Using Unclutter as macOS Screen Shot Manager

Unclutter Screenshot Manager Macos

Unclutter is a unique take on a drag and drop shelf app that includes a scratch pad, and simple clipboard manager. I have used Unclutter for some time as a shelf for holding transit items. It helps me avoid dumping loads of junk on my desktop. Unclutter a little different to Yoink or Dropshelf in that the shelf pulls down like a curtain from the top of the screen, but the concept is much the same. The notepad and clipboard manager make Unclutter a useful utility for anybody, but I have found a specific use case for it as a macOS screen shot manager.

For a while I used a handy little menu bar app call Shotty to manage screenshots. Unfortunately, Shotty’s user interface is small, so I find it isn’t ideal on the big screen of an iMac. The difference, depending on how you set it up, is Unclutter can stretch the whole way across the top of your screen. The display options can be set so that screen shots will display in an ad hoc gallery, making it easier to work with the images as you write.

macOS Screen Shot Manager
Unclutter can present screenshots in a gallery across the top of your screen

Setting up Unclutter

If you want to set Unclutter up to manage your screenshots, first you need to set the storage location in Unclutter. You can leave it as the default if you prefer, and use that file path for your set up. Otherwise you can set it to a cloud storage location, which is especially handy if you work across more than one Mac, or you want to access your screenshots on iOS.

Managing Screen Shots with Unclutter
Set the storage location for your screen shots in the Unclutter preferences.

Once you know the file path for files in Unclutter, you need to make sure your screenshots are going to end up there automatically. There are a couple of simple ways to do that.

Changing the Default Screen Shot Folder in Terminal

The first option is to change the default location for screenshots via terminal. Open a Terminal window and enter the following, then press enter. Obviously, you will change the file path to match where your Unclutter files are, or you can copy and paste if you have it setup with DropBox.

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location ~/Dropbox/Unclutter/Unlcutter files

Once you have set the location, you have to run the following command to reset the process that manages screen shots in macOS.

killall SystemUIServer

If you want to change back to having screen shots land on your desktop, run the above commands again but change the location back to /Desktop

Managing Screen Shots with Unclutter and Hazel

Unclutter Screen Shot Manager
Using Hazel to move screen shots means more control than changing the global setting in terminal

I prefer to set up a Hazel rule for this for a few different reasons. First, it makes it easier to switch it on and off if necessary, or if I want to change the location. The second reason has a touch of irony given the apps name is Unclutter, it is easy to accumulate a lot of old screenshots. They’re not as readily visible as on the desktop, so having Hazel come in and clean them up is helpful.

There are more tricks here if you need them too. If you want to archive particular shots and delete others you can add conditional tags with hazel, or even go by the name. My workflow for uploading shots to WordPress from my Mac includes using quicklook to rename files with a Text Expander snippet. Once they are renamed, Hazel will grab them again and run an Automator action that prepares them for this site.

Setapp Unclutter App
Using Unclutter to manage screenshots makes it easier to use Quicklook for viewing and renaming files

Unclutter on Setapp or the Mac App Store

MacPaw describes the Setapp platform as the Netflix for Mac apps, the analogy almost works. It’s unlikely you haven’t heard of it yet, but I have written about it a few times. There are numerous useful utilities, like Unclutter, included with a subscription. They add a lot of value to the heavy hitters like Ulysses, 2Do, and Marked. They have well over 100 apps now, and with the education discount a subscription will cost you five bucks a month.

Unclutter is also available on its own from the App Store for US$9.99

iPad Diaries: Working with Drag and Drop – Bear and Gladys – MacStories

Another link from MacStories. Now that the dust has settled on their annual iOS review, it is good to see a return to this more detailed, useful content.

If you haven’t come across this regular series, iPad Diaries. Go back through some of the old posts, there are some great tips for working exclusively on the iPad. Some of them will be a little dated since iOS 11. But with all the little automations and workarounds to sift through, you are bound to find some good ideas for working smarter on that slab of glass.

Be warned though, you might end up cycling through a lot of different apps. Students with a penchant for procrastination are particularly vulnerable.

