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March 29, 2016

What to automate, what to outsource and what to do yourself

James Qualtrough

When was the last time you felt a little overwhelmed by your workload?

As a creative there’s nothing better than having full oversight or control over your work but this often means you hold on to unproductive and time consuming tasks. It doesn’t matter whether you’re employed, self-employed, freelancing or a startup entrepreneur - I’m betting it wasn’t all that long ago that you felt under pressure. You might even be feeling it right now. But don’t worry help is at hand.
A solution to ‘burnout’ and ‘task-list creep’
A creative’s task-list is never complete and we’re often our own worst enemy when it comes to filling it with ideas, tasks and side-projects. But chances are you’re not running as efficiently as you could be. Enlightened creatives are ditching the drudgery and embracing automation and outsourcing to work smarter and create more time to focus on the things they enjoy most and where they add most value.
However, it’s not just a case of ‘automate and forget’ and you have to be smart about what you choose to hand over the control on. We’ve all been on the receiving end of poorly targeted or impersonal automated tweets or emails - more often than not they do more harm than good.
So, when is it right to automate, when should you outsource and when should you just knuckle down and burn the midnight oil? If you think you could do with some automation or outsourcing in your life then the following tips should help you avoid the pitfalls and find the right solutions to fit your workflow.

Guiding principles for automating and outsourcing tasks

I work on the principle that anything I automate or outsource should support, power-up or add value to my workflow. If it doesn’t fit one or more of these then it should be something I do myself. For example - auto DMs on Twitter don’t support me, don’t add value and don’t power up my activity - they may save time in the short term but that’s not good enough in itself. So I don’t automate them. Scheduling tweets supports me and adds value by choosing the best times to post – so I automate this part of my workflow.
Adding value is all about quality. You need to look for whether a solution adds value beyond what you could do. For example, if you outsource a task to a specialist, do it because they are going to do a better job at it than you. The goal is not just to replace your part and save time, but have the decision to outsource as a multiplier. Not only will you be freed up but you’ll get a higher quality output.
Finding a solution that powers up is all about efficiency. Can the solution do a task to a greater efficiency than you? This is a really effective way to scale manual tasks. This may not do the job any better than you but it should complete the tasks in a quicker timeframe and produce a higher quantity output.
Solutions that provide support are often able to help you manage or schedule tasks and workflows. These make complex or unstructured tasks easier. While they might not necessarily speed any task up or help it scale, they keep or maintain a manageable structure or process.
Of course the real gold is when you find a solution that does all three. These are the no-brainers, the elements that will transform your output on a daily basis.

Power up and add value with automation

Quuu - a list of solutions to help you get more from your social media wouldn’t be complete without Quuu. I use Quuu to power up and add value to my output. Unlike other solutions that share content on your behalf, Quuu is hand-curated and gives you the ability to see what is going to be posted in advance. The team has had a focus on quality from the start and as a result this has become an important and trusted part of my social media curation process.
IFTTT - there are so many little tasks you can automate with If This Then That by building recipes. This is worth looking at for the many micro tasks you have in your workflow. To get an idea of what is possible it’s well worth browsing existing recipes and play with creating some of your own. Some interesting ones I’ve seen range from automatically saving tech stories on TIME to Pocket to saving starred emails in gmail to Evernote.
Buffer - Buffer is a great support tool that adds value to the social content sharing process. Quuu also integrates with Buffer making them a perfect pairing. As well as scheduling social posts, Buffer helps optimise the time posts are shared for maximum engagement. This is one of those tools that I use everyday 
Goodbits - I curate Little Walden, a weekly newsletter for creatives, sharing 5 links every Friday. Without Goodbits it just wouldn’t be practical to run. I simply curate links through a chrome extension or by connecting different social accounts. Setting up the newsletter is as simple as dragging and dropping the stories I want to share into my newsletter before scheduling. After set up there’s no HTML code required and the only time it takes is the time to find great content.
Feedly - when it comes to powering up my content management process Feedly is awesome. Without it there’s no way I could follow as many blogs and websites as I do. Each week thousands of new posts flow through my Feedly allowing me to pick out relevant posts easily and efficiently all from one system. From here I can read, share or add to other services like Pocket or Buffer.
Zapier - This is a fantastic service that connects supported apps. And there are hundreds. It’s a little like IFTTT but far more app specific and works off triggers, searches and actions. For example you can create a Zap to create a new row in a Google Spreadsheet (action) for new Paypal sales (trigger). Again it can just take away some of the donkeywork you may currently be doing manually.

Power up and add value with outsourcing

Fiverr - Fiverr is a marketplace for creative and professional services. You can browse for specific services and review offerings, which start from $5.
Upwork - Upwork is a place to hire freelancers for your projects or tasks. You can list a project and either approach people direct or submit it and wait for people to apply. It is a great way to find help with anything from technical development to manual admin tasks. The system is great for monitoring quality and controlling payment.

Additional considerations when outsourcing and automating

When evaluating when to outsource or automate there are secondary filters to take into consideration such as risk, responsibility and context. These are impacted greatly by whether the task being automated is an internal task like research or admin or if it is an external task like social media management or blogging.
Internal vs external tasks
If you’re automating or outsourcing externally facing areas of your workflow or customer, colleague touchpoints they obviously carry a higher risk. Understanding where the system may fail or where problems might occur and evaluating the potential fallout is important. What is an acceptable risk is down to you to decide but it’s important to think about this before hand and have a plan ready for if something does go wrong.
Responsibility
It’s also important to consider what your responsibility to that task is. Is it to get the most done in the shortest amount of time or is it to deliver your unique personal stamp or personality. You need to be wary about over-automating tasks that require some element of personal touch. In these cases you either need to do the task manually or ensure you have visibility and ability to input at any stage in the process 
Personal touch
Where a task involves people, whether that’s clients or colleagues, particularly when there is an element of support or troubleshooting I’d always err towards doing these tasks personally. These are things that become extremely irritating when automated and outsourced. They are also great opportunities to learn, engage and build relationships. More than likely there is nobody who can add more value to these tasks than you. 
Context
Sometimes tasks need context or human interpretation to be completed successfully. You need to be 100% confident that somebody or solution can interpret the information in the same way as you before outsourcing or automating 
An example of this would be automating social responses. We’ve all seen this too many times where you send a message and get an automated response that clearly doesn’t relate to your original message 
Another example would be researching blogs to approach for guest posting. This is a task that could easily be outsourced, but how can you be certain outsourcing this will get you the same results as if you’d done this yourself? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it but you should consider it and put things in place to help you manage and assess the performance of any outsourcing.

Summary

Outsourcing and automation can be hugely beneficial when employed in the right areas. With some planning and research you can find the solutions that will not only add value to your current workflow but help you scale your operations and increase quality. Finding effective solutions is about much more than freeing up your time and can be a real multiplier of output.
Focussing on the solutions that not only support you but help you power up and add value will take you from burnt out to burning bright. So time to ditch the admin and the mundane and start focusing on adding value and doing what you do best.
Share the solutions you’ve found to working smarter in the comments below.
James Qualtrough
James Qualtrough is co-founder of Slidecraft.com, working on transforming online presentations for storytellers & audiences.
March 17, 2016
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