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3 Ways to Automate Your Busy Work and Boost Your Productivity Research has found that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% on unnecessary tasks. You are not the problem: Busy work is.

By Aytekin Tank

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

They say a drowning man will clutch at a straw.

Back in 2008, I was drowning. I was inundated with busy work and couldn't get my head above water.

I had recently launched my company, Jotform. In those days, we were a three-person team. Still, I had a hand in everything, from design and business development to marketing and troubleshooting. It was an early stage that I'm sure sounds familiar to many entrepreneurs, especially bootstrappers.

I couldn't focus on my core duties like hiring and business development when I was stomping on fires all day. I wasn't enjoying the day-to-day work. My to-do list only seemed to grow, but I felt like I was never getting enough done. On top of it all, big competitors like Google were tossing their hats into the online forms ring. The future looked busier and busier. Burnout was on the horizon. I started to fear that the problem was me: that I wasn't cut out for the startup life.

Here's the straw I wish someone would have handed me: You are not the problem. Your busy work is. And so is the idea that you have to do everything yourself.

With time, I discovered that the secret to eliminating busy work is automation. Just as my company was automating online form creation, it dawned on me that I could do the same with my work. It comes down to choosing the right kind of tasks — the projects that genuinely inspire and fuel you — and trimming away the rest through automation or elimination.

Today, I make it my daily mission to be deliberate about choosing tasks, with an eye toward quieting the call to accomplish the million things I could be doing and focusing on the ones that will move the needle for me and my company. It hasn't always been easy. But with time, I've learned to cut the fat.

Here are three strategies to automate your busy work. Implementing them may require an initial time investment, but trust me: Soon enough, they will pay off in spades.

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1. Reimagine your to-do list

You've probably heard the story of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, the gods punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a boulder up a hill for all of eternity.

In my forthcoming book, Automate Your Busywork, I write about how our to-do lists often feel like Sisyphean tasks — neverending and cruel form of punishment.

The truth is: to-do lists are not the problem in and of themselves. The problem is that we tend to weigh each item on them the same. What's more, we're usually tempted to knock out the quick wins and put off the more important (and oftentimes, more meaningful) tasks on our list. This can be at least partially attributed to the "Zeigarnik effect" — the phenomenon wherein unfinished tasks create cognitive tension that our minds yearn to resolve. It's no surprise that we're desperate to cross out as many things as possible to get rid of some of that psychological discomfort.

To override this tendency, start the day by jotting down your most important task. Put it on a sticky note and post it front-and-center in your workplace so that you remind yourself of that most important task all day long.

You can still create your to-do list. But by having your daily critical task at the forefront of your mind, you'll be less tempted to knock out the low-hanging fruit for the sake of so-called productivity. You'll remind yourself to circle back to that one thing you really want to achieve.

Related: 4 Steps New Entrepreneurs Can Take to Simplify Their Work Days

2. Do a workday audit

Of all of the workplace epiphanies that came about during the pandemic, one of the important takeaways was the number of tasks that many of us could skip — with absolutely no detriment to our work product.

In fact, research has found that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled just as well by others.

That's why one of the first steps in automating your busy work is to understand how you spend your time each day. Begin by performing a workday audit. Pause every hour so and jot down what you've been working on. Note if the activity was meaningful, if it was valuable and if you wish someone else could have done it instead. At the end of the day, write down how you feel about what you accomplished and what you wish you could have done more of.

Consider which items constitute low-value work. Importantly, "low-value" doesn't mean it's low value for the company, rather, it's not a task that you need to manage. What's more, those tasks chip away at the time you could be spending on crucial work for your role in the company. Take customer service: At Jotform, our responsiveness to users is one of our pride points. It's how we gain customers and keep them happy. But as CEO, I recognize that it's not my core contribution. There are other professionals better equipped to handle that vital part of our business.

Be it routine status meetings or administrative work that someone else could manage (and might be able to complete faster and better), identify your low-value tasks. Instead of a to-do list, create a personal not-to-do list.

As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, "Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you'll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, Is this necessary?"

Related: 10 Tips And Tricks To Keep Your Productivity Levels High (And Your Stress Levels Low)

3. Create workflows and automate

Let's say you make a resolution: Hit the gym every day before work. But each time the alarm rings, you struggle to find the motivation to pull yourself out of bed. Snooze button: 1; Gym: 0. Your physical fitness resolution seemed increasingly out-of-reach.

I'll let you in on a secret: Any task becomes more achievable when you reimagine it as a workflow.

You're probably wondering: What's a workflow?

A workflow is a series of interconnected steps that produce a result.

For a gym routine, your workflow might look something like this:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Start the coffee machine.
  3. Get dressed in gym clothes.
  4. Drink coffee.
  5. Drive to the gym.
  6. Exercise for an hour.

Creating workflows removes motivation from the equation — here's just a series of steps that you must complete to get the desired result. And it also enables you to tweak the steps and automate as needed.

Back to the workout scenario: You might automate by programming your alarm clock and your coffee maker for weekday mornings, booking sessions with a trainer and laying out your workout clothes the night before. Or maybe you decide to invest in some exercise equipment and skip the drive to the gym altogether.

It's a simple example, but the point is to map out all of the steps and find any flaws in your process. When it comes to the tasks of your job, it makes sense to regularly revisit your workflows and identify areas for improvement. You might consider including your colleagues in the decision-making process of choosing what to automate or eliminate. For example, one employee had been producing monthly reports for years. Sensing that no one was reading them, he circulated a list of the reports and asked for votes for the most important three or four. The rest hit the chopping block.

It takes some practice to learn how to create workflows and use them effectively. But eventually, you'll start seeing every task as a series of steps with opportunities to refine and improve.

Final thoughts

If you feel like you're drowning in busy work, I hope that the above tools will help you get your head back above water. Remember that you are not the problem. Your work can become infinitely more rewarding with just a few slight shifts in approach and perspective.

Take the straw and thank me later.

Related: Work-Life Balance is Possible — And It's Not as Hard to Achieve as You Think

Aytekin Tank

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, Jotform

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the author of Automate Your Busywork. Tank is a renowned industry leader on topics such as entrepreneurship, technology, bootstrapping and productivity. He has nearly two decades of experience leading a global workforce.

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