WE’RE ALL DROWNING in busywork. We all have too much to do. Despite all our technology—or maybe because of it—so many of us spend our days fighting busywork that distracts us from our higher purpose.
What would you do if you could eliminate the dull and repetitive tasks you hate? If you could have back all the hours you spend treading water, trying to stay one step ahead of your ever-expanding to-do list?
We all have just 24 hours in a day. What separates the truly successful from the floundering is how we use those hours. This is where automation comes in. Turning repetitive tasks into automated digital processes frees your brain for the essential, creative work. And you don’t need to hire a team or spend money on expensive new products. Automation is accessible to anyone who wants to take advantage of it. With a little effort, anyone can automate.
Automation has been the foundation of my career. My goal with this book is to share what I’ve learned in the nearly two decades since I started my entrepreneurial journey. Automation has helped me maximize my potential—and stay sane while doing it. I’m going to help you maximize yours, too.
Ever since I was a kid growing up in Turkey, I’ve always loved looking at things as systems: they receive input and have clear cause and effect. If something doesn’t work, it’s a matter of tweaking it until it does. Where humans are messy and complicated and error-prone, a system provides consistency and predictability.
This love of systems led me to earn my degree in computer science. After graduation in 2000, I was hired as a programmer for a media company in New York. For the company websites I was constantly asked to code web forms—such as payment or contact forms—a task I found repetitive and dull. Tired of building the same forms day after day, I was inspired to figure out on my own how to automate the process. So after leaving that job, and after several years of working on my product, Jotform was born. No one would call web forms sexy, but in 2006 you had to be a software developer just to create a basic form. Jotform changed all that.
Two years later, by most measures, we were reasonably successful. We had thousands of users and loyal customers who paid to use our online form builder. We had just released an exciting new feature. I was in the process of hiring a fourth employee. But each day felt manic and left me empty by nightfall. I had become a painter who just mixed primer and washed brushes, without ever adding color to the canvas.
Then I got this email from a friend and colleague:
Hey—I read in a blog post that you can make forms in Google Sheets now. Looks like the big guys have stepped into your ring . . . Let’s catch up soon.
I was stunned. Google was about to become our biggest competitor. I’d been so busy I’d missed this news entirely. This was bad—really bad. I thought of how some of our competitors had raised venture capital that would help them weather this storm—whereas we’d be aiming our self-funded slingshots at a looming Silicon Valley Goliath.
Some on my team had young families. Could I afford to pay two months of severance? Or anything at all? Would my wife and I have to move back in with my parents? Should I pivot the company or try to sell?
On the other hand, Google’s interest in forms was proof we were doing something right. They wouldn’t be sniffing around this market if they didn’t smell potential.
I grabbed a pen and a blank pad of paper and started writing: ADVANTAGES over Google (and other competitors) on one side of the paper, our CHALLENGES on the other. I wrestled with the details for weeks. No matter how I crunched the numbers, the only way to keep the lights on and pay salaries in full called for spending way less time on busywork and much more time on creative work and strategic thought.
I thought about how Jotform was already helping professionals and businesses automate their work. Each form saves users time and manual effort. The lightbulb was illuminating. What if I applied the same automation-first mindset to my own work at Jotform? It was time to walk our own talk.
We started small at first, by turning the most commonly used forms into templates, so users could start with automated forms. Then we built up to more complicated team processes. Over time the technology evolved too: more and more things could be automated, and more free or low-cost tools popped up to help.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t surrender when Google joined the game. Instead, we doubled down on our mission to make people and organizations more productive. Jotform grew to become a product that helps nearly 20 million people eliminate their busywork through easy automation. So, yeah, I hired that fourth employee—and then another 495 more, and they work from seven offices around the world.
Along the way, I’ve also built a team that lives and breathes automation. We constantly research the latest ways to automate everything, from system backups to blog posts to spreadsheets, and we study how other people and organizations apply automation to conquer their repetitive tasks.
My early automation ideas developed into what I call the automation flywheel, which is the heart of this book. Think of it as a system that takes a little energy to start turning, then continues to build momentum and speed. Every time the flywheel spins, you get more efficient and achieve better results.
This book will teach you how to build a machine that delivers success. With patience, you’ll be able to automate entire systems that run in the background while you do the real work that only you can do. Because automation isn’t about working less—it’s about spending your time on the work you care about.
How Automation Can Help You
Consider a journalist. A journalist’s job has many elements: finding a story, researching, interviewing, and, ultimately, crafting a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of tedious work that goes on behind the scenes—combing through reams of documents or wading through hours of audio trying to find the perfect quote.
