I think I may be getting a reputation as the piirus.ac.uk productivity geek. In the past I’ve written about to do lists and forming habits to help maintain focus. In this post I’m taking things a step further to look at why and how we can automate some basic tasks to make more effective use of our time.
I’m sure we’ve all had days when we feel we’ve got nothing done except the mundane tasks that run alongside our work – scheduling meetings, organising travel, managing files etc. Automation for me is about freeing up the time we spend on these routine things to allow us to do more focused, creative work.
The time factor is also one of the biggest barriers or concerns I hear when talking to researchers about social media and blogging. A common question is where will I find the time to do this on top of everything else? My answer is always to use dead time – when you’re waiting for a meeting to start, or sitting on the bus, or making coffee. Automating some of the tasks around creating content for these channels is another way of maximising this dead time.
Triggers and actions
There are two main services you can use to automate tasks, If This Then That (IFTTT) and Zapier. They both work by making connections between apps and devices that you already use. Once the connection has been set up, you define the trigger and the action. For example, when you favourite a tweet (trigger) it gets saved in Evernote (action).
There’s a useful comparison of the two services on Lifehacker. Or to cut to the chase, here’s the verdict: IFTTT is best for most people, Zapier’s great for business users
IFTTT focuses on keeping things simple with predefined applets (formerly recipes) that you can customise. While Zapier offers a wider range of apps that you can connect to and options to get really specific about what happens and when.
Now let’s look at a few tasks you can automate using these services.
Keep up to date
Keeping track of what we’ve read and what we want to read can be time consuming. Thankfully there are plenty of services that help us do this with just a click of a button. There are the traditional reference managers, like EndNote or Zotero that we might use for storing the articles and citations we uncover through literature searches. Read it later services, like Pocket and Instapaper, allow you to save content you find on the web to a reading list. All offer a simple bookmarklet that you can add to your browser to save articles as you search.
What about the sources you want to keep up to date with on a regular basis? Since the demise of Google Reader, I’ve struggled to find a system to keep up to date with the many blogs and websites I read. Many offer the option to subscribe to updates by email, but honestly who needs more things filling up their inbox?
There are tools like Feedly and Flipboard that can help, allowing you to subscribe to specific sites, or topics, that you’re interested in. I found however that this was one extra app to check and I just built up a seemingly endless amount of unread articles. So, I needed a solution that worked with the services I already use on a daily basis. I turned to IFTTT to see what was possible and discovered an applet for sending new items from an RSS feed to Pocket to read later. The articles are tagged with the name of the source so that I can easily filter my reading list to see only those items. Find out more about subscribing to RSS using IFTTT and Pocket (with instructions on how to set it up) on my blog.
Create a schedule
I know my ability to focus on real work takes a nosedive around 3pm. I try to use this time for routine tasks and checking in on social media. What I don’t want however is a flurry of tweets or updates in one hour of the day and then radio silence. I also tend to write blog posts in my lunch breaks and finish them off in the evenings. If I published them immediately then they’d be unlikely to reach my target audience. For these reasons I use scheduling tools to spread out my updates. This allows me to use my time wisely to create content and add it to a queue of scheduled items that get sent out at the best times to maximise engagement.
Many services have built-in schedulers, for example WordPress allows you to schedule your blog posts and connect your social accounts so they’re updated when the post is published. Services like Hootsuite and Buffer allow you to connect multiple social media accounts and post updates on a manual or automated schedule. Our social media team use Hootsuite to manage updates on the piirus.ac.uk Twitter account. As well as allowing us to schedule posts, it’s also a great way to manage a collaborative social account.
Don’t forget that it’s also possible to schedule emails. I quite often do this when sending to people who I know are out of the office – I write them when it’s convenient for me, but delay when they’re sent until that person returns, so it’s fresh in their inbox and not hidden among everything that’s come in while they’ve been away.
Are there any processes that you’ve automated, or apps that you use to help you manage routine tasks? Let us know in the Comments.