I currently have 31 tabs open on my laptop. These include, but are not limited to; work email inbox, personal email inbox, a few Google Spreadsheets I use to track various work related metrics, an interesting article I saw a few days ago that I thought would make an interesting Shabbos email, a stock market tracker, my bank (don’t worry, it logged me out two days ago!), WhatApp, my Google calendar, and oh so much more. While I work, I often find myself picking up my phone, which means that I have two different screens going at once. Yes, I’m multi-tasking, but I’m not very good at it.
There are people who have two computer screens and a smartphone, there are people who work from home and have a laptop, a phone, and a TV going on in the backround, there even people with dual computer screens, a work cell phone, personal cell phone, and a TV going on in the background. Those guys are pretty much the kings of the multi-tasking world. They are checking up on multiple social media platforms, while reading the latest news from a few of their favorite news sites, while working, while keeping an eye on CNN or Fox for the latest news coverage, while messaging with their friends and business associates on a few messaging platforms! I don’t know if anyone has ever crammed more productivity into one minute in the history of mankind!
The data paints a very different picture of that multi-tasking machine. A recent study out of Stanford University, published in the October edition of the Nature journal, indicates that the more we multi-task the more we harm our memory. The ability to create memories is reliant on being present somewhere for a significant amount of time, creating strong neural connections through that process. When we constantly flip from place to place, we don’t give our memory the ability to build muscle power. It’s not that you need to see something for a long time in order to remember it, people often have memories of a fleeting moment for years after, but rather that your memory needs to have power, and that power is created by being grounded, stable, and in one place for a considerable amount of time.
The Stanford researchers took a group of 80 people, ages 18-26 and they tracked their thought patterns using EEG and pupillometry which measures the size of your pupils. (Fun fact: your pupils constricting, especially before doing a task, is a sign of failures in performance, like slower reaction time, or more mind wandering!) They administered different memory tests and monitored how well respondents scored based on what they were doing just before the memory test was administered. What they found is that the more the subject was multitasking before the test, the poorer his performance on the test. A rested mind remembers, a flitting mind – wait, what was the question? It’s almost like memory is a building and it’s much easier to build on solid ground than shifting ground.
One might be tempted to say, I may remember less, but I get more done when multitasking, but that’s not true either. Multitasking can reduce our productivity by 40%, says an article by Paul Atchley in the Harvard Business Review. Your brain is really good at executive functioning and creativity, but it takes up to 15 minutes for the brain to deeply settle into a goal-oriented pattern. The multitasker never quite makes it there because he never spends 15 minutes on anything. (Try to think about the last time you spent 15 minutes entirely focused on one thing!) Moving from task to task, results in us being less productive, less creative, and hurts our long term-memory.
So why do we do it? Think of multi-tasking like a drug, and getting a job properly done like a well balanced meal. When we multitask, we get little hits of dopamine, (the same neurotransmitter that excited a cocaine addict) as we go. We get a hit when a notification goes off on our phone, “Oooh! Someone has something to tell me!” We get a hit when we open our phones, and we anticipate the reward of what we’re going to find. We get a hit when we respond quickly to that message that came in, the finishing-a-job hit. We are getting hundreds of dopamine hits a day from our multitasking! It’s so clearly recognized that app developers and game makers use their knowledge of dopamine dosing in creating the most addictive apps and games. So like the cocaine addict, we keep chasing the exciting hits, but our mind is left depleted, exhausted, and strung out.
Working our way meticulously through a project is the exact opposite. There may not be any incredible hits of pleasure, but as we methodically make our way through the project, our brain becomes more honed in, sharper, more settled and more creative. New ideas start to flow, aptitude starts to build, and mastery of the subject is eventually achieved. The ordered mind now files it away for the future in a secure memory vault. It’s not flashy but it works.