Automation can transform the most rote parts of a journalist’s job. Say a reporter is working on a time-sensitive story and needs to know about any developments her competitors might uncover. She could set up and automate alerts so that, rather than having to actively hunt for stories, they come straight to her. And those interviews? Rather than painstakingly transcribing them by hand, for just a few dollars she can get an AI transcription service to transcribe the entire interview, spitting out in minutes a near-perfect written record of her conversation that can be searched, highlighted, and annotated as needed.
Or let’s say you’re a marketing manager for a small consumer brand. Instead of manually distributing and analyzing customer satisfaction forms, you can create online surveys that automatically tally the results and prepare digital reports. And you don’t have to add the same promotional content to different social media channels, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. With automation tools like Make and Zapier, you can connect the applications, share your content on one platform, and it will automatically populate to the others you’ve connected.
Automation is the key to unlocking more freedom, creativity, strategic thinking, and peace of mind. It can also prevent the burnout that’s become so rampant in our overstimulated lives. It’s an investment that pays dividends over time. Part of that investment calls for understanding the principles underlying my automation program—and acknowledging what it is and what it isn’t.
A Few Truths About Busywork and Automation
My ideas about work and automation have evolved over the years, but a few principles continue to hold true:
Your productivity is not the problem. Many of us have absorbed the message of productivity culture that says success requires a superhuman work ethic. When exhaustion and overwork are normalized, it’s easy to drive yourself into the ground and think it’s your fault you haven’t yet created the optimal morning routine or applied enough time hacks to tame your to-do list. But your productivity is not the problem; the problem is thinking you need to personally do every iota of work that lands on your plate.
Work isn’t going anywhere. Automation won’t magically whittle your workload down to four hours that you can knock off from a beach in Bali. Work will always be there. Your boss will always be there (even if you’re the boss). Deadlines, release dates, big projects, and daily routines will always be there. But automation can dramatically reduce your busywork, so you can do the work that actually matters—and ultimately build a more meaningful career. Automation frees you to go deep into work that harnesses your unique talents and interests.
If you have a manual or repetitive task, you can automate it. Humans are wired to choose the familiar over the unknown because we can’t imagine what we can’t imagine. Even if you think something is too complicated to automate, I will challenge you to reconsider. Commit and keep trying.
Modern work requires a machine for success. Embracing automation means changing your vision of work from linear to circular. For example, we typically conceptualize the workday as a series of steps: Do A, then B, then C. Instead, think about your work as a machine you can design and optimize for success. Your job is to create, and continually improve, a system that functions on autopilot while you take care of the big picture.
Automation can’t happen overnight. Automating takes upfront time and effort, but it’s a worthy investment. I can’t overstate this enough. Be patient with yourself and the process; the time you spend will come back to you tenfold.
It all comes down to this: determine the result you want, design the machine that will deliver that result, and then configure the automations you need to build it. This is the automation flywheel in a nutshell.
The Elephant in the Room: Those Left Behind by Technology
I would be remiss not to acknowledge what can happen when automation replaces human labor. A 2020 survey of nearly 300 global companies found that 43% of businesses expect to
reduce their workforces with new technological applications.1 And a late 2022 article in Econometrica concluded that “a significant portion of the rise in US wage inequality over the last four decades has been driven by automation.”2
A 2021 New York Times story titled, “The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting,” also noted that workers with college degrees and niche training have typically felt safe from automation. But as AI and machine learning algorithms begin to outperform lawyers, bankers, and accountants in routine tasks, millions of people may be seeking new employment.3
And then there’s the challenge of training algorithms without incorporating human biases, racism, misogyny, and other problematic attitudes—not to mention concerns about data security privacy, malicious use, and equal access to technology. It’s a lot to unpack.
These are real issues that will need smart, humancentric solutions—especially for lower-paid workers and marginalized people who are often left behind as technology advances. I don’t have the space, or the expertise, to cover these challenges here. Again, I acknowledge that these are real and meaningful concerns.
In an interview with the Verge, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose admits that automation will displace workers, but notes that, though robots will be moving into the workplace, we’ll still need people to do the work that only humans can do. Ultimately, we’ll all need to become “more human,” not less.4
I often say that automation and no-code tools are democratizing innovation. That may be what excites me most about this movement: the widespread access to powerful automation tools, many of which are free or low-cost. Calendar apps, email filters, and social media platforms all seamlessly pick up what once had to be done manually, and they do it far more effectively. Just as broadband internet eliminated many geographical barriers, no-code products have demolished obstacles to creative and entrepreneurial pursuits. For example, with no-code platforms, illustrators can start marketing and selling their work on Shopify. They don’t have to draw up a business plan, hire a website designer, or even employ a team. Instead, they can use their time and resources to create more work and refine their skills.
How Automation Can Help You Thrive
No matter what your responsibilities are, automation can— and will—make your life easier. Here are just some of the benefits you can expect to achieve when you commit to automation.
