Automate Your Life with a Bot Army


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When I upset my 8 year old daughter, she sent me a text message with a digital Poop Army. In this post, I want to show you how to create your own digital Army, but instead of Poop, our Army will consist of Bots. And instead of wielding your Bot Army in anger, we will use our Army for peace and happiness.

Why do we need a Bot Army? Because there are only 24 hours in a day and we need more like 48 hours these days, so lets train the Bots to handle those extra 24.

For the purpose of this post, I define a Bot as some piece of software or hardware that automates one or more tasks. Optionally, they may execute those tasks with a level of artificial intelligence and may collaborate with other Bots and/or humans.

Types of Bots and Their Purpose

Every morning the President of the United States receives a briefing from members of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Think of each Bot you create as a member of your own Personal Intelligence Community. These bots will serve various purposes depending upon your personal objectives combined with the wants and needs of the people in your life. Now, let us explore a few different types of Bots, namely the Personal Assistant Bot, Maintenance Bot and Accountability Bot.

Personal Assistant Bot

Virtual assistants gained newfound popularity with Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek. Certainly, human labor will always have a key position in our outsourced workflow, but now consider tasks that used to be handled by virtual assistants that can now be automated with Bots such as task automation, research and data mining, and testing.

Of course, you will run into some tasks, where one or more elements do require human intervention. Check out this example for a good walk through on how to handle such tasks. For those times when you do that extra human touch, consider Fancy Hands, TimeSVR, Fiverr, Ask Sunday and TaskRabbit.

Task Automation

The first step towards automation is to pay attention to when you repeat yourself, whether in writing, on the phone or in person. Write down (or record with a screen recorder such as Snagit) the steps for each repetitive task with the intention of outsourcing the task to someone with little or no knowledge of the task.

Then, the next time you execute the task, follow those instructions as if you were an assistant hired to perform the task. After one or two trials, you can take that list and automate components (or all) of it with a member of your Bot Army. If you created the instructions via video, you might get a human virtual assistant to transcribe the steps.

Research and Data Mining

The amount of data related to your work and personal life is staggering. Especially with always-on data collecting tools like the Fitbit, various inboxes and smartphones. Fortunately, with a bit of planning, you can harness that data to help make better decisions, create deeper connections with other people and generate new ideas.

You can deploy your Bot Army into your various data stores to filter out the data you need. For example, you might unleash a Filter Bot on your email to look over a daily digest of non-critical emails while getting a text message or phone call for critical actionable emails.

You may also consider deploying some Watcher Bots to notify you when a file in a particular folder or web page changes.

Testing

While automated systems can’t replace skilled editors and reviewers, they can push you towards a better product. There are usually elements of any tasks that can be auto-checked, even if it’s just a check that a related file exists and has been modified within a certain amount of days.

Maintenance Bot

Cut, paste, cut, paste…delete…type, type…cut, paste… stop it!!! Any task that can be done while simultaneously watching your favorite TV show should probably be automated. It’s time to create your own Handy Bots for those recurring tasks that eat your time and energy.

Check out the documentation on how to build a Wikipedia bot for some inspiration.

Organizing

Even though search tools have become very powerful, there is still value in organizing data into some sort of structure. For example, when files are sent to you from a particular vendor, you could have a Sort Bot that takes those files and automatically tags them and put them in the appropriate folder.

Systems

As you start building out the various aspects of your Bot Army, you will need to take a step back and think about how they play together. For example, you may have a Bot that deploys other Bots and then reports a status back to you after X amount of steps have been completed.

Apple has a Configure Bot that helps iOS developers take advantage of continuous integration.

Take some time to dig deeper into the ideas of metaprogramming and code that writes code.

Backup

Make sure to document your backup workflow and decide on a regularly scheduled execution. Don’t forget to have a Restore Bot perform a practice restore every so often to make sure your backups are actually usable.

Don’t be like an old boss of mine who lost his Master’s Thesis a week before it was due and had no backup. (Ever since that experience, he diligently backs up his work onto two separate floppy disks.)

Accountability Bot

Whether you need to give reports to your superiors or to yourself, measurements related to objectives is invaluable. So is the time you waste collecting tedious data. Let us deploy some Bots and use that time to watch Game of Thrones without distraction instead.

Reminders

If you are monitoring several aspects of data related to your health, you could deploy reminders to eat (or not) and to get out your chair and get moving. A word of caution, this is an area that is easy to go overboard on. Don’t create so many reminders that you become immune to them; use wisely.

Reporting

Let your Report Bots handle the heavy lifting. Any recurring report, when automated, will save you significant amounts of time.

  • Step 1: For each goal in your life, define how that goal is measured
  • Step 2: Document the process for obtaining the measurement data
  • Step 3: Automate as many of the data collection steps as possible and collate into a single dashbard

Delegation

A favorite saying of one of my mentors is “Delegate, but don’t abdicate.” So don’t forget to deploy those Remind Bots to keep tabs on the progress on outsourced projects. According to David Allen’s GTD system, you should maintain a @Waiting list of all those tasks you have delegated.

See if you can create some Detector Bots that determine when something you delegated is finished. For example, you might have asked someone to send you specific information via email, your Bot could filter any correspondance coming from that person and search for keywords that indicate completion.

This provides an overview of the types of bots out there and hopefully gives you some ideas. In a later post, I’ll cover how to make your own bot. In the meantime, learn more about Personal Productivity for Developers.


Elmer Thomas is SendGrid's Hacker in Residence. His mission is to help SendGrid live up to its slogan: "Email Delivery. Simplified" by improving the lives of developers, both internally and externally. Via all sorts of hackery, of course. Follow his exploits on Twitter and GitHub.

Elmer Thomas on Twitter

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