It’s the end of a long day. You stop for groceries and snap at a shopper who cuts into the checkout line. Wait, your wallet is… still on your desk.
You abandon the bananas and dish soap and head home feeling tired, scattered, and vaguely sad. You were so motivated this morning; caffeinated and ready to demolish your to-do list. But you only managed to cross off two minor tasks.
Busywork. That’s what happened. Emails, DMs, status meetings, notifications, spreadsheets, system updates, budget revisions, approvals, expenses, scheduling, and more.
Busywork is the slow leak in your professional tires. It’s the quick requests and ever-present digital distractions. It’s the outdated technologies and well-meaning colleagues who want to “circle back,” and the MIA contractor you have to email. Again.
We all have too much on our plates. Yet, focus matters more than ever. This creates a Catch-22 for anyone trying to actually achieve something at work.
Over the last 17 years, I’ve tried every possible tactic to eliminate the repetitive, manual tasks that come with running a growing business. Only one thing has consistently worked: automation.
Automation can maximize your potential
Despite starting a company named Jotform, I don’t care deeply about forms. However, I’m utterly determined to keep building Jotform to help people and organizations be more productive — in the best sense of the word.
That’s why I wrote my new book, Automate Your Busywork. The world of work has changed dramatically and will continue to transform with the rise of AI and automation. To be truly productive, you need to build a system that works on autopilot while you apply your skills and innate talents.
You also need to shift your vision of work from linear to circular. Most of us were trained to move step by step through our workdays. As the marketing manager for a small consumer brand, for example, you might develop a customer satisfaction survey, vet it with your colleagues, email it to people who purchased in the past 30 days, send follow-up notes, and analyze the responses.
Automation requires circular thinking. With simple tools, you could create purchase-triggered online surveys that automatically tally the results and prepare digital reports. This loop would run silently in the background, giving you the time and brain space to engage with customers or develop strategic marketing campaigns.
Technology evolves so fast that specific examples are quickly outdated. However, the principles of automation endure even as the tools advance. It’s like learning to cook; with the right skills, you can grill vegetables, poach an egg, or bake a pie. And instead of spending your time churning out those pies, automation empowers you to spend your days creating delicious new recipes.
If you’re ready to save your brain for the big stuff, here are three ways to get started.
1. Minimize cognitive fatigue
Life throws a lot at our brains. Processing today’s deluge of information requires “higher order executive function,” says Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain. Whether you’re reading a report or scrolling social media, our brains aren’t built to maintain this peak function for extended periods. Yet, that’s exactly how most of us spend our workdays. Then we wonder why we leave our wallets at work.
Switching quickly between tasks only makes the problem worse, causing fatigue, frustration, and impulsive behaviors. A tired brain also makes it tough to focus on meaningful projects. Ironically, an over-stimulated mind will eventually switch to autopilot.
After a while,” says Greenberg, “our brains automate things and take less energy.
Walking the same route to work every day requires less mental fuel than an ever-changing commute. Automating your busywork takes this brain-saving strategy a step further. When you clear away the spreadsheet analysis, email sorting, and other tedious stuff, you’ll have mental clarity when you need it most.
2. Embrace meaningful work
For me, meaningful work is writing, strategizing, and collaborating with my teams. It’s definitely not running payroll or scheduling meetings. While freeing yourself from professional tedium can be a privilege, it’s also part of living a richer life.
“Studies show that people are happier, healthier, more engaged, more committed, and better-performing when their work is meaningful to them,” writes Michael F. Steger for Greater Good Magazine.
“These results seem to hold true whether you are working as a nurse or a custodian, whether you lead an international charity of Fortune 500 company, or whether you work in a warehouse fulfillment center or a school.”
In a 2018 study of U.S. professionals across 26 different industries, nine out of 10 people said they’d take a pay cut to do consistently meaningful work. While coverage of this trend — accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic — often focuses on switching jobs, that’s not the only way to go deeper. Let automation handle the boring stuff so you can engage with more meaningful aspects of your career.
3. Launch a positive feedback loop
Mental fatigue often creates a vicious cycle. For example, you feel drained, so you skip your post-work run and order pizza. The next day, you feel sluggish because you didn’t get those post-run endorphins. Automation, however, can trigger a virtuous cycle.
Most manual jobs have already disappeared, for better or worse. There are no more newspaper typesetters or film projection operators. “Automation is happening pretty quickly,” says Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey, “which is why I think things are now coming to this tipping point where meaning matters a lot.”
In other words, automation, AI, and digital technologies will only increase our desire for meaningful work. At the same time, building automated workflows enables you to spend more time in your professional sweet spot. It might not stop you from losing your temper in the checkout line, but automation is a powerful way to save your brain for the big stuff.