Automation is a habit—here’s how to build it

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This article was provided by Zapier.

Two-thirds of people use some kind of automation software, according to a recent Zapier report. Of the remaining people who don’t, 33 percent say they just can’t imagine how it could be useful to them right now.

I used to be one of those people.

I was a journalist before I started working at Zapier. I mostly wrote tech tutorials and reviews, and Zapier, an automation tool, was pitched to me several times. But I never got around to actually using the product. The reason: I couldn’t imagine what I’d use it for.

Now, after working at Zapier for almost two years, it’s hard to imagine life without automation. I regularly spot recurring tasks, think of ways a computer could do them for me, and go about building automated workflows to do those tasks for me. This saves me a ton of time every week, but it didn’t come naturally to me.

“Automation is a habit you have to build.”

Automation is a habit you have to build. It means regularly stepping back from your day-to-day workflow, noticing things that could be automated, then automating them. I’ve built this habit up, and I’m still surprised by how often I notice new optimizations I can make. But that only happened after I developed the habit.

I write a Friday update every week. It focuses on my top priorities but also includes a list of tasks I completed. I use TickTick as my to-do list, meaning there are two places I’m keeping track of tasks I’ve completed. This is a prime example of a task that could be automated: information that lives in one app needs to be moved to another.

Developing the automation habit starts with spotting these kinds of tasks. Let’s talk about what that habit looks like, coming back to this example as we go.

Step 1: Notice when a task is repetitive

This might be the hardest part: noticing when a task should be automated. It’s so easy to get caught up in your daily work and never question if things could be different. It’s easy to complain about busywork—it’s harder to actually do something about it.

The trick is to back up, look at the things you do every day, and ask yourself whether they’re something a computer could do without your help. My colleague Hannah wrote a fantastic outline of when you should automate something. In summary, you should automate a task if:

  • It’s something you have to do frequently, or on a schedule
  • It involves moving information between apps
  • It’s boring and doesn’t require higher-order thinking
  • It takes you away from what you really want to be doing

If you work at a computer all day, odds are you do at least some tasks that line up with a couple—or even all—of these points.

What these tasks look like is going to vary depending on what kind of business you run. Many Zapier customers use automations for managing leads: for example, collecting customer information from various online forms and adding them to CRM software and email marketing tools. It’s perfectly possible to manually copy contact information from form responses and paste them into other apps. But as your business grows, it becomes an unnecessary time-suck. Another common use case is streamlining social media. You could manually post a photo to Instagram, Twitter, and your company’s Facebook page, or you could set up an automation that grabs all Instagram photos and posts them everywhere else.

These are just a couple examples. Here are other things you should automate right now, if you need more inspiration.

Automation isn’t just for work. Try automating your news consumption or your parenting duties.

Let’s get back to my example. I use TickTick as my to-do list for work, meaning anything I accomplish during the week is recorded there. I also manually write a Friday update every week, reviewing my completed tasks in TickTick to help me see what I accomplished. This, you might notice, meets all four of Hannah’s criteria for a task that should be automated. Now that I’ve noticed this, it’s time to move on to the for you in future step.

Step 2: Invest time in solving the problem

You’ve noticed a task could be automated. Now comes the fun part: actually setting up the automation.

It can be easy to put this off—to get so bogged down by your existing workflows that you never stop to set up automations that will save you time. To avoid this, block off time on your calendar for setting up automations.

That’s what I did this week. I built a Zap that triggers every time I complete a task on TickTick, sending it to a text document in Dropbox. This text document becomes the first draft of my Friday update, saving me from having to manually compile all of my completed tasks. Check out the Zap, if you’re interested.

TickTick to Dropbox

This didn’t take me long to build—maybe ten minutes. I think it will save me about ten minutes every week. If I’d done it three months ago, I’d have saved myself a few hours already.

If you’re learning to create automations for the first time, it might seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. My advice: just click all the buttons until you figure it out. There are other schools of thought, of course—some would suggest that you read the darn guide. That’s a solid strategy, so check out Zapier University to get started.

Step 3: Iterate on your workflows (and delete things that aren’t working)

You might think you’re done after step two, but you’re not. Automations rarely work perfectly right after you set them up—they require some fine-tuning. Again, this means backing up and examining your workflow. Is the automation making your life easier? How could it do a better job?

Back to my example: I use TickTick for work and personal tasks, and after setting up this automation, I noticed that I probably didn’t need personal tasks showing up in my Friday update. I edited the Zap to only include tasks in my “Zapier” list.

Filtering TickTick tasks by list

This change means my personal tasks aren’t showing up in my draft Friday updates anymore, so I don’t have to spend time deleting them before I can start writing.

An automation habit will save you time but only if you invest time upfront. You need to notice when a task could be automated, spend time actually automating it, and iterate on those systems once they’re set up. Be intentional about it—you’ll be surprised how much time you, and your organization, can save.

Automation is a good habit to have for your own productivity, but it can also help land you a job. Read about why automation is an important job skill.

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