Mise en place

Learning a language is hard. In addition to grappling with a new grammar, bizarre pronunciations, unfamiliar vocabulary, and in some cases an alien writing system, you also have to build an entirely new set of skills. Chief among these is the ability to memorize massive amounts of completely random data. No matter how smart you are, how good your ability to mimic sounds, or how well you can integrate rules on conjugation, sentence structure, etc., there’s no way around the fact that you’ll have to commit tens of thousands of words to memory. There are a couple of reasons why this is… shall we say… problematic for the new language learner.

  • It’s mind-numbingly boring
  • There are no shortcuts
  • No one tells you how to do it, beyond vaguely talking about word lists or flashcards
  • You start out being really bad at it

The last two points are particularly important. Memorization is a skill you have to learn – it’s very hard in the beginning, but gets easier over time. Lots of people give up in the beginning, unwilling to go through the initial hump, or simply not understanding that they can (and will) build this skill if they keep at it. And, crucially, no one ever sits you down and explains how you’re supposed to memorize the vocabulary.

This was a key insight when I was building my language learning startup. Students are regularly told to memorize vocabulary, but not told how. Though they might feel like they should know how, nothing feels particularly effective or efficient, and so they put it off – a boring, frustrating task. They say that they’re bad at languages, which is true – because everyone starts out bad at languages, just like everyone starts out bad at piano – but some stick with it and get better, and others don’t.

So I built a tool that would enforce a very specific method of vocabulary memorization. Students didn’t have to think about what they were doing, or how it worked – they just had to press a button and start answering questions. And they did, sometimes repeating an exercise a half-dozen times or more. Part of the reason was that they knew their teacher could see that they had done their exercises. But a bigger part of it was that all obstructions had been taken away. They didn’t have to complete the meta-task of inventing a methodology first, or wondering if they were doing it right – they could just get started.

In cooking, the French term mise en place means “putting in place”, which boils down to getting everything ready before starting. Meat and vegetables are cut, spices measured, eggs cracked and beaten, oven pre-heated – so that when it’s time to cook, all of the time-consuming prep work is already done, and thought and attention can be expended on the actual cooking.

Setting up your environment and projects for maximum efficiency is as important in engineering as cooking. Every distraction, every interruption, every additional step – no matter how trivial – will negatively impact your ability to start and complete a task. It’s easy to temporize if you need to learn a new language, install an environment, choose between a set of options in an unfamiliar domain, or otherwise overcome a meta-task before starting in on the actual thing that needs to get done. People are far less likely to procrastinate when the task is well-defined, concrete, within their skill set (even if the content is novel), and ready to go. Requiring additional steps to be completed before the core task can be attacked will create stress, but not necessarily action.

It’s the little things that get you

You’re much more likely to stop what you’re doing and snack if there’s food nearby (sounds obvious, but someone got a grant to research this, so, you know, science). You’re more likely to take a break if there’s some kind of entertainment around. You’re more likely to chat with co-workers if they’re hanging out close by.

Every long-standing, unfinished task is going to create a sense of anxiety and reduce your ability to concentrate on other problems. Having multiple windows open will reduce your ability to concentrate on one thing.

Paying attention to e-mail, instant messages, IRC, SMS, your Facebook newsfeed, Twitter, hallway conversations, whatever – will make it harder to concentrate on any task requiring thought. This is why it’s hard to get things done during the day, and why so many of us work better late at night. It would be more accurate to say that we work best when no one’s bothering us. When no one’s expecting a response to an email, when we don’t have to shut out the sounds of coworkers chatting loudly nearby. When we can work without having to multitask / context switch. When there’s no reason to get our butts up out of our chairs.

If you’re a manager, you have to worry about this not only for yourself, but also for your team. It’s a real challenge to overcome the intrinsically unproductive nature of most office environments, especially when the lost productivity is invisible and some aspects of the inefficiency are convenient (it’s easy to interrupt someone to get answers to questions, even if you don’t need the answer right away).

Whether it’s for you or your team, you need to think very seriously about how to clear away all meta-tasks, preconditions, red tape, distractions, etc., and expose the actual projects underneath. How you can help your team set up their environment in the most effective manner possible. Especially when you generally don’t have the ability to change team location, desk set up, furniture, offices vs. cube, etc.

Managers talk about this all the time – i.e., that their job is to “clear the path”, to make sure that their teams can concentrate on the actual work and not get distracted by the miscellaneous cruft that pops up all the time. But if we’re just talking about getting needed equipment, or handling conversations with a vendor, or taking a small project that no one wants, then we’re defining this too narrowly.

You can only change yourself

I once tried to get my team to turn off email and IM except during lunch and at the end of the day. The argument went that if someone really needed them, they could come find them. And that if there was something that really needed attention, I would be paying attention and would let them know. The experiment was supposed to run for a week, but after a day most people abandoned it and went back to their prior behavior.

It can be hard to attack things head-on. You can, however, change your own behavior. When I was coding full-time, I moved my monitor from the corner of the desk that faced the aisle to the corner that faced the inside of the cube. Why not make that the default for your engineers when they start, and nudge them toward a less distracting environment?

I couldn’t get people to stop chatting near my cube, but I could shut them out. I can’t stop people from distracting each other using IM, but I can stop being part of the problem – it’s always easiest to send an IM, or to go over and ask for an update or answer to a question – but it’s also the most disruptive option. If I don’t need the answer immediately (which is true most of the time), I can send an email instead. I can try to help my team avoid multitasking, and make any meta-tasks into independent, trackable tasks.

Setting up a workspace for efficiency is the result of a hundred small, seemingly trivial decisions. Learning to use your communication tools without being ruled by them is another under-appreciated skill. But whether you’re an individual contributor trying to get off the treadmill of late night coding sessions, or a manager trying to get her team onto some healthy habits, mise en place is a good place to start.

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3 thoughts on “Mise en place

  1. I find the distractions disappear when I have a good work flow. If I get “in the zone”, and can work efficently, I look up and its 5pm and I haven’t checked my email or Facebook for hours. I’m writing this during a rebuild…

    • I agree, but I find that I can only get into that state if I’m facing away from where people are walking… Have headphones on so I can’t hear them… Have turned off all the various notifications… And no one comes over and bothers me. I believe that I can get back into flow more quickly than the 15 minutes the research states, but that’s like saying that it takes you N minutes to get to sleep. How do you know?

      • Yup, if other people are distracting you, there’s still a problem. This would probably lead into the eternal “office vs cube vs open floor plan” debate… which might make a nice article ;)

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