I started my professional career as a software engineer, specifically in tools and automation. I made software tools for other people who made software tools. It’s like being the in-house accountant for an accounting firm, yet somehow an even worse thing to bring up at cocktail parties.
But it did teach me a lot about productivity, efficiency, and optimization. There’s one lesson in particular from those years that I find vital to share around: the overwhelming and under-appreciated value of automation. One of my primary roles was to seek out tasks that people would typically have to repeatedly do and build systems (robots) to do those tasks automatically.
The value of this work to a large company is clear – there are many tasks that computers can do faster, more precisely, and with fewer errors than their human counterparts, all while freeing up those counterparts to take on other high-value work.
The same benefits of automation exist for each of us in our personal lives, if on a (slightly) smaller scale. We don’t have infinite time or energy, so we’ll be best off if we spend them wisely. Sometimes that means freeing up our schedules by saying no to certain things and not doing them at all. But other times, things definitely need to be done, just not necessarily by us.
That’s where automation comes in. So today, we’re going to look at how you can use automation in your day-to-day life and why you can’t afford to skip it — plus, some ideas for tasks you can start automating today.
What Sort of Automation Are We Talking About?
This talk of robots and computers is fun and all, but what does it mean for you and me? Let’s start with a simple definition of exactly what I mean when I talk about automation:
Automation – The use of a system that replaces predominantly manual, routine actions with primarily automatic ones
Take the routine things you have to do, and insert a system that can take care of it with little (or ideally zero) input from you.
I can say with moderate certainty that many automated processes are already helping you daily. For example:
- Smoke detectors automate the task of checking if your house is on fire
- Digital calendars automate reminding yourself to do or go to things
- Appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, etc. which do cleaning tasks for you
Protip – Most things you own that end in “-er” automate the thing that comes before the “-er”: washer and dryer, toaster, walk-the-dog-er (patent pending).
All these scenarios are things that any of us can do ourselves but work much better when we automate them. For example, checking to see if your house is on fire at a given moment is pretty easy, but constantly checking if your home is on fire and never missing something? That’s a full-time job. Automation gives you confidence that things are under control while freeing you up for other important jobs.
Key Benefits of Automation
At its heart, automation is a productivity tool, plain and simple. It frees up your time and paves the way to get more done. But it’s not just that. Here are a few more practical reasons we should be doing our best to automate everything we can.
Using the Right Person for the Job
It’s pretty well understood by now that there are some jobs that machines can do WAY better than people. And vice versa. Automation is a means of tapping into the best of both these worlds.
Monitoring every room of your house for smoke 24/7 and remembering the birthday of everyone you know are two exhausting jobs for humans and unspeakably easy jobs for machines. Likewise, solving a complex problem at work, spending quality time with your family, or painting a beautiful jacaranda tree make much better use of human strengths than robot strengths. Automation is about choosing the right person (or robot) for the job.
Perfecting the Output
We’re not just talking about ease and time management here – we’re also talking about the output quality. Generally, automated processes work faster, more consistently, and with fewer errors than their manual equivalents. This is input-output asymmetry at work.
Humans excel at adapting and interpreting new situations. Perfecting repetitive tasks isn’t our strong suit. We’re bound to make mistakes here and there. Machines, on the other hand, LOVE routine. They can repeat the same task till the cows come home with a stunningly low error rate.
Reducing Decision-Making and Mental Strain
Without using automation to your advantage, you run the risk of wasting your time and energy on manual tasks and ending up with a lower-quality output than if you had systemized it.
But there is another, sneakier cost of manually doing automatable work: the mental burden of keeping track of it all. The mind needs rest to be most productive and do its best work.
There is only one time in my life I ever have to think about whether my house is on fire – when I microwave a bag of popcorn for .0027 seconds too long, and my smoke detector tells me. Not only do I never have to check for smoke manually, but I also don’t have to think about when to do it, where to do it, and what to put on hold for it. I don’t have to deal with context switching back and forth to that task. Thanks to automation, it is entirely off my plate.
How Can I Get Started with Automation?
So we’ve covered what automation looks like and what we all have to gain by introducing more automated systems into our lives. Now all that’s left is to start identifying what we can automate and how to do it.
The “what to automate” part is pretty straightforward. Start by just being an observer of your day. Look for the recurring tasks that you often do. Bonus points for anything particularly difficult or time-consuming for you or that is very human-error-prone. When you identify one of these, look for an answer to the question, “how could I make it so that I don’t have to do this?” or “how could I cut down the time that I spend doing this?” Automation, after all, is basically productive laziness.
Here are some ready-to-go automation ideas for everyday life that you can use to free up your time and energy to get back to the stuff you love most.
7 Ideas to Help You Automate Your Life
Schedules and Timers
Tons of household appliances and gadgets come with built-in timers these days. If you set your thermostat, make your coffee, turn on/off your lights, or others at the same time every day, check whether your device has a timer feature. Then, set it and forget it!
Calendars and Reminders
Most people have countless birthdays, appointments, and other important events to keep track of every week. Even if you have a great memory, sticking all of this in a digital calendar (with reminders!) can free up a ton of your mental energy.
I could spit out some stat about how many emails, texts, and notifications we each get in a single day, but you get it. You also get that 95% of it is useless noise. Set up email filters and phone/app notification settings to tune out most of this clutter before you even need to think about it.
As it is with email, so it is with the physical mail and paperwork around your home and office. Create “soft automation” by setting up rules for yourself that take active thinking out of the process. For instance, nothing important or valuable has ever been mailed to “current resident,” so I don’t even open it. Straight to the bin.
One great thing about the 21st century is that “paying the bills” is quickly becoming a thing of the past. You can automate practically any payment online, even sending physical checks through your bank. So take a look at your bills once a month to ensure everything’s moving and be aware of the amounts. From there, you can leave the rest to the robots.
Auto-Save and Invest
The single biggest obstacle to saving money is always the person doing it. However, there is a clear consensus that those who have their savings on autopilot consistently save far more than those who don’t. You can set up auto-transfers with your bank or try one of the many nifty modern apps like Acorns that help people build for the future without thinking about it.
Habits and Routines
As another use of so-called “soft automation,” you can put your beneficial behaviors on autopilot by learning to build strong habits. Habits are essentially a system of human automation. They keep processes consistent, with relatively few errors, while reducing the mental energy needed.