Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent. (Avot 2:15).
He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the World to Come. (Avot 2:16).
Research indicates that 80-95% of college students procrastinate, around 50% do so consistently, and around 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. Reviewing the psychological literature, Svartdal, Granmo, and Faerevaag (2018) write that higher levels of procrastination are associated with “increased stress, lower task performance, reduced well-being, regret and suffering, and risk of mental and physical illness.” Even people who aren’t chronic procrastinators can identify with some level of pushing off important tasks in favor of doing something less urgent or important, often suffering negative consequences.
The second chapter of Pirkei Avot ends with two related teachings from Rabbi Tarfon, both centering around procrastination and productivity. Speaking in metaphor, Rabbi Tarfon compares our religious responsibilities to that of a laborer, with G-d, as it were, serving as the employer. “The work is plentiful” references the vastness of our responsibility to learn Torah (Rashi), study wisdom (Rambam), and perform mitzvot (Midrash Shmuel). Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the “day is short and the work is plentiful,” the laborers are lazy. Why don’t we follow through on our responsibilities?
In a review and analysis of the psychology of procrastination, Piers Steel (2007) breaks down the reason people procrastinate into two broad categories: reasons that have to do with the activity (task characteristics), and reasons that have to do with the person (individual differences). Regarding the former, some tasks have aspects that make it more likely that someone would procrastinate. For instance, if the task is boring, difficult, or doesn’t have an immediate reward associated with it, it is more likely that someone would procrastinate on such a task. Concerning the latter, there are certain personality traits that increase the likelihood that someone would procrastinate, such as neuroticism, low self-esteem, rebelliousness, impulsivity, and distractibility, amongst others.
We see elements of these two categories at work in the different explanations provided by the commentaries as to why Rabbi Tarfon says that the “laborers are lazy.” Some, like Rabbeinu Yonah, assume that the laziness stems from the individual. He writes that it is human nature for people to push off doing work. Everyone is lazy to some extent. Meiri, on the other hand, suggests that the laziness stems from the nature of the task. Torah learning demands a lot of hard work and requires a large time commitment. It is the vastness and difficulty of the task which fuels the procrastination.
Beyond merely stating the problem of procrastination, Rabbi Tarfon also provides strategies for productivity.
Strategy 1: Sense of Urgency
Implicit in Rabbi Tarfon’s statement that the “the day is short” is that we should view the shortness of life as a motivator for achievement. The expression of the time pressure is heightened, Rabbi Avraham Azulai suggests, by the wording of the metaphor. If Rabbi Tarfon had said “life is short,” we might have received the impression that even though life is short, there is at least more time to accomplish our goals. Therefore, he says that the day is short, indicating that our mindset should be framed within a day’s time frame, not longer.
Rabbeinu Yonah, in The Gates of Repentance, connects Rabbi Tarfon’s message in this mishna with the advice to contemplate our day of death (see Psyched for Avot, February 10). He writes that this mentality will motivate a person so that “he [will] not waste [time] and his hands not falter from the service of G-d… that he remove sleep from his eyes to toil in Torah and to contemplate fear of G-d, to refine the traits of his soul to reach levels of fear and love; and to think thoughts of how to enhance and beautify the commandments.”
Strategy 2: Focus on Reward
In both statements, Rabbi Tarfon emphasizes that there will be great reward. While some assertions in Pirkei Avot de-emphasize focusing on reward (see Psyched for Avot, January 3), Rabbi Tarfon seems to be acknowledging that the promise of extrinsic reward can be a helpful and valid motivator, particularly when someone is struggling to be productive (see Maharal).
Moreover, the reward is not dependent on results, but on effort. Based on Rabbi Tarfon’s statement that “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it,” Rabbeinu Yonah writes that we might mistakenly conclude that since the entire corpus of Torah is too vast to ever finish, maybe we should not even try at all. Therefore, Rabbi Tarfon emphasizes that the goal is not completion; rather, it is to toil. Torah is about effortful process, not about results. Maharal gleans the same message from the fact that when teaching us about the reward obtained from learning Torah, Rabbi Tarfon chooses the word “learn” (lamad’ta), which Maharal understands as emphasizing the process of learning, not the acquisition of knowledge.
According to Rabbi Moshe Almosnino, the reward that Rabbi Tarfon is referring to is not extrinsic, but intrinsic. Ideally, the process of learning and attaining knowledge should be an inherently enjoyable experience. The more we can cultivate a sense of pleasure from learning Torah, the less likely that we will procrastinate.
Strategy 3: Listen to Divine Messages
In Rabbi Tarfon’s metaphor, “the master of the house,” namely, G-d, “is insistent.” Rabbi Israel Lipschitz shifts the metaphor to help us understand why G-d insists on our productivity by comparing it to that of a parent’s desire for his or her children to maximize their potential. Commentaries offer various interpretations as to where we see G-d’s insistence to accomplish our tasks. One approach is to view the verses in the Torah as the source of the message. Rashi writes that G-d encourages us to learn Torah through the verse in Yehoshua (1:8): “This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night.” More broadly, Rabbi Yosef Hayyun looks to all the verses throughout Tanach that encourage the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot as encouragement from G-d to be productive. He focuses on verses such as “You shall keep My commandments and perform them” (Vayikra 22:31), as well as all the advice in Proverbs denigrating laziness.
Focusing more on fear of punishments, Rabbi Mattityahu HaYitzari points to verses that warn what will happen if we don’t keep the commandments. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Farrisol notes that G-d may send implicit messages through various challenges to encourage us to be more attuned to our responsibilities.
In a beautiful and creative explanation, Sforno suggests that G-d’s insistence should be found in the fact that He “implanted in the nature of man a yearning for knowledge.” Combining this idea with that of Rabbi Almosnino’s above, the natural tendency to love learning comes both from G-d encouraging us to learn more and G-d’s reward to us for studying.
Taken together, both of Rabbi Tarfon’s messages, particularly with the added insights of the commentaries, illuminate the nature of laziness and procrastination, along with helpful strategies to combat this pervasive and pernicious aspect of human nature. If we follow Rabbi Tarfon’s advice by creating a sense of urgency, focusing on the extrinsic and intrinsic reward of effort, and listening to the numerous Divine encouragements to thrive, we will be well on our way to combating procrastination and leading a life of productivity, accomplishment, and purpose.