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Automate Your Tasks (Away)

by | Jun 6, 2023 | Productivity

In any business, but especially in a side business, you don’t have the luxury of using your time unproductively because you only have so many hours to devote to your venture. But, as with any constraint, this presents an opportunity to improve your efficiency.

For myself, I try to always identify my recurring tasks and to look for ways to do them more efficiently. I learned that lesson volunteering for a politician’s office many years ago.

One of the most tedious tasks was mailing hundreds of birthday cards every month. To do this, we divided the stack of cards and envelopes among us volunteers and then repeatedly placed each card in its envelope and sealed it shut. One day, a volunteer named Mamadou joined us for that task. While the rest of us rushed right in, Mamadou instead took a moment to analyze the situation to see if it could be completed more efficiently. As everyone else was stuffing envelopes, he found a more efficient way of completing our task.

Here, his analysis paid off as he felt that we weren’t being very productive by each of us doing all of the tasks related to stuffing envelopes, instead of dividing those subtasks between us and creating an assembly line and employing the principle of the division of labour (discussed at length in A Secret from 1776 to Improve Your Productivity). This change of approach sped up the entire exercise and reminded me of the importance of analyzing tasks before jumping right into action.

Continuing to apply this principle to repetitive tasks in my businesses, I stumbled upon three time-saving tricks: email templates, document automation, and software integrations.

Using email templates instead of repetitively drafting similar emails has helped me save tons of time. In my tutoring business, the initial introductory email is almost always the same (although I have different English and French versions). I just select the onboarding email template I want and then my entire email is ready with one click.

I use Zoho Mail as my business email provider and it has a template button in the email composition window to insert the template text in the email I’m writing. Gmail and other email providers offer the same option. I use curved brackets “{}” around all of the terms to be filled in, so I know what needs to be changed to personalize the template to the recipient.

Another trick I use is automation templates for preparing similar documents. In particular, I use it for stock options grants as well as certain employment letters. For example, each stock option grant is identically worded with the exception of the recipient’s name and the number of options granted.

With Zoho Mail, I have access to Zoho Writer (the equivalent of Microsoft Word) and Zoho Sheet (the equivalent of Microsoft Excel). These two applications can be used together to automate the preparation of all of these grant documents. Basically, you create certain fields in a Zoho Sheet spreadsheet such as “Name” and “Number of Options”. You then populate those fields in your spreadsheet. In Zoho Writer, you create a merge template and prepare your option grant text and include the field names that you had in the Zoho Sheets file surrounded by curly quotes, and then using the automation menu, you import your Zoho Sheet file into your document, and then you hit the “Run Merge” button and you are good to go.

I also like to include a field in my Zoho Sheet called “Filename” as the automatically generated filename for each of the files created in this automated process. Zoho Writer allows you to generate your finished file in either PDF (Adobe) or DOCX (Word) format depending on your needs for the finished document. Microsoft Word’s Mail Merge’s feature has some of the same functionalities as Zoho Writer, but they are not as developed.

Finally, the last trick to save you time is to have your different applications integrate with each other. For example, my tutoring management software is set up to integrate directly with my accounting software (QuickBooks Online). This means that each invoice generated in the tutoring management software is then synced to QuickBooks, saving me having to spend the time importing the data manually.

Integrations are really the way of the future and should be one of your most important criteria when deciding which software applications to use for your business. Even if your chosen applications don’t have the native integrations you want, they likely already have Zapier integrations. Zapier is an application which facilitates integrations between different software, so to say, even if there is not a built-in integration between the different applications which you are using, you can create a link between them through Zapier, which is already capable of integrating more than 1,000 apps with each other.

You may have noticed by now that AI didn’t make this list. AI can really help with quite a few things, but it still has some ways to go before it is completely reliable. Just look at the trouble it got this lawyer into after the AI “hallucinated” (invented) some court decisions which he cited (Lawyer cited 6 fake cases made up by ChatGPT; judge calls it “unprecedented”). I’m sure once those growing pains are ironed out, AI will be added to this list as a time saver.

Hopefully, this gives you some tips to speed up your repetitive tasks to focus on what you really enjoy. Happy automating!

Matthew Meland

Matthew Meland

Lawyer at FFMP, entrepreneur, blogger

As a lawyer with a diversified civil and commercial law practice, I often work with start-ups and small businesses. On the side, I am involved in several businesses from education services to high-tech.


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