April 2, 2018 – Rabbi Susan Leider

Embrace boredom.  How is this succinct command coming from a book called, “Deep Work?”  What does boredom have to do with “deep work” anyway?  Carl Jung, a master of deep work, knew that routine and ritual were critical elements in making space for boredom to unfold, and in turn, making space for deep work.  “Deep Work” author Cal Newport claims that embracing boredom helps us to unlock our capacity for creativity and for producing work of great depth.  This doesn’t necessarily have to mean produce “work” at “work,” or authoring a major novel.  Rather it can mean aligning our life goals with the tools we need, or as Newport calls it, the “craftsman approach.”  Like a family farmer, or a “sword-maker,” (both of whom Newport interviewed for this book), he encourages us to approach our lives like a craftsperson.  Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your life. Adopt a tool only if it aligns with these core factors. Create space and perhaps encounter some boredom along the way.

As I was reading Newport’s book, my mind was exploding with so many Jewish connections!  It made me think of the High Holy Days, when we ask ourselves, “Am I living the kind of life I should be living?”  “What is most important to me and where is this in my life?”  We need to be reminded:  I am the craftsperson and my life is the craft.

It also made me think of Shabbat – the time when we decompress, allow ourselves to be a bit bored and to regenerate ourselves for the deep work of the week ahead. 

And it made me think of fixed study time, another great Jewish value.  Not surprisingly, Newport begins his chapter entitled, “Embrace Boredom,” by describing a beit midrash (a house of study) at an Orthodox synagogue.  Each morning, men gather at 6 a.m. to study Talmud for an hour before the morning Shahrit service.  It is “deep work” that happens in the early morning hours and it takes a lot of effort.  Studying Talmud is a great training ground for our brains to be able to go deeper. It helps us cultivate the ability to concentrate deeply.  It is the antithesis to the distraction and fragmentation that is so endemic in our society today.

But none of this can happen – spiritual self-introspection, immersing ourselves in Shabbat and the holidays, or deep learning, unless we decrease the distraction.  What is Newport’s dictum that follows, “Embrace boredom?”  It is “Quit Social Media.”  I encourage you to read it – not because I think you should quit social media, but because he offers a framework to think about identifying the core factors that determine success and happiness in your life.  And then to ask yourself, “Is the use of social media aligning me with these core factors in my life?”  More often than not, we use social media because we are bored.  Or, we mistakenly think it will bring us closer to our life goals.  Or, maybe we just haven’t thought about this at all and we give ourselves over to these digital tools without asking, “Is this good for us, right now?”

This is a very Jewish question.  During this Passover festival of freedom, be sure to allow yourself a little boredom.  And, even after the holiday ends, keep the “discipline,” of having boredom seep into your day.  Even in the little moments, like waiting in line or waiting for the food to come in the restaurant, see what happens if you don’t look at your phone.  You might be surprised how these small steps can be the beginning to creating more space for “deep work.”

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