I've always been obsessed with automation. When I had a house I had automatic robot lawnmowers to mow my lawns and a matrix of motion detectors to control my lights. These days I have a simpler life that doesn't necessitate such extreme solutions, but I still benefit from automation.
There's a saying among programmers: if you have to do it three times, automate it. That may be a bit extreme for non-programming tasks, but maybe the equivalent is: if you have to do it every week or more, automate it. Here are a few interesting automations that I have set up.
I invest mechanically according to filters I've set up. Before automating it, I had to log in every day, see if I had money available, see if there were investments available, and then invest. This only took a few minutes a day, but even three minutes a day is an hour and a half per month.
One day I decided to take a shot at automating it. I installed Ruby, Watir, and Headless (nerd stuff that I'm only mentioning in case you're a nerd and want to set up some web automation) and within an hour I had build a program that automatically did all of my investing for me. It's been running without a hitch for six months, which has probably saved me ten hours or so.
I'm intentionally not being specific about where I'm investing because I don't want this to show up on searches for it, so please don't guess or ask questions about it in the comment. Ruby/Watir/Headless perfectly emulate a browser, so there's no way they can tell that it's automated. They probably wouldn't care, since I'm doing the same thing I would have done without automation, but I'd rather not bring it to their attention.
Paying all of my Credit Cards
I log in to mint.com all the time mainly to see if I have any credit card payments due. It's hard to keep track of which have been scheduled and which haven't, though, so I still worry about it all the time. Last month I paid one credit card a day late, which cost me $30 in fees.
Yesterday I took about twenty minutes to log in to each credit card account and set up automatic payments to pay the full balance on the day it's due. This is something that anybody could do, and it's a great failsafe. It feels great to not worry about when credit cards are due anymore. A compromised version of this automation would be to set each one to pay the minimum. You'd still have to check all the time to pay the full bill, but this would ensure that you never mess up your credit by missing a payment.
Finding Cheap Flights
Besides all of the fare alerts I mentioned in this post, I've also now automated finding deals at the FlyerTalk forums. This was a lot easier than the investing because I didn't need to log in or interact with the site. It took only half an hour to make a thirty line program in PHP that parsed all of the links on the front page and searched for deals from SFO, LAX, OAK, and LAS. If it finds one it stores a hash of the URL in the database to check for dupes later, and emails me.
This actually saves me more time than you may think, because I've sunk a lot of time into trying to get deals that already expired by the time I found them. This program runs every couple minutes, so if I see a deal, it will still be available.
Amazon has a great program called Subscribe and Save, which allows you to schedule monthly orders at a discount. By default you get 5% off, but if you order five things or more, you get 15% off, which is pretty significant. I get coconut water, sardines, tuna, and a couple other things through the program. Since I eat the same thing every day, most of my grocery shopping is already taken care of. I just pick up bread, hummus, spinach, and mayo on the way back from the gym when necessary.
Amazon's prices are way better than the grocery store, especially with the 15% discount, and they have better quality canned fish. If I'm traveling within the US I just divert that months shipment to wherever I'm going, and if I'm leaving the US I just skip a month. Very easy.
A hint-- if you're getting more than one of something, consider ordering one of each variation. When I bought two cases of coconut water (I like Taste Nirvana), it counted as one item towards the 15% mark, but when I got one with pulp and one without, it counted as two.
Do you have anything that you automate? I'd be interested in hearing about it below, as would other readers...
Photo is some lawns on Macchu Picchu. It's automatically mowed (by llamas).
Today I woke up to the alarm I set on my phone. My bedroom curtains opened automatically, triggered by the alarm. I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth. On my mirror, which has a 40" LCD hidden behind it, I saw my agenda and noticed that one of my coaching clients had booked a session for Monday.
I made myself some tea, packed my bag, and headed out to the airport. As I left, my door and security door locked themselves, my water heater turned off (valve and power), the thermostat adjusted its setpoints, and the lights turned off. I hit one button and my vacuum left its dock and started vacuuming.
In that half hour, a lot of things happened automatically.
I haven't tracked it, but I'm guessing that having my curtains open automatically makes me get out of bed faster. It's much easier to pop out of bed when the sun is streaming in than when room darkening curtains are drawn. Let's say that saves me five minutes.
I've gotten a lot of emails lately, which has been fantastic. My email volume keeps going up.
There's one question I've gotten a few times, in a few different forms. "How do you do so much [thing]?" Reading is a common one, since I read a lot of books. Or balancing projects with working, traveling, tourism, connecting with people.
First off, I don't think I'm so good at getting stuff done. I see there's a lot more I could do. There's probably a lot better role models than me - if you can find someone who works a stimulating high powered job, competes athletically, parents, and does some philanthropy or art, that person is way ahead of me and you ought to look them up and ask them for their thoughts next time you see them.
I used to be insanely busy like that, with 3-5 things that should be a full time effort on the go at the same time. That's probably part of the secret to it right there - if you overload yourself without getting to breaking point, you'll be amazed at what you can do.
There's ripple effects when you're extremely busy. You stop screwing off and wasting time, because you can't. And other people start respecting your time more, too. If your entire calendar is open, people are flaky and whimsical and ambiguous with plans. But when you say, "My only time free for the next three weeks is this Saturday, at 8AM" - guess what? People come meet you at 8AM Saturday. Now, it'd be absurd to ask someone to commute into the city to meet you at 8AM on Saturday if you weren't busy, but if you are busy, you do it because you have to. And people respect your time.