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Nitzavim Vayelech

A 60-year-old man is cleaning out his drawer. He notices a note from the shoemaker, dated 20 years back. He never got around to picking the shoes up, and he had completely forgotten about them. He decides to add some spice to life, to check if the shoemaker is still there and if his shoes are, also, still there. As he passes by the shoemaker’s shop, he notices that it is still open, and the same guy is there, just he is 20 years older.

“Sir, I came to pick up my shoes that I left here, 20 years ago.” “Do you have a receipt that you left the shoes by me?” “Yes.” He pulls out the slip and shows it to the shoemaker. The shoemaker takes the slip and goes to the back room, to look for the shoes. Shuffling can be heard, as things are moved around, and about 10 minutes later, the shoemaker calls out. “Mark? Are you Mark?” He says, yes. The shoemaker calls out, “Come back tomorrow. Tomorrow your shoes will be ready.”

After working with students for many years as an effective learning specialist, I realized that academic students don’t necessarily want to know how to speed read, improve memory or focus. They are interested in one thing: getting homework done. There are four things that hold students back from getting homework done after they have succeeded in absorbing the information given over in class, and it is important to identify what, specifically, is holding them back. I write the causes in order of their frequency. 1.  Procrastination. 2. Time management. 3. Motivation. 4. Distraction.

We are all like high school students who need to get our homework done, i.e., some sort of Teshuva, before Rosh Hashana. Procrastination is commonly confused with laziness, or thought of as being a result of laziness. In fact, they are not at all connected.  Laziness is defined as being “disinclined to activity or exertion.” Procrastinators don’t put things off because they don’t want to work. Instead, procrastinators tend to postpone tasks they don’t want to do, in favor of tasks that they perceive as either more important or more fun. The shoemaker is not, necessarily, lazy. He just procrastinates, gets busy with the other shoes, with taking customers, with doing the books, paying his bills. The student who does not do homework is not as much a lazy student as he is one who needs help overcoming procrastination – which is a more important lesson for life than school itself. One study found that 70% to 95% of undergraduate students procrastinate, when it comes to doing their homework. Researchers have found that procrastination can negatively impact your grades by as much as five points…which might not sound serious, until you realize that can mean the difference between a B- and a C+.

When a person starts doing something that is more pleasurable, he doesn’t necessarily forget what he had to do. What happens in procrastination, is, that we start other actions that we just want, and suddenly we get plunged into doing those not so important actions, as if we need to finish them. As the Ramban teaches us the psychology of the procrastination plunge.  לְמַ֛עַן סְפ֥וֹת הָרָוָ֖ה אֶת־הַצְּמֵאָֽה When we translate these words literally, the meaning is hard to understand.  In order to add the satiated with the thirsty. (Devarim 29;18) The commentators explain these words in different ways. The Ramban (different than Rashi) explains that the physical component of one’s soul, the “nefesh”, is usually sated with what it needs.  But when a person tastes a little bit of his desires, he develops a thirst, a hunger, for that addiction or passion. After tasting the desire, whetting the appetite, the Nefesh develops a passion. Before, Nefesh wasn’t so hungry. Now, it is starving. A person thinks, I’’ll just have one small bite, I will just say one thing about that guy, I’ll just look once, I’ll take just one puff, I’ll just hold on to the grudge a drop more, I’ll just sleep in on Sunday,… and I will fill my desire with just a tiny drop, a small amount.  After just a taster, I won’t need it anymore, or even want it anymore. Wrong!! The Yetzer Hara works in the way of משביעו רעב , you give it a finger, and it takes your whole hand. When you whet your appetite, you develop a passion. Your want turns into a need.

Our teenagers want just one quick video game, a drop of entertainment, one song, a small schmooze or just one more chapter of the book. But when you choose to do a not-so- important activity before a more important activity, for just a few minutes, you develop a passion you cannot overcome, and you get dragged into it. I call it the procrastination plunge, and free choice is somewhat taken away.

The passuk is telling us, that G-d does not hold us as accountable for not withstanding our temptations as much as He holds us accountable for not withstanding that first taste, the seemingly innocent “sampling”. We are held accountable for allowing ourselves to get involved in unnecessary situations – situations which were, actually, avoidable. איכא דרכא אחרינא רשע  )Bava B. 57b) By allowing ourselves a “taste”, we are guilty of opening the opportunity to sin. G-d holds us accountable for getting involved in things we did not need to, when we did have the strength to fight the sin, and only along with the accountability for the taster, are we accountable for the sins we have no strength to combat, and they are added to the prosecution.

When we do Teshuva, it is not enough to just regret and stop sinning. וּמוֹדֶ֖ה וְעֹזֵ֣ב יְרֻחָֽם And one who admits and leaves behind will be granted mercy. (Mishlei 28;13) We need to leave the scene of the temptation. We need to leave the cookies in the super-market, we need to leave the grudge of the past behind, we need to leave our access to inappropriate things. The biggest sin is allowing yourself access to the sin, or not creating for yourself the circumstances that will make it easier for you to implement your higher-valued activities and goals. אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר׀ לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֘ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב: Fortunate is the man who never walked in the counsel of the wicked, never stood in the path of the wicked, and who has never sat where the scornful sit. (Tehillim 1;1) If he did not go, how did he stand? If he did not stand there, how did he sit there? And if he did not sit there, how did he scoff? This is to teach you, that if he went, he will end up standing. If he stood, he will end up sitting. If he sat, he will end up scoffing. (Avodah Zarah 18b)

I used to be a self-help addict. I would read endless books on self-help, a book a weekend, believing that knowledge is power. Until I realized that knowledge, itself, is not power. Implementation is power. I call myself a self-help addict because I was procrastinating on implementation by spending time amassing knowledge. Everyone knows that the secret to losing weight is burning more calories than your intake, and the secret to financial stability is to spend less than you earn. The pivotal point of power is the mastery of implementation, and the skill of overcoming procrastination.


Selfie steps to overcome procrastination.

  1. One of the biggest reasons people procrastinate is because they catastrophize, or make a huge deal out of something. It may be related to how tough, how boring, or how painful it will be to complete the task; whatever the case, the underlying theme is that doing the task will be “unbearable.” This is why I recommend the 5-minute rule: A cognitive behavioral therapy technique for procrastination, in which you set a goal of doing whatever it is you would otherwise avoid, but do it only for five minutes. If after five minutes it’s so horrible that you have to stop, you are free to do so.
  2. Procrastination comes in many forms. For example, there is a fine line between perfectionism and procrastination. When you say “I want it to be good. I want it to be perfect,” what you’re really doing is not doing your work. People with perfectionist tendencies tend to wait until things are perfect in order to proceed—so, if it’s not perfect, you cannot be finished. Or, if it is not the perfect time, you believe you can’t start. This all-or-nothing mentality can hold you back from starting or completing tasks.
  3. Plan your day, week, month, year in advance. This is not a big task. It should take only about 10-15 minutes of quiet time, each day. Do the most difficult and most important things first, and work your way down to the easier stuff.
  4. As you start to tackle items on your list, pay attention to when thoughts of procrastination start to creep into your mind. If you find yourself thinking “I don’t feel like doing this now” or “I’ll have time to work on this later,” you need to recognize that you are about to procrastinate.
  5. Accountability partner (not your spouse). This can quash procrastination, because when you hold yourself accountable to your accountability partner, you won’t allow yourself to succumb to lame excuses.
  6. Deadlines. Make sure that your goals have deadlines, otherwise, you can drag on with the same task for twenty years, like that shoemaker.

About the author, Yosef

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