On automation

I’m a firm believer in automation.

Computers are great environments for this—scripting languages (and convenient utilities that leverage them, like Hazel, TextExpander, or If This Then That) make it trivial to organize, queue, and execute all kinds of tasks that otherwise time away from more enjoyable things.

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Life can be a bit harder to automate. It can get expensive, too, because automating real-life tasks tends to require both hardware and software, working in concert, to manipulate the physical world.

On top of that, a lot of the automation we look at isn’t really something that saves us any significant amount of time, because what’s being automated isn’t real work. Probably the most obvious example of this are home-automation tasks like lighting schemes, motorized blinds, and auto-adjusting thermostats. Sure, they’re convenient, but they’re luxuries. They don’t have a meaningful impact in the quality of our lives.

I love my universal remote, but it’s not a time- or work-saver. Not really.

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There are automation technologies, however, that do provide real savings on time and work. Here, however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of automating work that would otherwise be beneficial to do manually.

As an example: I own a Roomba, but not a dishwasher.

We’ve got a long-haired cat whose contributions to the household mainly consists of bundles of fur that roll down hallways like tumbleweed in the desert. My wife is pretty allergic to it, so we need to keep on top of the vacuuming or things go south quickly for her. Given that it’s an otherwise hated chore, we got ourselves a Roomba to patrol our flat for dander and dust bunnies on a daily basis.

On the other hand, doing dishes—while not exactly pleasant—is a chore that allows me to settle into my thoughts, and has been shown to reduce stress levels in studies. I’ll concede that it’s not that hard to deal with, as we’re only two people, but nonetheless this feels like work that’s worth making time for. It’s not uncommon for me to come up with ideas, or solve problems that I’ve been working on, while wrist-deep in suds.

It’s sort of a mandated creative-thinking time, if you will. Given how hectic our lives can be, why would you want to automate that away?