I began thinking about these ideas when I was learning Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s, OBM, commentary on the Chovos Halevavos, the Duties of the Mind, an eleventh century ethical treatise written by Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pachuda. In the second section, the Gate of Examining, the author exhorts us to examine every facet of the world, so that we can recognize all that G-d did in creating the world; both the unfathomable complexity in every part of creation, as well as the reason that He created it- namely for us to thrive as spiritual givers in His world. In the fifth chapter, the Duties of the Mind elucidated just how amazing our human bodies are, and how everything from our toenail to our brain is simply a never ending parade of wonder.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller, in his commentary on the book’s discussion of the brain, makes the following observation. Imagine someone gave you an incredible beautiful ornate storehouse as a gift, what would you want to put into it? Obviously the things you most want to preserve. You wouldn’t fill it with your trash, you let the city haul that away. Instead you put in it the clothing that is out of season and you have no room for it in your closet, you put in it important business documents that you need to file away, you put in it furniture you don’t have room for right now because your house is under renovation.
Rabbi Miller says that this is how we should view our brain. G-d gave us an incredible storehouse, the brain, and what we put in that storehouse is all that we will have with us for eternity. When we pass to the next world, our body will be returned to the earth, our mind – our soul will go on to heaven for eternity. Whatever we filled our brain with in this world will be there forever, there is no erasing of the hard drive once we get up there. We can fill it with beautiful thoughts, we can fill it with memories of giving, memories of learning, memories of inspiration, we can fill it with meaningless trivia, or worse yet we can fill it with trash – but whatever we fill it with, that’s what we will have forever.
We can add another facet to the analogy. The brain is not only a storehouse, it is also a factory capable of producing incredible new inventions. It is filled with creativity, and one only needs to look at the vast trove of human accomplishments to see how capable the brain it. Researchers in Japan, trying to discern how powerful the human brain is, determined that the 4th most powerful computer in the world, took 40 minutes to perform the calculations that one percent of the human brain calculates in one second! But we can shut down our factory, reduce its creativity and productivity, and even destroy sections of the storehouse facility, all by giving in to the alluring draw of multitasking and all of its attendant dopamine rushes.
How do we combat multitasking?
For starters, try to determine how often you multitask. Take a few different hours during the day, and every time you find yourself switching tasks, count the number out loud. You’re in middle of studying and you go into the kitchen to grab something to eat? 1. You go back to studying? 2. You change the song on Spotify? 3. An email comes in and you check it? 4. You go back to studying? 5. While writing this article about multitasking, I probably changed focus at least 20 times from what I was doing, and I was determined to stay on task! Once you recognize that multitasking is indeed a problem in your life, here is a list of things you can do:
- Set yourself up with small half hour tasks and see if you can do two of those uninterrupted per day. (If you can, you’ve just advanced from Proficient to Expert!)
- Turn off notifications on your phone for everything but the most crucial apps. Candy Crush letting you know that you can now get a bonus game does nothing good for you on any day. ESPN telling you that John Smith was just traded to the Pacers does nothing good either.
- Set an email responding time. Instead of constantly going through your various email accounts, only respond to emails from :50 to :00 of every hour.
- Get rid of all those tabs at the top of your screen, they’re only beckoning to you because you left them there. Clean em’ out.
- Leave your cell phone overnight in a room other than your bedroom
- Start every day by writing a list of your priority tasks, check them off as you go
- Try to declutter your workspace, a cluttered workspace invites multitasking
- Leave your cell phone out of the room when you are doing important things like bedtime with the kids, praying, or going over the day with your wife
You can’t do them all at once, but the more we incorporate mindfulness and being present into our day, the more we use that incredible factory that G-d gave us with optimum efficiency, and the more we fill the storehouse He gave us with valuable information, the closer we get to fulfilling the Chovos Halevavos, the Duties of the Mind.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Abraham stood ready to accept his fate. Though he and Sarah had spent a lifetime spreading loving-kindness and bringing countless people back to a relationship with the one true G-d, they had no children of their own. He had been promised offspring by G-d on at least two occasions (Bereishis 12:7, 13:16), but still, Abraham’s understanding of the spiritual laws that govern human existence led him to believe that he and Sarah were not destined to have a child together.
