No Time to Think: 3 Ways to Defeat Pharaoh Today
We are enslaved by epidemic levels of distraction. Here’s how to break free.
Imagine working long hours, day after day, for decades. You're good at your job and get paid well to boot. By the time you fight the traffic and get home each night, you're too exhausted to do much else but relax and go to bed.
On some level it gnaws at you. Surely there's more to life than shopping and errands. In some quiet moments, a small voice squirms in your head. It is the voice of greatness, calling you to pursue a purpose yet to be fulfilled.
Driven by pains of mediocrity, you courageously make an appointment to speak with your boss. You request a brief leave of absence – to clear your mind, look inside, and refocus on life's priorities.
Your boss nods and senses your weakening commitment. He reasons you've got too much time on your hands. His response rings harsh and clear: "Vacation requested rejected. In addition, I am increasing your workload. Thank you, that's all."
No Time to Think
Such was the Jewish experience of slavery 3,300 years ago in Egypt. Initially, the Jews volunteered to join the public works campaign to build the store cities of Pitom and Raamses. Only later did Pharaoh make the work mandatory, enslaving the Jews.
To the Jews, it sometimes seemed the entire enterprise was for no other reason than to keep busy. In a play on words, the Talmud defines "Raamses" as where the buildings repeatedly collapsed (mitroses), and "Pitom" as the abyss (pi-tehom) that swallowed each building like quicksand. Despite unbearably long and difficult labor, the work was never finished. Life was mundane, meaningless, and devoid of purpose.
The stirrings of national destiny, however, could not be contained. The Jews eventually reached a point where the pain of "staying the same" was more than the pain of change. When they finally cry out in despair, God tells Moses to request a 3-day furlough in the desert.
Pharaoh's tactic: Keep the Jews busy and distracted, eliminating time to contemplate anything beyond survival.
In opposition stood Pharaoh, the most powerful man alive. Worshipped as a deity, Pharaoh made selfish choices that harmed others while benefitting his own wealth and status. Only God stood between Pharaoh and his narcissistic global rule. To protect his divine-sized ego, Pharaoh could not allow these Jewish stirrings to grow.
Pharaoh's response was swift and furious: Maintain the Jews' production quota while eliminating the supply of building materials. Pharaoh's tactic was "work without interruption" – to keep the Jews busy and distracted, shutting down their free time to contemplate anything beyond survival. "Go back to being busy!"
Though Moses assures the Jews that slavery will soon end, they cannot listen due to shortness of breath and harsh labor (Exodus 6:9). They were so overworked and oppressed, they could not find a moment of equilibrium, to connect with their sense of higher purpose.
And so it is for us today. "Egyptian slavery" is a metaphor for the human condition. As we say at the Passover Seder, "each person is obligated to see himself as personally going out of Egypt." This is especially true in our own place and time, with distractions everywhere. A relentless media machine bombards us with tens of thousands of messages each day, triggering a change of focus dozens of times every hour. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Gmail, WhatsApp. Every time the phone pings or vibrates with a notification, attention is diverted again and again. Since 2000, attention span has dropped from 12 seconds down to 8.
In education, distractions are epidemic, with 97% of college students distracted by phones during class – slipping a device out of the pocket, followed by a quick check under the desk – on average 11.43 times for non-educational purposes!
The mere presence of smartphones reduces our ability to concentrate. One study had people turn off their cellphones and divide into three groups, the only variable being proximity to a phone. One group put their phones on the table next to them; a second group tucked them away in their backpack; and a third group had their phones in a different room.
Participants were then given a reading comprehension test. Results showed that proximity to a cellphone – turned completely off! – directly correlated to a lower rate of concentration on the task at hand.
Yes, life is busy. We have deadlines at work and social media to maintain. We spend hundreds of hours each year in traffic and standing in line. Plus the constant battle to keep up with the shopping, exercise, and the news.
We suffer from "No Time to Think Syndrome," with ominous little time to ponder life's big question: Why am I here?
