How to Automate Tasks with cron Jobs in Linux

Cron is a time-based job scheduler in Unix-like operating systems. It allows users to schedule jobs (commands or scripts) to run periodically at fixed times, dates, or intervals. Cron jobs are commonly used for tasks such as system maintenance, backups, batch processing, and automation of repetitive tasks.

The cron system works by reading a configuration file called "crontab" (short for "cron table") where users can specify the commands they want to run and the schedule for when they should run. Each user on a system can have their own crontab file, and system-wide tasks can also be scheduled through the system's main crontab file.

The syntax for specifying the schedule in a crontab entry consists of five fields:

  1. Minute (0 - 59)
  2. Hour (0 - 23)
  3. Day of the month (1 - 31)
  4. Month (1 - 12) or abbreviation (e.g., Jan, Feb)
  5. Day of the week (0 - 7) or abbreviation (e.g., Sun, Mon)

Asterisks (*) can be used as wildcards to indicate "every" for a field. For example, an asterisk in the minute field means "every minute."

Cron also supports special strings for common intervals such as @daily, @weekly, @monthly, @hourly, etc., which simplify scheduling tasks to run at these intervals.

Understanding the Crontab File

User's Crontab

Each user on a Linux system can have their own crontab file, which stores the scheduled jobs specific to that user. The crontab file for a user is located at ~/.crontab, where ~ represents the user's home directory. This file contains entries for cron jobs that are unique to that particular user. Users can use the crontab -e command to edit their crontab file, crontab -l to list their cron jobs, and crontab -r to remove their crontab entirely.

System-wide Crontab

In addition to individual user crontab files, there exists a system-wide crontab file that applies to all users and the system itself. This file is typically located at /etc/crontab. Entries in this file follow the same syntax as user crontab files, but they may include an additional field specifying the user account under which the command should be executed. The system-wide crontab may also include directories such as /etc/cron.d/ and /etc/cron.hourly/, which allow for more organized scheduling of system-wide tasks and scripts.

What are cron jobs in Linux?

Cron jobs in Linux are automated tasks scheduled to run at specific times or intervals using the cron daemon. Users can define these tasks in crontab files, specifying the command or script to execute and the schedule for its execution, including minute, hour, day of the month, month, and day of the week. Cron jobs are commonly used for system maintenance, backups, software updates, log rotations, and other repetitive tasks, providing a convenient and reliable way to automate routine operations in Linux systems. This is incredibly useful for various tasks, like:

  1. Backing up data regularly
  2. Updating software automatically
  3. Sending reports at specific times
  4. Running scripts periodically

How to schedule jobs with 'cron'?

To schedule jobs with cron in Linux, you typically follow these steps:

  1. Open the crontab file: Use the crontab -e command to edit the cron table for the current user. If you're a superuser and want to edit the system-wide crontab, you can use sudo crontab -e.
  2. Add a new cron job: Each line in the crontab file represents a single cron job. The syntax is as follows:
* * * * * /path/to/command arg1 arg2 ...

The five asterisks represent the schedule for the job: minute (0-59), hour (0-23), day of the month (1-31), month (1-12), and day of the week (0-7, where both 0 and 7 represent Sunday). You can also use predefined strings like @daily, @weekly, @monthly, or @hourly. After the schedule, specify the command or script you want to run, along with any arguments it needs.

  1. Save and exit: Once you've added your cron job, save the file and exit the editor. In most cases, this involves pressing Ctrl + X, confirming changes if prompted, and then pressing Y to confirm saving the changes.
  2. Verify: You can use crontab -l to list the current cron jobs for the user, ensuring your new job has been added correctly.
  3. Monitor the output: By default, the output of cron jobs is typically emailed to the user who scheduled the task. Make sure you have a mail transfer agent installed to receive these emails, or you can redirect the output of your cron job to a file using >> in your cron command line.
Crontab Syntax:

Each line in a crontab file defines a job with five fields:

  1. Minute (0-59)
  2. Hour (0-23)
  3. Day of the month (1-31)
  4. Month (1-12)
  5. Day of the week (0-6, 0 = Sunday)

You can use special characters for flexibility:

  1. *: Matches any value in that field (e.g., * * * * * runs every minute).
  2. ,: Separates values for a single field (e.g., 0,15,30 runs at minutes 0, 15, and 30).
  3. -: Defines a range (e.g., 10-20 runs from minute 10 to 20).
  4. */: Runs at certain intervals (e.g., */10 runs every 10 minutes).

Run a script named every day at midnight:

0 0 * * * /path/to/

This cron job runs at midnight every day (0 for both minute and hour fields) and executes the script located at /path/to/ The * symbols indicate that the job runs every day, regardless of the day of the month or week.

Update software every Monday at 3 AM:

0 3 * * 1 /usr/bin/apt update && /usr/bin/apt upgrade

This cron job runs at 3:00 AM (0 for minute and 3 for hour) every Monday (1 for the day of the week) and updates software packages using apt. The command apt update && apt upgrade ensures that the package lists are updated (apt update) and then upgrades the installed packages (apt upgrade). Absolute paths (/usr/bin/apt) are used to ensure the cron job runs properly.

Send a report every Friday at 5 PM:

0 17 * * 5 mail -s "Weekly Report" < /path/to/report.txt

This cron job runs at 5:00 PM (0 for minute and 17 for hour) every Friday (5 for the day of the week). It sends an email with the subject "Weekly Report" to using the mail command. The contents of the email are taken from the file located at /path/to/report.txt, indicated by < /path/to/report.txt.

Remember to replace /path/to/ with the actual path to your backup script and /path/to/report.txt with the actual path to your report file. Also, ensure that the necessary permissions are set for the scripts and files involved, and that the commands are valid and executable within the cron environment.


Scheduling jobs with the Linux cron utility involves specifying the desired timing and commands in the crontab file. Each cron job is defined by five fields representing minute, hour, day of the month, month, and day of the week, allowing for precise scheduling. Commands are executed at the specified intervals, enabling automation of tasks such as backups, software updates, and report generation.