No one can do everything at once. When everything is coming at once, it disrupts the workplace. But how can we make the most of our precious asset: TIME? Aytekin Tank, the Founder and CEO of Jotform, provides insights on learning to Automate Your Busywork and focus on what matters. Through the steps he shares in this episode, Aytekin guides leaders in maximizing the most valuable resource leaders have. He also explores shifting from busy work to less work. Focus on what matters with Aytekin Tank today.
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Learn To Automate Your Busywork And Focus On What Really Matters With Aytekin Tank
In this episode, we are going to talk about how to automate your busy work. This is an important topic for a lot of people who are very busy and spending too much time on unimportant things and they never get to the important things. I’m so excited to have our special guest, Aytekin Tank.
Thank you for having me on this show.
To give a short introduction, he’s the Founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online form and productivity software that’s used by eighteen million businesses. There’s got to be something good about this tool. He’s a productivity and automation expert. Coming up, he is going to be publishing his new book, Automate Your Busywork, and that’s what we are going to talk about. Aytekin, welcome to our show here.
Thank you for having me. Would you like me to start by talking about the book?
Before we get into the book, why don’t we talk about why is this topic important to you? Did you have some meltdown and this epiphany came? What was the big thing that happened?
I started Jotform in 2006. In the first days, we were doing pretty well in the beginning. A couple of years in, we were a small company and we were doing things, but I was getting stuck. I was stuck in this constant busy work. I will spend all my day emailing customers and vendors and doing HR, accounting, and ordering snacks for the office. I was doing everything, and it was taking all my time.
Out of all the people who are reading, they are shaking their heads, especially the entrepreneurs that wear so many different hats and are doing that. I can relate, and I’m sure many people can relate to that circumstance.
I was drowning in this busy work. At the same time, I was helping my customers automate their businesses because my products are online forms products. Many business operations and tasks start with forms. I was helping them with many things like people filling out the forms and then we help them automate their emails, generate documents, create data, and integrate with other services.
We were doing all this automation, but in my own business, I was stuck on this treadmill of busy work. One day, a friend of mine sent me an email and said, “Did you see that Google came up with a competitive product? They came up with Google Forms. How are you doing? Are you anxious or anything?” I became anxious at that time. I’m already spending all my time with busy work. How can I compete with Google? I started thinking about, “How can I change things?”
If we don’t make space and time for innovation and make sure we are aware of what’s changing in the marketplace and what kinds of competitors are coming in, it doesn’t matter how big your business is, that’s going to be the death of your business.
That’s what I was thinking. I needed to change things. I need to grow my business. I needed to grow my product and make my product better. How can I do that? The answer was automation. I decided that I can apply my own medicine to myself. I’m helping all these people automate their businesses. Why don’t I automate my own business? That’s what I started doing. I started first with my emails.
I will spend a whole day replying to emails. I was able to reduce that to 1 to 2 hours. I started automating many other things like our HR, accounting, how we do product development, and how we do things like that. The main goal was to be able to spend more of my time on creative things like creating a better product and having a better strategy so Google doesn’t beat us. It worked.Spend more time on creative things like creating a better product and strategy. Click To Tweet
Now, we are a company with 500 employees with 20 million users and offices in 7 different cities. Google didn’t beat us, and this worked. While I was working on this automation, I developed this framework that I call the Automation Flywheel. I wanted to share the Automation Flywheel with the world. I have a blog, but this is not something I can put on a blog.
I decided I’m going to write a book. It took me more than a year, but it turned out well. In this book, I’m able to share not just the automation and theory but also practical examples, case studies, and tools that people can use and how they can find all these tools because we are right in the middle of three revolutions.
One of them is software is eating the world. This is something Mark Anderson said when software is eating the world. Everything is turning into software. The best example of this is you will go and tell them, “I want to go to one place,” but now, you don’t do that. You go and do your own research. You have to do 100 different things to be able to do a vacation. Everything has become so fair.
The second change is the no-code revolution, which is Jotform is one example of no-code products. For the no-code products, you don’t have to be a programmer or developer. You can create your own products. There are examples like Jotform, Airtable, Zapier, and many tools like that. The third one is the AI revolution. Everything is about AI. AI is making everything much easier.
