We are truly a culture of consumers. The rise in disposable income among Americans directly correlates to more access to disposable products. Because space is a coveted commodity, we carve out more space to accommodate our hoarding lifestyle, and when these auxiliary spaces are tightly packed, things begin to overflow into storage space and our parent’s garage. There’s a reason why theWall Street Journal calls the self-storage industry “recession resistant.” As a result, Americans end up spending $10 billion a year on self-help and personal organizational products according to Marketdata Enterprises, and I only recently learned The National Association of Professional Organizers is actually a thing and has steadily grown into a $1 billion industry. While a professional organizer might have trouble explaining their job title 20 years ago, a present day professional organizer is a fairly self-explanatory concept. We can all nod our heads and agree that in some God-forsaken corner of our house we could really use the help of a professional to aid in the decluttering of our increasingly unmanageable lives.
That same National Association of Professional Organizers (which I still have such a hard time believing exists) also conducted a survey and that found 54 percent of Americans feel overwhelmed by their physical clutter and 78 percent find it too cumbersome to even deal with. Can you imagine the mental clutter that must exist in a culture where we buy, buy, buy to feel good about ourselves? We aren’t just hoarding physical clutter folks! We collect mental clutter from the past (ruminating over the would’ve, could’ve and should’ve, regrets over things that were/weren’t done), we pre-order clutter for the future (worrying about things that hasn’t happened, planning for things that simply cannot be planned for). If physical clutter can actually elevate stress hormones imagine what mental clutter can do to a person.
As annoying as it might be to step around a pile of Amazon/Nasty Gal/Crate and Barrel boxes waiting to be flattened, I’m guessing that’s nothing compared to the frustration of your mind cluttered with thoughts that say you’re not good enough for your partner and they are going to eventually find someone better and leave you. Talk about killjoy.
In many ways, professional organizer is also an accurate description of my job. I help organize and re-arrange mental, emotional and psychological clutter. When people’s mental real estate begin to feel like a land mine and when they begin to feel psychically crowded, they come to me — among other therapeutic strategies independent of therapy of course — to organize. The organization tends to result in room to breathe and eventually clarity to make sound decisions.
Here’s the thing, mental clutter is really hard to avoid and I certainly am not immune to it even though I make a living dusting off other people’s mental cobwebs. Being the food enthusiast that I am, I naturally turn to food when I feel overwhelmed and crowded by my own thoughts or feelings. Counter seats facing the open kitchen is hands down my (and David Chang’s) favorite spot at a restaurant. Sometimes you don’t have much of a choice because waiting for a table takes too long or counter seats are all they have (I’m talkin to you Yamo) but even when given an option, I can’t imagine a better way to experience my dinner. It’s perfect for when I’m dining alone or with a book, I always love chatting up the staff (and score desserts and taste-test new menu items), there’s never a dull moment watching the chefs or bar tenders work their magic, and on nippier SF nights, those also tend to be the warmest seats in the house.
Anyone who’s sat at the counter knows exactly what I mean when I say there is an ordered chaos in a restaurant kitchen, a fluidity that can only be achieved through what professionals in the industry refer to as mise-en place, or literally, “put in place,” a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the tools and ingredients needed before you begin to cook. For many chefs, the connotations of the phrase runs much deeper than a checklist of items or ingredients to gather. It is a mind set, a religion even. I would argue that the ordered chaos in the kitchen is very often the same chaos we experience mentally and internally when we are flooded with thoughts and emotions.
Our minds are our stations and how ready our stations are (carefully arranged cracked pepper, softened butter, sea salt, knives, bowls, etc.) is the state of our nervous system. When our stations are stocked, prioritized and ready to go, we can navigate the day even when we get hit below the belt.
The preparation process required of a psychological mise-en place deploys our defenses and helps create a sense of direction and order in the midst of the chaos of our daily lives.
At the root of mise-en place is the belief that time, resources and space are precious commodities. The very things that, when scarce, crowd our garages and minds. In any given moment we probably have 8-10 different distractions or competing priorities pulling us in directions beyond our reach, be it our own defeatist thoughts about underperforming at work, an Instagram comment that needs a response, a medication we forgot to take, or motivation to put in work at the gym. Then there’s FOMO, the perils of dating apps, out-of-towners visiting, cracked iPhone screens, $74 parking tickets, and the a—hole that peed on your stoop. These things can quickly accumulate much like dishes in a sink and before you know it, you’re too exhausted to clean up. A psychological Mise-en place provides a ritual where there often feels like none.
Ron Friedman, business consultant for Harvard Business Review, suggests applying mise-en place to our daily routines and starting the first 10 minutes of our day tending to “the meez.”
“What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at your desk? For many of us, checking email or listening to voice mail is practically automatic. In many ways, these are among the worst ways to start a day. Both activities hijack our focus and put us in a reactive mode, where other people’s priorities take center stage. They are the equivalent of entering a kitchen and looking for a spill to clean or a pot to scrub. A better approach is to begin your day with a brief planning session. An intellectual mise-en-place ... Ask yourself this question the moment you sit at your desk: The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?”
Tomorrow morning, take 10 minutes at the start of your day to set your intentions and prioritize the truly important things you would like to spend energy on that day while recognizing what’s fluff. Visualize what you hope to achieve at the end of the day and imagine what this might feel like, close your eyes if you have to.
What helps me is to come up with a one liner, a mantra to carry with me throughout the day. This type of deliberate reflection has also been shown to increase your daily performance by 22.8%, which makes sense because reflection and intention setting is intended to recalibrate the mind and body. Over time, as this becomes a consistent and more natural practice, new neuro pathways will form and our resilience to stressors will build, mitigating the effects of new clutter. With all that extra space in our heads, we can finally begin to contemplate the truly important things in life such as, why are people attracted to Russell Brand and why do men have nipples?