pattern is so engrained in your brain.
One internalised process I have is for meetings, both online and offline:
– Always put them in the calendar. If I don’t do that, I will not remember.
– Plan prep time. This may be 5 minutes, or 30. But prepare so you can be present. Context switching takes a lot of energy, and doing so at the beginning of a meeting means you are missing part of it.
– Plan process time. After a meeting, account for a bit of time to process meeting notes. It makes switching contexts a lot easier again and you are not asking your brain to retain info while working something unrelated later in the day.
This is another important one to reach peak productivity!
In other words: Taskslists and Checklists. Tasks or actions that you do not do often enough to internalise them, or that are too critical to allow any deviations or mistakes to occur.
An airline pilot may fly an airplane daily, but has a checklist for specific parts of the process of flying his aircraft from one airport to the other. In case of unforeseen circumstances, there are checklists to help troubleshoot a problem.
Personally, I use them for different tasks, such as publishing content on any of my sites. When sending an e-mail to my list of subscribers, there is a short checklist to go through.
When we go on a trip as a family, whether a weekend or several weeks, there are checklists I follow to make sure we pack the right things, our vehicle is prepped correctly, etc.
Checklist are a cognitive offload. I also find a lot of fulfilment in creating a checklist, especially in creating the most efficient and effective order of steps.
Automating a process is like cheating. Peak productivity is within reach when regularly Investing the time to automate repeated actions. Doing so will pay dividends for weeks, months or even years.
A chef may not be able to automate cooking a steak, but for creators (and entrepreneurs alike), there is a lot that can be won through automation.
Automating a process is beneficial in two ways:
Firstly, it removes the (often boring) repetitive tasks from your schedule.
For example: Whenever I receive an invoice as a PDF via e-mail, a simple rule forwards it automatically to my accounting software.
Secondly, automation can be used to remove friction from the tasks you’d rather not be doing.
For example: for e-mail invoices that are sent as images or HTML e-mail (I am looking at you Apple Appstore), a single hotkey will capture my screen, convert it to a PDF and send it to my accounting software.
Another global hotkey on my computer, creates a popup to enter a line in my Captains Log. I would often forget to do this, because my focus at that moment is on shipping stuff, not logging it. But having a single hotkey to create a Captains Log entry means I never forget anymore.
This is where the tools, apps and api’s are valuable additions to your toolbox. But only if you know what to automate and why.
If you were to look around my house, it is not clear I am anal-retentive about my work. But since, this work largely happens digitally, I find myself spending considerable amounts of time optimising workflows and processes. Especially for the parts I dread or do not do daily.
Do you think your Michelin Star chef is checking his instagram while preparing that 3-star dish for you?
Be working, or not. If you are, be all in. Do one thing at a time. Finish it before moving on if possible. That is what “being present” means.
No cook at a station in the kitchen is listening to a podcast while preparing food.
No musician is watching YouTube when not playing during a performance.
For some professions this is a given. But, as creators and online entrepreneurs, we are constantly connected. We may even be creating content for those very platforms we should be avoiding while doing our work. This is a hard thing to do. There are plenty tools available to help you switch off distractions, Google is your friend here.
Personally, this is one of the hardest things to do for me. I am not on most social media platforms, but my brain just loves to learn and suck up new information. So while I may not be watching MrBeast, I often find myself diving into my backup brain (Evernote) or course material I have worked with before, because it is hard to focus on the task at hand.
Remove as many extractions as possible, not just online. That can be difficult for location-independent entrepreneurs, or those building a business from the kitchen table while the kids are at home. But it is still worth striving for.
This does not have anything to do with chefs or cooking, but it is one of the P’s in my search for peak productivity.
Pruning is cutting away dead or overgrown branches to encourage growth of a tree or plant.
On your way to peak productivity, pruning means regularly spending time to have a look at your productivity and figure out what needs adjustment or can be cut out entirely makes for a lean productivity machine.
What can you do to further improve or optimize your planning, preparation, process or presence?
Ok, now what?
Achieving peak productivity is not mythical. The goal of these 5 P’s is not to reduce the creative process to a step-by-step list to create cookie cutter content.
This system exists to help you find your personal best way to do your work. It helps reflect on how you work and what is important for you to work on. Then, it helps to offload stuff from your brain to external systems (analog or digital, whatever works for you), so that you have time and mental capacity to devote to helping other people by providing products, services, entertainment, etc.
All this to get a finishers mindset: A chef needs to consistently produce complete dishes. 99% done, is not done at all. The same goes for the tasks in our work as independent creators and entrepreneurs.