Here’s the thing. All these revolutions are going on, but people don’t know where to start or how to start like how they can automate their work. I wanted to provide step-by-step guides and examples so that people can find step-by-step guides on how to accomplish all these things and how to start automating their busy work.
That is the challenge for many people, and I can’t wait to hear about this Automation Flywheel. I love how you talked about those different revolutions. We are already in this AI revolution and some people haven’t caught up to the no-code where they can get the hang of dragging, dropping, and integrating if they are even there. That is another dimension.
I love the fact that what you are offering is a way of thinking. There are tools that can be used, but your book and what you are going to share with us is a round of thinking so that we can use any tool but the tool garbage in, garbage out. You have to know how to think about things before you can solve those problems. Can you give us a little insight into this Automation Flywheel?
The first step is something I called divide and conquer. In the divide stage, what you are doing is you are exploring how you are spending your time on. I describe methods that can be reusable where even if you are not going to use the Automation Flywheel framework, that’s a useful technique. That’s something I call the time audit.
Every top of the art, you make a note of how you spend your time and you do this for a week. At the end of the week, you total up the time you spend. This gives you how much time you are spending on different tasks. You ask yourself two questions, “What should I spend my time on and what shouldn’t I spend my time on?” The second question is important. What you shouldn’t be spending your time on? If you are spending your time on things that are not important to you, like the busy work, those are things that you should be delegating.
You can delegate them to someone else, which is much more expensive and hard to do, or you can delegate them to the machine. You can automate them. In the divide and conquer step, you are basically finding out how you are spending your time like what tasks you want to automate and what tasks you want to spend more time on. There are things that you don’t want to automate like how to strategize for your company if you are a business owner or whatever you are doing. The creative tasks are so much more fun and the things that you are wasting your time on is taking time away from those creative things.
It’s helping people to focus on what matters most to move the needle in the business, and typically the busy work is not the highest priority, value, or impact item. I want to make mention so those who follow me know that I have mentioned before. I also am a big proponent of the time audit because, very often, we don’t realize that we are spending 80% on things that don’t matter. Maybe it’s 98% of things. It is getting that initial awareness and asking those questions to get clear of, “Are the things that we are doing in alignment with the goals that we have?” Usually, it’s that process of getting them back in alignment that needs to happen. I’m a big proponent of the time audit as well.
We are also spending a lot of time waiting for teams. We are also spending a lot of time thinking about what’s going to happen. There are things that you can put on your to-do list, but there are things that you cannot put on a to-do list. Most of the things that are taking our time are simple things that you can put on a to-do list. That’s something I call workflows and business workflows. That’s a very common term.
In the concrete step, it’s about understanding your workflows by creating these workflow diagrams where you can map out exactly what’s happening. If you are waiting for something to happen or if you are waiting for someone to sign a document or accept a calendar invitation, those things are all going into your workflow diagrams. When you have these workflow diagrams, you are more able to understand the basic documents in your business, which is great even if you don’t want to automate them.
That’s in the first stage of documenting your business based on time because you can’t delegate something if you don’t have it documented to show people how it should work. That makes sense.
After the divide and conquer step, the design and implement step comes. In the design and implement step, you are designing automation. In the book, I describe how you can find all these no-code products or SaaS products because you can’t find any product or any work you need and people usually don’t know how to find them or how to apply them.
There are tools that connect different products to each other. I’m helping people find those tools as well. It doesn’t have to be another third-party product. You can use your own existing products to implement automation. I look for other products. I look for a good email product that I can switch to because I was receiving hundreds of emails every day but I was spending so much time trying to find emails and trying to decide which email to ask for.
I was getting lost in a sea of emails. I looked for all these. I tried ten different products but decided none of them is working. I created this home-built solution using Gmail. Our business uses Gmail. Even though we use our own domain, we use Gmail for it in the backend. I’m only using two things like labels and filters.
What I needed to do was I needed to prioritize the emails. When I open my emails, I want to see the top-priority emails first. I want to process them and then I want to go to the 2nd and 3rd priority. I created three labels. Level 1, 2, and 3 labels. On the level one label, I created these filters so that only high-priority emails go there.
