Zapier for Alfred: Run Automated Workflows From Your Mac Keyboard

The quickest way to do almost anything on your computer is with your keyboard. Copying and pasting text? Formatting a document? Searching searching your computer? A keyboard shortcut is almost guaranteed to be the fastest way to do it. And on your Mac, you can add new keyboard shortcuts to most apps to speed up your most common tasks?

But what about your favorite web apps? Many of them include keyboard shortcuts while you’re using them—but what if you want to quickly add data or find something in them without opening them?

That’s what Zapier’s Alfred workflow lets you do. In a few minutes, you can add a quick keyboard command to add data to your favorite apps anytime you want from your Mac.

A Quick Alfred Introduction


Alfred is a productivity app for macOS that can quickly search your files and the web, launch apps, or expand your text. And, with the Alfred Powerpack, you can install or build your own workflows that—in just a few keystrokes—let Alfred manage your music, create events and notes, search through your emails, start timers, and even turn off your computer.

Alfred Evernote

Say you want find info about penguins. You’d open Alfred (by pressing its keyboard shortcut—often Command + Space or Alt + Space), type wiki penguins, and the correct Wikipedia entry would open in your browser. With the Evernote workflow for Alfred, you could then open Alfred, type ennew, then select New Note from Google Chrome URL to save that page in your Evernote notebook.

Easy, right? It’s a quick way to save time and get more done on your Mac.

Introducing Zapier for Alfred

Alfred Zapier

You can use that same power to run workflows between 750+ apps, using app automation tool Zapier, anytime you want from your Mac using Alfred Workflows. Say Bob emails you and asks to be added to your MailChimp newsletter list. You could copy his email, open MailChimp, find your list, and figure out where to add his email.

Or you could have an Alfred and Zapier workflow that adds new contacts to MailChimp. You’d type zap into Alfred and he’d be added to your email newsletter list.

That’s how a number of people on the Zapier team use Alfred to stay productive throughout the work day. UX Research Lead Eileen Ruberto uses Alfred to add tasks to an Airtable database in seconds. I use Zapier for Alfred to save the tasks I complete throughout the day to I Done This. Customer Champion Juan Vazquez uses Alfred to make sure he never forgets the perfect gift for someone, by having Zapier add gift ideas to his list in Airtable right from Alfred.

And it’s how author Paul Minors unsubscribes people from his MailChimp email list, with what he calls “the geekiest automation I’ve ever created.”

Here’s how you can kickstart a series of actions in your favorite apps with Alfred’s shortcuts on your Mac and Zapier’s .

1. Install Zapier for Alfred

Zapier for Alfred

The Zapier for Alfred workflow takes whatever text you enter and sends it to Zapier

After you install Alfred, just download Zapier for Alfred and double-click the Zapier for Alfred.alfredworkflow file to add it to your collection of Alfred workflows.

2. Make a Webhooks Zap

Make a Webhook Zap in Zapier

Use a Webhooks Zap to connect to Alfred

Now, let’s make a Zap (an automated workflow that connect apps in Zapier) to use with Alfred. Open Zapier, click Make a Zap!, and select the Webhooks by Zapier app. That gives us a link that Alfred can use to send data back to your Zap.

Choose Catch Hook, click Continue in the “Pick off a Child Key” screen, then copy the webhook URL Zapier shows, which should be something like

3. Add the Webhooks URL to Zapier for Alfred

Add Zapier URL to Alfred

Paste your Webhooks URL into your Zapier for Alfred workflow

Let’s leave the Zap for a second, and add that link to Alfred. When you first installed Zapier for Alfred, you should have seen a dialog box like the one above. If you don’t see it, just click the [x] button in the top right corner of the workflow.

Now, double-click the text in the Value box beside the ZAP_URL environment variable on the right pane. Paste your Webhooks URL there, and press save.

Now open the normal Alfred search pane (with Alt + Space, or your own custom keyboard shortcut) and let’s try using that workflow to add a new contact, Bob, to our email list. Type zap into Alfred’s search pane—as in the screenshot at the top of this section—and press return on your keyboard.

Now go back to your Zap, and click the “Ok, I did this” button to test your Webhook step. If you click the “View your hook” link on the resulting screen, Zapier will show the email address you just entered. Yay, it works!

4. Finish Setting up Your Zap

Add contact to MailChimp with Alfred

Add the Note field to the Zap template

We’ll now add a MailChimp action step to our Zap, to add contacts to our email list. Click “Continue” to set up the action that will happen after the webhook is triggered. Then just select MailChimp from the Action apps list, choose Add/Update Subscriber, and connect or choose your MailChimp account.

Use the dropdown box to select your MailChimp list and click the plus sign at the right of the “Subscriber email” field to select the Querystring Note item from your Webhooks step (which contains the email address you entered in Alfred search).

Save and test that Zap, and Bob will get added to your email list. Next time you need to add someone to your MailChimp list, just type zap followed by their email address into Alfred and Zapier will do it for you in a second.

5. Copy the Workflow and Repeat

Duplicate Zapier for Alfred

Add as many Zapier for Alfred workflows as you want

Want to use Alfred to trigger more than one Zap? Sure thing.

Just right-click on the Zapier for Alfred workflow in Alfred’s sidebar and select Duplicate. Give this workflow a new name—perhaps one that describes what your Zap will do.

Then double-click the Keyword item in the workflow to give this Zap its own keyword. And, as before, open the workflow settings from the [x] button and add the correct Webhooks URL for your new Zap.

Search Through Your Web Apps with Alfred and Zapier

Zaps like the MailChimp one we just made are handy to add data to your favorite apps—and since Zapier supports over 750 different apps, there’s a lot you can do with that.

Odds are, you’re already used to using Alfred to look up data—and Zapier can help you search through your favorite web apps, too, using Search Actions.

Perhaps you need to find contact info from Salesforce, Google Contacts, or MailChimp. Maybe you need to find data from a Google Sheets spreadsheet, an Airtable database, or an Evernote note. Zapier can find that contact and send you a push notification on your Mac with the details.

Zapier Google Contacts lookup

Find a Google Contact’s info with Zapier

Let’s try the Google Contacts one. Add a Google Contacts Find Contact step to your Zap, and add your Webhooks Notes field to search that email address you’d entered in Alfred.

Pushbullet for Zapier

Add all the data you found to Pushbullet

We now need to get the info back to our Mac—a notifications app like Pushbullet is perfect for that. Add another step to your Zap, select the Pushbullet app, then fill in the note with all the detail Zapier just found about your contact.

Pushbullet notification

Test and turn on your Zap, and whenever you enter an email in your Alfred Zapier workflow, Zapier will send you a push notification through Pushbullet with the details. Tap the notification to copy all the details and use them in your work—without having to ever open your CRM and search for customer data again.

Send More Data to Zapier with Alfred

Zapier Alfred Named Variables

You can send as much data to Zapier as you want

Entering a sentence, email, or other short text into Alfred is handy—but what if you want more? Perhaps you want to add new contacts to your CRM, with their name, email address, and phone number, all from Alfred.

You can do that too, with Zapier’s Named Variables. Essentially, you’ll type a category, followed by the text you want to send to Zapier in parenthesis.

To add a new contact, say, we’ll enter the following in Alfred:

Name(Bob Tester) Email( Phone(1-234-567-8900)

Add contact from Alfred to Zapier

Now, in Zapier, you’ll see a Name, Email, and Phone field along with your full note. You can fill out each item in, say, a Google Contacts Create Contact action to add someone to your address book.

Get Started Quickly with Premade Zaps for Alfred

In a hurry? We’ve made some Zapier workflows so you can get started with Zapier for Alfred quickly.

Just remember: Make a new copy of the Zapier for Alfred workflow for each Zap, give the Alfred workflow its own keyword, and always copy the Zap’s Webhooks URL and add it to your Alfred workflow.

Add Contacts

Want to set up that MailChimp or Google Contacts workflow in a few clicks—or make your own contact workflows? Here are Zaps to start with:,1751,1750,10641

Send Emails

Once you’ve added new contacts, it’s a great chance to reach out to them and start a conversation. With these Zaps, you can send a template email to someone in seconds from Alfred.,9244,1755

Create Tasks, Projects, and Events

Opening your online project manager, calendar, or to-do list just to add one new task takes way too much time. These Zaps can do it for you automatically.,10645,1561,1754,1035,7328

Post to Social Media

Don’t open your Twitter app to share that brilliant Tweet. Odds are, you’ll end up distracted, wasting valuable time instead of getting back to work. Let Zapier for Alfred post that next message for you automatically instead for distraction-free social media.,1358

Get Notified

Need to lookup data from your work apps with Alfred? Start out with these Zap templates to quickly get notified—then once you’ve turned them on, edit the Zaps and add a step in the middle to find the info you need.,1597,10646,1690

Bonus: Run Zaps from Terminal

Zapier from Terminal

CURL + Webhooks = Zaps from your Terminal

Ever wanted to trigger a Zap from Terminal? The same trick that lets you run Zaps from Alfred also works from Terminal.

Just make a Webhooks Zap the same way as normal, copy the URL, and keep it somewhere handy (perhaps in a text expander app). Then, whenever you want to run the Zap, just enter curl followed by your webhooks url, with ?note=YourText appended to the end with your text instead of YourText (and remember to replace any spaces with %20). For example:


That’ll send your text to Zapier right from Terminal.

Your Turn

Now that you know how to run Zaps from Alfred, it’s time to make some new workflows. Perhaps you need an easy way to lookup data from your apps, or a quick tool to add info to your work software. Go make a Webhooks Zap, connect it to Alfred, and you’ll have your favorite Zaps only a few keystrokes away whenever you need them.

We’d love to hear how you use Zapier with Alfred in the comments below!

Get Zapier for Chrome, Too!

Zapier Push for Chrome

Want to run Zaps from the Chrome browser on your Mac or PC instead? Check out the Push by Zapier Chrome Extension—it’s another great way to run Zaps whenever you want.


Write Faster: Your Manual to Markdown, the Web’s Simplest Plain-Text Syntax

Writing only requires words, a bit of punctuation, and perhaps some paragraph breaks to organize thoughts. Headings, italicized text, images, fancy quotes, footnotes, bullet points and more are just decoration.

Decoration is important, though, something you want to be just right. If your curtains are shorter than your windows, or your pictures are all hung crooked, the entire room will look off.

