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A Famous Rabbi’s Advice for Getting Important Things Done

shapiraKalonymous Kalman Shapira was an influential Polish Rabbi murdered by the Nazis in the Trawniki concentration camp. Before the war, Rabbi Shapira published a respected book on learning titled Chovas haTalmidim, which roughly translates to The Student’s Obligation.

A reader (and religious studies graduate student) named Daniel recently pointed my attention to the following excerpt from this book:

“[N]o amount of resolve will help a person unless he learns to budget his time and utilize it for accomplishment. For an undisciplined person’s days and nights are confusion, all of his time is confusion and is wasted. Every night he will say, ‘How did the day pass? I didn’t even feel it passing; it stole away from me and escaped.’ In this fashion, the next day and the following one will also slip away, wasted and used up on inconsequential matters.”

What is Rabbi Shapira’s suggestion to avoid undisciplined time confusion? This should sound familiar…

“If you have compassion on yourself, you will learn to budget your hour; every hour will have its own task. You should decide before you begin how much time you want to spend at even mundane matters…Your hours should not be left open, but should be defined by the tasks you set for them. Write out a daily schedule on a piece of paper and don’t deviate from it; then you will reach old age with all your days intact.”

If this computer science thing doesn’t work out for me, perhaps I should consider yeshiva…


I’m pleased to announce that the audio version of So Good They Can’t Ignore You is now available to listeners in the UK. You can listen to an excerpt here or find our more here.

27 thoughts on “A Famous Rabbi’s Advice for Getting Important Things Done”

  1. I feel restricted if I try to follow a written daily schedule for every hour of my life.
    This type of scheduling has never worked for me. As soon as I write the plan, I feel as if a prisoner.

    • Not every hour of your life, just every hour of your workday. There’s a book called Daily Rituals that Cal mentions every once in a while. I found it fascinating, and it has a ton of examples of how creative people throughout history made their work days very structured.

      To quote Cal from the article he linked to at the end of this post: “If you’re still worried, read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: very few of the world-famous creatives he profiled adopted a ‘I’ll work when I feel inspired’ attitude — they instead controlled their day so they could control their art.”

  2. “If you have compassion for yourself…” that’s the best part of this admirable post. So often time management is presented, even inadvertently, as a discipline without any other meaning or purpose except to get things done (rinse and repeat, get back on the treadmill). But the emphasis on compassion for ourselves puts the focus exactly where it belongs.

  3. Amazing post!

    I try use blocks of time and try have quality time and quality energy poured out. I have also began blocking out as much distraction as possible and without apologies.

    Yes, it is so easy to wonder where all the time went!



  4. I am a big fan of scheduling my day ahead of time. Not just meetings, but blocking out time to work in solitude on my critical tasks and also for errands and exercise. What’s nice about doing this, is that I don’t need to do it everyday to make it a natural way of being. Even if I don’t block out my schedule for a week or two, I still find that I am able to naturally focus and manage my time well (and accomplish important things each day). I think that managing time is a skill, and once you build it up, you can “miss” a few days (or weeks) and still have the muscle memory and natural focus intact.

  5. Thanks for the post!

    Just completed “So good they can’t ignore you” and this regimentation of one’s day speaks to the “Craftsman’s Mindset” and one owes it to those whose value can be crystalized during these hours of dedication to one’s craft.

    Thanks again,

  6. Reading the past several posts, I see that there are plenty of historical examples of deep work and arguments to support it. This is great. All these facts are interesting and useful to know.

    Cal, you have brilliantly described distracting influence of social media on one’s ability to practice deep work. You also advised what to do in order to decrease external distraction.

    However, I noticed that some people, including myself, although, having no external distraction, still struggle to reach quality deep work due to … Internal distraction – day-dreaming or thinking about other important things. This normally happens when a person emotionally unbalanced (excited, upset, angry, too happy, too sad, etc).

    Could you please advise what should be done to eliminate or mitigate this Internal distraction?

    Thank you

    • I have read Deep Work, thoroughly enjoyed it, and am trying to apply the ideas as best I can. Cal gives superb advice on strategies to be able to focus deeply. One thing missing, which is imperative for me, is diet. When I eat a diet high in sugar and carbs, my concentration is weak. When I avoid sugar and carbs, my blood sugar is lower, doesnt fluctuate, and allows me to be mentally calm. My concentration levels become superhuman when I’m on a water fast. So make sure you are eating clean and exercising a bit, should help with focus. Diet and exercise allow us to better manage stress and internal distractions.

      • Interesting… quite counter intuitive, we’ve been always told that sugar is much needed for brain activity, whereas you say it actually slows it down.
        Will keep your advice in mind. Thanks, TED.

        • Added sugar in the diet is the enemy and wreaks havoc on the brain. Ketones are a better brain fuel source in my humble opinion (N=1 study). And yes, agree, one area missing from Deep Work is the diet/fitness/sleep/biohacking side… The ultimate get things done book would be a combination of The Bulletproof Diet by Dave Asprey and Deep Work by ours truly. Nootropics are missing as well – smart drugs and so forth…think NZT in the movie Limitless. CILTEP, TruBrain, and Kimera Koffee are three of my “go to” supplements for super high focus activities.

        • I think with sugar/carbs, an important thing to note is whether the sugars are released slowly into the bloodstream (Low GI) or whether the sugars, once eaten, spike the blood with lots of sugars then leave one feeling tired and lethargic (High GI).
          Sugars are very important for brain function, but equally important is the type of sugar in question (High vs Low Glycemic Index).