Today, the biggest impediment against our moving forward with clarity is the 24/7 distraction of news cycle, entertainment, consumerism and celebrity culture. With video screens everywhere, and one always in our hand, we suffer from "No Time to Think Syndrome," an ominous state of distraction with little time to ponder life's biggest question: Why am I here?
This is precisely Pharaoh's tactic: involve you in low-priority battles over the minutiae of life. He's betting that by keeping you distracted, you will no longer confront the real battle of adding more meaning and purpose to life. For Pharaoh's money machine to best produce, your "yearnings for greatness" must fade into silence.
How do we extricate ourselves from this mundane morass and gain perspective on our priorities? What is the key to breaking free?
Tool #1 – Desert Isolation
In Egypt, the solution involved three days in the desert, to experience the God of compassion, freedom, and self-actualization. The desert is a place of solitude, disconnected from the grid, devoid of all distractions. Today, too, we need to "go to the desert" – a quiet place to fully focus without distraction – e.g., forest, synagogue, bedroom.
Close your eyes, relax, and clear away extraneous thoughts. What is the first thought that pops into your mind? If it's March Madness, Coca-Cola or the Mueller investigation, gently push those thoughts aside.
Listen instead for the still, small voice.
Think of the times in life you felt most connected. Recall transcendent experiences like awe of nature and falling in love. Recall as well those times of connecting with your unique life mission, when everything flowed and you felt totally alive and engaged.
Think back to your 7-year-old self: What made you sparkle? Touch that core, the point from which life's passion emanates. What is your unique life purpose? Consider if you only had one year to live. What is the one big thing – the game-changer that will positively affect everything else?
To prod your thinking, ask these essential questions:
- What am I living for?
- What makes life meaningful?
- In what situations do I feel most present and alive?
- If circumstances permitted, what would I do passionately – every day, for free?
- What is my unique combination of skills and experience?
- In my quietest moments, what do I yearn for?
- What do I hope will be the sum total of my life's activities?
- Are my actions on track toward my unique life purpose?
This is a broad, expansive view of your world. And this is precisely the type of thinking that Pharaoh wants to shut down.
In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim – from the root, may-tzar, meaning narrow and confined. The secret to getting out of this narrowness is to go to a place without distraction, a place of emptiness where something more authentic occupies the space. Focus on your "life mission." Do you feel connected? If not, readjust.
Tool #2 – Weekly Disconnect
The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 5:18) tells us that when Pharaoh pushed back against the Jews' request for three days in the desert, he not only stopped the supply of straw, but also eliminated their only time off, the Shabbos break.
Shabbos, the weekly time to stop and reflect, posed a great threat to Pharaoh. As lifestyle guru Arianna Huffington says: "The wisdom of the Shabbat is very important. You do something very profound by asking people to disconnect from all the work and reconnect with something deeper... Our decision-making is impaired when we don’t give ourselves enough time to disconnect and recharge."
Tool #3 – Wake-up Calls
Beyond the weekly respite, how do we counteract our constant churning in the frenzy of life?
It is crucial to carefully examine one's ways, just as any successful entrepreneur, politician or athlete sets frequent, fixed times to examine their game. Without ongoing self-assessment, we're likely to remain in a state of default, drifting with the winds, our precious time and attention diverted elsewhere.
It is said that Baron Rothschild paid a servant to remind him every hour that he was one hour closer to death. Try setting your phone alarm to go off every hour, from morning till night. Whatever you're doing at that moment – driving, socializing, working, etc. – stop and ask: Am I on track?
Pay attention to where you place attention, and stop from getting on the wrong train before it takes over. Before checking Facebook, ask: How much is this experience worth? Catch yourself before clicking too far into the time-wasting zone of "Internet space-out."
Be aware of your own thoughts by activating your "observer function." Focus on what your mind is doing.
We're not expected to be perfect. The key is to keep moving in right direction – focused upward and climbing the ladder.
This is the opportunity of Passover. It is the time of springtime blossoms, where renewal is in the air. The time to defeat those forces that distract from our deepest-held values.
On Passover, take a deep breath, and taste true freedom.