That’s the problem with text formatting. Add bold text and bullet points and handsome headings to a Word document, then copy and paste it into your blog, and odds are the shine will have quickly faded.

Markdown fixes that, with simple formatting that looks the same everywhere. Here’s how to use the world’s most popular text formatting language—and some great apps to help you craft and decorate your next great novel.

What is Markdown?

what is markdown

Imagine typing on a mechanical typewriter, with only letters and punctuation at your fingertips. There’s no italics, no color options, no larger typeface for headers. How do you emphasize words, set apart quotes, and both make your document nicer looking and easier to read at the same time?

The simplest way would be to repurpose some special characters. Perhaps use a hash symbol (yes, what the kids these days call a hashtag) for headers, an underscore for italics, and asterisk for strong, bold words.

With that, you’d have reinvented a basic version of Markdown.

Markdown was created in 2004 by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz as a way to format text for the web using simple characters including asterisks, underscores, and brackets. “The overriding design goal for Markdown’s formatting syntax is to make it as readable as possible,” writes Gruber on Markdown’s main page. Format your text with a few symbols, and it’s still perfectly readable—both by humans and by programs which could turn the text into even more readable PDFs, websites, and printed books.

“The overriding design goal for Markdown’s formatting syntax is to make it as readable as possible.”- John Gruber, Markdown co-creator

Formatting text with Markdown is far more precise than the rich text formatting Word offers, while far simpler to write—and read—than HTML code. Paste Markdown formatted text into another app, and it always looks the exact same—something you couldn’t say for formatted text copied from Word.

Markdown the best of the plain and formatted worlds, an ideal way to write in a world where we each have our own favorite writing apps and blogging platforms.

It’s the one simple type of coding everyone should learn to use. So let’s get started.

How to Format Text in Markdown

Markdown GIF

Ready to add some formatting to your text? Here are the basics:

  • Italics: Add one asterisk or underscore around your text *like this* or _this_
  • Bold: Add two asterisks or underscores around your text **like this** or __this__
  • Bold and Italic: Add three asterisks or underscores around your text ***like this*** or ___this___

You can even mix it up. Want a whole sentence in italics, with one word in bold?

*This **should** work*.

Got that? Now, let’s get a bit fancier.

Sentences and paragraphs don’t need anything special. Just make sure to leave a blank line between each paragraph, and you’ll be good. Then, to add fancier things to your document:

  • Links: Add brackets around the linked text, then add a parenthesis, your link, and a close parenthesis, like this: [Zapier](
  • Image: Type an exclamation mark, then an open bracket, then add alt text to describe your image, then close the bracket and add a parenthesis, paste a link to your image, then close the parentheses, like this: ![Zapier Logo](logo.png)
  • Quotes: Add a greater-than sign in front of each line of quoted text, like this: > Just do it!
  • Code: Add 4 spaces before each line of code, or a backtick before and after the code, like this: `<a href="">Zapier</a>`
  • Strikethrough: Add two tildes around the text ~~like this~~ (though this may not work in all Markdown apps)

With all that stuff, you might want to break your document into sections with Headings. Markdown uses standard HTML-style headings, but you add them with a hash or pound symbol. For the largest headings, or H1 in HTML, add one hash symbol and a space in front of a line of text—or add 2 hash symbols without a space between them for H2, 3 for H3, and so on, like this:

# Our important Story

A long time ago...

## The first section

Some more text...

Ok. Looks like you’ve got the basics down. Try writing your own story with a bit of Markdown formatting, and you should quickly get something like this:

markdown text

Let’s add a bit more to that.

Advanced Markdown

There’s only two more things you’ll likely want to add to your Markdown document: lists and tables.

Lists are simple. For Unordered Lists, just add a dash, asterisk, or plus symbol before each line in your list, like this:

- Something
- Another thing
- Yet one more thing

Ordered Lists work the same, but with numbers and periods instead of dashes, like this:

1. First thing
2. Second thing
3. Third thing

Or you could mix them, and add nested lists (in most Markdown apps, anyhow) just by adding two spaces before the nested items, like this:

1. First thing
  - Something
  - Another thing
2. Second thing
3. Third thing

Tables are the most tricky thing in Markdown, and they’re also only supported in some Markdown apps. Essentially, to make a table, add a pipe character—or this: |—before and after every cell in the table, and add a row of dashes to separate your header cell. To make everything look nicer, use tabs to separate text instead of tabs. Here’s how it should look:

|   Food    |   Price   |
|   -----   |   -----   |
|   Eggs    |   $2.99   |
|   Bacon   |   $4.99   |
|   Bread   |   $1.99   |

With a bit of tweaking, you should be able to get your lists and tables to look something like this:

table and list in markdown

And that’s it. With those handful of characters and tricks, you’ll be able to format anything you want with Markdown. Want to embed a GIF or Video? Just upload the file to your site, then use the image embed. Want to embed a YouTube video, form, or any other web element? Just paste the embed code into your document, and it’ll render just fine on most websites.

You’re now ready to start writing in Markdown. Want a new app to help you out?

Get a Markdown Writing App

All Markdown requires is plain text. You could write Markdown-formatted text in Word, in any text editor, on a typewriter, or even etch it into sand with a stick.

Or, you could go fancy with a writing app designed for Markdown text. Typically, Markdown writing apps are bare-bones, with all distractions taken away to help you focus on writing. They let you add formatting with keyboard shortcuts like CMD+B for bold, and will add the asterisks or other characters automatically. Then, when you’re done writing, they include export options to copy your text as rich text, HTML, or perhaps save it as a PDF or formatted eBook.

Here are some of the best:

The 12 Best Markdown Writing Apps

App Icon:  Best for: Price For:
Draft Draft Draft makes editing easy. Write in Markdown, then share your writing with others to get their feedback and view it side-by-side with your original writing. You can do the same with previous versions, to see what you changed. Then, search through all your documents and publish to your blog all from the same app. Free; $3.99/month for member lounge, discounted editing, and beta features Web
iA Writer iA Writer One of the simplest writing apps, iA Writer includes just one typeface, two color modes—and no other settings. Instead, you’ll focus on your writing, and can organize all of your Markdown documents in a simplified library and export them into HTML or rich text. $9.99 Mac; $3.99 iOS; free for Android Mac, iOS, Android
Byword Byword Need a bit more customization? Byword includes 3 color modes, and lets you pick the typeface you want for writing. It also lets you publish your writing directly to WordPress, Evernote, Tumblr and more for an easy way to publish in Markdown. $11.99 Mac; $5.99 iOS Mac, iOS
Texts Texts Want the familiarity of a word processor? Texts uses Markdown, but hides the symbols and includes buttons to easily format your text. It can then publish your writing to a GitHub Page, export it as an eBook, or even turn it into a presentation. $19 Mac, Windows
MarkdownPad MarkdownPad Working on multiple documents at once? MarkdownPad lets you work on them all with a tabbed interface. Quickly add formatting with a customizable toolbar, preview your text with CSS templates, and even upload images to your site from your text editor. Free; $14.95 Pro version for full features and more than 4 files open at once Windows
WriteMonkey WriteMonkey Get rid of all distractions with WriteMonkey’s customizable full-screen text editor. Then, dive in deeper with a built-in file browser, corkboard, pomodoro timer and more for a tool that can handle everything you need as a writer. Free; plugin support with donation Windows
Penflip Penflip Write Markdown collaboratively with your team without worrying about someone accidentally deleting something. Penflip keeps every version of your text, and makes it easy to compare changes using Git. It even includes in-line comments, like Google Docs, for a great team writing experience. Free for public projects; from $10/month for up to 50 private projects Web
Ulysses Ulysses Want to use Markdown without having the extra symbols in your text? Ulysses hides all the Markdown formatting, so you can get the Rich Text feel with Markdown’s advantages. It also stores everything you’ve written, search through it all, then export it with customizable templates. $4.99/month Mac, iOS
Scrivener Scrivener Gather all of the notes and details about your subject in one place, turn them into a story, then export it as a completed book all from one app. You can even drop back to Rich Text instead of Markdown, if you decide you don’t like it. $45 Mac, Windows
Sublime Text Sublime Text Sublime Text is a powerful text editor designed for coders—but with the right packages, it can be a powerful writers tool, too. Add the MarkdownEditing package for a simple writing experience with keyboard shortcuts to add Markdown formatting. $70 Mac, Windows, Linux
Atom Atom An open-source text editor from GitHub, Atom includes built-in Markdown tools to visualize Markdown formatting and preview the finished document. Install the Markdown Writer package for extra tools, including a quick way to add images to a Markdown document. Free Mac, Windows, Linux
Bear Bear One of the most popular new writing apps, Bear is a Markdown-powered notebook app for Mac and iOS that lets you quickly write your ideas down in Markdown and keep them with you everywhere. It’s great for short notes—with the editing features you need for longform text, too. Free; $1.49/mo. Pro for sync, export, and themes iOS, Mac

Or, you actually might not need a new app. You can use Markdown formatting in Google Docs or Word—or a simple text editor like Notepad or TextEdit, and it’ll work just the same. In fact, the Zapier team uses Markdown-formatting in Google Docs each week, for a simple way to collaborate in our editorial process.

For the nice, typewriter-like feel most Markdown apps bring, use a monospaced typeface like Courier Prime, along an off-white background color and a grey color for your text. Then, remember to save the finished document in .txt format, so you can open it anywhere without having to rely on Word or another word processor app.

What to do with Markdown Text?

You’ve written something amazing, something you’re ready to share with the world. You could just copy your Markdown-formatted text and share it or print it out, but it’d look a tiny bit odd to most people.

Instead, you should turn it into beautifully formatted documents, books, websites, presentations, and more. Here’s how.


Markdown publishing from Ulysses

A PDF export from Ulysses

Writing anything lengthy takes a number of steps. Once you’ve written your text, it’ll need edited, formatted into a print book or brochure, tweaked to look great in a PDF or a mobile-ready eBook, then distributed to the world.

Rich text quickly becomes a problem, as your text formatting slowly changes from each different app in the publishing workflow. Markdown, instead, keeps your text consistent—and makes formatting as easy as writing some CSS.

All you’ll need is a Markdown writing app, and an export tool to turn Markdown into eBooks, PDFs, or anything else you want. Or you might just need the writing tool: iA Writer and Byword include simple formatting to export text as a PDF or a print document, while Ulysses and Scrivener include customizable export templates to publish Markdown as eBooks and more.

