The first rule of automation is: “if you do something more than once, the computer should be doing that for you.” That’s what computers are for. They’re incredibly fast at following sets of instructions. Automation is at the very core of their design, so if you find yourself repeatedly pressing the same tabs and buttons to make your computer do something, you’ve just become the world’s first (and worst) cyborg.
Humans are still employed mainly because computers can’t cope with the unexpected, new ideas, or complicated instructions that aren’t delivered in C++ or a similarly inhuman language. As you might expect, humans are better suited for creative problem solving and adaptation… for now at least.
Learning how to automate your job can take days, but it can save you years of redundant, unnecessary work in the long term. As a student, I once worked a summer in an office where my job was to compile Excel spreadsheets from a database which couldn’t export files. Within a week I’d automated the entire procedure. Over the next three months I paid my tuition fees, read most of the internet, and completed Doom 2.
Even if you enjoy your job, turning the repetitive parts into a simple button press gives you that much more time to get on with the real work – or get off and recharge your batteries for the next day!
If you work with Macs, you have a very simple choice: do you want to be lazy, or make every single project from now until the day you die a million times easier? Because Apple included within Mac OS X one of the greatest automation systems ever made, and sadly, millions of people still don’t use it.
Automator is a drag and drop, wonderfully GUI (“gooey”) automation assistant. These aren’t just macros recording a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks; Automator can carry batches of files and instructions from program to program and apply operations inside them. If you’ve ever done anything more than once, you need to learn this. It’s the ultimate investment: it takes a bit of extra time to begin, but you can learn it as you do things you were doing anyway, and from then on the computer does the work for you. There’s a great collection of starting points right here.
For a simple example of Automator usage and how it applies to real life as well as work, check out this guide for automating birthday greetings. Obviously you’ll use that for acquaintances, not family!
Macro programs could replace tens of thousands of office workers, and likely already have except those workers haven’t told their bosses (human workers are very smart when it comes to keeping their jobs.) These programs can record a series of keystrokes and mouse-clicks and replay them on command. More sophisticated programs can wait for prompts or even start other programs depending on the task at hand. One such program is AllKeys Macro, which comes complete with a confident 30-day trial. If it hasn’t saved you time by then, don’t buy it!
While real writing is an ineffable orgy of creation and inspiration (at least according to those who aren’t very good at it), most office writing is the same stuff on different days. Why wrack your brains finding different ways to send the same letter for the fourteenth time? Why bother rewriting something that someone else has already written? That’s where online templates come in, because when you’re asking how to get things done, you have to remember that someone else may have already done it.
PowerPoint templates, Excel templates and many others are available on Microsoft’s website of free templates. They truly are the ultimate in office automation, because they wrote your office’s software. Softer skills can still be found online. One example is The Form Letter Machine: it lets you select from standard paragraphs to deliver a full letter in a few clicks, without looking like a soulless copy and paste. All you need to do is fill it with a few samples of past work and you need never spend longer than 60 seconds on a letter again. That’s the ultimate automation system, one that doesn’t just speed up your computer work, but saves you from dealing with annoying people too!
Automate Your Home
The electronically-obedient home is a staple sci-fi fantasy, and the best thing about the Internet is that thousands of people work to make those things happen. Check out the Wired wiki on automating your home. It’s not an article or a list; it’s a constantly updated encyclopedia of people who looked at the future, decided “I want to live there!” and then showed others how to catch up.
For those who ‘merely’ want to control their home hardware from their phone, Instructables have a complete guide for turning a cheap router into a Home Command Center. (Controlling your house from your phone works much better if you choose a suitably intimidating name.)
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