At that very moment, the word of G-d came to Abraham once more and reassured him that his fate has not been sealed. Not only would he have offspring, but also their numbers would be like the stars in heaven. Previously, G-d foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the “dust of the earth.” (Bereishis 13:16)
The Talmud comments on these two metaphors, noting that when the Jewish people stray from their mission and refuse to follow the will of G-d, they will be trampled and looked down upon by all – like the dust of the earth. However, when they fulfill their mission as G-d’s emissaries in the world, they rise to unimaginable heights – like the stars in the heavens.
There is a deeper aspect to comparing the Jewish people to the stars in heaven. From our vantage point, stars appear as tiny specks of light in the sky. It would be easy to regard each star as relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Each star is actually a phenomenally huge, burning mass of energy and power; most are more than a hundred times the size of our own sun.
The same holds true with regard to the powerful spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. From a distance, it can be easy to overlook – or not notice – the special talents and abilities found within each Jewish person. The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as hidden potential! There is only potential that we have perhaps not yet come to see, recognize or understand.
Rabbi Yisroel Brog relates this story from his childhood that illustrates this point:
Rabbi Brog’s father was a man with an enormous heart. He would regularly invite people into his home to share meals, even offering them a place to sleep if need be. Even when a person was a bit eccentric, rude, or demanding, he continued to care for them with patience, kindness and love.
One day, Rabbi Brog’s father brought an elderly, apparently homeless Jewish man home for breakfast. The man asked for two eggs cooked for exactly two minutes. When the eggs were done, he asked for another set – the first two had been cooked longer than his required two minutes! By the end of the week, not only was this man having his “two eggs cooked for two minutes,” he actually moved in – and ended up living with the family for a number of years!
Every day, this old Jew would leave the house at five in the morning. For large parts of the day, he was gone. No one knew where he went or what he did. Rabbi Brog, then a youngster, was curious. One day, he worked up the courage to ask him what he did. The man told him that if he wanted to know, he should join him. The next morning, the young Yisroel was up and ready at five a.m., and together, he and the old man left the house.
That day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the young boy’s life. For an entire day, he watched as this elderly Jew went from hospitals to old age homes to individual homes, helping people without let-up. They visited the elderly and the infirm, bringing them various things they needed, helping them put on tefillin, cheering them up, and raising their spirits. The whole neighborhood felt the impact of this man and his good deeds.
It turned out that Rabbi Brog’s eccentric house guest was a survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. Now, his only wish was to help others as much as he could. Imagine what the young Rabbi Brog would have grown up thinking had he never bothered to draw closer to this hidden treasure!
There are many such people among the Jewish people. Perhaps they are hidden just beyond our view, or perhaps we have not taken the time to discover who they are. Nonetheless, they are there. Learning to seek out, appreciate and encourage the spiritual potential of every Jew enriches our lives and helps us become a nation of people who are truly likened to the stars.
In this week’s Parsha, the story of the creation of the Jewish people commences. In the beginning of the Parsha, Ha-shem tells Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and the house of his father, and go to the place that G-d will show him. G-d promises him greatness, wealth, and children if he goes.
We learn two things from the journey that Avram embarked upon. Firstly, in order for a person to make his mark in the world, he has to do things because he believes in them, not because it is the way he grew up, the custom of his people, or the custom of his parents. Additionally, we see that G-d never told Avram his destination, he simply told him to go “to the place I will show you.” G-d was not trying to hide the destination from Avram, He simply couldn’t show it to him. When one sets out on a spiritual journey, he can’t possibly comprehend his destination, because the journey itself transforms him into a different person, with a different perspective, one that he couldn’t have had at the beginning of the journey
As soon as Avram gets to Israel , the place he was told to travel to, there was a famine. This was one of the 10 tests that Avram was tested with. Would he have complaints against G-d who promised him greatness and wealth, or would he accept the situation, and know that G-d was doing what was best for him? (Avram underwent 10 tests, which covered every class of challenge his progeny would ever face, so that he could code his children with the spiritual DNA needed to overcome those ordeals.)
Avram traveled to Egypt to escape the famine. Knowing the rampant immorality of Egypt , he asked his wife Sarai to say she was his sister so that they wouldn’t kill him in order to steal his wife. As Avram suspected, they did indeed snatch Sara to become the king’s wife. However, G-d intervened and miraculously plagued the house of the pharaoh until he got the message and, feigning innocence, sent Sara back to her husband with compensatory gifts. He then asked the couple to leave his country knowing that his people could not control themselves.
