“Pick up the pace!” my trainer barked, turning up the resistance on my spin bike. It was a typical morning at the gym. Sweat glazed my brow as I willed myself to pedal harder. My legs and lungs began to burn from the effort.
Eager for distraction, I thought about the book I was writing. Many of my friends, colleagues, and readers said they were battling an ever-expanding to-do list — and losing the fight. They were burnt out and overwhelmed. And they felt like they were failing at work. I knew automation was the answer, but how could I share what was now an informal, almost intuitive process for me and my team?
My eyes settled on the bike’s front disc. Wait — that was it! The proverbial lightbulb switched on in my mind. Automation isn’t a matrix or even a linear process. It’s a flywheel. The wheel takes a little effort to start, but it delivers more speed and efficiency with every turn.
I finished my workout and grabbed my phone. The panting voice memo I recorded soon became The Automation Flywheel, which is the core of my new book, Automate Your Busywork: Do Less, Achieve More, and Save Your Brain for the Big Stuff. The flywheel is a system you can apply to automate any busywork, from quick shortcuts to multi-team workflows.
When you step off the treadmill of your to-do list, you regain precious time and mental bandwidth to do the work that truly matters — the work that only you can do. These are the projects that can transform your business or career. I’ll explain how you can use the flywheel to offload repetitive, tedious work, but first, let’s explore the power of automation.
Build your machine for success
When I launched Jotform in 2006, digital forms weren’t the hottest ticket. Sure, we steadily gained users, but the market still had breathing space. Two years later, Google stepped up to the plate. More competitors soon arrived — and I reached a crossroads. We needed to stand out, and as a bootstrapped company, we certainly couldn’t spend our way into the spotlight.
I realized that the same automations powering our product could be our competitive advantage. Our team started small at first, automating simple tasks like bookkeeping. As we gained more experience, we tackled bigger, multi-faceted workflows, including threshold-based server backups and security notifications. Now, our teams are fluent in the language of automation and we work in a truly calm, sane way. We have time to go deep. And we try to spend our time on meaningful projects.
What is meaningful work? The answer, of course, is different for everyone. But it’s probably the work that lights you up. It can also inspire flow, which is “a mental state of focused attention so intense that it does not allow us to have cognitive bandwidth left for anything else,” Beata Souders writes for Positive Psychology. “It is a state of such profound task-absorption and intense concentration that makes a person feel one with the activity.” The work we do in flow feels effortless — and it also enhances our performance, says Souders.
Meaningful work doesn’t have to elicit a flow state, but in my experience, it does promote focused relaxation. That’s rarely the case when you’re juggling DMs, drafting emails, and uploading an overdue expense report. Automation is the best way to eliminate this busywork, so you can spend more time in your professional sweet spot.
Start the automation flywheel
Automation saves time, prevents errors, formalizes processes, lower costs, and overcomes human limitations. Even when you understand the benefits, it can be tough to get started. If you try to do it all once, chances are you’ll get frustrated and quit. That’s where the Automation Flywheel comes in. It’s a systematic approach that breaks each process down into small, manageable steps.
Most importantly, the flywheel is enduring. Technology evolves at a dizzying pace. The automations that seem revolutionary today will soon be commonplace. If I had written a how-to book, it would already be wildly outdated. But the flywheel is a pattern you can apply to everything from scheduling social media posts to automating HR onboarding processes, both now and in the future.
The automation flywheel has three steps:
1. Divide and conquer
Start by exploring the source of your busywork: What does it look like? Where is it coming from? Who’s involved? When you track and identify the manual tasks swallowing your workday, clear patterns will inevitably emerge. Maybe you’re drowning in email. Or maybe external sign-offs are stalling your forward momentum.
Once you know what’s draining your time, you can begin to spot workflows. Even the simplest tasks — like signing documents — are actually workflows, with interdependent steps and contingencies. Understanding the workflows that underpin your busywork will enable you to choose and prioritize your automation projects.
2. Design and implement
Next, you’ll map out each step of your automation. You can use a pen and paper or simple software to draw and label each part of the process. Imagine you want to send a loyalty program email to new customers. Your workflow starts when a customer makes a purchase and ends when they receive a personalized, segmented email that verifiably reaches their inbox (versus languishing in a spam folder). What happens in between is your workflow diagram.
To implement, you’ll build the automation using free or low-cost digital tools. There are thousands of great products out there, and more emerge every day. Do some quick online searching or visit consolidated review sites like G2.com to find the best tools for the job.
3. Refine and iterate
Now that you’ve built the automation, it’s time to set and track key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the results. Whether you’re looking at speed, precision, time savings, or another metric, you get to decide what success looks like. Then you can revise and iterate. The goal is to make your automation more effective with every turn of the wheel.
Some final thoughts
If you’re new to automation, I know the flywheel can sound a little… intense. But, I promise; the time you invest upfront will pay real dividends down the line. Try to harness your curiosity and start with a project that feels both valuable and approachable, like automating calendar bookings. Keep it simple and you’ll gain confidence as you go.
Automation is the most effective way to sweep away low-value work and focus on what matters. Use it to move the needle in your career — and give your best to the world. Now, more than ever, we need your skills and talents. We need you to free yourself from busywork and leverage your most strategic, creative, and innovative thinking.
Go slowly and be patient with yourself. You got this.