If our VP of HR or COO emails directly to me and you can create those filters on Gmail, they go to level one. For example, my publisher is Wiley. If Wiley emails me, that’s going to go to my level one email. I don’t want to make them wait. Level one is like this. Level two is more about people I know. When they email me, I want to see them and be able to reply to them.
Level three is more like reports, newsletters, and trends where I’m in the CC or BCC. Everything else goes to the regular inbox. Here’s the important part. I use browser bookmarks. When I go to my emails, I never go to my Gmail inbox directly. I will click on the bookmark and go to level one emails first. I will process them and then I will go to levels 2 and 3.
I don’t have to worry about missing an important email. If I’m on vacation, if I only have ten minutes to process my email, I will go to my level one emails and quickly process them. I’m going to make the other emails wait for a later time. If I have back-to-back meetings and then I have fifteen minutes, I can go to level one and process it. I do the inbox zero approach as well on these levels.
Let me stop you there because I want people to understand some of the psychology behind that. The fact that you don’t go into your main email box relieves a lot of stress because when you go in there, you probably see hundreds right away. You just go into those that are the most priority. They are already there for you because you have already been able to have them based on rules that they get defined as to where they go. They get filtered into the right place.
For those who are reading, this is a simple way that you can do with Google but you can do it with any mail product. They all have filters and labels that will allow you to do something very simple like that. The one thing I want to add, if you don’t mind, is one of the things that I recommend as people are learning to better communicate with one another and to set priorities together because everything’s urgent, and that becomes a problem too.
How do you label what’s levels 1, 2, and 3? Here is one little tip for those who are reading, and maybe you do this too. Maybe this is also something to think about when you are communicating with your teams. If you have some rules about putting in the subject field some standards so that you know if it might be NRT or Needs Response Today, that’s in the title that allows you and everyone else to create filters based on what some of those standard rules that you have for titles. Tomorrow could be TM and so forth. That way, you can create a system where people don’t get bogged down by all of these emails that are internal as well. Do you do something like that?
Yes, but I cannot do it differently. I tell people, “If you need my response quickly, also write me on Discord,” which I don’t use very often. When people write me about regular stuff on Discord, I will answer them, but I will tell them, “If it’s not urgent, please write me an email.” If there’s something urgent, I ask them to write me on Discord because, as a company, we use Discord. To give you an example, I ask them to text me, especially if I’m on vacation or if I don’t want to check the emails that day. I make sure to feel more comfortable knowing that if something important comes up, people are going to text me so I don’t have to check my email.
You are identifying certain platforms for different types of communication. That’s also something that I believe in. Like you said, you can go on vacation and not worry about email or only check the high priority whereas the important things are going to get through because you have a way to communicate. I love that.
For those of you who are reading, these are some simple things that you can implement across your organization that are going to relieve stress for everyone. Sit down with your group and come up with some rules and define what platforms are used for what types of communication. I don’t know about you. With the whole hybrid work environment, what happened under COVID is we added more communication platforms but no rules or structure around how they should be used. Therefore, it’s created even more stress for people because now not only do I have to be present on one platform, but I have to be present on multiple platforms. It’s energy and time-sucking.
It’s out of control. I prefer to have communication as opposed to sync communication like, “Let’s schedule a meeting. Let’s send an email instead of using chats or texting.” Those things should be only left for urgent stuff so that we can make our own schedules and work on our own time. Deep work or creative work requires you to be able to put the time in like time boxing your time.
In the mornings, I go to the gym. I take a shower, and then I have my coffee. I then sit in front of the computer. I don’t want to do busy work. I want to do some creative work like writing something, strategizing about business, and thinking about the big picture. That’s much more fun. It’s also not possible when I’m tired or exhausted. Those times should be left for processing emails and things like that.
That goes to the point of knowing when your best energy is so that you are doing the things that are appropriate during the day that are in match with the type of energy that you have.
Automation Flywheel is how to refine and iterate your systems. There’s a book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows and that’s one of my favorite books. It’s talking about how systems shape the world and how we can use system thinking to make a change or make a dent in the world, and how to fix things in the world. Adding some automation here and there is not enough. You need to start building systems because you want to create continuous improvement. You want to create a machine that you can continuously improve, iterate, and review your systems. That’s the third step.You need to build systems because you want to create continuous improvement. Click To Tweet
Is the third step system thinking?
