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Friday Favorite: Using Zapier to automate my workflow (Updated)


Recently, the TUAW staff talked about their workflow, and the tools they use to keep their day moving smoothly. One detail that didn't come out in my contribution is my growing usage of automation tools to help me get things done.

I'm an avid IFTTT user, using the web service to send tasks to my children's iPad or mood updates to my Jawbone Up. Recently, though, I found myself needing to do a complex task that fell outside the capability of IFTT. That's when I discovered Zapier, a web-automation service very similar to IFTTT.

Zapier is an online tool that taps into the APIs of over 200 different web services. It includes major services like Evernote and Dropbox as well as niche ones like Campfire, Freshbooks and Github. You can create a "zap" that pulls data from one service and then performs a task based on that data. These zaps run automatically every 15 minutes and can be turned on or off as needed.

In my case, I needed a quick and efficient way to take the contents of an email in Gmail and send it to a shared Google spreadsheet. For a while, I tried copy and paste to move the subject, body and other details into my Google spreadsheet one cell of data at a time, but that task was extremely tedious and time consuming. I looked to Google to see if it had some built-in tools that would let me easily and automatically send data between the two services, but I found none. It was only after hours of searching through other email task-management solutions that I stumbled upon Zapier.

Zapier supports the major Google services, which means it can plumb data from Gmail and then send it to Google Docs. The granularity of control available to you in Zapier is fantastic. I was able to set up a zap that would scan my Gmail account for emails with the label "app review" and then add those emails as new rows to a Google spreadsheet. I could pick the timestamp as column one in the spreadsheet row, the subject as column two and the body as column three. All I have to do now is label an email and wait for my zap to run. It is such an elegant and easy solution to a problem that had been plaguing me for weeks.

This only scratches the surface of what you can do with Zapier. Zapier is available for you to try for free for 14 days. Once your trial is over, you can choose a free plan, which provides you with five zaps that perform a task every 15 minutes. You get up to 100 tasks per month for free. You can purchase additional zaps and tasks starting at US$15 per month for the basic plan which includes 20 zaps and 3,000 tasks. If you want zaps to run faster than every 15 minutes, you can purchase a business plan for $49/month. This plan gives you 15,000 tasks and 50 zaps that run every five minutes.

Update: As pointed out by Rohan Sharma, this same automation can be accomplished with a Google Apps scripting macro in the Google spreadsheet. The script uses Google's API to read your Gmail messages and enter that data in the spreadsheet. This is more or less what Zapier does for you when you set up your zaps, which is why I chose the service. I started down the path of scripting, but it was much more involved and time consuming than I wanted. As mentioned above, I wanted something easy to implement.

It's worth mentioning the macro option as those with experience in this type of scripting may want to forgo Zapier and venture out with their own code. For the rest of us who prefer to let others do the heavy work of scripting, Zapier is an excellent tool.

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