The Vilna Gaon was one of our greatest sages of the last number of centuries. He was famous not only for his brilliance and erudition, but for his organization and attention to detail. Never forsaking a moment of dedication to Heaven, he would keep a little black book of everything he did during the day. Every minute was accounted for. If he reached the end of the day and there were unaccounted for gaps, he would then turn His eyes heavenward and do teshuvah. At the end of the year, he would add up all the lost minutes from each day throughout the year and recognise the hours that had been forsaken. On Yom Kippur, he would pour out his heart for those never-to-be-regained hours of his life!
הָהוּא יָנוֹקָא דְּאִישְׁתְּפוּךְ חַמִּימֵיהּ, אֲמַר לְהוּ רָבָא: נִישַׁיְּילַהּ לְאִימֵּיהּ אִי צְרִיכָא — נַחֵים לֵיהּ גּוֹי אַגַּב אִימֵּיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב מְשַׁרְשְׁיָא לְרָבָא: אִימֵּיהּ קָא אָכְלָה תַּמְרֵי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אֵימוֹר, תּוּנְבָּא בְּעָלְמָא הוּא דְּנָקֵט לַהּ.
The warm water that had been prepared for a Shabbos bris once spilled. Rava said to them: Let us ask the baby’s mother if she needs hot water. And then, let a gentile heat water for the baby indirectly, via his mother. Rav Mesharshiya said to Rava: The mother is healthy enough that she is eating cold dates! Rava said to him: It is possible to say that she is so overcome that she is unaware of what she is consuming.
Rava suggests that this new mother may be so overcome by her birthing experience that she is unaware of what she is eating. Unfortunately, for many of us, we don’t need an overwhelming experience to lose our self-control, whether in the realm of food-consumption, entertainment-consumption, or basic time-consumption. You get to the end of a day, week, month, or year, and wonder what happened. You turn around, and before you know it, all the little moments of excess have caught up with you.
To beat that, you need self-discipline. We might not all be able to reach the level of the Vilna Gaon, but without an accounting system, we are doomed to fail from the outset.
When I got my first credit card, I would go to the ATM each time I used my card and immediately pay for the transaction from my checking account. Eventually, that phase fizzled out and I would wait until the monthly statement to pay. Somehow, before I knew it, I was able to rack up debts of thousands every month! Because I wasn’t constantly accounting for my spending. Can you imagine what would happen if we only received annual statements? It would lead to financial devastation for many people, because most of us carelessly pay little attention to all the little things – be they food, money or time – that we consume in life.
My young adult daughter has an app. Everything she eats, she assiduously enters into her phone and it calculates the number of calories she’s consumed. Combined with her Fitbit watch, by the end of the day she knows how many calories have entered and how many have exited. The final tally determines if she needs to go for a longer run or lift weights the next morning.
The Vilna Gaon would be proud. That’s the level of self-mastery we need to strive for, not just for diet and exercise, but throughout our lives. The problem is that most people become so ‘overwhelmed that they are unaware of what they’re consuming.’ They get to the end of the day and, in the absence of a plan, they can’t really put their finger what they’ve accomplished that day.
One way to change that attitude and your results is to input into your diary the times of the day when you plan to complete certain tasks, like emails. Parkinson’s Law states that the amount of time a task will take to complete is the time allotted for that task to be completed. So, for example, if you have a meeting about your company’s marketing strategy scheduled for 10:00am to 11:00am, it will take an hour. But if you scheduled the meeting from 10:00am to 10:30am, chances are you could cover everything in half an hour.
Likewise, if you have a paper to write today, you’ll spend all day long, thinking and writing, and losing focus, and thinking and writing and losing focus, until you finally get it completed. But if you know you have two hours to write the paper, then somehow it magically gets completed in that two-hour time slot. Hence, the classic idea of: if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.
You look at some people and you wonder how they fit it all in. Somehow they have time for work, pleasure, family, God, community (not in that order, hopefully). The secret is ‘flow’. Whatever they’re engaged in, they’re completely focused on. When you’re working on that account, the whatsapp is off, the email programme is closed, and the internet browser is off-limits.
‘Hold all calls, I’m in an important meeting,’ is not just a glib expression; it’s a vital directive whether you’re meeting with a client, a colleague, or just meeting with yourself to prepare a report. If you want that report to take all day, then go ahead, take all calls, browse your favourite online news-sites and Facebook feed, and respond to your ‘pressing’ emails. Sure enough, before you know it, the report will turn into a full day’s work. But if you want to get it done and out of the way, then schedule it into your diary, and ignore everything else in the world, other than real emergencies.
Don’t become so overcome that you are unaware of what you are consuming. The key to a successful and accomplished today is to begin my mapping out what you intend to do at each half hour interval. Then, at the end of the day, you’ll be able to look back and assess whether you achieved what you set out to do. May every moment of your life count and be accounted for!