A little while back I decided to make breaded, baked zucchini “chips” at home. My mother has made them a bunch of times, and when she makes them they rarely make it to the dinner table because everyone (including the kids) nibbles away at them like they’re French Fries.
It’s a very simple recipe: slice zucchini thin (like coins), dip them in eggs, then dip them in seasoned bread crumbs, then lay them out on a baking sheet and bake them at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes. The clunky bit, I discovered, is the painstaking, one-by-one dipping of the zucchini. I started doing it one slice at a time, and was going well at first. Then the bread crumbs started to get messy, and I started getting cement-like globs of egg-and-breadcrumb mixture on my fingers, nearly doubling the size of my thumb and pointer finger. Frustrated, I started experimenting with different approaches: dipping five zucchini slices in the egg at a time, then dropping them in the bread crumbs, then shaking the whole thing around a bit. That sort of worked, but it made more of a mess, the breading was inconsistent and I’m not sure it sped things up much. I kept on fiddling with my approach, but nothing seemed to make much of a difference. Mostly I was slow, messy, and either got too thick or thin a coating of bread crumbs on each zucchini slice. It took me nearly a half an hour to get through three zucchini’s worth of chips (filling up two full baking sheets) onto the pan, and I’m sure that someone out there could do what I’d just done in one-fifth the time.
“If you can’t take the heat…” is a phrase that is at least 50% metaphor: professional kitchens are hot, sure, but that’s as much about the intensity of cranking out each dish quickly, all night long, as it is about the actual temperature back there. Kitchens are a (high-class, sometimes) assembly line, and all new cooks learn that the quality of what they’re able to produce is meaningless if they’re too slow and they mess up the line. If they can’t produce at a high quality, with a high degree of consistency and a high speed, they won’t last long.
In professional environments there’s little talk of how fast people do things. Yes, there is vague hand-waving around the notion of an 80/20 rule (that you can accomplish 80% of what you need to with the right 20% of the work), which is an acknowledgment that what you choose to work on is the most important leverage point you have. But we rarely talk about how long it took to produce ______ (that email, that document, that strategy)? Or, likely a more productive question, are you getting better at taking the core parts of your job that aren’t going away and doing them as efficiently as possible, to create space for yourself for the non-repetitive, value-added work where you’re really going to make a difference?
It seems somehow belittling of the important work we’re doing to ask how long it took us to do it.
In a kitchen, the chef stands over you and barks out orders, tells you what’s wrong and right. Your speed and quality of workmanship are both out in the open. In an office, only you know how long it took you to get that email just right, how much you dawdled before picking up the phone to make a cold call, how many hour-long meetings could have taken 20 minutes if you and your team had approached them differently.
I’m not advocating for rushing all day long – indeed the point is to be fast in some places so you can be slow in others. But when I watch the demands on many of the top professionals in today’s world, I see that in order to survive and create space to do the real work, they have to get really good and really fast in areas that might seem like they should be hard and slow. That requires nothing short of mastery – you get neither good nor fast at things if you don’t do them often and if you don’t focus on getting them right (and getting them fast).
The catch is that it’s going to be rare for anyone but you to have enough visibility into your day and your workflow to help you set a new standard for the pace of your work. It’s also up to you to figure out what needs to be faster, what needs to be slower, and what work you’re simply not doing because your day is too full of everything else. I’d just encourage you to remember that fast is your friend, when you apply it in the right places.
(Addendum: not only did my chips take forever to make, they also came out a bit dry and salty. I later revived them by throwing them into a lasagna the next day. Nothing wrong with salvaging a failed first attempt.)