Automate Your Busywork
Chapter 1: Automation FundamentalsBuy the book
If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place—Lao Tzu
First, I want to share an assumption I’ve made while writing this book. I believe that some of you are so awash in busywork that you don’t currently have time for thinking and plotting— you’re just desperately seeking quick solutions. You’ll find such solutions identified as Quick Fixes, and the first one is just ahead.
And yet, I also know from experience that deeply productive automation can’t be simply unboxed and plugged in. To truly conquer your busywork, you’ll need to put in time and effort to determine precisely what needs to be automated. But I promise you, the benefits will come back to you in spades—in part because you’ll likely identify tasks that could be greatly reduced or even cut out completely. So I ask you to trust me. Take advantage of the quick fixes to save some time now, and then please also commit to designing and implementing the automations that will ultimately revolutionize your work life.
First, picture for a moment your most dreaded busywork—the stuff that just thinking about makes you want to leap into the ocean, never to be seen again. Pretending to tame your neverending to-do list? Invoicing? Heading into yet another meeting? Invoicing?
No matter what your busywork is, there’s a good chance it can be partially or even fully automated—if not now, then likely soon. As for right now: even if it’s not yet possible to automate an entire task, it’s almost certainly possible to automate parts of it. This is where mapping out your process comes in. By breaking each task into its smallest, most basic parts, it becomes more apparent which steps you can streamline or automate and which you can reduce or abandon. And once you’ve identified individual elements of a task, you might find that solutions for that element are already available. (We’ll cover this process in detail in the DESIGN portion of Chapter 3).
Exercise: What Do You Want to Fix the Most?
In the appendix (starting on page 179) you’ll find an extensive categorized list of digital solutions to various kinds of busywork. Peruse those that interest you. As you go through them, flag those you can imagine benefiting from at some point with the number 2. Flag with the number 1 any that you’d like to check out sooner. (We’ll return to this in a later exercise.)
Next, grab a pen and paper. Or ask Siri, Alexa, or a digital assistant to take notes for you—this is a book about automation, after all. Take 15 minutes to describe or sketch out your vision of work that matters to you and your career. What do you enjoy doing the most? What would you like to save your brain to do more of? What delivers the most impact? Include as many details as possible. Don’t worry about a perfect breakdown at this stage; just get down as much as you can.
As you continue through this book, keep this “meaningful work” vision nearby, and perfect it as you go. It will be a valuable compass on your journey through automation.
Now that you’ve identified part of what you’re seeking, the first step of exploring the fundamentals of automation calls for shattering key myths about work and productivity. You’ve likely been given all sorts of advice about how to work and what “good” work can and should be—but all too often the guidance of even career experts and well-meaning teachers and parents is actually counterproductive. So it’s essential to face these narratives head-on before you can create new ones for yourself.
As you’ll come to see, slashing your busywork is as much a mental exercise as a technical one because, ultimately, there’s no point in automating rote, repetitive tasks if you haven’t addressed why you’re doing them—or even if you need to do them at all.
Myth #1: WE SHOULD ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE TO OUR COLLEAGUES, AND WE SHOULD RESPOND TO MESSAGES AS SOON AS THEY ARRIVE. (For some, this imperative refers to “during work hours”; for others this is expected 24/7.) Of course, speed and round-the-clock availability are critical for certain careers, such as, say, on-call surgeons—but for the rest of us? Not essential.
Solution to round-the-clock availability: BLOCK OUT PERIODS WHEN YOU FOCUS ON DEEP-THINKING WORK. Enlist your colleagues in determining both (1) that this approach is acceptable and (2) when such blocked-out periods should and should not be scheduled. In other contexts it can be helpful to announce that you check your messages once per hour, or three times per day, or whatever suits you.
Exercise: Start Setting Boundaries
I didn’t go from 0 to 100 overnight. Before I could even begin to eliminate my busywork, I had to set boundaries— which was hard. I turned off notifications when I left work and kept them off at home. I had to learn how to consciously switch my mind away from work. But over time it got easier. I didn’t cringe every time I said “no” or “tomorrow, not today.” These might not sound like big steps, but when you’re in reaction mode, doing anything with intention can feel revolutionary. I also realized that boundaries prioritize your attention. Instead of responding to an email the moment it hit my inbox, I chose to continue the critical work I was currently engaged in
Myth #2: PROCRASTINATION MUST CONSTANTLY BE KEPT AT BAY. The reasons we avoid a task, in any given moment, are extremely personal—and can be highly confounding. Countless experts have promoted how we can outwit our own avoidance tendencies, and over the years I’ve tried various techniques to battle my own procrastination. Eventually, I learned there was always a reason why I put off certain activities—which in turn revealed an underlying problem I needed to address.
