Automation’s big payoff is supposed to be that it will release us from rote tasks and usher in a new era of freedom. That way, we can devote our time to higher-level activities. Instead of spending time inputting data, we’ll be making valuable connections or coming up with innovative ideas. Instead of cleaning the house, we’ll be having quality time with family and friends.
While we're not quite at the point where robots are attending to our every need, it's possible to integrate readily available automation into your own life to save time and effort. Here are seven areas to consider.
From your financial institution’s online banking services to common financial products like Quicken and FreshBooks, it’s likely that you’re not using all the ways these platforms can make your life easier, says productivity expert Peggy Duncan. Set recurring invoices to go out automatically, eliminating that weekly or monthly task. Similarly, use online banking to pay recurring bills automatically, which can also save money by ensuring that you don’t get charged late fees if you miss a payment.
If you hate figuring out what’s for dinner or loathe clothes shopping, there’s a subscription service for that. Services like Stitch Fix, Gwynnie Bee, and Bombfell send items of clothing specifically chosen for you based on a series of questions. Some charge a monthly subscription fee (Bombfell does not), and you pay only for the items of clothing you keep. Meal services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh ensure you have what you need to make dinner. Whether you need socks, razors, or beauty supplies, there is a service that will ship them to you regularly. Amazon even lets you tailor your subscription package.
While many apps claim to make your life easier and more productive, keeping track of all of them can be a challenge. If This Then That (IFTTT) connects popular apps and draws information from them to help you track tasks, achieve goals, and finally understand where your time is going. You can schedule recurring tasks and event reminders (like birthdays), create shopping lists and score discounts from participating retailers, and even track your workouts and give you a summary of how you’re spending your time, if that’s not too Big Brother for you. Apple device users can also check out its competitor, Workflow.
Francis Carden, vice president of robotics and transformation at robotics and automation provider Pegasystems, envisions a future where robotics and artificial intelligence converge to remove rote work from our lives. At the office, robots may eventually handle data entry and simple administrative tasks, leaving the cognitive work to humans. We’re not quite there yet, but robots are taking on surprising new roles in everything from paralegal work to writing simple sports stories for publication—roles that might initially seem difficult for machines to perform.
Home automation options are exploding. Smart home systems let you adjust lights, temperature, security, and other systems from your mobile device. Robotic vacuum cleaners free you from chasing dust bunnies. There are even robotic units in development that fold your laundry. Carden is a fan of Amazon Echo, which can act as a music player, news device, and even a smart home hub. He can even update his grocery list by just speaking to the machine.
Comedian Dan Nainan has stopped typing and opted instead for voice recognition software Dragon Dictate on his smartphone and computer. He speaks into the phone or microphone and the software transcribes his words.
"It's freaking unbelievable, and it makes me so much more productive. I'm using it constantly, both at my desk and when I'm walking around. I have the new version for the phone that lets me dictate anywhere—waiting for a plane, backstage, or even walking in Manhattan," he says. While working at Intel, Nainan had repetitive stress injuries in his wrists, so the technology has been a "godsend," he says. While he says "training" the software to recognize your own speech patterns and accent isn’t necessary, the platform is more efficient when you take the time to do so, he says.
Automation can also save you money. Cellfire is a mobile app that presents coupons and offers that you can select to add to your grocery store loyalty card. Swipe your card at the grocery store and the discounts are deducted. Apps like Honey for Google Chrome automatically search for discounts when you’re shopping online and apply them at checkout.
Some software programs allow you to record macros to automate simple tasks, which can save a surprising amount of time, Duncan says. If you edit documents that have two spaces between sentences, you can easily create a macro to convert them to one space or to type simple responses to email messages, or create a "canned response" to common emails in Gmail or Outlook. Explore your software’s options and look for simple ways you can streamline repetitive tasks, she says.
As automation becomes more readily available and affordable, we'll see more opportunities, Duncan says. For now, searching for small ways that everyday automation can streamline tasks can lead to cumulative time savings and other benefits.