How I use Airtable and Zapier to Experience the Flow in Workflow

Let me begin by telling you what I hate. I hate Slack. I hate Gmail. And I hate digital nebulas.

A beautiful nebula. Now imagine pings, emojis, and cat gifs swirling in it.

What is a digital nebula? I’m glad you asked. And yeah, I just made it up.

Nebula (n.): Astronomy — a cloud of gas and dust in outer space, visible in the night sky either as an indistinct bright patch or as a dark silhouette against other luminous matter.

At first glance, a nebula, like other celestial entities, sounds magical. Entities to love for their sheer existence, not to hate. In essence, a nebula is a cloud of gas and dust. Diffuse, amorphous, non-discrete. Exactly what we expect out of celestial entities.

But nebulous is not what I expect of my mental picture of earthly tasks. Everyday there are so many requests, messages, and comments to keep track of. They live in the far corners of a 30 message long email thread and in the hinterlands of a Slack thread. Messages sandwiched in between 50 one-line responses, emojis, and gifs.

But wait, there’s more — these messages also linger in the labyrinth of critiques embedded in the design feedback platform that my team uses. A platform that is, in other words, disjointed from everything else. The “flow” in workflow is here a vast cloud of dust and gas, caught in a vortex.

There’s a loneliness to these messages. I can hear them crying out to meet one another, in this vast cloud of dust and gas. I can see their lights dimming with every ping, emoji, and cat gif.

So I try something. I put on my Henry Ford hat and pluck these messages from their digital nebulas, and set them down into one place. I stack them into neat rows. And that place is Airtable.

I like Airtable mainly because it does automatic color coding. It’s that simple. There’s fancier stuff you can do with it. But I stick to just one process that saves me time and energy. That process is converting emails to items in my spreadsheet.

I use Zapier to automate this process. Here’s the recipe:

1. I set up a filter in Gmail to automatically apply the label “To-Do” for any projects assigned to me within my design feedback platform.

2. I tell Zapier to convert any emails that are starred or labeled “To-Do” into items in my Airtable sheet.

3. I set up a formula in Airtable to remove unnecessary words in the subject line, e.g., “You have been assigned to a new proof”).

SUBSTITUTE({Project}, “You’ve been assigned to a new proof”, “”)

4. I tell Zapier to place the subject line as the Task, the email body as the Brief, the email sender as the Directly Responsible Individual, and so on.

5. I sort the items in Airtable based on their Status and Review Date. Items that are “Not Started” and have the earliest Review Date are at the top.

My next improvement is to forward any to-dos from Slack to Airtable.

There are reasons not to try this process. Mainly based on your own needs. You may feel fine with your workflow. And that’s ok. Not everything needs improvement, especially if the improvement makes your life more complicated. Or if spreadsheets instantly drain you faster than a dying balloon.

For me, this process seeds clarity. It saves time. It removes the fear of not knowing when things are due, where they are in my workflow, and who is collaborating with me on a specific project. This is how I keep myself accountable to the people I work with. This is how I gain autonomy in the modern digital workspace.

This is how I put the flow back in workflow.

Observations on living and working 🔅 Senior Motion Designer at Planned Parenthood // bytanchan.com