Experimental Civics


The Human Hour | Automation for Social Good

Often when we hear the word automation, we immediately think about the negative associations. While those certainly warrant discussion, I want to take the time to break down some of the positive around work automation — especially from the perspective of the social good.

Why does automation matter?

Having been in the community organizing space for several years, I know firsthand how drudging the tasks of data entry, travel logistics, and expense management can seem. While they are certainly important to the running of any nonprofit business, they needlessly take countless hours away from actual organizing, as they can easily be automated. I once saw a fellow organizer pulled away from an important EPA hearing event because they had to complete an expenses report by the deadline. I watched as he sat behind the registration desk at the meeting, struggling to get everything done instead of actively engaging in the process. This is unacceptable.

This should matter to everyone for a lot of reasons. First, there are so many great people out there currently doing amazing work on the front lines of communities, and they deserve the chance to focus on their work. Beyond that, can you imagine the sheer number of hours that would be freed up through automation and how much good those hours could do when dedicated towards making change and doing good?

Automation doesn’t take away your job, it gives you more “human hours”

It’s helpful to articulate here what automation isn’t. Automation doesn’t mean giving away the job you love to computers and spending your life in pursuits that don’t bring you joy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Automation is meant to deal with the rote tasks — the same ones that are often more effectively done by computers due to a lack of human error — to free up time for the work you love to do and address the challenges that comprise our unique purposes as human beings. For some, this could be teaching art, for others it might be speaking at a town hall, and for others it will be spending even more time coding and perfecting a system to improve emergency response systems.

Human Hours: The times where we can dedicate ourselves to the aspects of work that we truly enjoy.

Through automation, we are given one of the few things we cannot buy: time. These “human hours”are times in which we can dedicate ourselves to the aspects of work that we truly enjoy. If you’re a painter, dealing with client invoices or event ticketing issues for your gallery opening next week can be tedious, and it’s unlikely that you enjoy those activities (although not impossible). Imagine the role that automation could play here, where you could instead focus your energy on the pieces you want to show — perhaps you’ve had a last-minute inspiration to create a showcase painting, or you want to focus on who is coming to your event and networking with them. Automation gives you the freedom to pursue what you love instead of getting bogged down in the administration of your passion.

How “human hours” can help you?

We could deep dive into the 40-hour work week and then tangent into a conversation on the enhanced productivity of 6-hour work sessions, but I believe that we all have the agency to question how we want to build out our days and delegate the hours that make up our very short and precious lives.

With all of my current and past staff, I frequently push them to listen to their bodies and monitor their peak productivity sprints. For example, some of my best work is done in the early hours of the morning. In the first few hours of being awake, I can knock out a ton of heavy, detail-oriented assignments, leaving the creative tasks for the early afternoon. I have been tracking my productivity for the past 2–3 years since I started working full-time, monitoring my health, and working on my masters program in the evening. I needed my life to be efficient and regimented, but I also wanted to make sure I was happy, which means doing things when they make sense, and not when other people think I should be doing them.

I don’t need to work 8 hours a day (or more) to be productive. So many of us forget that the mind, while a powerful engine, needs space to regenerate and grow in its own way. I give myself the ability to do that by focusing on being highly productive in the morning; switching to an art project, working out, or doing some light reading in the afternoon; and moving on to other physical tasks before tapping out my energy in the evening. This is what works best for me. What works best for you might look entirely different.

When I think about “human hours” in my own life, it’s a chance to ensure that those hours spent in my peak productivity are of the upmost importance and require critical thinking when I can provide it. Notice that I didn’t list any mundane or routine tasks on my list. These still need to be done, obviously, but spending my peak hours of productivity doing something easily done by a computer (and not at all enjoyable for me) such as figuring out my expenses, is not the best use of time from anyone’s perspective.

By optimizing how I approach my time, it also helps me to be happier and more fulfilled, which in turn encourages me to be more productive. On the off chance that you feel deeply fulfilled when doing data entry (Note: I didn’t say data or data analysis — I love pattern-finding exercises!), then more power to you, but I think I can confidently speak for most of us when I say that there are better uses for our energy and passion.

I recently had a conversation on this exact topic with my mentor Chelsea Collier, Founder of Digi.City. We both expressed an interest in showcasing the positives around this buzzword and what it could potentially mean for all of us. You can find our conversation below:

The future is now, despite what we might want to think, hear, or even understand. Denying the benefits of automation and focusing on the negatives will not delay adoption, instead, it will keep you in a pattern of doing things you hate unnecessarily. There are certainly many sides to this debate, but I think it’s important to understand some of the benefits of using automation for the social good and pushing humanity forward.

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