Last Updated on
One of the primary goals of Mac Automation Tips is to turn general Mac users into Mac automators.
I imagine intermediate and advanced Mac users most likely use applications like TextExpander, Alfred or Launchbar, Automator, or even Keyboard Maestro to speed up their workflow and reduce tedious or redundant tasks. But beginning and general Mac users may only use the default features and applications in Mac OS X and not think much about how to get more out of their Mac.
The goal of Mac Automation Tips wants to help beginning and intermedia users get a lot more done with powerful and accessible automation applications—to go from being a Mac User to a Mac Automator.
If you’re one of the Mac users I’m referring to, read on and find out more about the difference between a Mac user and Mac automator. As the infographic below explains, the Mac user typically performs a task manually and/or uses keyboard shortcuts to trigger menu items.
For example, a Mac user might manually type regularly used words and snippets of text, whereas a Mac automator will most likely use a text expansion program, such as TextExpander, to automatically paste snippets of text based on assigned abbreviations.
A Mac user might open the Applications folder to launch an application, whereas a Mac automator might use Alfred or Launchbar to launch an application without opening the Applications folder. Keyboard Maestro users might have some applications automatically opened for them using timed triggers. (See my article about the different ways for launching applications.)
My Road to Mac Automation
My Mac usage increased when I became a photographer and videographer back in 2006. Those jobs required a lot of editing and management of files and other data, and I had to find ways to complete client jobs in an efficient and timely manner.
I first turned to using smart mailboxes for managing emails, and to smart folders and Hazel to automate file management. I then started using Apple’s Automator, back in I believe 2006, which was useful for resizing and renaming images, merging PDFs, using email templates, and running a few AppleScript scripts.
But it’s when I discovered the automation application QuicKeys that I really started become a Mac automator. QuicKeys is like Keyboard Maestro in that it can trigger Mac actions such as launching and quitting applications, pasting snippets of text, triggering menu items, and moving files between folders. (Note: for a while QuicKeys was not getting updated to meet the OS X requirements. The application is still available for download, but I can’t vouch for how well it works with El Capitan.)
A few years later, I started using the finger gesture tool, BetterTouchTool, which allows for triggering hundreds of actions while your hand is on your trackpad. BTT reduces the need to use keyboard shortcuts and clicking on my menu items. (Read an introduction to BetterTouchTool here.)
The above applications, including TextExpander, SuperTab (see review here), Alfred, Default Folder X, and Dragon Dictate (see review here) help me work more efficiently and reduce many of the redundant tasks I perform in my daily workflow.
Quite honestly, the number one reason I try to automate tasks on my Mac is I don’t like looking down at the keyboard to locate hotkeys or special characters. I also find it a little time-consuming to drag my cursor to the menu bar to active an item, and really dislike performing the same task over and over.
The purpose of Mac automation is to help you reduce redundant typing, clicking, and cursor movements. With effective automation workflows, you can streamline tasks and trigger a series of steps that can be done in a second or two.
For example, when I need to use the screen capturing application, ScreenFlow, I typically want to change my desktop wallpaper, close out a few applications, and resize and reposition the front window of ScreenFlow for an optimal workflow. This setup can take several steps, but with Keyboard Maestro (KM), all the steps are done when ScreenFlow launches. KM triggers a set of actions that I want it to perform including changing back my original desktop wallpaper when I quit ScreenFlow.
Another example is when I need to type words in parenthesis, I don’t like looking down at the keyboard to locate the parenthesis keys, and I especially don’t like typing first the left parenthesis key, type some text, and then look down again at the keyboard to type right parenthesis key.
Instead, I use Keyboard Maestro to do the typing for me. I simply type, “php” and KM will not only paste the () for me. It will also insert the cursor between the parenthesis characters so that I can type my text. And guess what, I don’t have to take my hand off the keyboard to move the cursor outside the right parenthesis after typing text; nor do I have to use the left arrow key. I simply type “mv”, and Keyboard Maestro moves the cursor two spaces to the left for me. The following gif shows the KM macro in action. It happens very fast.
How a Mac Automator Thinks
There are many examples for how Mac automators carry out basic and complex tasks on their computer. The following, in general, is how a Mac automator works at his or her computer:
- He/she gets annoyed by having to perform the same steps repeatedly. The steps, for example, might be repeatedly typing the same keyboard shortcut, repeatedly resizing and repositioning an browser, or repeatedly dragging items from the Downloads folder to another folder. Basically, the Mac automator wants to save clicking, typing, or mouse movements.
- The automator then determines which automation tool or tools he/she could use to automate a redundant task. Generally this step involves mirroring the manual steps it takes to perform a task. For example, to perform basic Google search, it typically means switching to a web browser, pointing the cursor to the URL/search window, or clicking the shortcut, and then typing the search term. The automator knows that using Alfred, Keyboard Maestro, or PopClip can save a few steps in this process.
- If need be, the Mac automator creates an automation action in Keyboard Maestro, Hazel, BetterTouchTool, SuperTab, or TextExpander, and tests it out. The automator might also look for existing built-in OS X features, such as using a smart folder to collect files based on certain rules, or a smart mailbox for filtering emails from a particular user.
- If the task involves complex steps, the automator returns to the automated workflow or action he created to perfects it and make it run more smoothly.
The Mac automator knows that by putting in a little preparation time, he/she will regain that time plus more each time automated tasks are triggered or used.
I describe all the Mac automation applications I use on this resource page. If you’re new to Mac automation, I would suggest getting started with following applications in the order they appear:
Start using smart folders, smart mailboxes, and even smart playlists in iTunes. My Mac Automation Guide, though written over five years ago, is still useful for getting started with Apple’s smart features.
Next, I would suggest using TextExpander or a similar text expansion program, which will help with speeding up typing.
Whether you like using keyboard shortcuts or not, I still highly recommend using BetterTouchTool. It’s best application for triggering actions when your hand is on your trackpad or mouse.
And finally I would get into using Keyboard Maestro, the granddaddy of all Mac automation applications, in my humble opinion.
If you’re new to Mac automation, I encourage you to get started with using one of the above automation application. Each of the applications is available for free trial download, and there are several articles on this site which provide tips for using automation applications.
Also, invite you to share your questions and experiences with Mac automation. You can ask me questions directly, and if I find the question useful for other readers, I will publish it as a part my Ask Mac Automator column.