Overcome human limitations. We’re human beings; we need to restore and replenish if we want to perform effectively. Automation can keep working in the background even after we clock off.
Increase speed. Doing things manually takes time, particularly if you factor in the time we lose to human shortcomings like distraction, boredom, and forgetfulness. What can take us minutes (or hours) automation can do in seconds, even milliseconds.
Document processes. Individuals and organizations alike benefit from documenting their processes— both in the sense of instructions (what needs to be done) as well as records (what happened and when). Automation takes the guesswork out of documentation because, in a sense, it is documentation.
Maintain consistency and minimize errors. Processes can also decrease the possibility of human error. An automation performing its coded instructions doesn’t introduce variations—or forget details, skip steps, or fall asleep on the job.
Enable continuous improvement. Change can be scary. It can also be downright annoying. Once we’ve established a specific way of doing something, even a small tweak can throw off our whole process. But resistance to change can also hamper or even prevent improvement, which binds us unnecessarily. Well, just as technology doesn’t object to auto-responding to an email at 4 a.m., it also doesn’t flinch if we add another benefit to the human resources software. With automation, we can continually perfect our process—with no resistance from the machine.
Enable complexity. At Jotform, we have a conditional logic feature that tailors forms to individual users depending on how they fill them out. If a user inputs a US-based address, for example, they’ll get a dropdown menu from which to select their state; whereas if they’re in Canada, their menu options will be provinces. Conditional logic can accommodate any number of permutations: it can show or hide form fields, email different users, or send different messages—all depending on how it’s filled out. All these options make for a sophisticated product that is also inherently more complicated—but, thanks to automation, the actual experience of using it is very simple.
Lower costs. Simply put, automation is a good investment. Yes, there will be a time and possibly monetary commitment involved in automating a system, which contributes to the upfront cost. But the cost of operation—the long-term price—will always be less. A human doing a manual task is costly even in the best of circumstances.
Reduce stress. Of course, trimming one’s to-do list reduces stress. But for some the idea of automation adds stress, since many people worry that humans will be replaced by an army of robots. But automation isn’t necessarily about replacing humans—it’s about handing off mindless, time-consuming tasks so that we can focus on the work machines can’t do.
Automation has opened a world of possibilities that extends what we’re capable of doing on our own. Harnessing its power frees us to focus on living the lives that only we as human beings can.
How This Book Is Structured
Technology is constantly changing. The tools you’ll use today probably won’t be the same ones you’ll rely on just a few years from now. That’s why it’s important to learn the fundamentals of work and automation before you build your machine. It’s also important to debunk common myths around work and productivity. So many of our beliefs and habits stem from longstanding assumptions about what work should be like, not what would deliver the best results. To revamp your workdays and embrace the automation flywheel, you first need to internalize the what, how, and why of modern work; these automation fundamentals lay the foundation for automating your busywork. So that’s what we’ll turn to in the next chapter.
Following that, we’ll explore the three parts of the flywheel: Divide and Conquer, Design and Implement, and Refine and Iterate. These are the steps you’ll repeat for years to come as you build and improve your automation machine. You’ll learn about workflows, processes, participants, and why you should “embrace boring” to unlock creativity and innovation. I know the word “fundamentals” might evoke memories of 10th-grade math class, but this is not a textbook. Practical examples will bring the principles to life in a way that reflects your real work life—no abstract theorems or equations involved.
Finally, you’ll apply everything you’ve learned to streamline your work day. This is when you design a life without busywork. From memory to communications, to peace of mind and creativity, you’ll see how simple automations can overhaul your entire relationship to work and productivity.
As though I were teaching you how to cook, my goal is to share automation principles that endure even as your tools, technologies, and recipes change. You’ll acquire flexible skills that grow with you. And once you experience the benefits of automation, your tolerance for manual, low-value work will continue to drop. You simply won’t have patience for it anymore.
Giving the best of yourself to meaningful work creates a virtuous cycle. Benefits multiply, and the work becomes its own reward. Sane, steady, and focused. This is the work that deserves your time and talent.
Let’s get started.
1 Russo, A. (2020). Recession and automation changes our future of work, but there are jobs coming, report says [online]. World Economic Forum. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/press/2020/10/recession-and-automation-changes-our-future-of-work-but-there-are-jobs-coming-report-says-52c5162fce/.
2 Acemoglu, D., and Restrepo, P. (2022). Tasks, automation, and the rise in US wage inequality Econometrica. 90(5), pp. 1973–2016. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3982/ECTA19815.
3 Roose, K. (2021, March 6). The robots are coming for Phil in accounting. New York Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/06/business/the-robots-are-coming-for-phil-in-accounting.html.
4 Patel, N. (2021, March 23). The robots are coming for your office. Verge [online]. Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/23/22344938/kevin-roose-robotic-automation-future-rpa.
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.