Clustering Tasks to Stay Productive (and Sane)
How To Make The Most of Your Least Productive Time

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?


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.

How To Make The Most of Your Least Productive Time

Everybody talks about mastering the art of staying productive. Not many people willingly accept that such efforts are futile. It’s impossible to stay productive 100% of the time, and this will never change.

Something that I believe to be just as important, if not more so, is what we make of our least productive time.

We all have the capacity to be extremely productive for some part of the day. Even the world’s grandest underachievers. But I believe that to be successful running your own business, to steal a cricket metaphor, your tail has to wag. You have to find a way to maximise what you achieve when you’re not playing very well. This is easier said than done.

Build Momentum with Small Actions

There are days where I find myself staring banally at the screen, not a single pixel tweaking my imagination out of the gutter.

These slumps usually arrive in the mid-afternoon, and if I’m not careful, they’ll ruin the rest of the day. When I find myself drifting badly, I like to set a menial task; something requiring little brainpower that I can tick off within minutes to elicit the tiniest flame of achievement. It could be replying to an email, or cleaning my desktop, or formatting the chapter headings in my latest round of Premium Posts.

The objective of these menial tasks is not to make giant strides on my biggest projects, but simply to regain momentum. A tiny achievement leads to a slightly bigger one. I often find that no matter how much I’m dreading a task, by diving in headfirst and staying focused on it for 5 minutes I can build enough momentum to see it through to the conclusion.

I hate leaving what I’ve started. And that’s a blessing for which I’m eternally grateful.

Forget the scale of the tasks on your to-do list. Break them down by negotiating the first 5 minutes. It’s amazing what a difference small steps can make.

Battle Lack of Direction by Committing Early

Every large project has the potential to drag on while you battle ‘downtime’ and the precarious middle stages. I rarely have trouble committing my ideas to a plan of action, and I’m wise enough to know that immediate action is required to kickstart those plans. I also find it easy to put the finishing touches on my shiny new works.

Where I suffer, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is in the middle stages. Internet Marketers often have a gajillion projects on the mind, including those that they haven’t even started. The most vulnerable phase of any project is the vast chasm between laying the foundations and casting the finishing touches.

How many WordPress installations do you have with page structures in place, finished designs, a sprinkling of content but no sign of activity since 2009?

Some people complete their websites, launch proudly and then erase them from memory. Why? Because they don’t realise that finishing a website is just the beginning. The hard middle part is marketing it, gaining traction and connecting your brand to people who give a shit. Or maybe they do recognise this and have simply given up. It is, after all, the most challenging aspect of any web project.

Maintaining direction while a project drags on is tough.

Being an Internet Marketer who frequently works on websites that are somewhat disconnected from his own passions, I like to take on business partners – passionate individuals who love the concept more than myself. This acts as a driving force. The partner has the determination to maintain the original vision, thus preventing me from abandoning ship.

Even with a partner onboard, every large project must be broken in to smaller goals and milestones. Momentum is the catalyst for nearly everything I do. I like to launch concepts as soon as possible.

When I’m launching my own products, I will get the sales letter written and the website marketed before I even finish the product. Users roam the site, click to buy, but instead of being allowed to pay, they’re told the product is temporarily sold out. In my stats, I see a potential sale. This triggers a surge of motivation as I rush to complete what I started. It’s also an excellent method for measuring demand without committing to the whole shabang.

Note: This applies to SEO, especially. Long gone are the days where I attempt to rank for keywords without running an initial PPC campaign to gauge whether the traffic converts.

Beat Writer’s Block by Mastering Second Gear

Writers live and die by the amount of time they manage to spend in The Zone.

The Zone is a productive state where flow, style and inspiration come together in harmony to produce fireworks on the page. When a writer is locked in to his Zone, it all seems so easy; both to himself, and to his readers. The problem, of course, is getting there.

When you create your to do list the night before, it’s simply not realistic to set tasks under the assumption that you’ll be in The Zone all day. What every writer has to have in his artillery is a second gear. He has to be able to make the most of his least productive time.

For me, in blogging terms, that means throwing ideas, quips and phrases in a draft. It doesn’t matter if the wording is horrible, or if the ideas are disjointed. Perfectionists will spend hours dilly-dallying over the slightest details only to find that by the end of the day, they’ve barely scribbled 500 words.

It’s important to understand that ideas do not exist in any other place but your head. Until you’ve taken the action to commit them to paper, or a WordPress draft, they will lapse in and out of memory, eventually ceasing to exist. For a writer who can only produce while he’s in The Zone, failing to take action on those brief moments of inspiration is a death toll to his output.

Every great writer needs a second gear. He must be able to write without worrying that his drafts are a damning indication of the completed work.

Use second gear to record ideas, get phrases on paper, collect together any irony that could be tied in to your posts as humour. You can’t write great material in second gear, but you can certainly invest the time wisely. When you snap in to The Zone, you’ll demolish the material you prepared earlier, like a jacked up Blue Peter presenter on steroids.

Being Bored is Not An Option

One of the reasons I upgraded from my stack of books to a Kindle was so that I could carry an immense wealth of reading in my coat pocket. I live in London, where trains and buses can suck hours out of the day. If I were to commute in to the city centre, it would take 50 minutes each way. That’s 100 minutes of sitting on a train, avoiding the gaze of strangers, and generally being an unsociable southern urchin.

Instead of wasting that time reading the tube map, or worse – the Evening Standard – I take out the trusty Kindle and plunge in to my 100 pages a day. It’s a simple matter of using every minute in the day to your advantage.

The people who complain about having no time in the day are the very same people who sit in silence, staring morosely at their reflections in the train window. Well no shit, Sherlock. They probably come home to watch X-Factor, too.

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