How to Structure Your Day Productively According to Kabbalah

This week we began a new Jewish year, and it is a perfect time to make resolutions. One of the most important is to ensure that this year we don’t waste time. While it is certainly beneficial to have moments of relaxation and “down” time, we often fail to realize just how much valuable time goes to waste.

Perhaps the worst of the culprits is television. In the old days, a person could simply avoid having a television set at home altogether, as is normal in Orthodox households. Today, however, no place is safe from its tentacles—with “streaming” videos accessible on phones, laptops, and even wristwatches! Be very careful, lest you get sucked in to a multi-season show that will drain literally hundreds of hours from your life. It is appropriate to quote Charles Darwin, who once said that a person “who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

And it isn’t just the hours. Every minute is significant. The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) once explained how it was that he became among the greatest Torah sages of his day: “There are many times in a person’s life when he has one minute to ‘waste’—standing in line… waiting to meet someone… I always took those precious minutes and used them to delve into Torah. Thus, I became a gadol in one minute.” All those minutes add up.

One place where this is particularly true is in the car, or on the bus. Traffic has become a horrid problem in just about every major city in the world. It is an absolute shame to waste all that time listening to the same music or endless news cycles. On a personal note, I used to spend nearly two hours a day commuting back and forth to university, plus more time while working and driving from one site to another. Most of that time was spent listening to lectures. Over the span of about four years, I listened to well over 1000 Torah shiurim. Even now, many years later, those audio lectures provide a solid foundation upon which to stand—and fall back on.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) once said: “People talk about ‘wasting time’ or even ‘killing time’. Neither term is accurate. Time does not belong to you that you can waste it. Yet neither does it have a life of its own that you can take away. Rather, time awaits you to give it life.” How can we give life to time? What is the best way to organize the limited time that we have each day so that we can maximize life? While there are undoubtedly many ways to go about this, one intriguing model comes from the world of Jewish mysticism.

Four Worlds

One of the foundations of Kabbalah is the concept of olamot, parallel “universes” within Creation. The lowest such universe is Asiyah, the world of “Action”, this lowest of realms which we visibly inhabit. Above that is Yetzirah, “Formation”, the domain of spiritual entities. Higher still is Beriah, “Creation”, which can be described as the “fabric” of the cosmos, the spiritual building blocks of Creation. Finally there is Atzilut, loosely translated as “Emanation”, a realm of pure Godliness.

These four “worlds” can help us structure our own lives. A 24-hour day is fittingly divisible by 4, giving neat 6-hour segments with which to organize the day. The first 6-hour period corresponds to the world of Asiyah, “action” or “work”, which is spent labouring for parnasah and “making a living”. For many people, this is the least spiritual (or meaningful) part of the day, in the same way that Asiyah is the least spiritual of the worlds. For some, six hours devoted to work might be too little if they are employees and must work an 8-hour day, or if they are running their own business. We will address this below.

For those who are self-employed, or have some control over their schedule, six hours is an ideal number to work towards. Besides, studies show that working for longer is actually ineffective! In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that while Americans work an average of 8.8 hours a day, they are only truly productive for just under 3 of those hours! Other studies show productivity of 3-4 hours a day, and there are now those advocating for a reduction of the standard work day to six hours.

The next chunk of six hours corresponds to the world of Yetzirah, a much more spiritual realm. This is the time to focus on spiritual and personal growth: praying, learning Torah, doing mitzvot. This is also a great time for self-reflection, writing in a journal or diary, reading a good book or watching something educational, or planning the days and weeks ahead. All of these things, and any others that advance our personal growth and self-development, belong in this category.

Creation and Recreation

The next world up is Beriah, the “maintenance” that keeps our cosmos running. Your body, too, needs such maintenance to run properly. It isn’t a coincidence that Beriah shares a root with beriut, “health”. These are the six hours to take care of your precious body: cooking and eating, going to the bathroom, cleaning yourself (and the spaces you inhabit), as well as exercising. On this note, it is important to remember the words of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204):

Bodily exercise, in its different kinds, is necessary for the proper preservation of health… When people exercise through playing with a ball, wrestling, hand movements, or doing breathing techniques… such actions are mere pastimes in the eyes of the ignorant, but the wise do not consider them as unimportant. (Guide for the Perplexed, III:25)

The last six hours are, of course, left for sleep, corresponding to the realm of pure Godliness, Atzilut. This is particularly fitting because it is taught that the soul ascends to Heaven while a person sleeps (see, for example, Zohar III, 67a), and therefore sleep is likened to a “sixtieth” of death (Berakhot 57b). Six hours might sound like too little for some, but the body essentially needs about 4 hours of deep sleep (including REM) each night; the rest of the time is spent going into and out of deep sleep. A person can train themselves to fall into deep sleep more quickly.

Some say that only REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is truly vital, and a person spends only about 20-25% of their sleep in REM. Theoretically, one could get to a point of sleeping just a couple hours a night. It is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) slept a total of two hours a day, in four half-hour increments. Other great rabbis even in our own modern times were known to sleep surprisingly little. This was perhaps best demonstrated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who hardly seemed to sleep at all.

For the average person, spending six hours in sleep is certainly an attainable goal, and would not be detrimental to their health. The great Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) is an excellent role model in this regard. The inspiring life of this Sephardic Jewish-Italian woman included winning a Nobel Prize for neurology, surviving the Second World War, and serving on the Italian Senate. She lived longer than a century, and worked until her last months. Her advice for a long life: “minimal sleep, limited food intake, and always keeping the brain active and interested.” It is also appropriate to remember a Talmudic passage about things that are “beneficial in small quantities but harmful in large”. Among these are travel, sexual intercourse, wine, and sleep (Gittin 70a).

Setting Your Schedule

The above breakdown is only an overall outline, and can easily be adjusted. For example, a person who works an 8-hour day, but whose job is physically intense, can certainly take an hour or two from Asiyah and add it to Beriah (where exercise would be). Similarly, a person who feels like they must have more sleep for their health can borrow a little time from Beriah and add it to Atzilut. One who has a long lunch break during work would include those hours with Beriah.

A truck driver, taxi driver, or anyone else who spends a lot of time in a vehicle as part of their job (and uses that time to listen to Torah or something else productive) could subtract those hours from Asiyah and add them to Yetzirah, even though they are technically “working”. The same is true for anyone on a job that allows them to listen to something. (My father spends all day at a workbench, so he has an MP3 player with hundreds of lectures that he enjoys listening to—and learns a tremendous amount from!) Meanwhile, a Torah scholar or Torah teacher would have significant overlap between Asiyah and Yetzirah.

Lastly, the structure can be adapted for a weekly basis, which might be better suited to a shift-worker. A nurse, for example, might work a few days a week but for 12-hour shifts. So, one day would have a double-Asiyah “shift”, but the next day could have double the time for Yetzirah. Whatever the case, the idea is to use this array of Four Worlds to keep track of where time should be better spent, and increase one’s personal development and productivity. In short: six hours for labour, six hours for growth, six hours for health, and six hours for sleep.

A final thought to ponder, from Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Wish you a happy and productive year!