Making routine tasks more efficient – When to automate?

We talk a lot about automating tasks to make things easier on yourself, but when you go overboard  with a routine task and do it too much you don’t really get that much bang for your buck. XKCD’s handy chart shows you exactly how much time you’ll gain when you automate tasks.

routine tasks

If you ever wanted to find out when optimizing your task costs you more than it brings you, then this is extremely helpful. The time horizon is five years, a good-ish time frame, because, seriously, in five years you are probably doing something else.

Start vertically — How often do you do the task? — then look horizontally — How much time do you shave off?

The cell at the intersection gives you the amount of time you can invest in optimizing the task. More than that and you actually lose time. For example, if you do a routine task daily (e.g., visiting a couple of websites), and you can save 1 minute each time by switching to RSS Feeds, then it makes sense to invest 1 day in optimizing this (third column “daily”, down to fourth line “1 minute”, the cell at the intersection is “1 day”).

There are a few flaws with this:

  1. How many tasks that you were doing five years ago are you still doing? I’d give a max window of two years for most task executions.
  2. Whatever system you designed to save you time will itself require maintenance — and become a task.
  3. Very few people can figure out when they start a time-saving task how long it will take.
  4. Not all attempts to create a time saving system actually work
  5. Not all attempts to create a time saving task actually save time
  6. Once you create a time saving system, you are locked in to doing the task the way that the time saving system expects you to do it — or, continually modify your time saving task, which again, takes time.

Also, regarding the automation I would still recommend trying to apply a derivation for the Rule of 3 just to identify if that’s really a requirement. Think about at least 3 situations when it’s handier for you to have something automated rather than doing it manually. Maybe you enjoy it, or maybe it helps you to learn better the process. One example that comes in mind is when i’ve started to learn HTML, there were to choices: to use a WYSIWYG or write it manually. And guess what, repetition proved to be a success and oh my god i’m able to write it directly in Vim. Lifetime achievement? No, but it’s an example for repetition vs automation.

Of course, all these conclusions presume you are the only one that benefits. If the savings can be easily adapted by others – for example, computer code for a program that automates a task for hundreds of people – then the amount of time that can be spent increases. Indeed, in some cases, when optimising for others, spending far more time than they save can be worth it, if the people you’re working for are paying you for the product and the time savings keep them happy and likely to keep paying you.