Avram went back to Israel, only to have an argument with Lot, his nephew, who was allowing his flock to pasture in fields which didn’t belong to him. Avram finally said to Lot, “Pick a direction, go there, and I will go the other way, but I will stay close enough to protect you.” (Important Lesson: If you can’t beat them, leave them. If you stay around people doing evil you are bound to get influenced.) After Avram parted ways with Lot , G-d appeared to him and repeated the promise of numerous progeny which, as a childless man 75 years old, Avram accepted unquestioningly.
Then came the Great War. 4 Kings vs. 5 Kings. All the bookies had the five kings as the strong favorites but, lo and behold, the underdogs took the five kings in a sweep, capturing Lot in the process. Avram set out to save his nephew with a few men, and this time, the bookies once again favored the wrong team, as Avram scored a miraculous victory. Although the king of Sodom (one of the 5 losers that Avram rescued) offered Avram all the wealth of his people, Avram refused to take any of it, being unwilling to exchange an infinite mitzvah for mere finite money no matter what the amount.
Once again, G-d assured Avram that he will have children that will be numerous like the stars and, not only that, he will also give them the land of Israel as an inheritance. Avram asked, “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” Avram knew that man has free will, and was afraid that he or his offspring would sin and become unworthy of the Holy Land. At this point G-d made a special covenant with Avram using different animal parts, to signify that his progeny would inherit the land in the merit of the animal offerings they would sacrifice in the temple.
After this, Avram, on the urging of his wife Sara, took a second wife, Hagar. She was the daughter of a pharaoh, who came to Avram and declared that she would rather be a maidservant in his house than a princess in the house of a pharaoh. Sara asked that Avram marry Hagar, hoping that she would have a baby that Sara would raise as an adopted child. However, once Hagar got married and became pregnant with Avram’s first child, she began to be haughty toward Sara, thinking that she must be holier than Sara if she got pregnant so quickly. Sara told Avraham of the outrage occurring in his house and said that G-d should judge what should happen with the situation.
Avraham told Sara to deal with Hagar as she saw fit, and Sara, sensing a woman who needed to remember the humility that brought her to the house in the first place, dealt with her harshly. Hagar ran away to the desert. An angel met Hagar and told her to go back and be afflicted under Sara, as it would teach her the humility she needs. He then informed her that she will have a child who will be a wild man, fighting with everyone, and she should name him Yishmael (Yishmael is the father of the Arab nations. As a matter of fact they claim that the Akeida- the final test Avraham was tested with, occurred with Yishmael their forefather and not Yitzchak, our forefather). She thanked and blessed G-d (this, possibly, is the root of Arab women who are happy with their suicide bomber children, as Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, accepts the news of her progeny’s wildness and banditry as a blessing).
Thirteen years after Yishmael was born, when Avram was 99 years old, G-d commanded him to circumcise himself. One of the ideas behind bris milah is the understanding that G-d, by design, creates an imperfect world so that we can be partners with Him in bringing the world to its perfection. This is true regarding food, he creates the olives, grains, and grapes, but we complete His creation by making oil, bread, and wine. He creates us with some negative character traits, and we spend our life changing them and perfecting ourselves. The ultimate symbol of this is our circumcision, in which we show that we believe that G-d only gave us the raw material (an uncircumcised body), and it is our job to bring it to its completion and perfection through the bris.
After this mitzvah, G-d informed Avram that He was changing his name from Avram to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sara. In Hebrew, a person’s name reflects their essence, so when G-d tells someone He is changing their name, it means that with it He is changing their essence. With their new names and essences, Avraham and Sara will finally be able to give birth in the next Parsha, but I better stop here because I don’t want to give away too much!
Quote of the Week: Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still. – Leonardo Da Vinci
Random fact of the Week: The deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean is 28 times as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.
Funny Line of the Week: I started out with nothing…I still have most of it.
Have a Delicious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham