Fifty-plus years ago, economists predicted that increased productivity through technology would lead to a shorter work week by the year 2014. While those predictions turned out to be wrong, you can still take advantage of technological advances to save time and money by automating parts of your life.
Would you like to check your bank account balance simply by tapping your phone to your wallet? Or automatically get a notification on your smartphone when a product you’ve searched for is sold at a nearby store? Of course you would—this is the future, after all. Most of you probably automate a few things in your lives already, such as direct deposit for your paychecks, but automation can be used for so much more.
Automation makes technology work for you, leaving you with some much needed time to do other futuristic things like fly around in your jetpack (I dream). Here are some great automation tools to help you live a little more like George Jetson.
If This Then That
If This Then That (IFTTT) is a popular web, iOS, and Android app that makes your web applications more powerful by allowing them to work together. Imagine, for example, that I want to get an email anytime someone tags me in a photo on Facebook. IFTTT makes that easy—I just create a “recipe.”
There are three basic parts to each IFTTT recipe: Channels, Triggers, and Actions. For my example, I would set up the following recipe: if someone tags a photo of me (the trigger, or “this”) on Facebook (the channel), then send me an email (the action, or “that”). Here are some of my favorite IFTTT recipes:
- Get emails for new posts from any Craigslist search
I found this most useful while hunting for employment. As you probably already know, finding a job is a full-time job in itself, so automating the process of searching Craigslist job listings is a big timesaver.
- Star ★ a Gmail, send it to Evernote
For productivity’s sake, I like to keep all of my important information in Evernote, a cross-platform note taking and archiving tool, which comes in handy for storing and search through my digital data. Automatically adding my starred emails to Evernote saves me a few minutes many times per week.
- If I like a track on SoundCloud, download that track in Dropbox
I’m often listening to music on SoundCloud while I’m not at home, so this allows me to download some of my favorite tracks when I’m on the go.
Tasker is one of the most powerful automation tools for Android. Have you ever had your phone ring in the middle of a meeting because you forgot to turn your phone to silent? You can avoid that with Tasker.
Tasker automatically performs tasks based on context (e.g. time, location, device state) so you can focus on more important things. To auto-silence your phone during meetings, you can set up Tasker to check your calendar, find when you’re busy, and turn your phone to vibrate automatically. Here are a few of the ridiculously cool things that I do with Tasker:
- When I plug headphones in, turn the volume down to 40%, launch Google Play Music, and start playing.
- When I get home, turn ringer volume up and turn brightness down.
- Automatically text my roommate when my phone battery is down to 5%
Of course, check out Tasker’s Profile Index and list of plug-ins for more inspiration. If you’re an Android user, give it a try. The interface is a bit intimidating, so here’s a beginner’s tutorial to get you started. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never know how you lived without it.
If you’re not already familiar with Google Now, you’re in for a treat. Imagine being able to check your stocks, weather, calendar events, package tracking, sports scores, restaurant reservations, and personal reminders all in the same place.
This is all possible with your new personal assistant, Google Now, which is integrated into the Google Search app for iOS, Android, and the Chrome web browser. Google Now uses location, time, date, and data from your Google applications to provide you with the right information at the right time—I’ll give a few examples.
- If you search for a location on Google Maps, Google Now automatically displays directions (driving, public transit, biking, or walking based on default preference), including traffic details, and even notifies you when to leave if you have included the address in a calendar entry.
- Automatically get updates on your incoming shipments: Google Now scans your Gmail account for a tracking number and displays the status of your package.
- Have a flight coming up? Google Now also scans your Gmail for boarding passes and will update you if there are any delays.
- Google learns many other things you want to keep track of through your search history and displays them for you, such as the scores of your favorite sports teams, the stocks you want to track, and reminders of new episodes of your favorite TV shows.
Location-based reminders are one of my favorite features of Google Now. Because Google Now listens for the keywords “Okay Google,” I’ll pull out my phone, say “Okay Google, remind me to call my brother when I get home,” and as soon as I’m home, I’ll get a notification reminding me to call my brother. It truly acts as my personal assistant.
Google Now’s features are too robust to include everything, so check out the full list.
Remember Samsung’s Galaxy SIII “Share to Go” promotion that enabled free music downloads via posters? A quick song download was initiated simply by tapping a phone to a special tag on the poster. How is this possible? Through Near Field Communication (NFC). NFC allows for close range communication between two devices or between a device and a special tag called an NFC tag. Incorporated into virtually every smartphone available today (excluding the iPhone), NFC, paired with tags, can be leveraged by apps like Trigger to automate any number of things.
Here are some cool things you can automate with NFC tags:
- Put a tag near your wireless router and have your guests tap it with their phones to automatically connect to your home network.
- Put one on your car’s visor and tap it to launch maps and turn on Bluetooth to automate “driving mode” on your phone.
- Put one on your washing machine and tap it to set a timer on your phone for when your laundry is finished.
You can even integrate Trigger with Tasker for even more flexibility! Check out this Instructables article for some detailed instructions and inspiration to get you started with NFC. NFC tags are pretty darn cheap ($1 to $2 each), so pick some up from Amazon and have some fun!
A few money saving automation tips
Automation isn’t just about saving time, you can also use technology to save yourself some money.
- Use Honey for Firefox or Chrome to automatically check for discount codes while you’re shopping online.
- CamelCamelCamel monitors price drops online for the items you choose and will even send you an email if the price drops below a certain point.
- Use the Chrome extension InvisibleHand to automatically get a notification of the lowest price of whatever item you’re currently looking at in your browser window.
- Subscribe & Save with Amazon to regularly ship deliveries of household items so that you don’t have to spend your precious time at the store or risk forgetting to pick up your necessities. You can use it to get anything you need once every month to once every six months. Couple free shipping with a 15% discount if you receive five or more items per month, and you’ve got yourself an automation service that’s tough to pass up.
Of course, this is very much an incomplete list of how you can automate your life, but it will get you in the right direction. I would be remiss not to mention other great automation tools, such as Alfred for Mac, Nest Thermostat, Ninja Blocks, and Belkin WeMo, so be sure to have a look at those, as well.
Something to keep in mind: while these tools are fun and productive, be careful with how much time you spend setting up automation. Are you spending five hours setting up a service that will only save you five minutes? Do a mini cost-benefit analysis and don’t be too proud to back out of a project.
Have a favorite IFTTT recipe or Tasker profile? How do you use NFC tags? Let us know your favorite automation tips in the comments!
Latest posts by Mark Miller (see all)
- 20 Widgets to Improve Your Website - September 26, 2014
- Dropbox Tips and Tricks: Say Bye to That Thumb Drive - August 15, 2014
- Band Website Design: Why Your Band Needs a Site - July 11, 2014