By Diana Bloom and Rabbi Avi Orlow
Doing what you said you would do, as you said you would do it, when you said you would do it. Period. That is accountability. Many of us expect it in others, but are more understanding when we ourselves fall short. We judge others by their actions while we deem our intentions to be admissible. Though we strive to live up to higher standards, on the path to accountability we are often disappointed. So what can we do to make sure that accountability is attainable and not just aspirational?
Why is it so hard for people to “just” do what they said they would do? Make the call, turn in the work on time, pay back the money they owe, do their part of the project, RSVP, write back, and the list goes on. Why do we fall short? We fail because we do not have effective systems in place. People do not fail, systems fail.
One major area of accountability that lacks effective systems is project management. The first rule of project management is to recognize when we are working on a project and not a task. A task is a single activity done by an individual that can be accomplished in one sitting. A project is a series of tasks that might involve other people. When we treat a project as if it were a task, we either decide we don’t have time to work on it, we skip it, or we work on it every day without having any sense of progress.
Often our to-do lists are so full that they feel inoperable, and wind up being a list of aspirations that we will never actually accomplish. This can be exhausting and often leads to procrastination, cramming, and missed deadlines. When we recognize we have a project and break it down into constituent elements to be spread out over time, we create opportunities to accomplish a part of the project (a task or tasks) and that completion, however small, creates the energy we need to get us closer to our goal.
Most of what we want to get done is a project: creating the budget, submitting the grant proposal, writing the program, planning the fundraiser, hosting the dinner party, updating the website, searching for a new job, submitting your expense report, sending the birthday card or gift, planning the simcha, packing for vacation, applying to college, reading the book, writing this article, and the list goes on. Some projects are big, some are small, however, an accomplished life is filled with completed projects. When we misdiagnose the work in front of us as a task rather than a project, we overlook the preexisting condition. It is true that time is scarce and we have too much to do, and still, taking the time to plan things out is not a luxury. Our failing to plan is actually our planning to fail.
As we move through this season of high holidays surrounded by themes of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, let us remember that people do not fail, systems fail. When someone around us falls short, let’s ask ourselves, “What system was missing that would help that person succeed?”
And here is the thing. It is not in Heaven or across the sea. A system of achievement is well within our reach. Jewish wisdom can offer us the path to accountability regardless of whether we believe this wisdom is Divine in origin. Judaism is actually constructed as a system of accountability that can guide us to greater efficiency and productivity. Ultimately these practises can help us bridge the gap between our intentions and actions. We can be trustworthy and accountable to our loved ones, our colleagues, and the larger community. We can accomplish great things.
As we approach Simchat Torah, we would like to offer that the system in place for the annual completion of the Torah reading cycle is a model of successful project management (from inception, to as promised, on-time completion) that Judaism can offer the world. The yearly Torah reading cycle is a project that has a clear deadline – Simchat Torah. First, agreeing on a clear deadline is one of the crucial steps of successful project management. Each year we have to accomplish the Torah reading cycle, and we have to figure out how to get it done.
Being accountable to the yearly Torah reading cycle means that procrastination won’t work. We can’t cram a year’s worth of work in, right before the deadline (see Mitzvah of Hakhel – Deuteronomy 31:10-13 here). Starting the cycle after Simchat Torah and hoping it all turns out doesn’t work either. The system for getting through all 54 Torah portions, when we don’t have 54 weeks to read them, means that we need to reverse-engineer the project. This is exactly the way we need to approach any project. We need to start at the end, and work our way back from the deadline so that we are sure we have our timing right. When we approach our projects this way, we can predict some of the obstacles. Where do we miss a Shabbat because there is a holiday? Where do we get an extra month because of a leap year? Where should we double up and work a bit more on the project? The tradition teaches us that in order to begin with enough time and without feeling overwhelmed, we need to know where and when we want to end up, before we start.
The skill of project management is one that can benefit us in every area of life. It is a system that helps us succeed. From the Jewish project of reading the Torah yearly we learn and can take away these lessons:
- Projects are just a series of tasks. We don’t do a project, we do tasks, and we only finish that project when we complete its last constituent task.
- Projects need clear deadlines and a clear vision.
- The first step of a project is to make a list of all the tasks necessary to complete the project.
- Organize all of our steps in chronological order, then work backwards to determine when the final step needs to be done, then the penultimate step, the anti-penultimate step, and so on until we reach our first step, and when we need to start.
- Review our list searching for potential obstacles and think about possible solutions.
- Take the time to celebrate accomplishments.
Right when we finish Deuteronomy for last year we start the project for next year with reading Genesis, “In the beginning.” There we read about the world coming into existence. The creation narrative is the largest project one could imagine – and it starts off by sharing God’s detailed project plan. God could have done it all in one moment. Instead God took six days to do the myriad tasks of making the world in time for Shabbat. It seems that God took the time to make a plan. We are in good company in needing a project plan to accomplish great things.
From strength to strength, may our 5781 be filled with many meaningful accomplishments.
Diana Bloom is a consultant, and trainer who is passionate about supporting individuals and organizations to bridge the gap between their intentions and actions. Her humorous, engaging, and straightforward style, along with realistic, actionable tools help others achieve greater accountability in their professional and personal lives.
Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He has a deep love of irreverent, relevant, and revealing Torah and blogs religiously at saidtomyself.com.