If I died today, I don’t think my friends would notice for a while.
My digital ghost would keep responding to some emails, pay my bills, and send birthday cards. He would read my text messages, forward important ones to my virtual assistant, or respond.
This spooky afterlife is not the goal. I have been automating bits and pieces of my daily responsibilities for the opposite purpose – to save more time for the things that truly matter in life. My ghost is here to help me now.
Ikiryō (生霊, lit. “living ghost”), in Japanese popular belief and fiction, refers to a spirit that leaves the body of a living person and subsequently haunts other people or places, sometimes across great distances.
- Reading the invoices I get over email to pay specific ones and file them for my accountant,
- Answering, recording and transcribing the calls I get from all unknown numbers,
- Putting all the newsletters that I choose to receive in my pocket app, where I consume all articles,
- Monitoring my communication and reminding me to contact friends I haven’t reached out to for a while,
- Many many more, including sending birthday cards to my friends.
And this list does not even include automations that run this blog!
You see, I don’t automate to save a minute here or there. Writing, testing, and ensuring nothing goes awry is labor-intensive. I automate to forget about things. My digital ghost worries about A LOT, so I don’t have to.
My goals of automation
Do you know that glut of “stuff” sitting in your stomach? The nagging notion that you have SO MUCH to do? Or maybe you are familiar with the guilt that you are so far behind in errands?
Transfers have to go out, invitations to whatever event sent, expenses reported. How can you find time this weekend to do something fun when you have amassed all this?
It certainly was a feeling for me!
That stressful notion of overwhelm is called the “Cognitive Load.” Think of it as a tax for remembering to do stuff. It does not even include doing the actual task – it’s just an overhead and my first goal of automation is to cut it as much as possible.
My second goal is to make sure things are done. Since both me and my wife work remotely, we travel a fair bit. After work, we have been exploring the cenotes of Yukatan, safaris of South Africa, and depths of underwater Thailand. But when you have to put in 8 hours of solid work and then rush to catch a diving boat, doing bank transfers, taxes, and calls is a real inconvenience. It’s really hard to do taxes underwater (although the feeling is the same).
We would postpone those things, and then, after the trip is finished, we would be hit by a freight train of obligations. Taxes on Jetlag are not much fun either.
As Stephen Wolfram summarized in his fantastic post “Notes on my personal infrastructure”, my bots consist of “the technology and other things that help me live and work better, feel less busy, and be more productive every day.”
Building a personal infrastructure has freed my time, mental energy and capacity to focus on more inspiring tasks. Instead of treading the water copying cells from one excel spreadsheet to another, I can spend time with my wife or promote Remote Work in an effort to help curb climate change.
And I want you to free your potential too, so you can focus on a higher calling.
Everyone can Automate
Automation is no longer only for programmers like me and theoretical physicists, like Steven Wolfram. It often does not require a single line of code.
Eric Dietrich has a fantastic post, “Don’t learn to program, learn to automate” where he describes his process of automation. Here are the steps required to write your first bot:
1 – You have to get very clear on what you are trying to achieve.
2 – You have to think about your process of achieving that.
If you are familiar with the GTD methodology, you might have noticed that these steps are the surefire way to Get Stuff Done. In the majority of cases, I would stop here. Focusing on goals and optimizing the “algorithm” of a manual task pays off before automating, and it’s sometimes enough.
But If you want to get the thing totally out of your mind:
- Save messages I starred in slack to my TODO list,
- Tweet 3 and 10 days after I have published a blog post
- Remind me what my mom needs help with whenever I’m close to her place
- Keep the tweets and pocket articles I starred in a spreadsheet
- Many, many more.
I would often need to change my manual process because Zapier would not let me implement a specific flow, so don’t be surprised if you’ll have to go back to the previous point.
4 – Bonus points: maintenance
Stuff breaks, services change their offerings, and your automations will work unreliably. Just like a manager ensuring his team is getting the intended results, you’ll have to budget an hour per month to make sure everything works as expected.
With your own bots (or Ikiryo if you prefer) handling the overhead, you could have more time for what you want from life.
But I have to warn you: busywork is sometimes enjoyable. It gives you a quick dopamine boost and satisfaction from a well-accomplished task. Having the stuff to do has a way of making us feeling essential and special.
The more you automate, the more deliberate you have to be with your life.
For me, that’s the third goal of automation.