Cool Tool: If This Then That

I tend to be a little skeptical of the new and shiny. There is often a lot of hype about how life changing some new website or gizmo is going to be. Sometimes, however, something comes along that does live up to the hype. The latest one I’ve found is a rather nondescript site called ifttt. The URL is strange, until you understand that it stands for “If This Then That”. What the site does is allow you to automate bits of your digital life by watching for events (the “if this” portion), and then taking an action (the “then that” portion). It lets you tie together the various sites and services that you use, allowing you to do even more with them.

This warrants an example, perhaps.

Let’s say you take lots of pictures of your kids with Instagram. And let’s say your mom (or grandmother) isn’t the most tech-savvy user. She uses email, but doesn’t have a smartphone and doesn’t want one. She doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could automatically email any pictures you post to Instagram to your mother so that she doesn’t give you a guilt trip for never sending her pictures of her grandkids (hypothetically speaking, of course. Any resemblance to my own mother is purely coincidental). Ifttt can do that for you. What about those receipts you get emailed to you every month that you need at the end of the year for taxes? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get those sent to a specific folder in Evernote so that they’re all in one place? Ifttt can do that for you. You know all those links that come across your Twitter stream that you don’t take the time to read? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just favorite the tweet and have the link in the tweet automagically added to your Instapaper account? Ifttt can do that for you.

So, how does it work?

Ifttt is built on the idea of triggers, channels, tasks, and recipes.

Channels represent the hooks into the websites you use. Gmail, Google Reader,Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, Dropbox, Instagram, etc. If it’s a popular service, ifttt probably has a channel for it. There are also general channels for things like RSS feeds that aren’t tied to a specific service.

Triggers then are events that occur on these services. A picture is taken on Instagram, a new email appears in your Gmail account, someone new follows you on Twitter. Triggers allow you to specify when you want to take action. They also frequently allow you to specify criteria. In the case of Gmail, for example, you can specify that you only want to take action if the email is from a specific person, or contains a certain word in the subject line. If you’ve ever created filters in Gmail or Outlook, it’s the same concept, but applied on a much larger scale.

Tasks, like Triggers, are built on Channels. They allow you to perform tasks in reaction to a trigger. Examples of tasks would be things like:

  • Sending an email
  • Creating a new note in Evernote
  • Sending a tweet
  • Send an SMS message

Tasks let you use data from the triggers (ie the subject line in an email) in your task. So you could, for example, use the subject of an email to populate the subject of your note in Evernote.

Recipes are pre-made combinations of the other items, created either by the team at ifttt, by other users, or yourself. There are a lot of them, and chances are you will find a lot of them that you can put to use immediately. Here are a few that I’m either using myself or found interesting:

You get the idea.

I’ve only been using this service for a couple of months, but I’ve already discovered a lot of useful things I can automate with it. Posting things to Twitter for me, taking receipts that I get in email and adding them to my Tax Folder in Evernote, etc. This saves me time and makes my life easier. What’s most exciting though is that there is that this service is very young, and has a lot of potential. There are a lot more channels, tasks, and triggers yet to be created. Perhaps one day they will add the ability to do conditionals, or even more complex logic, using JavaScript or some other language.

It’s early, but I see a lot of potential here. Go create an account and try it out yourself. What can you automate?