Chapter 26

Clustering: Guilt Free and with a Calm Mind

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Note: The following biographical chapter explains why I don’t prioritize the most important component systems of my life. What you’re getting here is an “advanced Systems Mindset” protocol, but it will be useful no matter your current state of fire-killing.


The lament is incessant: Day in and day out we quietly chastise ourselves, each of us thinking, “I need to expend less time doing this, in order to expend more time doing that.” We regret not paying more attention to family, hobbies, recreating, exercising, charitable efforts, or doing some other work than the work we’re actually doing. It’s subtle but pervasive: the guilt-ridden conviction that we’re failing to do the things that matter most, often to the point where we’re feeling we’re not effective people living worthwhile lives.

But here’s a cognitive mind-tweak that will instantly erase that guilt, allowing you to steer yourself through a productive and satisfying day. I call it “clustering.” The cluster perspective is not about the subject matter. It’s about the mechanics of how the subject matter is processed and, of course, it’s a simple thing.

Here it is: There is no single most important element in a life, such as “my family” or “my health” or “making money,” yet we feel driven to rank these life processes in a 1-2-3 order of importance.

It’s just how we tend to think, so there’s no reason to feel bad about it.

Here’s what happens when we rank primary endeavors: Whenever we’re not immersed in what we deem number one on the list, we feel guilty, and when we are working on number one, we feel guilty about not attending to numbers two, three, and four. It’s a losing proposition, so the best way to remove internal remorse and the personal uptightness that accompanies it is to stop ranking what is most important.

Not too long ago I was caretaker to my elderly parents. That responsibility ended when they died: first my mother, and then, eight months later, my father. I was at each of their bedsides, holding their hands when they took their last breaths.

Before they passed, my caretaking efforts included considerable time, money, and focused attention. My mother was ninety-four, wheelchair bound and declining, living in a nearby assisted living facility. I did my best to see her often, and sometimes, near the end, I would visit her several times a day. Dad was also ninety-four at the time and lived across town in an independent living community. At the same time my mother was having a hard time, Dad had a series of small strokes. In his last months it affected him enormously, and I showed up every day to help. At the very end, when he was under Hospice care, I lived with him in the care facility 24/7 for three weeks.

I’m a lucky guy, because my parents survived to such ripe old ages, and every additional moment with them was a blessing. And in spending time with my parents as they were dying, it’s arguable that I should have classified those efforts as “the most important.” But besides the time spent helping my parents, I had other responsibilities that required my attention: other family members, my half-dozen small businesses, writing, my friends, and the routines that are necessary to stay healthy (exercise, enough sleep, etc.).

Should I have scored these other responsibilities, too, in some kind of descending order of importance?

Consciously and unconsciously, for my entire adult life up until recently, I prioritized my responsibilities and then tried hard to focus on whichever one was most important at the time. For fifteen years, as a single custodial parent, my top priority was my two children, and back then it seemed to me that my dogmatic focus was gallant, but in truth it was narrow-minded. The price I paid was constant guilt whenever I was not with my children. And when I was with them, priorities two and three were being shortchanged, and the chronic regret persisted. My composure was of ruffled uncertainty, and there was no winning the game. But that was then and this is now, and the more useful mindset I’ve adopted is this: In the moment, don’t rank life responsibilities; cluster them.

I group my important daily system activities and treat them equally. For illustration purposes, here are my three personal “primary cluster” categories. Yours may be similar, but maybe not. If you’re wondering why I have three and not two, or four, or seven, it’s because, to me, three feels right:

  • Contributing to my family, friends, employees, business partners, readers, nonprofit, and ad-hoc situations that come about
  • Making money and wisely distributing it
  • Strengthening and calming my body and mind

So what is the key stance? The components are equally important. This is a sensible real-world positioning because I’m dealing with the subjective. Over time, the categories are fluid, each ebbing and owing in immediate importance, while each is always feeding and complementing the other two. This means ranking them is pointless.

Most days, I spend almost all of my time in the three components (and of course, on some days one gets more attention than the other two). Today, for instance, is a Monday morning. It’s 2:00 a.m., and I’m at home working on this book, but in another half hour I’ll go back to bed and get a few more hours of sleep. When I get up again, I’ll handle some emails and do my daily thirty-minute personal organizing routine. After that, I’ll work more on this book and then drive down to the office to see what’s up and to hang out with my staff for an hour or so. In the early afternoon, it will be a visit to the gym and a good StairMaster workout. Late in the afternoon, I’ll hike the river trail for an hour or so with my granddaughter Lexi. I’ll be home and showered by 6:00 p.m. Then I might go out for dinner with a friend and afterward, catch a movie. Or maybe I’ll stay home and sit here on the couch in front of the fire and read until 10:00 p.m. or so. Then, I’ll go to bed and with no quiet, underlying guilt.

It’s going to be a perfect day, loosely but deliberately choreographed, and almost all of it expended within my clusters, nearly every minute well spent.

What about my spiritual and other deep-seated beliefs? Shouldn’t they be listed in the primary cluster? Are they not important enough? It’s not that at all. My personal beliefs are continuous threads that weave their way through my day, like breathing, and it’s the same for my certainties about how reality mechanically operates—my Systems Mindset. Some of the things of our lives don’t need categorizing; they’re just always there.

Since clustering happens in your head, it can be implemented instantly. And again, it’s not about the subject matter, it’s about how the subject matter is processed. Identify the most important system elements of your life on paper,* declare them equal in importance, and then spend most of your day focusing on the system elements of each. Don’t keep score. The cluster components will smoothly intertwine, and the results will be well balanced and satisfying.

It’s all good!

What is clustering’s exquisite bonus? A nonfrenetic mind. Here’s a favorite quote from James Allen’s book, As a Man Thinketh: “A man becomes calm in the measure that he understands himself as a thoughtevolved being . . . and as he develops a right understanding, and sees more and more clearly the internal relations of things by the action of cause and effect, he ceases to fuss and fume and worry and grieve, and remains poised, steadfast, serene.”

So, no more prioritizing! Instead, cluster. And through the day, as you add value to the various important segments of your life, there’s no guilt, just calm satisfaction.


*In these pages I’ve several times mentioned putting things down “on paper” and can suggest a protocol for that. I go into great detail about business documentation in Work the System, but briefly, here are three written documents you might consider putting together for your personal life.

The first is your Strategic Objective. It’s an enhanced personal mission statement, limited to a single page. It describes who you are and where you’re headed, including your goals and how you intend to reach those goals, as well as your strengths and weaknesses, etc. The second document lists your Operating Principles. These are guidelines for what I call “gray- area decision making.” This document lists your specific root beliefs about life and how you intend to apply them. It’s maybe two or three pages long and may include thirty or so separate points.

For business, I recommend a third document series called “Working Procedures.” Occasionally, they are useful in personal life.

For more information regarding these documents as they pertain to business, read chapters 10 and 11 in Work the System. For examples of the documents applied to a personal life, go to thesystemsmindset.com/documents.

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