If you want a tool just for turning Markdown into beautiful documents, Pandoc is one of the most powerful Markdown export tools. It can be tricky to master, though, and only runs in Terminal. For a simpler way to export Markdown, Marked is a great option with customizable PDF and eBook templates. Or, you can use Zapier’s Formatter tool to convert Markdown text to HTML, then send it to any of your apps for safekeeping or publication.

If you’re writing a book, just upload your Markdown files to LeanPub and it’ll turn them into print-ready PDFs and Kindle and iBooks-ready eBooks, and even let you sell your book right its site.


Markdown in WordPress

You can format WordPress blog posts using Markdown

Blogging is where Markdown shines brightest. It started out with a plugin for Movable Type, and since has spread to almost every new blogging platform.

Tumblr was one of the first blog platforms to support Markdown. Just click the gear icon when writing a post, and select “Markdown” under the Text Editor options to use Markdown to format your posts. In Squarespace, just use the Markdown block when adding text to your site—and you can set it as your default text block if you’d like.

The new blogging platform Ghost is designed around Markdown; write your post with Markdown formatting, and preview the final version in the right column at the same time. Flat-file CMS apps like Kirby and Jekyll are also designed around Markdown-formatted text files.

WordPress now supports Markdown, too. It’s built into—just tick the Markdown box in your blog’s Writing settings. On a self-hosted WordPress site, you can add Markdown support with a plugin like WP-Markdown which converts Markdown text into HTML before publishing your blog post.

Medium’s known for having an easy-to-use editor, though it doesn’t support Markdown right now. Instead, though, you can use some of the most popular Markdown apps—including upcoming new versions of Byword and iA Writer—to publish Markdown-formatted text directly on Medium.


Deckset and iA Writer

Deckset can turn Markdown text and images into a presentation

PowerPoint is overkill for most presentations. If your presentation is just text and images, you could just write your notes in Markdown and turn them directly into a presentation.

Deckset is one of the most popular Markdown presentation apps. Drag a Markdown text file into the app, then pick from a few templates and you’ll have a presentation in seconds. Slidify is a similar app for Windows, while Texts, one of the writing apps mentioned above, lets you export your documents as presentations too.

Alternately, you can turn Markdown into a web-ready presentation using toolkits like Remark.js and Cleaver. Your new presentation could be shown from a browser—perhaps using a Chromecast—or you could just upload it to your website as a quick way to publish a presentation.

When every word matters, it’s words that should have the full focus—not formatting. Markdown quickly adds the most basic formatting to your text, and lets you trust that the finished work will look exactly like you intended.

After all, that’s what really matters: writing down the words you’ve always wanted to say, in the way you wanted them to appear.

It might take time to become fluent at Markdown, just as it’s difficult to drop double-spacing. But it’s a worthwhile investment for simpler, more consistent writing for the web—and the future.


How to Make Tasks Matter and Find Meaning in Your Work

“What’s the point?” “Why does this matter?”

When your alarm clock starts buzzing, and your inbox is already packed with pressing requests, what pulls you out of bed and into your 8×10 cubicle? Paying the bills is a powerful motivator, but ultimately, it comes down to personal meaning.

Although we often associate finding meaning with finding happiness, the two aren’t synonymous. In fact, a meaningful life requires struggle, stress, and substantial effort, according to psychology professors Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aaker. But personal investment is what pushes you through the aspects of your job that don’t make you happy—the marathon conference calls, the passive-aggressive cubicle partners, and the endless email exchanges.

So especially when you don’t particularly enjoy what you do—but you can’t quit—here’s how to create meaning in the monotony.

Why It Matters

You probably have noticed that you’re more likely to show up to work—and do your best work—when your personal motivation goes beyond making your monthly rent. And for most, meaning matters even more than money. Sure, you still need to pay your bills—but 68% of professionals would accept a pay cut for a more personally fulfilling career—and 23% would slash their salaries by 25 percent or more, according to a survey by Phillips North America. When they’re in more personally worthwhile roles, employees are 1.7 times more satisfied and 1.4 times more engaged at work.

That personal satisfaction pays off for their companies, too. In a 2012 Gallup meta-analysis of 263 studies in 34 countries, employee engagement predicts several metrics of business performance, including productivity, turnover, attendance—and of special interest to managers—profitability.

So how do you do it? First, you need to figure out what makes things meaningful to you. Then, you have to refocus your work so it feels meaningful for you.

Here’s how:

Find What Gives Your Work Meaning


Start by interrogating yourself

You probably didn’t enter the workforce with dreams of contributing nothing of value to society. But we start on the bottom rung, realize we need to pay the bills—and as time passes by, we can become so disconnected from our values that we forget what they are.

If you’re seeking a more personally fulfilling career, where do you start? You’re not a magician—you can’t just pull meaning out of a spreadsheet like a rabbit out of a hat. But you can still create meaning at work without quitting your job to travel the world. Strike a realistic yet personally gratifying compromise by following our best research-based strategies for finding meaning in your tasks.

But first, you need to figure out what exactly will give your work meaning. Is it a connection to a certain cause? Is it engaging one of your skills or personal passions? Is it serving a specific population? Everyone has their own causes, the things that give their life meaning. Without knowing what you’re chasing, your quest for meaning will turn into a wild goose chase. So it’s worth reflecting on your “why” before you pursue any major changes.

Here’s how:

1. Cultivate Self Awareness

To create meaning, you need to figure out what moves you, besides baseless platitudes like “following my dreams” and “exploring my passions.” Ask yourself concrete questions to reveal your truth. What are you working for? What impact do you want to create in your job? What skills do you want to develop and leverage?

On Fast Company, Allison Jones suggests five useful questions to kickstart the self-reflection process.

  • Why Do I Care About Finding My Passion?
  • What Role Does Work Play In the Kind of Life I Want?
  • What Opportunities Excite Me and How Come?
  • What Do I Want to Get Really Good at Doing?
  • What Am I Willing To Give Up?

2. Write a Career Mantra

It’s not just for hippies. Once you’ve thought about what makes you tick, articulate it with a personal career mantra. Think of it as a company mission statement without the incomprehensible buzzwords and business jargon. Sound corny? People who wrote their goals on paper where significantly more likely to achieve them than controls, according to a Dominican University study.

Keep it short and simple—just focus on what gets you out the door every day. Your mantra should encompass who you are, where you want to go, and the impact you want to make during your 9-to-5. Consider these three questions from Career Contessa as you write your own:

  • What are my values?
  • What problem can I solve?
  • How can I transform this into action?

Write it down and whenever you’re refreshing YouTube videos at your desk, refer back to that mantra to reconnect to your meaning.

Recraft Your Job


Time to rethink how you work.

Once you compare your answers to the previous sets of questions with your current job, work on closing the gap between the two.

Unless you’re the CEO, your position will limit your ability to immediately change your job. But through some simple tweaks, you can create more impact in your position. The first step? Shifting your perception. Stop viewing your job description as a static, unchanging list of responsibilities. Even if that list completely reflected your career aspirations when you applied, you and your role probably evolved since then. Instead, approach your job title as fluid set of activities—which you can change to fit your skillset and personal passions.

In a white paper for the American Psychological Association, Justin Berg of the Wharton School, Jane E. Dutton of the Ross School of Business, and Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management terms this more flexible approach “job crafting.” There, they recommend three main ways to recraft your job for deeper meaning, either by acting on your external conditions or on your own thoughts:

1. Change Your Tasks

The most direct, immediately obvious way to inject meaning in your job? Change what you do. If you have the autonomy to do so, modify your actual tasks to more closely match your goals and desired skills. In their white paper, Berg, Dutton, and Wrzesniewski give an example:

“For example, an experienced salesperson could bring a new colleague along on sales calls, so this task becomes not just about selling to clients, but also about training the colleague. This might invigorate the salesperson by making a mundane task more meaningful by helping the new colleague forge important connections and learn this part of the job.”

If you can’t significantly alter what you do at work, you still change the workflow processes that undermine your satisfaction and sense of meaning. Even streamlining one process can alleviate the associated stress, thus allowing you to realize the potentially fulfilling elements of your work.

An instantly actionable way to save time? Automate your tedious time-wasters with a tool like Zapier to transfer client data between apps or combine notifications from ten different apps. If automation’s not an option, delegate them out to carve out more time and mental bandwidth for creatively enriching projects.

More importantly, eliminate multitasking. More than anything else, multitasking prevents you from creating meaning. Spreading yourself too thin not only stresses you out, it keeps you from focusing enough time and energy on any one thing to perform well, much less reveal any significant meaning.

As California State University sports psychology professor David D. Chen writes, “Rather than getting more done during such frenzies of multiple activities, you end up compromising the pleasure and ultimate quality of the experience.”

Simply put, you need to give yourself enough time to recognize and experience fulfillment when you find it. When you’re pulling 60 hour weeks just to keep up, simply finishing everything—let alone finding fulfillment in any of it—might feel impossible. So consider of some of these time management apps or other actionable ways to protect your time, like combining several one-on-one meetings into “1:many situations” or consciously choosing to dial back in one area.

In addition to prioritizing your time, prioritize your personal and professional development. Everything you do at work—netting $5 million in revenue or just securing a reference from a coworker—impacts your professional future somehow or another. So here’s your permission to be selfish: Set daily and longer-term process goals to emphasize your personal development. We’re more motivated by personal growth than external indicators—which usually benefits someone else more than you.

To ensure that your mindless work at least advances your career, look at your typical tasks and ask what’s in it for you. Then forecast to the next five or ten years. Where do you want to be? Schedule regular performance meetings with your manager to set your development goals and ensure that your work activities adhere as closely to your goals as possible. Even if your manager can’t completely meet those needs, your communication will plant the seed in her mind. When something that seems just right for you comes along, she’ll be more likely to send it your way.

To advocate for yourself without distracting from team efforts, follow HubSpot’s tips on how to approach these “career path” conversations

Don’t schedule the sitdown until you can clearly and concretely state your goals and desired skillsets. No need to map out every intermediate point on your 10-year plan, but do come prepared with a vision of your general destination and steps necessary to reach it.

Also wait until a calm time to bring up your career development. Your personal trajectory is too important to bring up at the end of a call or when your manager’s too distracted by another project.

