Manual first, then automate

I see a growing trend towards automation in just about every corner of technology that intersects with work and life, and I’m doubtful that this trend will ever slow down, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence.

In many cases, I am a fan of automation. I’m all for systems that eliminate routine, repetitive tasks. At the same time, understanding the true value of automation requires doing something by hand over and over before automating it.

A knife and cutting board does the job until you have to dice up a whole bag of onions. A hammer is fine until you have to drive in hundreds of nails while building a fence. Pen and paper is okay for task management until you have to wrangle multiple projects and stakeholders over multi-month project lifecycles. Simple tools are great for simple tasks, but there comes a point where the manual tools start losing efficacy.

Doing things manually enables you to get acquainted with a unique type of pain—the pain of rote. That pain can be a feeling, like There are definitely more important things that I could be working on or There has to be a faster way to do this or This task is boring. It can be physical, as in pain from a repetitive strain injury in progress. With that experience, you can clearly perceive and identify the benefits of automation and how it would relieve that pain.

Gradualism for Automated Work

A colleague of mine shared a story about how many first came into his role, he was introduced to the computer system for managing leads. He quickly realized that they were all these automated processes on the backend, but he wasn’t sure how any of them worked. So he asked for those automated processes to be turned off so he could learn how to do everything manually first. Once he felt comfortable with how the system worked, he would start automating things incrementally as it made sense.

I think an incremental approach to automation is a wise choice. There is a cost of automation, and it’s important to ensure that the benefits outweigh those costs. Gradualism ensures that you’re automating the things that truly bring value to day-to-day work.

Randall Munroe, “Automation” (xkcd)

Thoughtful Automation

Automation promises to save time, but that’s not always the case. Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it should. Sometimes it’s better to do things the quick and dirty way even though it may be clunkier than an automated solution. It’s not really practical to write out a slick Excel formula every time you need to do some basic math. Not every repetitive task requires a script or a macro. Sometimes the faster approach is to just do the task. If the problem really needs an automated solution, you’ll definitely feel the pain.

Ultimately, automation is just another tool. It has unique affordances and benefits, and it’s important to know when it makes sense for a given situation. And the only way to know if automation is really going make a difference is to do it yourself first.

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