Solution to procrastination: AUTOMATION IS THE ULTIMATE PROCRASTINATION HACK. The more systems we establish, the less we can procrastinate. Automated expense submissions, for example, don’t wait until they’re in the mood to sort and classify receipts.
I’m always reminded of the power of systems when I visit my family in rural Turkey. They own a small olive farm that runs like a well-oiled machine. When we harvest the fruit, everyone knows what needs to happen and in what order. With no room for guesswork, we silently slip into our roles and get the job done.
Success doesn’t require extraordinary motivation. If you think something is boring or unpleasant, you need to take your feelings out of the equation and decide in advance exactly how and when it will get done. In other words, you need to automate it.
Myth #3: MAKING A LIST AND CROSSING OUT COMPLETED TASKS IS THE BEST ANTIDOTE TO FEELING OVERWHELMED. It will feel great to check off each item,they say.When you reach the end, you’ll be free,they say. But the truth is there is no end.
Solution to feeling overwhelmed: Automation. Many of the items on your regular to-do lists can be automated off your list.
You’ve probably heard the story of Sisyphus, a mortal who angered the Greek god Zeus and who, as punishment, was condemned to a life of battling an endless to-do list. Every time it looked like poor Sisyphus might finally reach the end of the list, it would regenerate as if by magic—and he’d have no choice but to start again. It was a terribly cruel punishment, more arduous than, say, just pushing a boulder up a mountain. Every day.
Staring down the barrel of our own constantly regenerating to-do lists, it’s easy to wonder: What god did I anger? When will this end? The bad news: it doesn’t end. The good news: you’re not Sisyphus, and you’re not chained to your to-do list for all eternity.
One of the biggest problems with to-do lists is that every item seems to carry the same amount of weight regardless of the time or focus needed to complete it. Putting TAKE OUT THE TRASH on the same list as APPLY TO GRAD SCHOOL is a bit like comparing an orange to a nuclear power plant. Whether a modest chore or a life-changingly significant undertaking, in the end both earn the same checkmark. This unevenness often makes us prefer blasting through the easy items on our list rather than struggling through something difficult, even when that difficult task is meaningful. And because these throwaway tasks are never-ending, it’s very easy to avoid meaningful work indefinitely.
Some Truths About Productivity
Bearing in mind these various truths about productivity, I use what I call the “hunter strategy.” Before humans developed agriculture, searching for food was our top priority, and we pursued that goal or went hungry. This singular prioritizing strategy is still worth embracing today. For that, check out the Most Important Task exercise to follow.
Exercise: Prioritize Each Day’s Most Important Task
Instead of living for the tiny dopamine hit that comes with making an inconsequential checkmark, write down your big priority for the day on a sticky note. Post it where you’ll see it all day. Whenever you feel the nagging urge to check your email, scan the latest news headlines, or organize your pens—stop. Look at the sticky note. Refocus. Complete your day’s hunt before turning to the lesser items.
Give this strategy a try for a few weeks with the goal of finishing your MOST IMPORTANT TASK each day. After a month or so, take some time to reflect. How is it working for you? Are there ways you could tweak your approach to make it more effective?
As for those lesser tasks, give your to-do list a good look. Do they all need to be done manually? Could some be automated? Many of our biggest time sucks—scheduling meetings, paying bills, posting to social media—don’t actually require our regular attention. Calendar apps can cut out the tedious back-and-forth that happens when trying to align schedules. Bills can be set to auto-pay. Social media posts can be scheduled in advance. In the chapters that follow we’ll address many ways to reduce our busywork. Once you start looking for ways to automate, you’ll be surprised how many of those filler items cluttering your list will vanish.
Exercise: Revisit Your Fix-It List
You might consider doing this exercise in tandem with the previous one. Every time a lesser item on your to-do list interrupts your pursuit of the day’s most important task, turn to the appendix (starting on page 179) where you identified which digital solutions might be most helpful to you—and add a tally mark ( | ) next to the solution that would ease that task. If on a later date you realize again that that solution would help you, add a second tally mark ( | | ). After a few weeks of doing this, you’ll have clarified precisely which tasks cry out to be automated—and which to pursue first.
I developed the automation flywheel after I realized that automation is never fully “done”—it’s ever-evolving. I know that might sound discouraging, but stick with me here. Say you’re a marketer who spends hours every week tracking what the competition is doing on social media. You can automate part of this process by implementing an automated sequence that monitors their social media accounts and notifies you the moment they post specific product names or keywords. Even though the process might work flawlessly as you originally designed it, you’ll eventually want to switch up the keywords or follow different competitors. Maybe you’ll also need to add or eliminate certain platforms. Plus, the technology that powers your automation will also inevitably change and may require you to refine the sequence. This is just the reality of work today.
