You can use Titanium Backup to backup and restore your user apps. Note USER apps, NEVER restore system apps (TB separates them for you so that you don't have to know the difference).
Many 3rd party launchers have an option to backup and restore your home screen settings, so that you don't have to mess with that.
There will always be some amount of setup that you have to do with a new ROM, but I can usually have my phone back up and running and looking like 'mine' in about 20 minutes.
And most importantly, you don't have to install every update...
If you phone is working correctly and there is nothing you specifically want in the new version, just skip it.