I learned to cook in a restaurant. I was a prep cook.

Every morning, I clocked in to stacks of produce I needed to have ready before the lunch rush. Every morning, I grabbed a cutting board and a knife, opened the first box of romaine lettuce, and got to chopping. And every morning, I’d make an enormous mess.

As I chopped, I pushed the scraps aside into a pile to deal with them later. Cleaning, after all, happened after I finished prep.

Big messes require big efforts to clean

But the scraps piled up, and my workspace got tighter and tighter. Onion skins stuck to the tomatoes; remnants of diced parsley speckled the cucumbers. My scrap pile got so out of control that I’d occasionally end up dumping handfuls of veggie waste onto the floor by mistake.

Working around my mess made prep stressful, but that paled in comparison to the cleanup. My prep technique left the kitchen looking like the aftermath of a food fight. It took me so long to clean up that I had to rush to avoid delaying the lunch shift from getting started. (There should have been an hour or so of downtime.)

The more experienced staff was horrified by this.

And, fortunately for me, they decided to help me instead of just firing me immediately.

Clean as you go to avoid big messes

One of the cooks very patiently introduced me to the concept of cleaning as you go. They had a bench scraper and a bleach bucket standing by, and positioned the trash can right next to the table. As I chopped, they encouraged me to move the scraps directly to the trash instead of making a pile. When I finished an ingredient, I grabbed the bench scraper to clear away all the left behind bits, then gave a quick wipe with a rag to reset my station to clean before starting the next one.

At first, I resisted this. Cleaning at each step had to be slower, right? After all, context switching is a terrible idea, and this was clearly going to make me even slower for sure.

But my options were to do it their way or get fired, so I stuck to it. And a few things happened:

  1. The quality of my work went up. No more bits of the previous veggie showing up in the next one. And because my workspace was less cramped, I could see what I was doing and make fine adjustments more easily.
  2. The prep itself went faster. Starting with a clean station made it faster to do the prep because I wasn’t working around previous mess.
  3. Cleanup went faster. By cleaning as I went, cleaning was as simple as a few swipes with a bench scraper and a quick wipe-down with a rag. Nothing piled up, so my last veggie was as easy to clean up after as the first one.

I wasn’t rushing to get everything done and cleaned anymore. Instead of the cooks worrying about me, they started giving me additional training and opportunities.

It felt counterintuitive, but cleaning as I went had made me both better and faster at my job.

Isn’t stopping to clean slower?

My knee-jerk reaction to cleaning as I went was to condemn it as multitasking, which makes work slower. But… was it?

Cleaning as you go seems like multitasking, but it’s actually an efficient way of sequentially tackling work.

Small messes clean up fast

By not cleaning as we go, multiple messes compound on each other. A small mess is fast to clean, but a dozen or more small messes become a much bigger mess that’s harder to clean up.

In food prep, the scrap pile might spill off the table. Wet scraps might dry to the table, making them far more difficult to clean up. A large pile has a tendency to spread out and get additional dishes and utensils dirty.

By contrast, a small mess is almost always a couple quick wipes away from being clean.

”Clean as you go” as a guiding principle for everything

This lesson didn’t just save my high school job — it made a huge impression on my outlook on life. I try to clean as I go wherever I can these days, whether I’m cooking dinner at home or writing code at work.

In a codebase, we always make small messes as we work. We’re solving problems, and until we hit a solution that works our code is full of small choices based on educated guesses that are directionally correct, but that probably wander a bit since they lack the full context of the working solution.

If we ship the code as-is, everything will be fine. The code works, and that’s ultimately the point.

But we left a small mess. And if we do that every time we build a new feature, the small messes start to build into a big mess — this is how we end up with tech debt that’s so overwhelming that we start to argue that the only reasonable solution is to start over from scratch.

If, instead, we choose to clean as we go — to do an immediate small refactor as part of submitting the PR, for example — we’ll clean up those small messes before they can pile up into big ones. And because the messes are being continually addressed, we have cleaner, easier to manage code, and that makes us faster.

Building new habits is hard, but worth it

Cleaning as you go is a tricky habit to build. It requires a concentrated effort to change the way you work, and if you’re in a team it’s even trickier because you’re trying to shift the team culture.

However, if you put in the work to build the habit, it pays dividends in every area of your life where you choose to adopt it.