A long, long time ago,before the blessed creation of the Apple Watch, in a not too faraway place, I used to wake up at 5:00 AM every morning to an alarm clock. You know–the type that starts beeping loudly and obnoxiously, causing me to jump out of bed as soon as I hear it. Most of the time it succeeded in not only waking me up, but waking up my wife and baby as well. At 4:59 AM I was blissfully sleeping. One minute later, I was awake and ready for whatever the day had to offer. Every year, (this year, only once) we as a people receive this collective wakeup call on Rosh Hashana. The Rambam masterfully writes:
Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if the shofar’s call is saying: ‘Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep, and you who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator….
Too often, we go through the year asleep. It is as if we spent 12 months since the last Rosh Hashana sleeping cozily in bed, only to be jolted awake by the blast of the Shofar. The question begs itself though, every year, when we hear the shofar, and are jolted awake, why is it that so often we don’t actually undergo any real change? In his book Unlocking Greatness, noted inspirational speaker and author Charlie Harary quotes studies that indicate 60 percent of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions every year. Of these resolution makers, a paltry 8 percent of them follow through on them. For those of us math whizzes out there, that means a whopping 92 percent of the motivated folks who make resolutions give up on them. The question begs itself: why is this so? Why does it seem so often that we are working on the same exact things we worked on last year?
The answer, I believe, is that too often, we just hit the snooze button. It is true that the alarm clock wakes us up. But if we don’t respond to it, and do not act on it, we will happily go back to sleep. Waking up is an important and necessary part of changing ourselves. But it is not enough. Imagine the following scenario: I wake up in the morning, and go sit at my dining room table with a hot cup of Fast Lane Tea, which boasts more caffeine than a cup of coffee. I sit there and say, “This is awesome! I am awake!” I want to succeed today. I want to lose weight today. I want to work out today!” These objectively are very admirable and worthy goals. But it is not hard to understand that with this approach to life alone, these goals will not be realized.
Why is this so? According to Charlie Harary, “Resolutions are destined to fail because they are centered on outcome. They articulate a destination but don’t give us a map showing us how to get there. There is no plan of action, only the expression of a desired effect.” A few years ago we ventured on a road trip to Mt. Rushmore. It is obvious that knowing I want to go to Mt. Rushmore alone is not enough to ensure I will end up there. I need a map. I need a plan.
Continues Harary, “ With only the end in mind, you are not honing in on the specific behavior or belief that needs to be changed to actually get there…change is a process, not an outcome.” He goes on to explain that resolutions that we too often make before Rosh Hashana are outcome focussed, which will not help us reach them. What we need to focus on now, is what process we need to go through to reach our goals. That, says Harary, happens through the formation of habits.
But how do we do this?
After identifying where you would like to end up, rather than embracing an “all or nothing” approach, it would be preferable to take on what Charlie Harary calls the +1 mentality. The Mishna teaches us in Pirkei Avos, “It is not your job to finish the job, but you’re not free to exempt yourself from starting it.” If I try a habit or ritual which is unsustainable, that becomes like an empty New Years Resolution doomed for failure. Because it is unrealistic, I will quickly give up, and digress back to where I started. But if I take on a ritual which is within my reach, and I am just slightly stretching myself to become 1% better, I can easily turn this into a consistent habit, which can lead to tremendous long term growth.
For example: I have a life goal to complete the entire Talmud, all 2,711 pages of it. If I try to get to that goal as fast as possible by learning a few pages a day, I will quickly burn out. But through the daf yomi 1 page a day cycle, I realistically can reach this goal.
In the early days of the Pandemic I aspired to build up my physical strength. I began doing 10 pushups a day. By adding 1 more pushup every day, I am now to a point where I can easily do 60 pushups in one shot.
I want to grow in my Judaism: I can say the modeh ani prayer every morning upon waking up over the course of 5 seconds. I can say the Shema every day and or every night. I can study Torah for 5 minutes a day. The main thing is to identify the goal, and take simple and easy steps to reach that goal.
G-d willing we can all sit down and craft a plan for how we can reach our goals and have deeply meaningful and fulfilling 5782.
That way, when we are startled by the powerful blast of the shofar, we will immediately have a plan of action.