As we go through our days dutifully checking off the various tasks on our calendars, we may look around and notice that a few things have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps we haven’t written any blog posts for months, or the supplies we bought for a project we planned last year are still sitting at the back of the closet. Whatever it is, we start wondering where all the time went. We’re likely to tell ourselves, in a familiar modern lament, that our lives have gotten too busy and need to be brought back into balance.

Sometimes we really do get overscheduled to such an extent that we can barely function. But more often, I believe, the actual issue isn’t one of time management at all; it has more to do with all those nagging anxieties at the back of our minds, which accumulate until we can’t turn our mental focus to anything else.

We can make checklists for every imaginable daily task ’til the cows come home—but although that may help to manage the distraction and lack of focus often described as executive-functioning issues, I suspect there’s much more to the underlying problem than simply needing to organize our schedules more efficiently. We live in a hugely complex pressure-cooker society that has caused many of us to become, in the literal sense of the word, unbalanced. That is to say, we don’t feel confident in our ability to balance all the demands our society expects us to satisfy. And so our thoughts start to run in anxious frightened circles that distract us from getting our tasks done, causing us to worry even more—and the vicious cycle spirals downward.

In a bygone era, the natural rhythms of the days and seasons kept our ancestors’ lives in balance. Physically, they worked much harder than most of us can imagine. Their days were filled with strenuous, time-consuming chores as they struggled to bring in enough food to survive the winter. Their fears were much more immediate and concrete than ours: starvation, plague, tribal warfare, being attacked by wolves and bears. But although they experienced miseries that most of us thankfully will never have to face, their tasks were simple and predictable enough so that they didn’t have our modern-day anxieties. Their subconscious minds weren’t filled with worries about what they ought to be doing differently, how well they could measure up to society’s demands, et cetera. Whether they ate or got eaten on any particular day was up to Fate; they made whatever sacrifices they believed would keep the gods happy, and left it at that.

How can we cultivate our ancestors’ untroubled mindset in a world that has become vastly more complicated? I would say it begins with centering ourselves in the moment, so that our thoughts don’t habitually wander along negative paths. Meditation, exercise, and mindfulness can be helpful approaches to banishing persistent worries. They don’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s more a matter of arranging our daily routines in ways that provide for moments of peaceful reflection.

This morning, before I sat down to write this post, I got myself a cup of raspberry-flavored coffee and a whole wheat English muffin with raspberry jam. I thought about what good fortune it was to have these small comforts, how pleasant the coffee smelled, and how pretty the raspberry jam looked—bright sparkling red in the morning sunlight, with little seeds all throughout. One can’t simultaneously contemplate a raspberry seed and worry obsessively about some upcoming task or other. That simple fact seemed to be enough, at least for the moment, to bring my entire world into balance.

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