2. Change relationships

Whether you’re refilling coffees or scheduling meetings, entry-level employees often aren’t creating a measurable impact beyond easing their manager’s load of busywork. But those seemingly thankless tasks still benefit their manager—whether by saving their time or sanity—and by extension, advances the company’s profit and mission. By shifting your focus from doing busywork to building a relationship, you can transform mindless drudgery into more inherently fulfilling act of service.

And although the promise of a good reference can certainly motivate us, we actually consider our work most meaningful when it creates a positive impact for others. According to research by Adam Grant, some of the most glamorous, interesting jobs—like fashion design and graphic animation—are also the most meaningless, while adult literacy teachers and child life specialists rated their careers as much more meaningful.

As Grant explains on Psychology Today, workers across all cultures are more motivated by personal relationships than isolated projects and key performance indicators—and decades of workplace research have confirmed this pattern across all industries and cultures.

So when you’re dragging yourself through a dull task, visualize the end product of your work—identify how your effort might positively impact another person. For example, a customer service specialist might reframe their work from “answering calls and fielding complaints” to a more holistic, outwardly focused “serving others and advancing the business by streamlining the customer experience.”

If you can’t readily identify the end user of your project—or if there really isn’t a point—leverage your relationships with your coworkers. For example, as you’re formatting your fourth spreadsheet for your manager, consider how the saved time will ease his day personally and professionally. Maybe your busy work saves him time to prepare a major pitch—or just gives him an extra 20 minutes to call his kids. Your manager’s convenience may not be not your primary concern, particularly if they always pile their undesirable projects on you, so consider the golden rule—or the potential political advantages of appeasing him now.

3. Change perceptions

Obviously, the first two strategies require some cooperation from managers and coworkers. But some employees don’t enjoy such supportive workplaces—and junior employees may not have the autonomy to change anything about their circumstances. They still have power over their perceptions, through. By acting on your cognitions, they can alter your view of your job without even leaving your cubicle.

Selectively focus on preferred tasks

Berg, Dutton, and Wrzesniewski suggest focusing on specific tasks at the expense of less satisfying ones. “By taking frequent steps back and mentally focusing on the creative aspects of the job that are most meaningful to them, they may be able to more effectively leverage the meaningful components of their jobs in order to bear the parts that seem less meaningful,” they suggest.

Unlock your golden handcuffs

From aspiring novelists who move to marketing roles, to financial analysts who switch from nonprofits to big banks, many professionals face the “passion versus paycheck” dilemma. And once they take the more lucrative job, and increase their spending to match their higher income, they might consider it impossible to downscale for a lower-paying, but more personally meaningful position later on. The situation’s common enough to have a name: Golden handcuffs syndrome.

But you can free yourself from those golden handcuffs. With more disposable income, you enjoy more flexibility to pursue your passions and express your personal values outside the office. So although money can’t buy happiness, you can use it to buy the experiences, take the courses, and make the charitable donations necessary to manufacture personal meaning after-hours.

For instance, someone who chose a corporate career over a non-profit could contribute part of their extra earnings to a charity that aligns with those personal values. Or with their higher salary, someone who values sustainability could invest more money toward local food and ethically sourced materials than they would have with their non-profit paycheck.

Finally, you can connect the boring aspects of your jobs to your personal passions—or merge your personal meaning with your work in more unconventional ways. A consultant who moonlights as a performer might reframe his constant travel as practice for his concert tour, or a fitness enthusiast stuck in a desk job can spearhead a corporate wellness program in their workplace.

Wrapping Up

If you’re staring down major student loan debt, or your bills are piling up, personal meaning might need to take a backseat to money by any means necessary. But most days, you’ll spend more time at work than home, and more time with your coworkers than your immediate family. So a sense of personal meaning more than a “nice to have”—it’s the personal motivator we need to overcome obstacles, withstand setbacks, and truly thrive at work.

How do you find—and create—meaning in your work? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.


Success and Side Projects: How Your Hobbies and Unrelated Interests Help Your Career

Copywriter. Designer. Illustrator. Filmmaker. With how competitive the world has become, it’s no wonder why we’re obsessed with titles.

Focusing on a speciality makes you more appealing to employers and shows clearly where your skills lie. It’s easier to focus on doing one thing great. Yet a growing crop of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that creative cross-training—spending time and energy on unrelated tasks, hobbies, and interests—can actually supercharge our ability to learn and grow, making us even better at all our work.

It’s not just talking about complementary skills, like boxers taking ballet training to work on their footwork (I hope you’re picturing Tyson in a tutu right now like I am). Even completely unconnected tasks can empower and strengthen our ability to perform our main creative job.

Here’s the excuse you need to branch out and try something new.

The Specialist Versus the Generalist

“Creativity is just connecting things.”– Steve Jobs

From the day we start kindergarten, it seems, we’re told to pick a niche or a specialty. “Do you want to be a firefighter, or a doctor?” they ask. That’s increasingly not how we work. As the team found in their latest survey, 61% of freelancers ’specialize’ in two or three talents.

Cognitive scientist Art Markman calls these people “Expert Generalists.” They’re often the best workers—they “have a wide variety of knowledge… [and] are able to use this knowledge to suggest new ways to look at problems [and] are also good at translating across areas of expertise.”

The wider range of knowledge you have, the more dots you’ll have to connect—which is how Steve Jobs explained creativity and innovation.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

That’s where hobbies and outside interests come in.

Your Hobbies Create a “Ripple Effect” of Learning


Whether you spend your leisure time shooting pool with friends, playing guitar in a blues band, or knitting crochet cats, you probably think your hobby has no effect of the rest of your life. But according to San Francisco State University assistant psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman’s study on the correlation between hobbies and job performance, that’s just not the case.

Practicing your hobby “gives you a sense of mastery,” Eschleman explains. “You’re developing new skills, new thought processes and really challenging yourself to learn something new and develop your skill set.”

While Eschleman highlights yoga, improv, and playing team sports, the hobby with the most far-reaching benefits is learning to play an instrument. The benefits of learning an instrument run the gamut from improving your memory to keeping your brain healthy as you get older. Musical endeavours can also help with one of the most important workplace skills: Writing.

For Still Writing author Dani Shapiro, childhood music lessons were “just as important as any writing workshop.” Those piano lessons prepared her for a lifetime of working with words. “The phrasing, the pauses, the crescendos, keeping time, the creating of shape, the coaxing out of a tonal quality. All of these are with me as I approach the page,” says Shapiro.

100 Ways to Improve your Writing author Gary Provost seconds the power of music in writing:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.”

“Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

The benefits of learning the rhythm and dynamics of music, while seemingly unrelated to writing, became a huge creative advantage to both authors. And that’s far from the only hobby with crossover effects. When you take up a new hobby, the positive ripple effect of learning that new skill can reach farther than you think.

Your Weekend Side Hustle Amps You Up For the Workweek

“You take so much passion and pride into your side hustle that it energizes you, and that energy flows over into your day job.”– David Mulqueen

If you don’t have a side hustle yourself, you almost certainly know someone who does. Adobe’s 2016 Future of Work survey found that 56% of US workers predicted that having multiple jobs will be the norm in the near future.

This isn’t a bad thing.

Your boss might worry that your side hustle is taking away from your focus and energy at work, but modern research shows that those people who spend time on passion projects are happier, work harder in general, and are actually 12% more productive than those who don’t have an outlet for their passion. Furthermore, your side hustle can have benefits that directly tie into your job, like building your network of contacts, boosting your confidence, and boosting your own personal brand.

As entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau describes it, your side hustle is “not a part-time job as much as it’s something you create, and it’s disproportionately satisfying.”

One example is Seattle-based digital marketer David Mulqueen whose love of winter sports prompted him to open his own snowboard school side hustle on nights and weekends. While snowboarding and running marketing campaigns might seem completely different, Mulqueen explains how one benefits the other: “I think it makes me a more well-rounded individual; you take so much passion and pride into your side hustle that it energizes you, and that energy flows over into your day job.”

More than just another source of income, your side hustle is an opportunity to reinvigorate your passions, build new skills, expand your network and recharge yourself for the work week ahead.

Your Unrelated Interests Open your Mind to Innovative Ideas

toy soldier

So far, we’ve looked at practical skills like taking on a hobby or starting a side hustle, but what about the other completely unrelated interests you might have like watching anime, reading 1930s crime noir novellas or going to avante-garde art exhibits?

Turns out, these can also have a positive effect on your work and creativity.

According to a study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Scott Barry Kaufman, high levels of openness to experience—or “the degree to which someone is willing to consider and experience new ideas”—can be related to creative output.

The more rich and diverse experiences you have, the higher the likelihood of your creating something truly unique and innovative. Entrepreneur James Altucher gives the example of inventor Stan Weston, who took two seemingly unrelated interested, dolls and the army, to create the first “doll for boys” (The G.I. Joe action figure).

When asked about how he came up with his innovative idea, Weston explained: “Truly groundbreaking ideas are rare, but you don’t necessarily need one to make a career out of creativity. My definition of creativity is the logical combination of two or more existing elements that result in a new concept.”

While they might seem completely unrelated to the work you do, those random interests combined with your day-to-day tasks can easily become the catalyst for uncovering something truly new and creative.

A 3-Step Guide to Setting up your own Creative Cross-training Routine

Hobbies and interests help. They just might be the creative spark you need. So how do you build them into your routine?

Here are a few ways to start creative cross-training.

1. Pick One Keystone Hobby, Hustle, or Interest

Just like training for a marathon, your creative-cross training needs to have some sort of order and system behind it. Just randomly plunking at a guitar once every few months won’t instantly make you a better writer.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg suggests commiting to a keystone habit—a routine or system that you stick to no matter what.

This could be writing 1000 words a day, practicing piano for 20min after dinner, spending your Sunday building your side hustle, or even going to an art show every week. Whatever you choose, commit to it wholeheartedly, rain or shine, hungover or sober, tired or energized.

2. Work on More Than One Project at a Time

When creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis looked at some of the world’s most successful creatives, they found a strong connection between their output and their tendency to work on multiple projects at once. Think of Charles Darwin, who bounced between geology, zoology, psychology, and botany and worked on multiple projects for decades at a time, or web designer Dann Petty who has at least 2–3 projects on the go at any given time.

