Photo by Rahim Sofri on Unsplash
Preparing for the times you lose focus
4 min read
I'm new at this. My age is closer to someone with team leadership experience in my current profession. So I get to revisit how to be new at something. When I was first learning to cook, my biggest challenge was going down rabbit holes. I faced a problem, have to figure out how to do it on my own, end up looking everywhere for the ingredients, get pulled into side quests, and end up short on time before service with more work to do.
When working in kitchens, you need to be organized and work with your team to get things done. So here are a few tips from my last profession that gave me structure and focus when faced with problems.
Mise en place
"Everything in its place." That's the cardinal rule when you set up your workstation in a kitchen. You have your workspace clean, your tools are you need them, and you have a plan. I used to have a notebook for everything until I got comfortable and committed things to memory and reflex. What I like about having a notebook is making my to-do lists, putting things in sequential order, and coming back to review where I could improve. If it worked in a kitchen, why not elsewhere?
In coding boot camp, I had a classmate that used the built-in note-taking app on their computer. I used a handwritten notebook as I would in kitchens and when I was a student. I love using highlighters to add color with a mix of sharpies and pens to emphasize information. However, my handwriting is atrocious for anyone to try to decrypt, even myself.
Today, now that I don't want a notebook in my back pocket while I work sitting at a computer, I use Notion as my notebook. I like how it links files together. I create templates for notes on each of my work tickets. When I step away for the night, I know where to pick up in the morning. I can even use my notes to structure my pull request comments.
Working the line in a busy kitchen, we'd give each other time calls to ensure all the dishes for a table are ready at the same time. "Five out" was a call we'd often hear/say in one kitchen. It means that in five minutes we want to finish the dishes for a table. "Five out on table four" was my reminder that, no matter what, I need to accomplish something specific.
I find myself blocked sometimes. Lost and unable to continue. When I was freelancing, this would happen because I didn't know much about Shopify. So I would try to figure it out. I enter my errors into my search engine, start research on how an API works, trace back to understand imports or look for a tutorial on YouTube. However, I sometimes look for too long and lose sight of the project. That resulted in a lot of time lost without a solution, and some annoyed clients because I was behind.
Now, I have a timer set whenever I find myself about to research a problem. I give myself 20 minutes to try to solve it myself. When that timer goes off, I tell myself, "five out to look at what you have and ask a question." Usually, I realize I'd done enough research to figure out the problem but started to look at a tangential thought.
Elephant five different ways
This advice isn't from my experience in kitchens but in martial arts. My sensei told us this story about five blind monks observing a new beast for posterity. One climbed on top and said it was very tall. The second hugged it and said it was sturdy like a tree trunk. The next said it was "soft and floppy like a tassel on a ribbon." Another said, "leathery and floppy as the wings of a bat." The last said it was long like a snake. It was an elephant. They were all correct, except they were only describing from where they were observing.
When I rabbit hole, my blinders are on. I'm only looking to understand what I'm researching from one particular point of view. What I need is to have someone I can explain what I know. Usually, just thinking about how I would explain what I know so far is enough to show me how to fix the problem.
Some subscribe to Rubber Ducking. That is when you talk to a rubber duck or anything that's there. It could be your desk plant even. When my youngest child was too young to wriggle away, I would use him.
When all else fails: ask questions! Someone has more experience than you, ask them! Or there's someone with a different set of experiences. Ask them too! We're living in this magical era where you don't have to try that hard to put yourself out there to ask a question. You don't have to walk to the other side of the office and face someone to ask them a question. DM them instead. Want to ask a larger community? There's StackOverflow, where you're practically anonymous. Just be professional.