    • Aside from a cleaner diet and consistent sleep, may I recommend mindfulness practice (such as focusing on your breath) each day at a set time for 5 minutes (add time as your ability to focus grows)? Such a daily practice will allow for mental stillness, quiet and calm. Keep it simple, do it consistently, and you will reap the benefits. Cheers

  7. Hey Cal,

    Thank you for your posts and your books. Your advice has changed the way I look at work. I am incorporating the “Deep work” idea in my work life and seeing great results at work (sales).

    I had a question for you.

    I want to excel in the field of philosophy and spend about 4-6 hours after my full time job to study the subject. It is not just an interest which I flirt with out of a misguided idea of passion. I am aware of the time (decades) and energy it will take me to attain mastery in the field, and am committed to invest accordingly.
    What I want to ask you is according to your opinion/ research is it possible (mental energy wise) to attain excellence in two very different fields or am I setting myself up for mediocrity/burnout?
    Can I do excellent work in these two fields at the same time? In your book, you mentioned that we can do up to 4 hours of deep work a day.

    I cannot quit my job due to personal reasons and while I am at it, I want to continue producing great results.
    At the same time I want to do deep work in the field of philosophy.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks again!

  8. Dear Cal,

    I just finished your Deep Work book and loved it. I agree with you on most points and truly believe the world does need more Deep Work.
    However, I think you have a few misconceptions about social media.
    Hope you would be open-minded to read through my points and not just think I’m another social media addicted. (Just so you know, I don’t have social media on my phone and only check sporadically per week – not even per day).

    It’s true there are lots of detrimental aspects of social media if you use it constantly. But if you use it within balance, it can become a great tool that maximizes your professional life. Some of your examples about Facebook look like it’s just a texting or for-friends tool (and a version of the old 2004 Facebook not the current one).
    For example, you have an online course but couldn’t get involved with the students as you don’t have a Facebook account. Your books are great but have not yet been on the NYTimes list …. I believe if you learn (or hire someone) how to use Facebook pages, ads, events, live, groups… you would be able to maximize your marketing and presence. Again, you don’t need to be constantly on Facebook and can totally be off it for the major part of the year…. but how about use it doing your book press tour. You would see Facebook is not just chit chat with friends or a distraction – but a new medium to distribute your posts, converse with your readers, create a community, and increase sales for your readers.

    I remember how your blog readers number has gone down because of the change to Google Reader / or RSS subscription service … (something similar). Now most blogs can exist simply on Facebook actually – perhaps you can try to distribute your blogposts on Facebook and see the difference.

    You can also see how J.K.Rowling, Elizabeth Gilbert and other writers… use Facebook and social media strategically. When they need to focus and write the next big book, they don’t update anything. But when they are promoting their products or just in a more “shallow work” period, they get involved with the community and create a new strong bond. You will see J.K.Rowling is an active social media user now 🙂

    Again, I agree with you that you don’t need to use social media and be on every single new one 24/7. But if you have a balance, use it strategically (perhaps a few times a Week or even a month) – especially for a blogger and author, you will see the benefits.
    (or you don’t even need to be on it most of the time – but just during your promotional book tours for example).

    My problem with your book was how you describe social media. And like you said, you have never used it. You have just heard rumors about bad things on it – without experiencing the benefits. And the social media tools have drastically evolved. The notions of social media you talked in the book are from like 2004…

    You should really research and study more the Facebook Business pages and see how it helps the deep workers. It has after all 1 billion active users on it.

    Hope you would experiment with social media (Facebook, especially) before just stating “Quit Social Media.” (Just remember to use it with balance :))

    Long time reader

  9. I feel I’ve experienced the benefits of this idea, but I’m also growing to disagree.

    I tend to write lists all the time, and schedule out my days perfectly before they even begin. For a long time, I’ve worried that this is a sign I’m OCD or have high-functioning anxiety or something, but then sources like this article help me to feel like maybe I’m just one of the people who have it all together. The idea that hours which aren’t designated to a task will go by unnoticed is beautifully tragic to me. In making my lists, I am preparing to appreciate each hour and express my gratitude for being alive by spending that hour in action.

    However, I recently married a man who has made very few lists in his life. We didn’t plan a single thing for our honeymoon outside hotel and transportation… and it was the best trip I’ve ever taken. Our honeymoon to a small mountain village was more fun and fulfilling than my every-minute-planned backpacking trip through Europe (and no, I don’t think it’s just because I spent it with my new husband!) We did so many things we couldn’t have known to plan for (swimming in natural hot springs, tubing rivers, renting bicycles, attending an impromptu eighties cover band concert on top of a mountain in a gondola…) and if we had activities planned for every moment of the trip, we would have never experienced what we did.

    It is this and similar experiences with my husband, who never makes lists, which are teaching me how to fly. I can’t decide which philosophy to embrace more, or how exactly they might combine. I like to think that a satisfactory life uses a little of both.

  10. this post enlightened me to use my time wisely for time is very important. Time really has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.

  11. But I also want to say that there’s a thing that is more precious than time and that’s who we spend it. Hoping for more educational and inspiring posts from your blog.

  12. I’m a former Yeshiva student and grew up in a strict household which was highly regimented.

    My days were 8-6 with hours of homework in the evening and academia was my life.

    My father is an electrical engineer turned computer programmer and database manager; solutions architect and front end programmer now at 70.

    Cal is onto something.

  13. Hi Cal, I love your blog, and your advice on planning the day has helped me a lot as I continue my high school lessons and plan for the future, but lately I’ve felt stressed about having to keep up with all my schedules and commitments.

    Have you read Oliver Burke’s article on ‘Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives’ over at the Guardian? There’s a part of me that agrees with him, but I also feel like time management has a certain place in our lives, and I’m still trying to figure it out. It would be great if you could give us your take on it. But of course, no sweat. You’re doing amazing things as it is.


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