Gruber and Davis have called this melting pot of different, sometimes seemingly unrelated projects a “network of enterprises,” which they say has 4 main benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The benefits from doing one make their way to the other.
  2. A fresh context is exciting. Switching between tasks keeps you excited and motivated
  3. Our ideas have a chance to incubate. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another (this is the basis of the ‘aha’ moment that seems to always happen at the strangest times).
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. The grass is always greener on the other side, even when you’re working.

3. Create Guidelines to Keep Your Multitasking Anxiety at Bay

With multiple interests and multiple projects on the go, it’s easy to never actually get anything done. There’s ample proof that we can’t really multitask.

So if you’re considering a creative cross-training routine, set it up with caution. Only take on as much as you feel you can realistically do. If you find yourself spiralling out of control stop, take a step back, and reassess your choices.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives author Tim Hartford has his own method of staying in check. He has a steel sheet in his home office covered in magnets holding 3×5 cards, each with a project that would take him at least a day to complete.

“I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top,” says Hartford. “They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.”

We all need a strong sense of focus to be able to do our best work. But denying ourselves hobbies, hustles, and other interests in the service of specialization can actually hold us back from doing our best.

The next time you feel a pang of guilt for spending time on something other than work, remember that you’re still moving forward.

The destination is the same, you’re just taking a new path.

Piano photo by Gabriel Barletta via Unsplash; ripple photo by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash; Toy soldier photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels


Talk Like a Human: 8 Phrases to Avoid Saying to Your Customers

Great customer support professionals know how to “read the room” and evaluate each customer within each specific situation to offer the right sort of response.

For example, even though we know that emoji and exclamation points perform well in customer emails, they’re best avoided when the customer writing in uses an overtly formal tone right out of the gate.

But that skill, like any other, can take a while to develop. Customer support is uniquely challenging work that demands unwavering empathy, superior communication skills, and a host of other markers of emotional intelligence.

In the meantime, it helps to keep a few tricks up your sleeve, and understand that the small things you say when talking to customers can make a big difference.

While there are several go-to phrases that improve your customer support interactions, there are just as many phrases that are best avoided. Comb through your customer conversations to make sure you aren’t inadvertently committing any of these faux pas!

1. “I will”

Promises, promises! Customers want to hear what’s being done, not what you’re planning to do. If you have to document a request or loop in another team member, do it before you write back, versus saying you’ll take that action at some vague point in the future.

Great idea — I’ll share that with the product team.
Great idea! I’ve added your suggestion to a Trello card where we track feature requests.

I’ll need to have a programmer take a look at this.
I’ve looped in Shay, our resident workflow expert, so he can take a look at what’s going on.

I’ll need you to log in to your account page, hit the “invoices” link on the right, and select the option to download the invoice you need.
I’ve attached that invoice for you here! You can also find all past invoices on your account page.

Take care of things first, then reply—that way your customer can feel confident about what’s being done.

Pro tip: Keep the door open
Customers often have more than one point of confusion or a problem is more complex than they initially let on. Maybe they worry they’ll look stupid or they’d rather not email a novel. Customer success means making sure your customers have everything they need, though—and an easy way to do that is to make sure you’ve answered any lingering questions they might have. So don’t simply answer the question and sign off. Invite further conversation:

  • Does that answer your question?
  • I hope that’s clear, but please let me know if I can help with anything else!
  • What else can I do for you?

Whenever a customer apologizes for “all the questions,” definitely start your next reply addressing that anxiety and make sure they understand that you’re there for them.

  • Not at all; I’m more than happy to help!
  • I’m happy to answer your questions, so keep ’em coming!
  • That’s what I’m here for!

2. “No”

Of course, sometimes you have to say no to customers. The issue is saying no without any context.

Maybe they want a feature that isn’t on your road map (or may never happen at all), but think about the customer’s perspective when writing your reply. They’ve taken the time to write in and explain a request or frustration, so make sure you explain your team’s “why” too. Explain the design reason behind the decision. Empathize. When people understand the “why,” they’re more likely to be forgiving.

Focus on what you can do, and find ways to soften any negatives: “Hey, that’s a great idea! While I’m unable to make any promises that we’ll be able to add that because of XYZ, I’ve noted this for our product team and we’ll keep you posted if anything changes.”

Offer alternatives if you can. When your product or service lacks what they’re looking for, you still have the opportunity to generate goodwill by pointing them toward a workaround or even a competitor.

The next best thing to giving customers what they want is making them feel as though their ideas are taken seriously.

3. “You’ll have to”

Telling a customer “You’ll have to … ” or “I need you to … ” is less than helpful—in fact, it’s bossy.

By the time a customer comes to support for help, they’re often already frustrated, confused or upset. When resolving the issue depends on the customer taking action, refrain from giving them a checklist of demands. Focus on getting them in a collaborative mindset with language that lets them know you have their back.

negative vs positive image

Reframe any directives using positive, collaborative language.

Remember that, as Chase Clemons of Basecamp writes, it’s you and the customer against the problem:

Some customers can be irritating. But the moment it becomes you versus the customer, all hope is lost. Make sure it’s always you and the customer versus the problem.

4. “Best, the Support Team”

While we all know to use the customer’s name (or, if we don’t have it, a friendly greeting like, “Hi there!”) up top, remember that customers want to know who they’re talking to. Think about how strange it would be if you got an email signed “A Customer.”

example of bad customer support email

Sign emails from the person handling the reply, or if you’re on a big support team, send out the email as being from your head support rep. Anything other than the generic “team.”

5. “Actually, you just should not”

Some words are almost never necessary—you can usually remove them from the sentence, and it means the same thing and isn’t any less polite. What’s worse, the use of these “filler” words can gum up your meaning or come across as rude.

A few of those potentially problematic words that tend to crop up in customer conversations:

  • Just
  • Should
  • Actually
  • Hopefully
  • Unfortunately

Granted, there are exceptions. For example, the “just” in “I just double-checked that setting and all looks well now” implies immediacy and sounds less stuffy, whereas the “just” in “Just go to this section of your account and click here” sounds annoyed, and makes the sentence worse.

Like any rule, if you know when to break it, go right ahead! But eliminating these tricky words from your support vocabulary is probably easier than pondering over whether they’re rude within the context of a particular sentence every time.

A few suggested reads:

6. “No problem”

Regardless of how “fun” your company’s brand voice is, ultra-casual phrases like “not a problem” and “no worries” undermine your real message—they beg the question of whether the customer’s request may have truly been a problem for you to handle.

“The problem with ‘Not a problem’ is its negative parts: not and problem,” writes Lynn Gaertner-Johnston. “When it comes to tone, two negatives do not multiply to create a positive. ‘Not a problem’ has, at best, a neutral feeling.”
If the classic “you’re welcome” feels too old-school, “my pleasure,” “happy to help,” “certainly,” or “sure thing” are solid alternatives.

7. “I can’t”

Any conjunction that uses some form of “not” — can’t, won’t, don’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t—can almost always be rephrased using positive language. “I’m unable to” sounds much softer than “I can’t.” “Please remember to return that form” assumes better intent than “don’t forget to fill out that form.” Some other examples:
“I can’t log in to your account without your permission.”
“Is it OK if I log into your account using your credentials?”

“You shouldn’t be seeing that error.”
“Hmm, that’s definitely an unusual error message!”

“You won’t be able to access the premium features until you upgrade.”
“When you upgrade to the Plus Plan, you’ll have access to those premium features.”

Again, no need to remove a tool from your toolbelt—sometimes these negative conjunctions really are the best choice for the message you want to convey. (There’s an amusing rhetorical difference between “I must” and “I can’t not!”) But when there’s no risk of compromising your meaning, looking for conjunctions that use “not” as a quick fix to make your overall message a more positive one.

It becomes a fun game to challenge yourself to rephrase any sentence with negatives to a positive message. Before you know it, you’ll be using it on your friends: “I’m so sorry I can’t come I’m unable to attend your Tupperware party!”

8. “Your business is very important to us”

Wherever possible, steer clear of customer service clichés. Which one of the following statements do you think is more appropriate?

“You are being transferred. Your call is very important to us.”
“Hi Angela, I’m going to introduce you to Tim, our customer success specialist who will be better able to answer your question!”

Easy. One is a trite platitude that people are sick of hearing. The other explains to customers why the transfer is to their benefit. Wording makes all the difference.

Getting your team onboard

If you’d like your team to make some changes in the way they speak to customers, there are better ways to go about it than handing everyone a list of words and phrases they’re no longer allowed to say. And rote substitution is hardly the point anyway; it’s more about understanding how customers might be interpreting these phrases.

You could begin by enacting some changes yourself—this list is a start, but there are tons of resources about how to talk to customers, ways to phrase common customer service interactions, and the like—and watch the quality of your interactions improve. Work through any saved replies or snippets you frequently use to audit for phrasing you could improve.

Your help desk’s reporting features can help you monitor your progress, and once you have metrics to show for it, you can bring that to your team, e.g.: here are the changes I’ve made, and here’s what it’s done for my CSAT scores.

At that point, you might consider creating a “support lexicon” of phrases for your team to live by, such as “My pleasure” and “Right away.” A support lexicon is like wearing your team’s colors. It signals, “This is who we are; this is how we do things.”

When those values and beliefs are fostered at the start, helping the team form an identity around these beliefs and behaviors, remarkable service ensues.

Title image via Freepik.


101 Smart Ways to Use Social Media Automation for Sales and Marketing

Social networking is perhaps the easiest way to waste your day away. You can scroll through Facebook and Twitter all day and still not read everything that’s posted. Try to be friendly and reply to everyone, and you’ll quickly decide that social networks are a Rube Goldberg machine of friendliness.

But for many of us, social networks aren’t just about wasting time or keeping up with our friends. They’re also for work. We’re sharing the new deals at our stores, the new products our team is working on, and our latest blog posts. We’re crunching numbers, trying to find ways to make more viral content, and crossing our fingers that people will come.

Surely they’ll come. You’ve already spent your whole afternoon on writing 140 character posts until you’re thinking in sound bites. Suddenly you hate Facebook and Twitter with a passion you didn’t know existed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You could, instead, be growing your social media following by thousands each month and finding new time and opportunities to expand your business through social media. That’s why you need Zapier.

“It would take a few hours for our staff to do what Zapier does in seconds.”- Lucas Hall, Cozy community manager

How to Automate Social Media

We’ve compiled 101 Zaps—an instance of automation on Zapier—across five categories that smartly put social media automation to use for sales and marketing. Some of them we thought up ourselves, but a most are the genius of our awesome customers here at Zapier.

