Preparing the study mise en place

Do you ever find yourself watching cooking videos instead of cooking?

I recently watched a video of Gordan Ramsey cooking a ‘curry in a hurry’ (a butter chicken dish).

I was spellbound by the way Ramsey seamlessly cooked this dish. He was in flow and fully focused on the task of cooking the butter chicken.

What allowed him to whip up this dish plus a serving of rice in under 15 minutes?

Being organised helped a lot. Before he started cooking, chef Ramsey had all the ingredients and cooking utensils out on the bench, ready to go.

In chef’s speak, he had prepared the mise en place.

Mise en place is a culinary skill that can help us to study and work more efficiently. In this article, I explore this concept and how you can apply it to your life to help you stay calm, focused, and in control of your studies.

What is the mise en place?

The mise en place is a French term that translates to “putting in place”. It means a place for everything and everything in its place.

Everything the chef needs is within arm’s reach. When it’s time to start cooking the dish, the chef knows where everything is. This allows the chef to focus on cooking the dish and stay calm and grounded under pressure.

In the book Kitchen Operations (a textbook for hospitality students and apprentice chefs), the authors write about the importance of being organised in the kitchen. They state:

“The ability to work in an organised manner is possibly the most important quality that anyone working in the preparation and service of food can demonstrate. You must develop this ability to complete the expected workload in the time available. Failure to be methodical in your approach will reduce efficiency and will lead to feelings of stress and frustration.”

The mise en place helps the chef avoid unnecessary stress and frustration.

Imagine the following scenario . . .

A chef starts cooking a pasta sauce.
The chef realises 10 minutes in that he is missing a key ingredient (tins of tomatoes).
The chef has to run to the shops to buy the tomatoes.

Chefs can’t afford to have that happen. They are time-pressured. They need to get meals out quickly to hungry customers.

The mise en place helps chefs avoid stressful situations like this. It can also help you decrease unnecessary stress, drama, and frustration associated with homework and study.

How can the mise en place help you with your study?

Before starting your work, set yourself up with everything you need to complete the task.

Think of this as the study desk mise en place. Ideally, you want to have a dedicated study space where everything is already set up. This saves you time, as you don’t have to set things up and pack things away after each study session.

But your desk isn’t the only space you can set up and prepare. In the world of study, you have other spaces you need to manage (e.g., a computer, school bag, pencil case, and locker). With each of these spaces, you need to ask:

“What items do I need in this space for my work to flow smoothly?”

It also helps to ask:

“What items don’t I want in this space?”

Just like a chef doesn’t want cockroaches, cats, and rats running around the kitchen and restaurant (or a visit from the local health inspector), there are things you want to keep out of your study space.

Remove anything that throws you off your game (i.e., makes you feel bad, distracted, overwhelmed, and upset) from your study space.

Here’s my list of things I want to keep out of my study space:

• My smartphone
• Long to-do lists
• Visual clutter

The point is to remove any friction points from your environment (anything that will slow you down and make it difficult to do your work).

Preparing the mental mise en place

The mental mise en place cannot be overlooked. This is the mental preparation part of the study process.

Ask yourself:

What must I do to mentally prepare myself for deep work/study?

Most of us can’t just scroll on our social media feed for an hour and launch straight into doing focused study. We need to get into the right headspace.

To be clear, I don’t mean you need to feel motivated, inspired, or in the right mood to study. Too often, we wait for motivation to strike, and it never comes. However, it certainly helps to be calm, focused, and grounded.

My mental preparation for the workday starts the evening before. Too many late nights have taught me that to wake up feeling calm and grounded, I need to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

When I wake up, I protect this mental calm by:

• Going for a walk or lifting heavy weights
• Doing a mini meditation (usually 3-5 minutes)
• Eating a healthy breakfast
• Avoiding checking my email and touching my computer first thing
• Journaling or mind mapping with pen and paper

I stay away from screens for as long as possible. This is essential for cultivating a calm mental state where I feel proactive and in control of my day.

I know I’m in trouble if I skip too many of the things on the list and start the day by checking my email. It becomes much more challenging to focus and get things done.

Avoiding pests of the mind

What is a pest of the mind?

It is anything that overstimulates the mind and leaves one feeling frenzied, scattered, and/or jangled.

