Lately, I’ve been taking a hard look at many of the tasks that I do on a regular basis and thinking about ways that I can automate them. While some of the automation that I do require some programming, there are many things that you can do to eliminate routine tasks that don’t require any specialist knowledge; they simply need a few minutes of configuration.
I’ll start with some of the easy ways to automate your work and gradually move on to a few more advanced techniques.
Most of us spend more time than we would like in email, so it’s a great place to start your automation; most email clients have built-in filtering and processing options that can save you quite a bit of time. Using color, setting up filters and canned responses are good places to start.
RSS readers are a great way to keep up with blogs and news; having all of your news in one place can be a big time saver. However, there are also many other tasks that can be automated and sent to your RSS reader. You can get RSS feeds for many commonly performed tasks like searches, keeping up with changes on wiki pages, notification of new events and much more. You would be surprised how many things have RSS feeds if you look for them, and there are even tools like Dapper that you can use to create RSS feeds from standard web content.
Filtering and Processing RSS Feeds
By combining and filtering RSS feeds, you can automate the manual task of wading through irrelevant data to find the bits that you really want Beginners can use simple tools like Feed Rinse, Feed Weaver and others, while more advanced users will want to use something like Yahoo Pipes to filter and process data with more precise control over the output.
Many tools allow you to automate certain tasks, so for any tools that you use regularly, you should look for options to have data sent to you periodically. For example, Google Analytics has a variety of email options to send you reports every day, week, month or quarter, and you can get notifications when something specific happens, like when you hit x numbers of visitors on any given day.
Non-developers tend to think of APIs as something magical that can only be used by programmers to build applications that pull complicated bits of data together and display them. While APIs are incredibly powerful, many of them can be used simply by creating a specially formatted URL for displaying results in your browser. For example, the Twitter API can be used to get all kinds of interesting information, and I use the MediaWiki API to gather statistics on our wiki usage every week. Once you get the data you need out of the API, you can use a tool like Yahoo Pipes to process the data and get it automatically updated in your RSS reader, or you can use a tool like Wget to download the output file to your computer for additional processing later.
Yes, this is where you start to get into some programming, but it is easier than it looks. If you can use your command line interface to perform an action, you can probably automate it using shell scripts. I have some basic BASH shell scripts on my Mac that contain lists of commands that can be run once to gather a bunch of data from various sources and dump it all onto my hard drive for further analysis.
After you get a script or two set up, you’ll want to take the next step and set those scripts to run every day, week, month or on some custom schedule. If you work at company, you can talk to your system administrator about scheduling your script to run periodically; however, for those of you who need to do it yourself, this is much easier now that it once was. Many web hosts, like Dreamhost, have an easy point-and-click configuration tool that can be used to schedule scripts to run periodically and send you the results via email or place a file somewhere on your server.
If you think about your routine, I’m guessing that you can come up with at least a few things you do manually every day, probably without giving them much thought. Those are the tasks that you should think about automating. Once I started thinking about a few tasks that I could automate, I started thinking about other tasks. Before long, I was back in the habit of thinking about automating those boring, routine tasks. While it can take a bit of time initially to set up your automation, you’ll find that it saves a lot more time than you might have expected over the long-term.
What daily tasks do you automate?
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