What is Zapier?

what is zapier

Zapier is event-based automation. An event—let’s say a new post on your blog—triggers an action, such as sharing that post on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a simple equation—an event happens in one place, triggering an event in another place—that can be incredibly powerful when you use it to tie together the over 350 apps that Zapier supports, including WordPress, Google Docs, Evernote, and every major social network. That means when you write a new blog post, you could trigger an action in hundreds of other apps, making the automation possibilities of Zapier seemingly infinite.

Zapier Features for Social Media Automation

You can use Zapier’s automation power for a variety of tasks, but one of the quickest ways to measurably save time is by using it to assist your social media strategy. Zapier supports all the major social networks—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and, with the help of Buffer, Google+. And, if you have multiple accounts of any one service, such as a Twitter account for work and personal, you can add all of those accounts and share to each of them from Zapier.

multiple Twitter accounts

Then, Zapier has filters to help you share just what you want. Want to only share posts about some topics? No problem. Need to only share content several days after it’s been posted? Sure thing. Want to reuse your existing automations for another account on the same network? Two clicks is all you’ll need. And if you’re worried that something will break, don’t: Zapier will keep the history of all your tasks, so you can look through it anytime and see what it’s done automatically for you.

zapier filters

Best of all, Zapier is free to get started.

But Beware, Automation isn’t Always the Answer

It’s true. There are times it’s better to not automate your social media. Some services don’t work well together, whether it’s a character limit or image formatting issue, so manually posting on some sites can lead to better engagement. It’s worth testing your automation a few times for unexpected outcomes before implement it.

There are app terms of service to be read, as well. Specifically, Twitter’s rules around automation are important to brief yourself on before automating tweets on tweets on tweets. Here are few items worth noting:

  • It’s OK to automate a reply to your new follower, but it’s not recommend as it can be an annoyance
  • It’s OK to automate a reply to someone who explicitly mentions your handle, name or brand, but again, it can be an annoyance
  • It’s not OK to automate a reply to a user who mentions a keyword of your choice—in Twitter’s eyes, this is spam
  • It’s not OK to automate the retweeting of a user based on a keyword in their tweet
  • It’s not OK to steal another user’s tweets and share just the content of their tweet from your account

Automation can also be inappropriate during times of local, national, or global tragedy. While other Twitter users are expressing their grief over an event, your account could be continuing to promote a product. If you’re going to use automation, it’s important to know how, if needed, to quickly turn it all off.

In general, just think about what you like (and don’t like) on your favorite social networks, and act the way you’d be ok with other accounts doing to you. Be nice.

Now that we have our warning out there, let’s dive in and find some ways to help you automate the tediousness away from social networking.


“Zapier lets us focus our editorial staff on curation and posting of our top news, but lets us automate some of the more programmatic posts that we do every day.”- Kevin Lisota, GeekWire tech consultant

Instantly Share New Content via RSS,152,93,141

Writing a blog post is only the first step. Once it’s published, you still have to promote your post and make sure your entire audience sees it. That’s time consuming at best, tedious at worst—and it’s tasks like these where Zapier fits most perfectly.

All you have to do is link your RSS feed to your social network, and have Zapier automatically share everything you post with all of your social networks. You can customize what’s shared for each network, filter your feed to only share posts about specific topics if you want, or send them to Buffer if you’d like to share the posts later.

Sharing RSS feeds might sound like a simple use-case, but it’s enough to help the GeekWire team run a site with news that’s read by millions of people with only a small team.

“Having a tool like Zapier around lets us focus our editorial staff on curation and posting of our top news, but lets us automate some of the more programmatic posts that we do every day, making sure that our content is always fresh for our readers,” says Kevin Lisota, a GeekWire tech consultant.

You can use this for more than just sharing new posts. If you have a podcast, you can share new episodes with your followers automatically with its RSS feed. Or, if you have multiple blogs, you can share them all together.

Syndicate Updates Across Your Accounts


You’re already sharing stuff on Twitter, so why not automatically share the same stuff on other social networks. Zapier can automatically copy your Tweets and share them on any other network. You’ll never have to manually post anything to Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, or Buffer again.

This can help you save a considerable amount of time, while still broadening your social media reach. That’s how the Jurlnnov team is able to share their content on every social network.

“We create a single set of messages that will be delivered to our customers and Zapier publishes them to the appropriate social media site based on predefined rules,” says Eric Vanderburg from the JurInnov team. “With Zapier, we don’t have to choose a single social media platform. Instead, we can connect with customers on whichever platform they prefer to provide them with the resources they need effectively and consistently.”

Do note is that you’ll want to add a custom filter to your Zaps to not share your @replies. Just add a custom filter, and select “In Reply To Screen Name” followed by “Does not exist”. That’ll ensure that you’re only sharing new posts, not Tweets where you’re replying to someone else. Check this article for more info on that from our support docs.

twitter reply filter

Facebook Pages,175

Facebook Pages are great for a focused community about your content, but it’d be a shame to only share your posts with that group. Zapier can copy your Facebook Page posts to any other social network, including your personal Facebook profile or another private Facebook group.

Facebook Personal Profile,2326,2329

Facebook doesn’t have to be just about your personal life. Even your personal Facebook profile can be a tool to share interesting content that you’d like to share on your other social networks. You can use custom filters to make sure you’re only sharing certain types of content—perhaps only posts with a link or a picture—and then Zapier will make sure everyone will see them no matter which network they’re on.


LinkedIn isn’t just a place for your resume—it’s also increasingly popular as a place to share business ideas and links in its news feed. You can’t automatically copy LinkedIn status to other networks, but you can use Zapier to automatically post Tweets, Facebook messages, and more to LinkedIn to make sure you keep your LinkedIn


Pictures are worth a thousand words, the saying goes, but it’s terribly slow to share photos individually on each social network. Instead, pick the best place to share pictures, and then automatically share those pictures with the rest of your networks.

Instagram is the place to share pictures today, and Zapier can tie it together with the rest of your social networks. You could share your Instagram photos on Twitter and your Facebook profile with one extra tap in the Instagram app, but there’s not built-in way to share pictures to a Facebook Page. Instead, just use Zapier to reduce taps and automatically share your pictures to every social network. You can even turn your Instagram photos into WordPress blog posts automatically, just using Zapier.

That’s how the Koombea team shares their Instagram photos with their fans.

“Now with a Zapier integration, I can immediately have any Instagram picture post as an independent link on our FB business page,” says Kate Swanberg. “It also helps to get more Instagram followers because the link redirects to the Instagram.”


It’s not just your own photos that matter. Whenever you find something graphical you’d like to share—an infographic, a beautifully designed business card or website, a workspace photo, or a picture of someone using your service—you can Pin it on your Pinterest page. Just use the Pinterest extension, select the image you want to share on any site, and put it in the board you’d like.

Zapier will do the rest. It’ll share your pinned photos with all of your other social networks. That way, you’ll build a following around your graphics on Pinterest, and still share the great stuff you find with the rest of your social networks. There’s never been an easier way to share any image you come across.


Tumblr’s one of the easiest ways to blog. Instead of needing to write a full-length blog post, you can just as easily share a picture, animated GIF, video, quote, audio recording, or perhaps a quote that inspires your team. Then, you can automatically share those posts with the rest of your social networks. And if everything’s not relevant to every network, you can use custom filters to share just the most important stuff.

That’s how the PetCeption team used Zapier to grow their Google+ following from just 275 followers to over 3,000 in just three months, by using Zapier custom filters to only share Tumblr posts with pictures or GIFs to Google+.

“We have set up a Zapier task that will automatically detect new posts from accounts we follow with either GIFs or pictures and repost that content to Buffer, where it’s then scheduled to be posted to our Google+ channel,” says Steve Swift. That’s helped them automate their social media presence and grow their audience at the same time.

Open Up Social Media to Every Employee,10638,11132,3471

If boosting your social media presence with syndication doesn’t interest you, then a tactic introduced to us by UP Global‘s marketing director, Mitchell Cuevas, just might. Instead of pulling in content from an RSS feed, pull it in from your team. To do this, hook up a form app like Google Forms, JotForm, Formstack or Wufoo.

“The philosophy that I always operated under was the more people you can get involved in social media and storytelling of an organization, the better and more successful it’s going to be,” Cuevas says.

Share Your Latest Newsletter with a Public Link

Or you could start to pipe in a unique channel to your social media—your email newsletters. Did you know that email marketing systems like MailChimp offer links in their emails to view the content on an archived public webpage? With Zapier, each time you send out a new campaign, automatically share it across your social channels, too.

Promote Upcoming Events, Webinars and Meetups,193,194,195,196&zaps=32823,34738,36676

There’s almost no better way to get people excited about your product than with a real-world event or meetup. Or, without having to get everyone together in the same location, you can have a webinar or public Google+ Hangout and host online training sessions about your product. Either way, you’ll want to make sure as many people know about your meeting as possible.

That’s where Zapier comes into your meeting plans. Just create a new event in your calendar, or a meeting app like Meetup or GoToWebinar, and Zapier will take care of the rest by sharing your events on your social networks. You can even have Zapier delay the post to make sure it’s seen by the most people possible.

Roll Out New Videos Right Away,180&zaps=31475

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video’s surely worth far more. Whether it’s your latest commercials or product demos, videos of your meetups and conferences, or just fun music videos to brighten up your followers’ weeks, sharing video doesn’t have to be difficult.

Just upload your videos to YouTube, Vimeo, or Wistia, and Zapier can automatically share them on your social networks. You’ll get the network effects of having your videos on the sites where people are already looking for videos, while still making sure your followers on other social networks see the videos.

Market New Products in Your Online Store

Whether your entire business is built around selling products, or you’re just selling limited edition merchandise with your branding, Zapier can help make sure everyone knows whenever you’ve added new products. That’s how the 80sTees team shares their latest products on Twitter, and in return started seeing results from social media that they’d never had before.

“We simply ignored Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr; it was too much work to post on there with the minuscule following we had,” says Kevin Stecko, founder. “But once I found out about the Zapier integration with Shopify, I figured we might as well post our new products to these platforms. Since it’s a ‘set it and forget it’ implementation there was really no downside. Since we started posting new products, we’ve seen the most results with Twitter and have jumped into the platform more wholeheartedly. Without Zapier we would not have had that success.”

It even opened up new markets for their team.

