Clustering Tasks to Stay Productive (and Sane)

Does your to-do list look like this?

Finch's to-do list

Hopefully not.

I’d be worried if your day involved my balls.

One of the easiest ways to tell apart an affiliate marketer from another online professional is by inspecting his clusterfuck of a to-do list. On it you will find tasks that defy pattern, logic and – too often – sensibility.

I have explored many different theories of task management. From restricting my day to a maximum of 3 valuable tasks, to assigning letters and numbers to each, to completing the most important task first, to working in pomodoro sequence, to cramming more tasks in to a polyphasic sleep schedule (and completely shagging myself in the process).

One of the takeaway lessons from these experiments, besides appreciating my need to sleep like a real human being, is that clustering similar tasks is nearly always more effective than jumping between projects like a Kardashian on crack.

Multi-tasking does not exist.

Science has a gone a long way to proving that ‘effective’ multi-tasking is one of the great myths in our generation of workaholism. The brain cannot focus on two tasks at once. It can only stop, start, and switch. Any illusion of multi-tasking is actually the ability to do this fast and effectively.

Affiliates, being suckers for to-do lists with juddering changes in direction, have it harder than most. We have to balance many different skills with the regular burden of being ‘the guy who works from home and can therefore a) pick up the kids, b) wait for a delivery, c) take an hour out of the way to run errands’.

Go ahead. Look at what you’ve worked on today and count the number of times you’ve slammed the ‘reset’ button.

  • Every time you switch from analysing campaigns to creating campaigns, that’s a reset.
  • Every time you switch from designing campaigns to blogging, that’s a reset.
  • Every time you switch from blogging to trolling oDesk, that’s a reset.
  • Every time you pick up a phone or refresh your inbox, that’s a reset.

Generally I find that the more resets I ask of myself – the more shifts in focus – the less productive I become and the greater my tendency to procrastinate. Too many resets and a kitten will eventually perish.

There’s a very simple solution.

Cluster your tasks and reduce the number of resets in your day.

Instead of working on multiple demanding projects, choose just one. Get in ‘the zone’ and cling to it like a fly to a turd.

If you are anything like me, you will have 6 or 7 projects occupying your whiteboard at any given moment. In this case, a project per day is wishful thinking – a great way to ensure you spend a lot of time grafting with none of the thrill of actually finishing something. If you are balancing multiple projects, I suggest dividing your days in to an AM and PM. Then clustering your tasks accordingly.

I might have a day that looks like this:

AM: Blogging for FinchSells.com
- Reply to comments
- Draft post
- Follow up blog related emails
- Brainstorm Premium Posts concept

PM: Scale TJ/Exo Campaigns
- Assess campaign performance
- Update creatives and reset bids
- Scour for similar targets
- Creative research
- Launch in new region

In the past, I would smatter my tasks on a colossal to-do list, which left me hopping between unrelated items, or worse, sandwiching my important tasks with stupid shit that would completely obliterate my focus.

By focusing on just one project for the AM and one for the PM, you can leverage your lunch break as a natural reset. I have been known to go slightly AWOL on my lunch break, venturing in to town and succumbing to caffeine-aided introspection for hours on end. That’s okay. The AM and PM is purely symbolic; a shift in focus marked by the annihilation of a Halloumi wrap and a brief respite.

Of course, the acid test of any task management philosophy is how you deal with chores and the arrival of the unexpected. For the latter, I have matured enough to pick my battles. That means slowly falling deaf and blind to the most common distractions of affiliate-kind, which from my experience is one question that never ceases to relent, “Could I be working on something that makes me more money than what I’m already working on?” The temptation is always to say yes, whereas common sense says if you don’t finish your shit, you’ll never know and you’ll have wasted your time.

If an awesome CPA offer lands in my inbox, it’s probably not so awesome if it’s gone by tomorrow. If my accountant has an urgent question (“Hi Finch, where are you siphoning your money?”), he’ll be phoning me instead of adding to my Inbox Unzero.

Acceptance that your entire life isnt going to crumble and burn if you fail to adopt a 24/7 vigil over the call of your name is pretty fucking essential to anybody who wants to stay sane (or get something done) in this industry. As for chores, well, there’s only so many times you can wear the same shirt before ‘not smelling like a mountain troll’ becomes more important than your task management.

I have started to assign one day of the week to chores.

Just chores, nothing else.

Now that I live on my own, there’s a lot more flexibility in how I handle them. If i want to quit festering in my filth and bust out a vacuum, then that’s my initiative. The could rather than should makes a huge difference.

Simple acts of putting the laundry in, taking out the trash, or returning a phone call might only take minutes, but in momentum and concentration, they are like a sucker punch to the loins. Save it for your lunch break, or the end of the day, or just do what I am *almost* too ashamed to admit… and hire a maid.

Remember, every time you switch attention from your goal, that’s a reset.

“We overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in a year.”
- Bill Gates

It’s one of my favourite quotes, and it’s true.

How do you know when you’re overestimating what you can accomplish in a day?

Simple.

Wait for Friday evening and see if you feel like a sack of shit.

If it happens every week, then there’s probably something wrong with a) your expectations, or b) your task setting.

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About the author

Finch
Finch

Hi, I’m Finch. A 26 year old high school dropout (slash academic failure) who makes a lot of money from the Internet.

  • Doug B

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you.

    I very often believe if I’m doing things, I’m being productive…but it’s just yet another case of task-hopping, with nothing much to show for it at the end of the day.

    Damn you tabbed browsing, and multi core CPUs…

  • Marcus

    This stuff on productivity and life balance is very helpful.

    I read “The Happiness Advantage” on your recommendation and loved it. I’ve been telling all the entrepreneurs I know about that book. My favorite chapter was on productivity, “The 20-Second Rule.” Removing little barriers to make productive tasks easier and adding little barriers to make distractions harder has been a game-changer for me.

    I’ve also taken to writing out checklists to make all my main tasks systematic. For example, I make videos, which are full of little steps. So instead of worrying about missing important steps, I can go through a checklist. If I think of a cool idea, I can add it to the checklist and make my output better and better over time.

  • http://www.thechestcoachreview.com Mike

    I think we all fall into that trap of overestimating what we can accomplish in one day. I play fault to it all the time. I wake up fresh with this outstanding surge of motivation and start planning out my day (or ill do this the night before). As the day goes on I start thinking…”damn….this is actually going to take longer than I thought…TV break!” Lo and behold half the day is gone.

    You are very right, us affiliate marketers need to plan even more than the average Joe. No one watches our schedule or is the boss of us. We are the CEO of our own lives.

  • http://www.leadsmack.com Jon @ LeadSmack

    HAHA! Great post mate. I’d prefer to hire the maid but I am not one to be crazy lazy.

  • http://affiliatesuccess.com TJ

    Telling it like it is – love it!

    Love the way you broke down the basic (multi-tasking) process in terms of ‘resetting’ your mind! It plays well in explaining your point which was interesting and true!

    Clustering/multi-tasking is what it is we do and insofar as how it contributes to our efficiency, well that’s a whole nuther discussion altogether!

    Great write-up!

    Thanks,

    TJ

  • http://growthhero.net David Fallarme @ Growth Hero

    I’m a huge fan of clustering / batching tasks. Great post. I especially like your idea of “dedicate one day a week to admin chores”. Definitely going to try that. Thanks for the idea Finch :)

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