I started my professional career as a software engineer, specifically in tools and automation. Basically, I made software tools for other people who made software tools. It’s kind of 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 normally have to do over and over again, 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.
And all the same benefits of automation are there 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, there are things that definitely do need to get done, just not necessarily by us.
That’s where automation comes in. Today we’re going to look at how you can use automation in your day-to-day life, and why you can’t afford not to — 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 actually 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 which replaces predominantly manual, routine actions with predominantly automatic ones
This isn’t an official dictionary definition or anything, just me setting expectations, so don’t @ me, Webster. But that’s the gist. 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 there are many automated processes already helping you daily. Por ejemplo:
- Smoke detectors automate the task of checking if your house is on fire
- Digital calendars automate reminding yourself to do and/or go to things
- Dishwashers, and try to stay with me on this one, wash dishes automatically
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 examples are things that any of us can do ourselves, but work much better when we automate them. I assume you are able to check for yourself if your house is on fire any time, EZ-PZ. But checking if your house is on fire constantly, and never missing something? That’s a full-time job. Automation gives you confidence that the job is being done reliably, 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 for you to get more done. But it’s not just that. Here are a few more valuable 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 quality of output. Automated processes, in general, work faster, more consistently, and with far fewer errors than their manual equivalents. This is input-output asymmetry at work.
This is again about human strengths and robot strengths. Humans are built to adapt and interpret 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 own 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 in order to be its 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 manually check for smoke, 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 completely 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 own 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 easy. Start by just being an observer of your day. Look for the recurring tasks that you do often. Bonus points for anything that is 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 that you love most.
7 Ideas to Help You Automate Your Life
1. Schedulers 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!
2. 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.
3. Online Communication
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 ever even have 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. Automated.
5. Bill Pay
One great thing about the 21st century is that “paying the bills” is quickly becoming a (super-stressful yet also boring) thing of the past. You can automate practically any payment online now, even sending physical checks through your bank. Take a look at your bills once a month or so, to ensure everything’s moving and be aware of the amounts, and leave the rest to the robots.
6. Auto-Save and Invest
The single biggest obstacle to saving up money is always the person doing it. 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 even thinking about it.
7. Habits and Routines
As another use of so-called “soft automation,” you can put your own beneficial behaviors on autopilot by learning to build up strong habits. Habits are basically just a system of human automation. They keep processes consistent, with relatively few errors, while reducing the mental energy needed.