The third step is to review and iterate. You are basically creating these systems from this automation and your continuous improvement. It’s a process of continuous improvement because you cannot automate everything at once. You want to be able to define and understand your work, add some automation, and create some systems. You want to keep doing that continuously. System thinking can help you do that as well.
Are there only three steps to the Flywheel? There’s the divide and conquer, design and implement, and review and iterate.
What did I not ask you yet that you feel is important for our readers?
I will say how to start this journey and I talked about that a little bit, but it’s important to reiterate. You want to ask the question, “What should I spend my time on? What shouldn’t I spend my time on?” The second question is important. How are you spending your time? How are you wasting your time with stuff that is not important?
Once you face that, it’s harder not to change it because once you do that time audit and see that you are spending so much time on these things, the rest comes much more easily because you understand how your time is being wasted. I will start with that. I give lots of examples in the book of how to start and how to continue. It’s a process. It’s something you gradually start and improve your work.
How would you define productivity and why?
Productivity is about prioritization. If you are spending your time on things that are not important, I don’t think you are being productive. In our metrics, it is importance versus urgency. You want to be spending most of your time on important stuff. You don’t want to get stuck in urgent unimportant things or unimportant non-urgent things. You don’t want to spend your time with unimportant things. You want to spend most of your time on important things.
It’s easy to spend your time with urgent stuff because it comes up. It’s like snatching. It’s easy to spend so much time, but productivity is about finding time for the important things like using time boxing and finding the time that you have the most energy. You also talked about that in your book where energy is the most important part. Put your energies into important stuff and find a time that best treats you to work on those important things, and that can make a huge difference. It made a big difference for me, and it will make a big difference for our audience as well.
You made a difference to help you to grow your business and faster to scale. How did it help you in terms of the level of stress that you were feeling?
I have three kids. I just have a daughter. It can be stressful to have a company and have a family and so many things going on. It’s stress. It’s about being able to manage or control your time. If you are not controlling your time, you are constantly being stressed and anxious because you are behind things. Automation is delegating to machines, delegating to other people, or deciding on, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” Saying yes to everything is not a good idea. It’s about prioritization at the end. Everything is about prioritization. Family is always first for me. I prioritize family, but I also want to work on the important things in my business and try to delegate things to automation or build a great team so that I don’t have to worry about things.
What I hear you saying is that this approach, this Automation Flywheel for you, enabled you to have balance to prioritize both business priorities and family priorities at the same time without having that elevated stress.
It helped me grow my business and also grow my family.
Thank you so much for being here. We didn’t get a chance to talk about Jotform. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that platform in the context of automation and what it can do for people and then maybe give us some contact information about yourself.
Jotform is an online form builder. It’s a way for you to automate your business because when you are dealing with other people, it’s so much harder to email people. Try to communicate with them for every little detail. It’s hard, but if you use online forms, it’s much easier. People fill out the form and then you can ask the questions that you want. It’s free.JotForm is an online form builder. It's a way for you to automate your business. Click To Tweet
You can go to Jotform.com and create a free form. We also help out with other automation steps like document generation and email creation. It integrates with hundreds of other products. I applied these automation principles in our product as well. It’s not personal or for the company but also the product. The book is coming out, Automate Your Busywork. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. People find it useful and it’s helped me. I hope that it’s going to help other people.
Thank you so much for being here and sharing your Automation Flywheel and various different tips and tricks. Email itself and getting that will help people to get out of some of the craziness that they might feel that they are in. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you very much.
Thank you all for being here. Go and implement one thing that we talked about with the email. It makes so much difference for you. Maybe you are already doing that with your email, but how can you step back and utilize this system thinking? Maybe it’s time to do a time audit as we discussed and take that first step in that Automation Flywheel. Maybe it’s getting your processes documented and all your workflows so that you see what’s going on because until you document it, you can’t optimize it. There are so many great steps in here that you can get started with something that’s going to help you to take back time. We will see you in the next episode.
About Aytekin Tank
Aytekin is the Founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online form and productivity software used by 18 million+ businesses, creators, and individuals. Aytekin is a productivity and automation expert who has recently authored the book “Automate Your Busywork”
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