Our generation has a focusing problem. The continuous stream of pings and beeps from our devices keeps us trapped in a never-ending feedback loop. We’re constantly exposed to images of everyone else’s glamorous adventures, leading to a curious cultural phenomenon dubbed FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” It has become popular to put together “bucket lists” of things we hope to do in life one day, but as the Midrash says, “No man leaves this world with half his wishes fulfilled.”1

Having as many options as we do does not contribute to our peace of mind or tranquility. On the contrary, it can make us feel even more anxious and fragmented. No matter what we’re doing, we can’t shake the feeling that we ought to be doing something else.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe viewed the frenetic pace of today’s world reflected in the fact that we are very close to the time of Moshiach, when all final refinements will be wrapped up.2 Our challenge is to make the final transition from a state of fragmentation to integration—the end goal and purpose of creation.

But how do we learn to focus? How do we carve time out of our busy day to decide what’s most important to us, and where we want to invest our time and effort?

Judaism gives us an amazing gift: The Jewish calendar is structured with specific times built in for self-evaluation.

Most of us are familiar with perfunctory New Year’s resolutions that wear off within weeks. But the resolutions that arise after a month of soul-searching and stocktaking are not liable to be dropped so quickly. The final month of the year, Elul, is meant for reviewing the entire past year and setting goals for the year to come.3 Elul is the right time to ponder whether your life is going in the right direction or if important life changes are needed. During this annual stocktaking, you may realize that you are overcommitted and need to drop or curtail some activities, or you may decide to embark on an ambitious goal or project.

Here are tips to keep this annual stocktaking productively:

1.Create a Spreadsheet

This past Elul, I did something I had never done before. I took the concept of cheshbon nefesh, or soul accounting, seriously. I created a spreadsheet with different sections for everything going on in my life—family, work, extra-curricular activities, finances and personal health. Under each category, I wrote down everything that was bothering or worrying me, and things I wanted to accomplish. Then I spent some time color-coding and prioritizing those lists. Under each category, I chose several goals that were workable for me.

2. Review and Update Goals

Every week thereafter, I set aside time to review and update my lists. In some cases, I realized that my goals were too aspirational or ambitious, and I either modified them or set them aside for a later time.

After a year of consistently reviewing and updating my goals, I realized that this process is a tremendous anxiety-reducer. In Tanya, Chapter 27, the Alter Rebbe advises us to deal with anxious thoughts by telling ourselves not now, this isn’t the right time. If they were constructive thoughts, they wouldn’t arise during prayer, study or work, when we’re meant to be focusing on what we’re doing. This process only works when we actually set aside time “later” to reflect on it. The end of the day, the end of the week or the end of the month are appropriate times to think about those things causing anxiety and decide what to do about them.

I came to discover that many of the things I was preoccupied with weren’t really problems, or things that seemed like major problems had a sudden and unexpected resolution. It helped me to see G‑d’s ongoing involvement in my life when a problem that seemed huge and insurmountable gradually resolved itself. I was able to cross off things that weren’t in my control and focus only on those that were.

3. Prioritize

There were times when I felt particularly inspired and motivated to do something big. I know from experience though, that the excitement dissipates after a while, and then I’m stuck with a huge commitment that I can’t possibly meet. This is where a regular habit of goal-setting and prioritizing proved to be very helpful. When the spiritual juices were flowing, I’d write down all my lofty goals and ambitions. Then each week, I’d review and decide what was practical. By writing down ideas when they were fresh, I was able to harness the inspiration of the moment without getting bogged down by unrealistic expectations. Big dreams need to be broken down into small steps and may take time (months or years) to fulfill. This is a normal part of the process, not cause for discouragement.

4. Watch Out for Distractors

It often happens that when I set out to do something good, other ideas come along to interrupt and distract me. The distractor can even be a different mitzvah!

The Rebbe Rashab once told his son, “One person may suddenly experience a powerful longing to study Chassidus or to meditate on a deeply Chassidic concept. The truth is, however, that this is nothing more than the yetzer hara’s counsel and the animal soul's machinations to prevent him from focusing on prayer or a similar activity.”4

As a general rule, any time we are hard at work on one goal and suddenly a thought arises that we should be doing something else, even if it seems noble and holy, it’s coming from the evil inclination to push us off-track.

5. How to Avoid Procrastination

What to do if you have the tendency to procrastinate?

Here is where a list-making habit can be very helpful. Write down the task you keep pushing off and set aside one of your nightly or weekly check-in sessions to figure out why you’re avoiding it. Is there something about it that you find distasteful? Maybe this chore isn’t really for you, and you need to delegate it to someone else.

Is the task too big? Maybe you need to break it down into smaller steps. Resist the urge to try to do everything at once. Don’t dump out your entire closet and try to organize it unless you’ve set aside an entire day for that task. Maybe you’ve fallen prey to “all or nothing” thinking, where you either do the entire task completely and perfectly or it isn’t worth doing at all. One technique for getting yourself started on an undesirable task is to set a timer for 15 minutes. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished in a short block of time. Once you’ve gotten yourself going, you may find it easier to keep on going and complete the task.

6. Think Positively

During the “check-in” sessions, whether annually, monthly, weekly or daily, it’s important to be in a positive frame of mind and not get overwhelmed by how much we still have to do and how little we’ve accomplished. On the other hand, when we’re honest with ourselves, we may feel bitter disappointment. This is not unhealthy; bitterness or regret can be productive as long as they’re limited to those particular times and spur us to take action.5

Resolutions should be framed using positive language, focusing on what we will do rather than on what we will avoid doing. Say “I will … ” rather than “I will try to … .” The problem with saying “I will try … ” is that it subtly gives the message that perhaps the task is unattainable. If there’s any doubt about your ability to succeed, then modify your resolution. Make it easy enough that you can definitely fulfill it.

7. Grab and Grow

Our generation is in a unique time in history. We are in the final moments of exile, when we do not always have time to proceed in an orderly way and complete all required preparations. Sometimes, we just have to grab any opportunity to do a mitzvah, whether or not we are spiritually ready.6 Sometimes, we may perform a mitzvah that is well above our current level or study a deep concept in Torah that seems outside the range of our understanding. In one moment, we can take a quantum leap in spiritual growth, skipping over all intermediate levels.

Spiritual stocktaking is well and good as long as it does not impede us from taking action in the present. Now in the final moments of exile, we need to do our utmost to fill every available moment with Torah study, prayer and good deeds to merit the immediate Redemption.7