Jewish Ethical Teaching for Increasing Life's Productivity

            June 2013    
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Four Reasons to Do Less … More

By Benjamin Rapaport

In an age of busyness to the point of dizziness, both the ancient wisdom of the Torah and modern scientific research tell us to run the other way. It is not doing more that will bring us the success we desire, but rather doing less… more. Here are four reasons why:

  1. The one who grabs much – grabs nothing”1- Talmud

A Stanford study of media multi-taskers demonstrated that high multi-taskers perform worse than low multi-taskers across a range of cognitive functions, including the ability to effectively switch quickly from one task to another. In other words, trying to do a lot at once is bad for our brains, and this naturally translates into lower performance levels.

Conversely, King Solomon taught that, “the one who gathers one hand after another increases.”2 By focusing on one thing at a time, our productivity increases.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (d. 1980) a great Jewish thinker, head of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin and father-in-law of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, compared focus to a magnifying glass. When we channel the rays of the sunlight together with this glass into a singular point they can start a fire. So too, when we are totally focused on the matter at hand, the power we bring to the task is far greater.

If we wish to get more done, the best way is to identify our focus and work on it with as much undivided attention as possible.

  1. Each person according to their blessing, did he bless them.”3

When Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph, and similarly when he blessed his own sons, his blessings were personalized according to the nature of each person. A blessing is not some ambiguous spiritual present. It is about evoking an abundance of what is already there.4 We can each excel at developing our own unique talents and skills, but if we try to be everything and everyone, and do everything that other people do too, we will be nothing. To quote Marcus Cunningham, formerly of the Gallup Organization and their Strengths Project, “We can become more of who we are, but we cannot become someone else.”

We grow the most when we apply ourselves to developing the talents that we naturally possess. This is a neurobiological truth as we develop most easily in those areas of our brain where we already have the most robust connections. Too often, seduced by examples of others’ successes, we try to be someone or something that we are not. This is a famous recipe for failure. Instead of squandering our precious time and energy doing this, we need to figure out our own circle of greatest potential excellence and get busy developing it. The Gallup Organization has some great tools for doing this that can be found at For Torah insights and sources on this topic see The Jewish Art of Self Discovery, available on

  1. And he saw ‘menucha’ (rest) that it was good…and he lowered his shoulder to bear it…”5

Menucha is usually translated as rest, but when we look at the end of this verse, “and he lowered his shoulder to bear it” we see that the common understanding of rest, relaxation, and chilling out, do not really fit. Rather, menucha is about a deeper kind of rest, a soul at rest, a mind at peace. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the spiritual leader of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland (d. 1936) taught that it is through having a singular purpose in life that a person can achieve an inner peace that can withstand all the hardships and vicissitudes of time.6 This single-mindedness keeps us together inside and provides an anchor that enables us to be at rest within, regardless of what is happening without.

When we think of all the directions in which we stretch ourselves, and the varied projects that are concurrently active, it is no wonder that our mind is anything but at rest. Ironically, it is by doing less, by choosing a singular purpose, and investing ourselves completely in that purpose that we achieve the inner peace we need and desire.

Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi, author of Flow, and a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, has demonstrated that people experience the greatest levels of happiness when they are completely absorbed in a particular task. Those few people who get lost in what they are doing, those who zone in and stay there, completely focused on their particular activity thing to the exclusion of everything else, feel the best. So if you want to feel that wonderful sense of inner peace, find your thing and give it your complete attention.

  1. There is no danger like the danger of time.7
    – Ramchal (acronym for the great kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto of Padua, Italy d. 1746)

The longer we take to get something done, the more likely it will not get done. Other things come up, we get distracted, and before long, we give up. The surest way to accomplish what we desire is by giving it our immediate attention and working on it until it is done. This is also a huge time saver because research has shown that every time we switch our focus, or get distracted, it takes somewhere between six and twenty minutes for our brain to refocus, according to a study by UC Irvine. This is lost time. If we were to shut out everything except for what we need to get done right now our levels of productivity would skyrocket, with many more minutes each day being usefully employed. King Solomon keenly observed this when he said, “Have you seen a man quick in his work? – He will stand before kings!”8

In summary, our chance to achieve something great is too precious to waste. The path to realizing our hearts’ desire is by doing less - more. We do this by clarifying our highest area of potential, applying ourselves singularly to a task that matches and moves us, and eliminating interruptions and distractions as if our life depended on it, because it does. Try it. You might find that you will not only be a lot more productive, you will also be a lot happier.

* * * * *

Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he works with individuals and groups, helping them discover and develop their unique talents and abilities. He is the author of the Jewish Art of Self-Discovery, available on Amazon.

1 Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 4a
2 Proverbs, 13:11
3 Genesis, 49:28
4 Nefesh HaChaim, 2:2
5 Genesis, 49:15
6 Daas Torah, Bereishis, pg. 280
7 The Path of the Just, Ch. 7
8 Proverbs, 22:29


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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