Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beat the Deadline

An e-mail recently arrived from my ever patient editor, stating: “Reminder-Today is the deadline for your column”. Yes, I had forgotten about the deadline, and I hurried to get something finished in time.

Deadlines work. They motivate procrastinators to finally get something done. They push people to make quick decisions. That’s why on the Home Shopping Network, it announces “there are only 23 minutes left to buy this item”. Deadlines come when a window of opportunity is closing, and people don’t like missing opportunities.

There is something jarring about the word deadline. And for a moment that day, the word deadline reminded me of that ultimate dead-line, death.

We ignore this ultimate deadline. Woody Allen put it this way: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Indeed, the Midrash says that the ability to repress thoughts of death is a divine gift, without which we’d become depressed and cease to be productive.

However, disregarding death is a mistake. The Bible says “the heart of the wise man is in the house of mourning”. The house of mourning can be a house of learning, with the ultimate deadline teaching the lessons.

Life is easily wasted. The famous quote of Marcus Aurelius, “live each day as if it were the last”, reminds us that the key to life is beating the ultimate deadline. Enjoy life before it’s too late. The Talmud says “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet”. Live a meaningful right now. Rabbi Eliezer says that one must repent every day, because each day may be one’s last. Life’s too short to ignore our spiritual possibilities.

Death also teaches us what’s truly important. Our priorities change if we think about what our legacy will be. A French newspaper prematurely published an obituary for Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite in 1888. Nobel read his own “obituary”, and disturbed by its critical tone, decided to create a better legacy for himself by establishing the Nobel Prizes.

You don’t need to establish (or win) a Nobel Prize to create a legacy; even small acts of greatness count. The Talmud tells of an elderly man who was planting a carob tree, a tree which takes 70 years to bear fruit. A Rabbi asked the man: do you expect to eat carob fruit 70 years from now? The man answered, that he was planting the tree for his children, much like his father before him had planted trees for him as well. This simple tree was his legacy, an act of intergenerational love lived on, well past any deadlines.

I hope my editor will be happy; I’m getting this article in on time. I also hope that some day, when I face the great editor upstairs, I will have everything I need in order, just in time for the deadline.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Lost in Time

I am starved for time. Pressing matters appear out of nowhere to shred my schedule, and my "to do" list gets pushed to the next day. Then, on the next day, the same "to do" list will most likely be neglected again.

Yes, I should learn something about time management. Indeed, there's no shortage of books about the subject. And there are "next generation" organizers (good organizers are never of this generation), promising to make us more efficient and successful. These books and tools are great. But what truly confounds me is not my own inefficient habits. Rather, I am perplexed by time itself.

How should I spend my time? At a certain point in life (middle age, to be
exact) we begin to wonder more and more whether we are using our time wisely. We have spent the previous twenty years driving ourselves harder and harder, utilizing time as the highway to distant goals. Each time we reach a goal, we race headlong into another project, working again on future objectives. At times, when our work is challenging and satisfying, we can imagine racing down this highway forever.

At the same time, I have doubts about this endless highway of ambition. Aren't we supposed to stop and smell the roses? Perhaps time is like a hot cup of tea, meant to be slowly savored in Zen like tranquility. Maybe, the rat race is just a soul stifling sideshow. It might be better to pull a Gauguin, and disappear into the South Pacific. So I am torn, with voices in mind my pushing and pulling, debating the relative merits of leisure and late night work.

The voices in my mind (all former Yeshiva students) quote Bible to me. The Sabbath is a day of rest, and sitting back and appreciating God's world is something holy. Yet, the Torah promotes an ambitious work ethic. The Book of Job says "man is created to work". Appreciation and ambition both make convincing arguments, and both are correct.

What time really demands is the ability to shift gears. One must be able to move between ambition and appreciation, depending on the situation. At times you have to leave the fast paced business world to spend time with family, and at times you have to pick up the pace and accomplish more. True time management is learning how to find time for both labor and leisure. For those of us lost in time, it may be best to put aside the next generation planners and consider some ancient advice. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven". There is a time for smelling roses and a time for running races. The key is to accept the fact you have to do both.