Automating tasks that you habitually repeat is a sure-fire way to increase productivity. In order to get the best out of automation, you need to automate all your work platforms.
For me, this means I need to automate my tasks on the following platforms:
I’ll now give you a very brief overview of the tools I use to automate each of these platforms. Please note that this post will not go into the details of how the tools work, it will just provide a high-level description of what they do. The purpose of this post is to familiarize you with the app landscape in this domain. I’ll go into more details about each tool in subsequent posts.
My “mobile” platform consists of my iPhone and my iPad. Thus, in order to automate this platform, I needed to figure out what the best tools to automate iOS were. After searching extensively and trying out several tools, I finally settled on the following:
- TextExpander to automate repeated writing tasks
- Workflow to automate any iOS processes that chain the use of several apps together
- Drafts to automate any text processing tasks
I’ve written more extensively about Drafts elsewhere on this blog, and will expand on this topic in subsequent posts, so I’ll not write about it here again. I’ll also write posts that cover the other tools in detail at a later time. I will, however, provide a brief overview of what they can do here. Using these three apps, I’m now able to accomplish things I could only do on a desktop previously — and some things that I still can’t do on a desktop.
TextExpander is a tool that allows you to define text snippets that expand to larger blocks of text when written. For example, if you find yourself repeatedly typing in a certain sentence or paragraph, you can create a text snippet that expands to the desired text.
Let’s say you find yourself typing “Thank you very much for the email, I’ll get back to you very soon with a reply” repeatedly, you can go into TextExpander and define “rreply” as a snippet that expands to the above sentence. Now every time you want to write that sentence, you can just type rreply and TextExpander will replace it with the desired text.
Using this tool has allowed me to type text much faster. It’s especially useful on my iPhone as the keyboard is not the best size for quick and prolonged typing.
Workflow is a tool that allows you to call several apps in succession, with the output of each app used as the input to the next. It also allows you to prompt the user for input and uses url schemes to extract information from within other apps.
Using workflow I can, for example, send a particular piece of text to a WhatsApp group, an email address and send it as a text message, all from one location. This means that I don’t have to open three different apps to perform this task, all I have to do is prepare the text, and then call a workflow to do all of the above.
Workflow can also access web services, so for example, it can post text to WordPress. It has a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it makes life much easier on iOS.
These automation tools have made iOS a serious competitor to traditional computing platforms. Coupling this software power with the hardware chops of an iPad Pro, means that it’s only rarely that I have to reach for my laptop or desktop.
My work desktop computer is a Windows 10 machine. I’m not really a Windows person — sorry Microsoft — but I’ve learned to live with it. My main automation tool on Windows is AutoHotkey.
Using AutoHotkey, an open-source tool, I automate my common workflows by assigning them keyboard shortcuts. Again, I’ll dedicate another post to describing the details of AutoHotkey. I will only discuss how I use it at a high-level of abstraction here.
AutoHotkey, unlike the previously mentioned tools for iOS, does not allow deep links within apps. So I can only use it to open apps or a web link — rather than, say, asking a certain app to perform a certain task on a certain input. I use it to define keyboard shortcuts for my favorite apps, like Evernote, Todoist, etc.
I also use it to automatically open web pages using keyboard shortcuts. I have shortcuts for my university’s online grading and registration systems defined so that I can get to them easily. That is the extent of my automation on Windows — I do not count automatically syncing my work directories to Dropbox as an automation, as that is not really automation in the sense I use the word in this post.
My laptop is a MacBook Pro, and I feel much more comfortable using it than my Windows work machine.
The main automation tools on my Mac are:
- TextExpander to expand text snippets
- Alfred to automate app launch and create complex workflows
I’ve explained TextExpander before so will not reexplaining it here again. Instead, I’ll turn my attention to Alfred. Alfred is the super-powered sibling of AutoHotkey, I use it to define keyboard shortcuts for apps I use often, and for defining complex workflows that allow me to string together a set of actions to perform what I want. These actions usually involve opening different apps in sequence or in parallel.
Alfred has a visual editor that you can use to express your workflows, so it very easy to get started with it. In subsequent posts, I will show you how to create powerful workflows that will make your work on MacOS very efficient.
An alternative to Alfred is AppleScript, Apple’s scripting language that allows you to program complex behavior to be executed with the call of a single script. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the language is limited, and so I cannot write about it with any degree of certainty. As I learn more about this language, I’ll try to share with you any insights I obtain.
The final platform I need to automate is the web. By this I mean any online service that exposes web services that can be used to automate operations. For this I use IFTTT.
IFTTT, short for “if this then that”, is an extremely powerful service that allows you to string together a set of web-services — for example, you can have it add your starred email to your todo list, backup your photos to cloud storage or even turn on a smart light when you post a particular tweet.
It’s an extremely powerful service, my only beef with it is that it only allows me to connect two services in one rule — but it’s a free app, and I’m lucky to have what it offers.
For example, when this blog post is published, its IFTTT that will post it to all my social media accounts.
That’s it for now folks. I hope this post gave you a taste of how automation can improve your workflow. Check out the apps I mention in this post and play around with them a bit. I’m sure you’ll find that at least some of them improve the way you work on your computing devices.