Here’s the thing about learning information at a deep level: it requires you to slow down. You cannot rush it, like a 15-minute butter chicken dish.

But we engage with people, places, and things on a daily basis that speed up our thinking. In this overstimulated, wired mental state, learning feels like a hard slog.

Here’s a tip: start to notice the things that leave you feeling overstimulated. It can be incredibly liberating to cut back on these things or eliminate them completely from your life.

My study mise en place

I am constantly tweaking my workspace and experimenting with different tools to help me click into a state of flow with my work. Here are some tools that I’m currently enjoying having as part of my study mise en place:

1. Stream deck

Elgato stream deck

Technically, this is a gaming device that allows gamers who stream to switch scenes, adjust audio, etc at the tap of a button. I’m not a gamer, but I use my Stream deck to get started with various tasks and projects I feel resistance towards.

Instead of thinking, “Where is this file located? How do I get to it?” I tap a button on the Stream deck and it opens the file up. I tap another button, and it opens an application I frequently use.

No more frustrating clicking through numerous folders trying to find the document I need! The Stream deck helps to remove a big mental barrier and kick-start the work process with ease.

Stream decks aren’t cheap but if you can find one secondhand or on special like I did, they are well worth it.

2. Jug of water and glass

Staying hydrated is super important. I fill a big jug with water every morning and place it on my desk with a glass. If water is within arm’s reach and I can see it, I find myself taking regular sips throughout the day.

3. Gel pens

I used nasty, cheap pens for years. Being a sucker for free stuff, I collected free pens at career expos and university open days. Without even realising it, these pens caused me a great deal of frustration and irritation.

These days, when it comes to pens, I don’t mess around with junk. There’s one pen I love using: the uniball signo (0.7). It’s a gel pen (you can find them at Officeworks). Writing with this pen is an absolute pleasure.

As Kevin Kelly says:

“Take note if you find yourself wondering “Where is my good knife?” or “Where is my good pen?” That means you have bad ones. Get rid of those.”

4. Notepad

It’s super handy to have a notepad to jot down ideas and random thoughts as they arise. I recently discovered Rhodia notepads (a recommendation by The Pen Addict, Brad Dowdy). Writing on this paper feels like writing on butter!

5. Electronic timer

Whenever I notice I’m procrastinating, I’ll set my timer for 10 minutes and say, “All I need to do is 10 minutes on this task. That’s all. Just 10 minutes”. I set the timer and away I go.

Other times, when my workspace looks like a mess, I’ll set a timer for 3 minutes and spend that time getting things back in order.

6. Planner

My planner tells me what to do and when to do it. For the last 6 weeks, I have been experimenting with Cal Newport’s time blocking method (planning my day in hourly blocks). It sounds torturous, but it’s strangely liberating.

7. Year-in-a-glance wall calendar

When I open my planner, I can see what is happening for the week, but I don’t have a sense of the bigger picture. This is why I printed out a massive (A0 size) year-in-a-glance planner to schedule all my presentations, holiday breaks, special events, etc.

Having this calendar makes me feel more in control of my life. I can see when I have busy periods of presenting and when I need to balance those periods with extra rest time to sustain myself. I can also see events and deadlines relatively to where I am now.

These are just a few things I love having in my study/work mise en place. But we’re all different, so you need to figure out what works best for you.

What secondary students tell me they need

When I recently asked a group of high school students what items they would need in their study mise en place, here’s what they came up with:

• Snacks
• Phone
• Pencil case
• Squishmallows

The first three suggestions didn’t surprise me, but the squishmallows sure did (the students were shocked that I’d never heard of a squishmallow before). I had to google them (they are soft toys).

But I get it.

A squishmallow is fun.
It’s comforting.
It makes you feel good.

If something makes you feel good, go put it on your desk. Because if you feel good, it will be easier to think and learn.

To sum up

The mise en place is a skill that can help all of us (not just chefs) focus on the task at hand. The point is you need to make your study mise en place work for you. You need to find the combination of ingredients that hits the spot.

Like a top chef has their favourite chopping knife, you’ll have your favourite pen. Spend some time experimenting with various tools and different work setups. By creating a more streamlined and organised study space, you’ll get that time back. Plus, you’ll find it’s much easier to get going and keep going with your work.