“A customer retweeted one of our product posts to a licensor that we don’t currently deal with and essentially said ‘this is how you merchandise your property,'” Stecko says. “We are in discussions with that licensor to become a licensee. It’s a hit 80s cartoon that could have a ton of potential for us!”

All that from one simple retweet of an automated tweet.

Widely Distribute New WordPress Posts,182,159,183,184,158

A WordPress blog could be integrated with Zapier via RSS, but if you directly connect WordPress to Zapier there are a lot more options. You can, of course, share your posts automatically on social networks, but you can also be far more specific about how you share them. You can share posts by author, automatically adding the author’s name at the end of the Tweet. Or, you can set up separate social media accounts for different topics, and share your posts based on their tags and categories.

Then, you can even do more with your blog posts than just share them. You can actually republish them entirely on your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile using Zapier. It won’t help your site get more views, but it will help more people read your content.

The Cozy team uses these tools to share their posts to a vast number of LinkedIn groups for real estate, landlords, and more. Distributing manually took too much time, and never seemed to produce real results. Zapier changed that.

“It would take a few hours for our staff to do what Zapier does in seconds,” says Cozy’s community manager Lucas Hall. “Zapier lets us post unique messages to similar groups, while also sharing our latest content. We can test which campaigns work well and invoke conversations that last for weeks (sometimes months).”

Share Events as They Near,36707,36706

You’ve already shared your events as you added them. Now, it’s time to let Zapier remind people about the events as they approach. You can set up additional Zapier automations that’ll remind people about your events at specified amount of time, such as two days, before they start. That way, they’ll be sure to not forget even if it’s been awhile since you originally announced the event.

Bill DeBaun of DC Beer uses this trick to save hundreds of hours of work per year. Instead of individually posting event reminders on Twitter and Facebook—a 10-15 minute routine, he says—DeBaun uses Zapier to automatically remind people of the 100-plus events they make note of on their site.

“The ability to build in automatic reminder for events on our calendar makes our site that much more useful to the public, which gets a six-hour heads up on the best beer events in our area,” says DeBaun. “Zapier completely changed our event management for the better.”


“The more people you can get involved in social media and storytelling of an organization, the better and more successful it’s going to be.”- Mitchell Cuevas, UP Global marketing director

Make It Easier to Connect with Your Team,200

It’s too easy to miss the Tweets from the people you really want to keep in touch with, as they’re lost in the stream of everyone else’s posts. Zapier can help you make sure you never miss anything important by automatically posting the Tweets from the most important people into your team’s chat app.

That’s how the DigitalOcean team keeps track of what everyone in their team is talking about.

“Our Twitter-Slack Zap pulls in all the Tweets from the DOHQ Twitter List, that consists of all DO employees on Twitter,” says Daniel Zaltsman, the company’s social media director. “We see the tool as a very easy to manage, highly accessible, culture and happiness builder.”

Get to Know Who Follows You and Engage Right Away

It’s tough to know who’s following you just by checking your Twitter account, especially since you might have someone follow you and then unfollow you soon after. Zapier can help by automatically notifying you when you get a new follower, and keeping records of who’s followed you. You can then reach out to your followers and identify people you should follow back.

Automatically @replying to your new Twitter followers is typically not a good practice, but with a personal touch, it can be a great idea. That’s why the Koombea team uses Zapier to save all of their new followers to a Google Docs spreadsheet. Then, they can send a personal Tweet welcoming the new follower. As Kate Swanberg, growth marketing specialist at Koombea says, “I avoid robots doing this for me, but it’s a nice automation to have and can get a little personal with it.”

Find Happy Customers to Interview for a Case Study

Twitter can be a great tool for support, since people are so likely to Tweet about problems they have with your service or product. But it can also be a great place to find happy customers that love what you’re doing—the perfect people to interview and share their story with your networks.

You can use Zapier’s Twitter search integration to find people who use keywords such as like, love, and awesome when mentioning your brand name. Then, get Zapier to send you a message or log those Tweets to a spreadsheet or an collaboration app like Trello, so you and your team can follow up and see just why they love your brand. It’s the easiest way to find happy customers for case studies.

“Zapier completely changed our event management for the better.”- Bill DeBaun, DC Beer


Get Notified of New Twitter Search Result,137,156

Twitter Search can be incredibly powerful, as we’ve seen in our “Advanced Twitter Search Guide“. It’s always surprising how much you can get out of 140 character messages. When your search uncover really important Tweets, Zapier can help make sure you never miss any of them by sending them to your email, alerting you with a Pushbullet mobile notification, or letting you know in your chat app.

Krys Freeman of Koder IT uses this trick to automatically track common frustrations experienced by people riding AC Transit and BART. What used to previously required a full app for SMS-powered feedback now can automatically be made just by tracking Tweets with Zapier. It’s a way to help people improve their transportation and make their voices heard, and it’s automatic.

At Tallie, Kevin Van Heusen uses this automation to search for tweets not just about his company but for industry chatter, as well.

“(Zapier) provides some automated insights into what activity is happening in Twitter for our industry,” he says. “Instead of manually searching Twitter for interesting activity and Tweets, Zapier is helping automate bringing that activity to our attention.”

Narrow in Twitter Search Alerts to a Geographic Area,36711,36708,36709

Local businesses have one disadvantage with online marketing: the internet’s global, and a local business can only serve one area. You might have fans everywhere from Bangkok to Boston, but as much as you like having a global audience, it’s the people next door that really matter.

So, instead of keeping up with all of your mentions, use Zapier’s “Search & Geo Mention” automation with Twitter to show just the Tweets from your hometown or nearby you—the size of the area is your choice. You can get live notifications whenever someone nearby mentions you, giving you a chance to reach out and make sure they actually walk through your door.

Keep a Close Eye on a Twitter Account or Twitter List,199,200

There are so many important people that you should be listening to: your investors, your competitors, your best customers, thought leaders in your industry, and the business next door. And maybe the National Weather Service, your local traffic reports, and that newspaper that promised to cover you this week. You’ll likely lose all their Tweets in the steam if you simply follow them.

Instead, you can make sure you’re seeing just those Tweets by getting Zapier to automatically put them in your team’s chat app, email them to you, or send you push notifications. Add in some filters to cut through the random tweets that don’t relate to you, and you’ll have a far smarter way to use Twitter.

“We see the (Twitter-Slack Zap) as a very easy to manage, highly accessible, culture and happiness builder.”- Jesse Chase, DigitalOcean creative director

Keep Tabs on Mentions on Facebook,36712,36713

Facebook search isn’t as advanced as Twitter’s, but with 3rd party apps like Mention, you can still keep track of every time someone mentions your company on Facebook. You’ll still need to manually reply to them, as there’s no way to automatically reply to Facebook posts, but at least you’ll know who to contact.

Plus, since it’s on Facebook, people will be more surprised when you actually do reach out. You just might be able to get more Facebook likes and a more engaged audiance thanks to the personal touch.

See Instagram Photos Right Away,36729,35228,36728

Perhaps your company’s more graphical. You like to find great pictures on Instagram—perhaps travel photos from your team, product pictures from your users, or shots of your business location—so you can like, comment, and share them. Don’t wait for them to show up in your Instagram feed during lunch; let Zapier bring them to you.

Zapier can automatically find new Instagram photos with a specific tag or ones taken in a specific location, and put them in the place you’ll see them fastest: your email inbox, your team chat app, or anywhere else you want. Then, if you’d like to re-share the pictures, that’s only another Zap away.

Get Notifications when You’re Mentioned on Reddit,34957,34956

Reddit may well be the strangest social network. Best known for cat photos, memes, and pun-filled comment threads, Reddit is also filled with niche communities about every topic possible. There’s groups for photographers, lawyers, DIY tips, and almost anything else you can think of. And when your site gets mentioned in one of those groups, it’s time for you to reach out.

There’s far too much content posted on Reddit everyday to watch it all yourself. Instead, let Zapier watch Reddit for you. Then, whenever your company or product is mentioned, it’ll let you know in the apps you’re already using.


Capture Mentions of Your Brand on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,36716

Ever wanted an easy way to look back and see who’s mentioned your brand on social networks this month? Or, perhaps, keep a record to calculate how many times you’re mentioned each month and compare your stats over time? Zapier can help you with that, too.

Just set up a Twitter or Facebook search that automatically saves each of your mentions to a Google Docs sheet, Dropbox text file, Evernote note, or anywhere else you’d like to keep up with them. You can then easily turn that into a page that showcases your satisfied users or the best praise for your brand, and have a real metric to see how automation is helping your social media outreach.

See How Often You Share on Social Media,4370

How many times did you Tweet yesterday? Last week? Last month? What time do you usually Tweet?

Chances are you don’t know. But you should. If you’re serious about improving your social media performance, you should know how often you Tweet, when you Tweet, and how that worked out. Just have each of your Tweets listed on your Calendar or in a spreadsheet sorted by time, and you’ll have a quick way to see how much you Tweet. Very soon, you’ll be able to see if you have any gaps in your Twitter schedule, and can see directly how much you Tweet on any given day.

Save Mentions from Just One User on Twitter,156,137

There are some Twitter followers that are a bit more important for your brand: your sponsors, partner companies, investors, and more. The things they say about your company are important. You may want to keep a record of what they Tweeted, and you’ll very likely want to get notified when they mention your brand so you can share their post. And on the flip side, you might want to keep track of when you mention them, too.

To do so, use this search query, setting up new Zapier automation for each account and keyword you want to track: keyword from:username or "phrase here" from:username.


Save Photos to Dropbox,31388

You’re sharing photos on Facebook and Instagram, but it’s so easy to end up not keeping a copy of the actual photo you shared. You might have the original picture, but the shared picture with text, filters and more was likely tweaked on a mobile device and the only official copy of that picture lives on the social network.

That’s why you should have Zapier backup your social pictures for you. It can watch each of your accounts for new photos, then save them away safely in Dropbox, Google Drive, Box or any other storage service. Then, if you ever want to share that picture again, the original is just a click away.

Keep Your Pins,10671,5123

Most people aren’t saving bookmarks of their favorite sites, taking screenshots of their favorite images, and making sure they save the stuff they find. Instead, they’re sharing links to the sites on Twitter and pinning pictures on Pinterest. If you’d rather make those shares more permanent, you can have Zapier save your pinned sites and images wherever you want.

