Note that in this post we'll start with programming-type things, but this advice is good for pretty much anything you do.

There's a phrase that programmers use when talking about optimizing process at work or home: Automate the Boring Things.

Essentially, this boils down to the following:

  1. Is the task repetitive, annoying, tedious, or something you think a robot could do?
  2. If yes, can you think of a way (via programming, scheduling tasks in an app, using some other app or extension, etc.) to automate it or to make it nearly automatic?  Alternatively, can others think about a way to do this that would save everyone time and effort in the long run?
  3. If yes, can you figure out how to do it, or find someone else who knows how to do it?
  4. If yes, just do it.  You now don't have to do that boring thing.

But let's take a concrete example because all that sounds pretty abstract ("nice in theory, but...").  Here's two things that I've done in real life in the last few weeks:

  • I wanted my blog posts to post to twitter at certain times.  At first, I linked them myself, but this is silly: I could just schedule them (I use Zapier, but other solutions exist) and this way not only do I not have to worry about it but it's also a reminder to set up a queue of posts so that something is always ready to publish.
  • I wanted to back up my blog.  Because I self-host Ghost (which I highly recommend) by myself, I need to export a JSON file which contains all of my posts and then put it somewhere safe.  But I don't want to have to go to Settings > Export Blog every few weeks on the UI: I'll forget.  So I scheduled a cron job to hit an API and back this up for me (into Dropbox, so I have records).  These files are small, but I built in a method to delete all the ones 6 months old or older so that they don't fill up without me remembering to clean them.

Okay, neat, but what stuff are you doing that needs automating?  And what if it's not on your computer?  How do you figure that out?

Find what needs automating

We can talk about the philosophical nature of boredom or tedium or whatever and get super abstract about all of this but, practically, this is the exercise that works for me.

  1. Wake up and begin your day.
  2. Get a piece of paper (or start a list on your phone, or whatever).
  3. Every time you do something tedious, boring, etc., write it down (regardless of it can be automated) and write down approximately how long it takes to do.  Guess if you need to.
  4. Do this for about a week, including weekends.  You'll have a lot of repeats, so if you want to use one list and just add to it (or add a +1 to things you do more than once) that's fine too.
  5. At the end of the week, pick out a few "low hanging fruits" which you think might be easy to automate.  These can be things on the computer, things like "paying bills", or things like "making dinner".  They could be whatever.
  6. Brainstorm (with yourself or others) about ways to automate this.
  7. Automate it or part of it, if possible.
  8. Re-evaluate after a month or so of automation.  Keep a running total of how much time you saved for bonus points.

Looks like a bunch but it's essentially: write down ALL the boring stuff you do, try to automate it.  This works surprisingly well.  It's also surprising in another way: you'll notice that you probably spend a good chunk of your time doing boring things.  Worse, you probably spend a good chunk of your time doing boring things that could be automated (some big ones are paying bills, paying credit card stuff, or money management and planning; all of these can be more-or-less automated and checked every so often).

A Modest Example

Here's an example that could be a real list.  I'll number the original list and then provide automation tips at the end.

  1. Walk the dog before work.
  2. Feed the dog before work.
  3. At work, manually make sure that an excel sheet "looks right" before sending it to some other department.
  4. Pay internet + electric bills.
  5. Go through mail and get rid of junk mail.

For a few of these we might need to invest some money but we can automate a bunch of them:

  1. Hire a local dog walker (\$\$\$\$\$, but it's automated now; walks can be a treat with your dog instead of potentially being a slog in the morning).
  2. Get an automatic pet feeder (\$\$\$\$\$).
  3. Consider a way to programmatically check the excel file — ask a developer pal if you don't know yourself — and see if you can automate it.  You'd be surprised at how much work can be automated but simply hasn't because the individuals doing it don't know that programming or some straight-forward option in the application itself can help them automate things.  This is especially true with Excel stuff and anything that has an API that can be cron'd.  In particular, Windows has a Task Scheduler (called "Task Scheduler") which is a game changer for some people.
  4. Automatic bill pay, combined with an email that tells you how much was paid.  (This might not be great if you're living paycheck-to-paycheck in case of unexpected over-charging, but in many cases simple monitoring will be enough to alert you to ridiculous charges; paying with a credit card that you immediately pay off will allow you to fend off unexpected overdraft fees).
  5. Go to a site like ecocycle which has a number of tips to stop junkmail.  I've done most of these and, while it doesn't completely stop junk mail, I only check my mail once-or-so a month and it's not as jam-packed as it was before I did this.  Notice that this is kind of a "passive automation" in that you're not really automating the throwing out of mail (which you don't want in the first place) but rather reducing it to an amount which is trivial and that you can check far less frequently.

I'm always interested in stuff that people automate so if you have somethin' neat you've done (tech or otherwise!) let me know below!