Automation works. It's why we've seen such transformations as mechanized farming, manufacturing, travel, retail, and advances in countless other sectors over the past century or two. It's also why there's so much hand-wringing over the potential of more sophisticated robots to replace a slew of other jobs and functions in the years ahead.
So far, though, software and machines have thrived mainly at replacing a particular kind of work: the average-wage, middle-skill, routine-heavy work, especially in manufacturing and office administration. And while all researchers and advocates foresee much bigger things coming, the more immediate benefits most of us have access to today can help cut back on the sorts of tedious tasks that gobble up so much of our time and mental energy.
WHAT TO AUTOMATE AND WHY
That's good news. According to research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, it's those kinds of tasks in particular that are most likely to leave us mentally depleted. "Decision fatigue," as he calls it, describes the biological price we pay—in energy, focus, and performance—by making decision after decision. In other words, the more choices you need to make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, which eventually starts looking for shortcuts.
That's as good a case as any for delegating some of your tasks to automation, which can help you preserve your energy for high-quality (and higher-stakes) decision-making. So where do you start?
Look first for the tasks that have become so routine that you can basically do them in your sleep. Less obvious—and trickier to automate—are those that don't require human finesse but are components of bigger processes that do. Don't ignore those. There might be pieces that can be outsourced to a robot, so to speak, even if the entire process cannot.
FIVE GREAT AUTOMATION TOOLS
No matter what you do or how you work, these apps have a wide range of applications for most digitally connected workers. Here's a quick look at their features and how they can save you time and energy.
1. Zapier: Think of this as a great "meta" app. It's an integration tool that easily connects the other web apps you use in order to automate certain tasks. With Zapier, you can connect Evernote to task management apps like Asana and Trello as well as to your Google calendar. Or you can save your PayPal sales to a Google spreadsheet or post new BaseCamp activity to Slack.
2. IfThisThenThat: This is a web service that allows you to plug information in from one app to another, even allowing you to create custom tasks to mirror a specific workflow: "If [this thing happens on one service], then [do that on another service]," so for instance, "If I post a new photo to Instagram, then download it to Dropbox." You can also use "recipes," which are simply prebuilt tasks made by other users that you can add to your own IFTTT account.
3. TextExpander: This tool lets you insert fixed bits of text—called "snippets" in TextExpander parlance—by typing in short abbreviations. For example, you might create a snippet for email copy that you use repeatedly throughout your week, like responding to a request for additional information. Or you might create a snippet containing the addresses and phone numbers for the top three coffee shops where you regularly meet with clients.
4. Pocket: There's a tremendous amount of content and new stories constantly revolving on the web. Oftentimes, you’ll see the headline of an article you’d like to read but don't have the time to right now. You can put those articles, videos, or pretty much any content you'd like to save for later into Pocket. The app lets you save media directly from your mobile browser as well as from apps like Twitter, Flipboard, Pulse, and Zite. Then, when you're ready for them, you can read anything you've saved from your phone, tablet, or PC without a Wi-Fi connection.
5. Mint: Probably the best known of these five automation tools, Mint lets you automatically track all your checking accounts, saving accounts, and credit cards in a central location, neatly categorizing and displaying the transactions along the way with informative graphs. And it will send reminders to alert you that a bill is due.
As you comb through your workflows and look for opportunities to automate, make sure you don't go overboard. You won't want to automate any tasks that bring meaning and joy to your work or that let you use your unique strengths. Not everything we enjoy in our lives or work is necessarily a high-order task; just because something can be automated doesn't mean it should be. The best automation is strategic automation, and the strategy is up to you.
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Carson serves as a consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, her views have been included in Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review blog, and The New York Times.