In keeping up with that reality, the automation flywheel is a process of continuous improvement. The flywheel starts turning when you realize you’ve fallen into a pit of busywork and you’re ready to climb out, and it proceeds in three stages: divide and conquer, design and implement, and refine and iterate. (See Figure 1.1.)
DIVIDE: The process begins with exploring the source of your busywork: what it looks like, why it’s happening, and who’s involved (or who isn’t involved but should be), plus key signs and symptoms. The better you understand how your time is being siphoned, the more precisely you can plan to recover it. Note, while you may be tempted to skip or gloss over this step, I urge you to harness your curiosity and dig in. With a little effort you’ll start to see patterns that apply to many of your most frustrating and timedraining activities.
CONQUER: Workflows and processes transform single instruments into a harmonious and synchronized orchestra. They underpin all the automations you’ll implement while freeing up the bandwidth you need to pursue your meaningful work.
DESIGN: Like sketching a product prototype, this is where you’ll literally draw or map out each step of your automation. Visualizing every stage ensures you don’t miss anything. It also reveals how the steps connect, while highlighting action points that may require decisions, new data, input from customers or colleagues, and other key factors. I’ll also share my design techniques as well as how the team at Jotform plans their automation.
IMPLEMENT: Here’s where you’ll build the actual automation and connect your data. I’ll suggest some popular tools for common automation tasks, but—thanks to the blistering pace of technological change—you’ll need to do your own research. That’s the only way to determine what software or systems suit your particular needs and what’s best for the job. The good news? Review sites are making it easier to sift through the options and find exactly what you want. I’ll also share some tips and best practices for evaluating software without creating more busywork for yourself.
REFINE: If you’re a runner, you know that having a better running technique can help you log miles with less pain and more endorphins. Similarly, better automations can help you work faster and more effectively. But before you can refine your automations, you’ll need to set and track key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the results. Otherwise, it’s easy to slip into a “set-it-and-forget-it” mindset for processes that don’t actually serve you.
ITERATE: Test and change. Tinker and update. This is the continuous improvement process that keeps your automations on track. Some changes might involve a software upgrade, while others might build on feedback from customers and stakeholders. Remember: you’ve already done the essential groundwork of exploring, planning, and designing, so these are usually minor alterations. Iterations are the nips and tucks that enhance your systems; they’re also the scientific method applied to automation. For example, researchers usually test one variable at a time so they can see how it affects the whole system; the same logic applies to your automated workflows.
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We’re a society awash in busywork. But though we may be drowning in a sea of technology, that same technology can also be our life preserver. And though it will take time and energy to get your flywheel going, it builds speed and momentum with every turn. It’s the machine that will deliver the results you’re seeking. And unlike busywork, the effort you put into this process will pay increasingly more dividends as the weeks elapse. Embrace the automation flywheel; it’s the secret to reclaiming your time and focus.
1 Apollo Technical. (2021). 15 employee productivity statistics you want to know [online]. Available from: https://www.apollotechnical.com/employee-productivity-statistics/, citing in part Invitation Digital. (2019). How many productive hours in a work day? Just 2 hours, 23 minutes…[online]. Voucher Cloud. Available from: https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity.
2 Zhu, M., Yang, Y., and Hsee, C.K. The Mere Urgency Effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(3), pp. 673–690. doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy008; Bellezza, S., Paharia, N., and Keinan, A. Conspicuous consumption of time: When busyness and lack of leisure time become a status symbol. Journal of Consumer Research, 44(1), pp. 118–138. doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw076.
3 Sawhney, V. (2020). Why your brain dwells on unfinished tasks. Harvard Business Review. Available from: https://hbr.org/2020/10/why-your-brain-dwells-on-unfinished-tasks.
4 Hotchkiss, J. (2013). How bad is our perception of time? Very! Huffington Post[online]. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-bad-is-our-perception_b_3955696.
5 Galef, J. (2013). A day late and a dollar short: The planning fallacy explained. Big Think [online]. https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/why-you-cant-plan/.
6 Buehler, R., Griffin, D., and Ross, M. Exploring the ‘planning fallacy’: Why people underestimate their task completion times.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [online], 67(3), pp. 366–381. Available from: https://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/biases/67_J_Personality_and_Social_Psychology_366,_1994.pdf.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Automate Your Busywork by Aytekin Tank.
Copyright (c) 2023 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.
Automate Your BusyworkBuy the book