Zapier can watch for anything you pin, or just for stuff that’s pinned on one specific board. It’ll then copy that to the app of your choice: Dropbox or other file storage services, your notebook, and more. Then, you can easily do more with your pinned sites in the future, perhaps turning them into a collage or using them as content for future blog posts.

Back Up Your Tweets,190

They’re just 140 character messages, but sometimes they’re important. You keep your blog posts forever. Tweets should be no different, but Twitter’s interface makes it hard to find your older posts. So make your own archive instead.

All you’ll have to do is pick where you’d like to save your Tweets—to a spreadsheet, plain text document, or your notebook app—and Zapier will do the rest. You’ll then have an easy way to go back and see the best of your team’s Twitter work.

Save Your Favorited Tweets,191

It’s not just your team’s Tweets that are important—there’s also those great Tweets you come across from others that you’d like to save forever. Twitter lets you favorite them, but if you favorite a lot of Tweets, they’ll end up as difficult to rediscover as your own Tweets.

Here’s another place an archive will come in handy. Zapier can watch for everything you favorite, archive it to a safe place, and you’ll be able to easily rediscover anything you’ve favorited whenever you want.

Does your team have any unique ways you automate your social media work? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Zapier marketer Danny Schreiber also contributed to this post.

Credits: Photo courtesy Joe St.Pierre


How to Automatically Clean Up Spreadsheet Data with OpenRefine

Ever had to manually edit dusty, messy, years-old information from some obsolete software?

I once worked for a company that stored paperwork offsite for 60 years. Materials were indexed in a document table. Most records had a box number, storage date, storage vendor receipt number, and a rough idea of the contents. Most, mind you.

Over 60 years the list got … messy. Storage contracts changed several times—so the box codes and vendor receipts varied over time. Add in the random mistakes that added up over time, and you had quite a mess.

My job was transferring everything to yet another contractor—which meant cleaning up thousands of records to play nice with the new vendor’s fancy online inventory. It was quite the chore—a chore many of us face when trying to organize data.

The good news is, if you can get your messy data into a spreadsheet, you can clean up and reformat it. My favourite tool for this is called OpenRefine, and its specialty is “reconciling” or “normalizing”—making it easy to find typos, variations on phrases, formatting errors, extra spaces, and other things that are hard to spot in rows upon rows of information.

What is OpenRefine?

OpenRefine bills itself, simply, as “a powerful tool for working with messy data.” Originally released 2010 as “Freebase Gridworks,” it was later called “Google Refine” after being acquired by the search giant. Today it’s a community-run, open-source project to, well, refine your data.

To you, this could mean a number of things. You sales team could want to export old store data, reorganize it, and import it into a new eCommerce app. Your accounting staff might have legacy data floating around from years ago. Your PR staff could have multiple email lists from campaigns past you want to merge, modify, or de-duplicate.

Maybe your survey results are messy, your app exports are confusing, or your analytics data needs combined from multiple sources.

OpenRefine was built especially with those types of bulk operations in mind. It may just be what you need to finally finish that data project you’ve been putting off.

Getting Started With OpenRefine

Getting started is easy. Just download OpenRefine—it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux—and start the program. It’ll open up a browser tab that looks much like other Google Apps, and will ask you to create a project, or open a project you’ve already started.

You’ll need some data for OpenRefine to work with—and it open any data in a spreadsheet format: CSV, XLS, or even a Google Sheets spreadsheet online. It can also take XML and JSON files, if that’s your jam.

OpenRefine Import Data

OpenRefine can directly import your spreadsheet files from the web

Let’s start a new project. This exercise is going to use a set of publicly available data from the Government of Ontario—which, like much public data, is a bit messy. Let’s go with a subject near and dear to my heart: Beer. Copy the link to the XLSX file, which includes details about Ontario microbrewers and brands. Switch to your OpenRefine tab, start a new project, select the Web Address option, and paste in your spreadsheet link.

As soon as you input a dataset, OpenRefine generates a preview to ensure it’s displayed properly. You can do some preliminary cleanup—remove empty rows, set the first row as a header with column names, or convert columns into specific data types (dates, integers, and so on).

Click “Create Project” when you’ve made sure the data is displaying correctly, and you’ll be brought to the screen where all the magic happens.

Data imported into OpenRefine

The first thing you’ll notice is that OpenRefine doesn’t display your data like a spreadsheet with a long list of rows. Instead, it shows a maximum of 50 rows at a time, essentially just enough of a preview for you to think about what you’re working with. You can page through your data if you need to, but I think you’ll soon get comfortable with being less overwhelmed.

Clean Up Data with OpenRefine Facets

The first step is to learn about facets. These show precisely which values are used in a column, so you can find typos or variations in things that are supposed to be identical. Let’s start with the manufacturer’s name. Click the dropdown button next to the header, select Facet, then Text Facet. You’ll be presented with a column like this, showing a count of the times each item appears in the dataset:

OpenRefine Facet

We can see, for example, that Big Rig Brewery has 13 different beers; Big Rock Brewery, 6 different beers. We can already see some messy data here—“Black Swan Brewing Company” and “BLACK SWAN BREWING COMPANY INC.” are the same company, but with slightly different names in this spreadsheet.

Change name in OpenRefine

To fix this, hover your mouse over the name you want to change, click “edit,” and type in the new name. Click Apply and it automatically edits all the matching entries in the dataset.

Let’s speed up the process by automatically identifying all of the facets that are similar and merging them—without any typing—by clustering the data. Click the Cluster button at the top of the facet display, and you’ll see all of the similar entries identified by OpenRefine:

Cluster in OpenRefine

For some of these, it’s just an extra space (as at the end of “Square Timber Brewing Company”) or an extra comma (as in Blood Brothers Brewing), or liberal use of capslock. As you can see in the “Bevin Palmateer” entry, OpenRefine also identifies words that are out of order.

Check the Merge boxes for anything you want to fix. If you don’t like the suggested new value—for example, the capitalized name suggested for NITA BEER—you can just click the lowercase option and it will change that field. If you don’t like any of the options, just type in your preferred name.

Click Merge Selected & Re-Cluster to do another check. When the check finds no results, try another clustering method to look for more (you should find “Walkervile” and “Walkerville”).

It’s data-mining, but you don’t have to learn advanced data-mining theory to get results: Just click through all the options. You’ll start to see false positives (for example, “Bell City” isn’t “River City”), which you can just ignore.

Common transforms in OpenRefine

There are also some common transform tools you can use to clean stuff up, like eliminating all the spaces before and after text. Let’s also get rid of all the uppercase brewery names by transforming the whole column to Titlecase. Click again on the dropdown menu for the column, go to Edit cells, and read through all the possibilities.

Categorize Data Automatically in OpenRefine

The next step is to do clever things with all this data. Let’s pretend these beers are our product data, and we want to add categories of beer to our catalogue. We don’t want to manually label each entry, so let’s save some time by identifying beer types from the beers’ names.

We can do a quick check for one type of beer using a Custom Text Facet. We’ll look for all cell values that contain “Porter” (this is also case-sensitive, but now that we’ve put everything in titlecase, the capital P should catch everything). A Custom Text Facet on the Manufacturer’s Brand column brings up this window, into which we enter a filter:


Use Custom Text Facets in OpenRefine

This function returns true and false—and true here means 25 beers are porters in the list. (There are also 79 breweries without any actual beers available—the (blank) category—but let’s ignore that for now.)

These filters are great when you want to manipulate a subset of your spreadsheet without having to delete the rest, or keep your focus rows selected. You can apply a filter, do a bunch of operations, and then remove it later. OpenRefine even includes some common recipes to format data, such as standarizing date formats or transforming “Firstname Lastname” into “Lastname, Firstname.”

Let’s use that to transform our data into something useful. We’ll add a new column based on the “Manufacturer’s Brand” column, using text analysis to guess what type of beer it is. It won’t work on all entries, but for beers that have “IPA”, “lager”, “stout”, “lime”, “red”, “wheat”, and so on right in their name, we’ll have some success.

if statements in OpenRefine

Start by clicking on “Manufacturer’s Brand.” Select Edit Column then choose Create column based on this column. To look for “lager” and replace the entirety of the Beer types value with “lager” where applicable, we use an if statement:


If statements here are straightforward: If the first part is true, transform the whole value to “lager;” otherwise, replace the cell value with itself (or, do nothing).

If we want to categorize a big set of beer types at once, we nest a series of if statements inside each other. It looks a bit silly, but gets the job done:


Essentially, if “Lager” wasn’t found, then try “IPA,” then try “Wheat,” then try “Pilsner,” etc., etc. It’s not standard programming syntax, but gets the job done.

Apply that transformation, then check the facets of the column to see our progress.

OpenRefine automated facet categories

While we’re at it, let’s clean the results up. Reconcile “I.P.A.” and “India Pale Ale” to “IPA” with the steps you learned above. Also keep in mind that the operations work in order: You’ll want to convert “India Pale Ale” before you reformat “Pale Ale.” Because these transformations are also case-sensitive, transforming to lowercase “India pale ale” would also protect your work when you search for “Pale Ale” later on.

With a bit of categorizing, we can start to see the spread of beer types in Ontario. (Try them all today!) This is definitely faster than labelling them all by hand, and it should give you an idea how to make OpenRefine filters work for you.

If this was a product list for our online store, we’d want to export our cleaned-up and value-added spreadsheet from OpenRefine and import it into our eCommerce store. The Export button’s your friend. You can export your data as a spreadsheet with a range of options and data forms. You can also upload the data directly to a new Google Sheets spreadsheet or Google Fusion table.

Do More with OpenRefine

There are a few other useful OpenRefine tools. The Undo/Redo option gives you detailed information about all your activities instead of just undoing your mistakes—which is super helpful in learning how to get more out of OpenRefine. Also remember: OpenRefine is designed around databases so you can use its records and rows seperately to organize your data.

Now it’s your turn to try it out. Have messy data from an app export, or an old spreadsheet full of confusing data?

One great way is to use OpenRefine to organize your contacts: Find typos and formatting errors in email addresses, phone numbers, or company names before importing the data into a new app. I’ve used it to reformat old Mailchimp data when we changed the designs of our signup forms—super handy.

Don’t spend hours formatting your data again. OpenRefine can do it for you in minutes.

We’d love to hear how you use OpenRefine to clean up data in the comments below!

Continue Reading

Header photo via Pexels.