There is a long laundry list of personal goals running through my head that I want to work on. I love taking advantage of a celebratory date to select one of these pressing items and promise myself that this time, I really will begin to do whatever it is that will make my life better. Yet, somehow, after the birthday or New Year passes, my fervent declarations are quickly forgotten and I lapse into my old behavior.
Somehow, though, when I meet someone who laments their lack of organization, I know all the right things say. I am quick to blurt out helpful tips and beneficial chores to achieve a smoothly run household, even as my audience is tuning me out. It’s hard for me to empathize, because organization is just something that comes naturally to me. The lists in my head are already segmented and in chronological order. This is not something I taught to myself; it’s a gift Hashem gave me. But perhaps, I can use the same process that gives me the quality of organization to achieve other worthwhile virtues, like the middah of shmiras haloshon, careful talk.
Using some research material I had available, I broke down a step-by-step plan to help someone become more organized, and tried to utilize those same techniques to help me achieve my own personal goals.
The first step in changing any behavior is to make the decision that you want to change. That would mean committing to the ideal of a smoothly functional household or in my case, only saying pleasant things. Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l, in his series of classes, 48 Ways of Wisdom, talked about making daily choices between what you want and what you feel like doing. What you want to do is, obviously, what you want to be doing, and what you feel like doing is the immediate gratification that you will regret come tomorrow, when you are reconsidering your decision to finish that great book instead of tackling the burgeoning laundry pile or indulging in that juicy piece of gossip instead of taking the higher road and protecting that friend’s feelings.
The familiar concept of the yetzer hara vs. the yetzer tov has within it the notion that although we may be of two minds, we are fully capable of listening only to the yetzer tov regardless of how enticing the yetzer hara may be. We only need to look at our past actions and how they have affected our life. How has the desire to procrastinate helped in the long run?
The second step is to pre-commit. In Daniel Akst’s phenomenal new book, We Have Met the Enemy, he talks about this concept. Pre-committing is when you limit choices in advance to deter temptation: don’t turn on the computer until your allotted chores for the evening are done or put Facebook on the blocked list if it’s causing negative middos. This has to be a binding commitment, one that you will be forced to carry out even if you lose your initial enthusiasm for the idea. Tell your spouse or children about your plan so that you will be held accountable.
Set goals for yourself on a daily basis, for example: wash and fold one load of laundry every day, or no lashon hara during the morning commute. It’s important to break a big project into small manageable parts, otherwise, it gets overwhelming and you’ll just push it off. This is why I wouldn’t recommend washing five loads on laundry in one day or no lashon hara during the lunch break when you are just starting. It would be too hard to maintain, making it tempting to just drop the whole project.
Of course, if you don’t meet your goals, there must be consequences. This is the last but most vital step. Set up a chart in a public place, and chart your habits. If you meet your goal for the night and week, you get a reward, but if not…
For example, unplug the phone if there’s a lashon hara slip-up. Or, if you don’t clean up after breakfast, there won’t be any sugar in your coffee at lunch time. Promising money to charity is popular, but an even better choice is to promise money to an anti-charity, which is donating money to an organization you hate. Rav Weinberg’s method is to hire a friendly “nudnik” to keep you honest. This person will check up on you to see if you have met your commitment, and if not, you have to give them money or do something for them. If you’re really committed to changing your behavior, check out this great website, StickK.com. You can set up a legally binding contract to change any bad habit. This had been proven to be especially effective at getting people to lose weight.