Like just about every business owner (and parent), my life is studded with mindless, time-consuming, but nonetheless essential tasks. Every month, I have to e-sign and send my accountant the same two PDF forms. Every week, I need to order and pay for my kid's school lunches. Every day, I have to (slightly neurotically, I admit) check the traffic stats for my articles.
These are the types of boring, repetitive tasks that I, and just about every other busy professional out there, wishes they could magically make disappear. But sadly, I have neither a personal assistant nor any coding skills. Am I stuck endlessly pasting signatures into documents and forgetting to download school canteen menus?
Automation for the thoroughly non-technical
Nope, says tech journalist and author Clive Thompson in one of the most useful Medium posts I've come across in a while (at least for us non-technical folk -- ace programmers can stop reading now if you haven't already). While speaking to hundreds of programmers for his book Coders, Thompson confirmed the unsurprising fact those with serious tech skills almost always automate this kind of tedious life maintenance with miniature bits of code called scripts.
"Some had scripts that checked for their favorite TV shows on torrent sites every day and then auto-downloaded them. Some ran scripts to check daily for mentions of their company on Twitter or Reddit and copy them to a spreadsheet. One had a script that checked on a solar panel's output and texted it to him every day," Thompson reports.
Getting machines to handle boring, repetitive tasks in this way sounds like a super power to non-technical me, but Thompson goes on to explain that he too has learned to get his computer to take over his most mind-numbing tasks. He wrote one script to check for and download his son's homework, another to text him the international news headlines, a third to keep him informed how his book was doing on Amazon.
And here's where things got surprising, for me at least. Thompson insists that learning to create these little helpers is way easier than the code-phobic among us probably imagine.
"Some of the most incredibly useful code often isn't rocket science. It's drop-dead simple scripts like these. This is why it's low-hanging fruit for dabblers and hobbyist coders. Again, I'm the type of hacker who learns just enough -- and no more -- to solve a problem I've got. But that turns out to be more than sufficient to automate a lot of boring things!" he writes.
No-code options for the completely code-phobic.
Sounds tempting, and Thompson even suggests a free online book, awesomely titled Automate the Boring Stuff With Python, that can teach you the basics. I'm sure it's a fabulous resource, but looking at Thompson's little example scripts and knowing my own incompetence I was still a bit doubtful. That's why I was even happier to read what Thompson writes next.
Tech-savvy readers may be howling with laughter at those of us still not using these tools, but I'm sure I'm not the only low-tech type out there who is excited by this idea. These tools might only save you five minutes here and 15 minutes there, but that can add up to a lot of additional sanity and productivity each week. I personally am going to take Thompson's suggestion and try to automate some of my most boring repetitive tasks. How about you?