Automation II (aka Efficiency Hack #14: How to Supercharge your Efficiency with If This Then That)

Efficiency Hack #10: Automation with If This Then That

This Efficiency Hack is going to be a little longer than normal because I want to tell you a story…

If you want to skip to the usual brief overview without my little story then click here: How To Automate Your Internet Based Tasks

Before Picture: Anti-Automation

OK, so I’m exaggerating a little to call it anti-automation, but here is my true story of someone (well, many people actually) doing things manually to a ridiculous extent and me automating all of that…

When I started my first stint at Deutsche Bank in the Risk Controlling department (too many years ago to mention without upsetting me ;-)), I quickly found out that most of my new colleagues (who were a great set of colleagues by the way) didn’t know nearly as much about IT as I did.

To get to know the place, I asked my closest colleague if he would introduce me to everyone. He did better than that – he asked them all to give me an overview of what they did on a day-to-day basis (which helped me tremendously understand the work of the department).

When I met Rosy, she showed me something she did every day which I found astounding. Some months ago someone had written out a bunch of commands she had to type in on a Unix machine every morning following a phone call from a colleague in Singapore.

I looked at these sheets of paper – 3 hand-written sheets stapled together. It was a long list of pretty basic command line functions to navigate to a particular directory, pick up a certain file, do some basic formatting on that file and send it somewhere.

Every morning Rosy diligently took her instruction sheets and typed what they told her into the computer – it took her between 30 minutes to an hour, sometimes she had to repeat whole sections because she’d get to a certain point and the file wouldn’t be there. Not being technical she’d just give it another 10 minutes and start again.

Knowing a little bit about Unix scripting, I fired up ‘vi’ and created a script with all of the commands in it, saved it as ‘rosy’ and changed the permissions to make it an executable file. I then told Rosy that instead of copying out every instruction from here 3 sheets, she could just login to the machine and type:


and hit return – and my script would do the rest for her.

I also added a few extras like a bit of code to tell her if the file wasn’t there, if it was formatted incorrectly and a couple of other possible errors I can’t recall right now – so she knew whether to ring Singapore to fix something or just re-run the script in a little while.

Voilà – instant best friend.

I and lots of others in that department used Excel a lot and did similar things with our work there, using the Macro recorder function in excel to automate any consistently repeated tasks. In fact, with one of my colleagues, Claudia, it became a joke that all she needed to do in Excel was ‘Clarify’ (we’d created a button to do a series of tasks and that button was the ‘Clarify’ button’).

The good news is that these days it’s even easier to do this kind of thing – you don’t have to be technical at all, which is what this efficiency hack is all about – see below…

How To Automate Your Internet Based Tasks

Cue If This Then That (

IFTTT is software which allows you, just like a unix script or excel macro in the story above, to automate most manual steps you can think of between different software platforms on the internet and have these ‘jobs’ running in the background based on triggers you choose.

Sound complicated? It’s actually really simple.

Rather than create a new demo when lots exist already I found a brief overview I quite like (because it’s very brief) – it just shows you the platform and gives a good idea of what it looks like and what’s possible. You don’t need any more walkthrough than that because it’s really intuitive and easy to use.

The IFTTT software is free so just try it (and you can always ask me if you get stuck anyway ;-)).

I should also mention another platform called Zapier ( which does the same thing. They are a newer startup but do pretty much the same thing and having spoken to one of the co-founders (& CEO) there, Wade Foster, I can tell you he is a really helpful guy. I just use IFTTT because that’s where I have everything set up. I used Zapier too for a while because I find this technology fascinating and wanted to try a different platform – I also found it did a few things that IFTTT didn’t at the time though they can both do everything I need now. There are undoubtedly other platforms out there too doing similar things – that’s just the way of the world these days.

These two platforms are excellent though and both free so no reason not to use one or both when you’ve decided what you want to automate. Here are a few of my currently configured IFTTT ‘recipes’ to give you some examples:

  1. Archive a copy of all of my articles to Evernote: IF {I publish a new Article on my site} THEN {create a note in Evernote with the same content}
  2. Archive a copy of all favourite Emails: IF {I add a star to an email in Gmail} THEN {create a note in Evernote with the same content}
  3. Send Google Reader items tagged ‘buffer’ to Buffer: IF {I add the tag ‘buffer’ to any Google Reader item} THEN {send this item to BufferApp} (which then shares this item via social media)

P.S. If you want to learn about more useful sites like this one, I wrote an article with 365 of them!! (this one is #9 on that list), you can check it out here: Websites – 365 REALLY Useful Websites You Just Gotta Check Out

Want to see more Efficiency Hacks? No problemo, get the full list here: Business Success > Efficiency Hacks

Previous Efficiency Hack: Use A Smaller Plate


Automation II (aka Efficiency Hack #14: How to Supercharge your Efficiency with If This Then That) — 13 Comments

  1. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading
    it, you’re a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and will eventually come
    back in the future. I want to encourage you to continue your great
    writing, have a nice weekend!

  2. Even without automation, it makes sense to run things on an if/then basis. Planning things with an if/then mindset works well. For instance, if my neighbor offers me chocolate in the midst of my diet, then . . .

    • Hey Yvonne,

      sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been in transit (still am) – I agree, knowing what you want your reaction to be in advance is very good for forming good habits, as is creating convenience with rules and systems (as long as we don’t go too far),

      thanks for the comment! I hope all is well with you,

      take care & best wishes,

      • Interesting Alan,

        We too are in transit. We’ve been enjoying our marvelous ocean view from the balcony of our Thailand hotel this morning. As I wait now to make a google chat connection with the family I’m trying to clear a ton of email and scanning a few things.

        I hope your travel has been fun and interesting. We are having a fantastic time.

        • Oh I do love Thailand.

          I visited for a couple of weeks about 10 years ago and loved every minute of it – I guess the only thing I would say is avoid peak tourist season (we did) – it’s a very different place in and out of tourist season.

          Where in Thailand are you visiting?

          Thai food is awesome but Thai food in Thailand…

          • We spent our first couple of days in Bankok and are now in Phuket. It has been wonderful. Our only complaint is we were unable to bring our kids and grandkids with us. They would have loved it here.

            As far as the food, I’ve been having a fun time trying things I don’t normally eat. Fried vegetables and rice for breakfast, for instance.

            • Nice – I visited Bangkok & Phuket too – I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant I visited on the way into Phuket and I’d tell you – it was awesome, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.

              Have you been on a Jungle trek yet? Quite a nice feeling riding on an Elephant if you’ve never tried that before – well worth it.

              Anyways, I could talk to you all day about Thailand – love the food, love the place, love the people. I never tried fried vegetables and rice for breakfast though – not so sure about that 😉

  3. Oh man Alan,
    I am forwarding this to my husband. He’s a big automation geek being the engineer that he is.
    I can see multiple uses for this.. myself. Just need time now to play with it..

    • Awesome Annie,

      glad you liked the article. Let me know what automation geek Blake comes up with – I know I don’t do anything like what’s possible with it but it’s still pretty cool…

  4. I actually tried IFTTT a few days ago, but couldn’t quite get the hang of it – probably gave it up too quickly.

    Like you last use of it (sending posts to Buffer); I should be able to think of ways to use it.

    Thanks for the rundown!

    • I actually find the interface pretty simple, given what they’re doing.

      They conceptualise it very well – I like the idea of ‘recipes’ – somehow that simplifies it for me – especially that you can pinch other people’s recipes instead of having to come up with them on your own.

      The thing that bugs me about it is I feel that I should be doing more and cleverer things with it. I’m sure the possibilities are endless if you know what you’re looking for.

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