WORST THINGS FIRST
Do you ever have a task that you must do but really don’t want to? Do you procrastinate, pushing it off until the last possible minute? This usually leads to missed deadlines and lost opportunities. Yet, even if you successfully completed the task, did the dread of working on it and the guilt of not working on it, hover over you like a gloomy haze and tempestuous cloud throughout the process?
In order to avoid the anxiety of procrastination, social psychologist Dr. Ian Newby-Clark suggests that we put the “worst things first.” By prioritizing what we don’t want to do and getting it done at the beginning of the day we do a better job of taking advantage of our morning willpower (which will deplete over the course of the day), avoid that looming, negative feeling, and generate more positive momentum for later tasks.
Avraham is a paradigm of alacrity and productivity. Being a pillar of kindness, we are awed but not shocked at how swiftly he tends to the needs of his guests. Despite the fact that he was healing from his brit mila, the verses reiterate how he “ran” and “quickly” cared for them. The Sages also learn from this scene that the righteous say little but do much (Bava Metziya 87a).
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (Daat Torah, pp. 117-118) suggests that the Sages aren’t simply just commending those who follow through on their word. Rather, they are emphasizing the importance of not spending time talking about accomplishing. Discussing, deliberating, and debating about action is essentially procrastination. The righteous don’t talk about what they are going to do, they just do. They “talk” through their actions.
It is one thing to be prompt, proactive, and productive when you are doing what you love. It is an entirely different challenge when the required task is one that you dread. After seeing Yishmael behave inappropriately, Sarah tells Avraham that she does not want Yishmael to be associated with Yitzchak. Avraham is terribly pained by the fact that Sarah wanted him to send away Yishmael (see Bereishit 21:11 and Rashi). Yet, despite his reservations, God tells him to listen to Sarah.
Avraham loved Yishmael deeply, and while Avraham was always going to follow through on God’s command, it was still a very difficult test for him. Yet, we are told “Va-yashkem Avraham ba-boker” – Avraham woke up early in the morning to follow through on sending Yishmael away. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan highlights that despite the difficulty, Avraham acted with alacrity to complete his task (Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah, p. 62). He didn’t wait until after breakfast or until the end of the day. He did the worst thing first.
We can learn from Avraham not to spend too much time talking about doing, but being proactively productive, especially for things that we value and enjoy. But he also serves as a model for how to accomplish and follow through when the task is important but distressing. By doing the worst things first we ensure that we don’t fall into the enticing trap of procrastination.