Time travel with me for a moment:
You just finished a stressful client meeting. Now it’s time for a break. You close your office door, lean back into your leather swivel chair, and light a cigarette. It’s casual Friday, so you’re sporting khakis and a crewneck sweater. The floppy disks piled precariously beside your computer mirror the stack of faxes vying for your attention. This is a typical workday in 1993.
From technology to office culture, work looks a lot different 30 years later. Not only did the internet transform our tools; new audiences, markets, and industries sprang directly from this global network. Everything changed. And thanks to automation, it’s changing again.
The rise of automation and artificial intelligence represents a tectonic shift in our work lives. For example, when I started my company in 2006, Gmail was just two years old, but it was already a massive success. Gmail’s simple drag-and-drop functionality offered endless inspiration as I was building Jotform — a product that enables non-developers to quickly create web forms.
Today, there are thousands of free and low-cost automation products that do the heavy lifting for you. Anyone can use these platforms — such as Shopify, Mailchimp, Asana, Zapier, and Airtable — to manage projects, create mobile apps and websites, add e-commerce functionality to a website, and do just about anything else you can imagine.
While chatbots like ChatGPT dominate headlines, some of the most successful people I know have been quietly using automation to eliminate the tedious and repetitive tasks that litter their to-do lists. Some of these products use AI. Some do not — at least, not yet. The point is that when you slash your busywork, you can focus on the projects that truly matter. That’s what will set you apart.
As you navigate the rapids of modern work, these three rules can help you not only to stay afloat, but to find more freedom, joy, and meaning in your career.
The past decade unleashed a collective obsession with productivity. We also learned to run video calls from the couch or kitchen table, but most work advice featured tips, hacks, and tools to help us squeeze more from our already-frantic days. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that burnout reached epidemic proportions even before the Covid-19 pandemic. And technology is partly to blame for getting us into this mess.
As author Craig Lambert writes in his book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, we’ve gradually taken on jobs that living, breathing people used to do, like booking travel, scanning groceries, checking bags at the airport, managing communications, and more. “[These tasks] nibble away a minute of your time here, five minutes of your free time there, and the next thing you know you’ve lost an hour of your day,” Lambert tells The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker.
Swap travel-booking and bag-checking for work tasks like expense filing, and it’s easy to see how our to-do lists have reached untenable proportions. Perhaps ironically, technology also holds the key that can free us. It’s time to turn the tables.
Instead of feeling like you’ve failed when you can’t tame your to-do list, consider that the list itself is the problem — this realization is one of the fundamental concepts that power my upcoming book, Automate Your Busywork. Namely, that you, personally, have to do everything on it. It’s a critical paradigm shift that still trips me up sometimes.
Last Monday, I sat down at my desk, steaming coffee at hand, and mindlessly started writing out my tasks for the day. That’s not the routine I established years ago, and it’s definitely not the best use of my prime thinking hours. Instead of succumbing to the siren song of your to-do list, try making a not-to-do list, and use simple automation tools to do the work that wastes your time and brain power.
HUMAN WORK IS HERE TO STAY
Automation is a game-changer. However, the game isn’t going anywhere. Even the most brilliant tools won’t enable you to kick back and read a novel while a computer does your job. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, or the boss. Work will simply evolve — and it’s already in flux.
According to Gartner, in the next 10 years, digital dexterity and an ever-sharp skill set will outweigh seniority and on-the-job experience. “Employees will have to apply creativity, critical thinking and constant digital upskilling to solve complex problems,” writes contributor Jordan Turner. “The digital economy demands new ideas, information and business models that continually expand, combine and shift into new ventures.”
As machines can increasingly handle our tedious work, we need to become more innovative. More human. Take the Jotform Enterprise Mobile App we’re launching today. Organizations also need to help their employees minimize busywork so they can save their brain for the big stuff. This app equips teams to collect data on the go, automatically track multi-format submissions, and leverage their talents to do more satisfying, high-value activities that require creativity and critical thinking.
Whatever your job or role, start thinking strategically, now. Look for ways to maximize your most focused work instead of, say, manually adding data to a spreadsheet. Cut these tasks with ruthless abandon (and automation).
YOU CAN AUTOMATE (ALMOST) ANYTHING
In the world of automation, yesterday’s technical challenge is today’s standard feature. Tools evolve fast. The list of tasks you can re-assign to your laptop grows every single day. I keep using the words “manual” and “repetitive” for a reason. These are the activities you simply shouldn’t do anymore, like posting the same content to different social media accounts or emailing back and forth to book meetings.
As you go through your workday, watch for friction. For example, maybe that “quick” competitor research actually took two hours. Many of the tasks we accept as inevitable can now be automated. Look for repetitive, recurring activities that follow patterns, require little decision-making, and involve multiple steps. Not sure if something can be automated? Do some online searches and visit software review sites like G2, GetApp, SoftwareSuggest, SourceForge, and more.
Over the years, I’ve realized that automation is truly an ongoing process. Identify your time drains, find and implement simple automations, and continually improve the process. I call this the Automation Flywheel, and it’s your machine for success. You can build a powerful system that works in the background, while you tackle the big picture.
Most importantly, start now. User-friendly tools have made it easy to automate, but it does take some time upfront. Don’t let that discourage you. Every hour you invest in this process will pay incredible dividends. Seize this moment of change and free yourself to do what matters — the work that only you can do.