Nebo: Handwriting Recognition on iPad Pro

iPad Handwriting Recogniton

Not too long ago, I wrote about handwritten note taking on the iPad. At the time I hadn’t yet spent much time with Myscript Nebo, but having since addressed that I feel it is appropriate to update the ledger. One of the caveats I put in front of that previous effort was the ability to take long form notes without the need of an Apple Pencil, so if you are looking at options for taking notes on the standard iPad, or you simply want to avoid the further cost of the Pencil, then what I the previous post still holds. For handwriting without the Apple Pencil, to my mind the best two options are still GoodNotes and Notability, and I have briefly covered the various tradeoffs users face with both apps. Both of those apps also have excellent Apple Pencil support, but having played with Nebo some more, to my mind there is no contest when it comes to handwriting recognition.

The Future of Handwriting

 

Handwriting Recognition iOS
Even the sketchiest of handwriting is no problem for Nebo’s handwriting recognition engine

People like to talk about killer apps, personally I don’t much like the phrase, but where Nebo is concerned, it really does seem like a killer for the competition. Apps like Notes Plus have been available in the App Store for some time, but while that might have led to advancements in the inking engines and textual recognition, those improvements are more often than not accompanied by either feature bloat, user interface baggage, or both. This is one of the areas that Nebo excels, the interface is minimalist without being too sparse, and rather than holding to the now dated skeuomorphic design philosophy that once ruled the iOS-sphere, Myscript have managed to tastefully incorporate hybrid analogue elements that remain necessary for a successful handwriting workflow. Writing between the lines is as helpful to your wonky adult scribbles as it was to your long-forgetten spelling homework.

It is not only the user interface that benefits from such careful balance, but the user experience is characterised by clever gestures that complement a natural writing workflow. With Pencil gestures a user can delete a word by scribbling it out, insert line breaks, join and seperate words with simple upward and downward strokes. Framing words, highlighting, underlining and a variety of bullets enable simple but effective formatting that not only stops short of overkill, but is simple to learn. The most impressive aspect of these formatting gestures is the resulting seamless workflow that avoids interrupting one’s note-taking on input.

Handwriting Recognition iPad
Editing text, like input, is managed with the Apple Pencil

The one area that the Pencil-centric interface can get a little tricky is in editing text after capture. Nebo’s handwriting recognition works in real-time, so if necessary you can make corrections on the fly [1]. If you happen to overlook a mistake until you have confirmed the conversion from handwriting into text, editing is still managed with the Apple Pencil. This is a reversal of the analogue to digital workflow, so while it is not difficult as such, I have to admit it takes a little getting used to. Regardless, Nebo still manages to capture the fine balance between a digital tool and an analogue workflow, something I feel other apps have come close to doing without quite getting there.

Nothing is Perfect

iOS 11 Nebo Notes App
Multitasking in iOS 11 with Nebo

At the risk of being hypocritical, there are things that Nebo cannot do that I like to have in a notes app. I confess to hypocrisy for a couple of reasons, for one I have something of an old-skool reverence for what is known as the Unix philosophy, which simply stated is ‘do one thing and do it well’. It seems to me that – whether intentional or not – by design, iOS is almost the ideal realisation of this modular approach. Nebo is exactly this kind of app, it does one thing, and it does it exceptionally well. However, defining the boundaries of that one thing is what developers have to contend with in balancing the features they include, and support in their apps. The decision that I find most confounding in Nebo is the inability to annotate PDF documents, which I feel is made more conspicuous in its absence by the fact that you can import images for markup, and you can export text as PDF. This is no more than a minor quibble, and as I say, a somewhat hypocritical one at that.

The Little Things

To be honest, I often force myself to handwrite, knowing full well the proven benefits. Fortunately, Nebo has some tricks that take advantage of the relative speed of analogue input, making it a more obvious choice for certain tasks. For example, the ability to export text to HTML means a quick and dirty blog post is only a few scribbles away. Dedicated math objects can perform solvable operations – and the resultant text can be converted for further editing in any LaTeX editor [2]. I would ordinarily open up Soulver for simple calculations, but that is not always necessary now. Nebo will also turn your ropey diagrams into congruent shapes for flow charts and mind maps. And, of course, optical character recognition means all of your text is searchable.

Nebo is not perfect, but there is no doubt that Myscript have pushed the envelope with handwriting recognition. If you have an iPad Pro, I would almost go as far to say that Nebo is enough to make picking up an Apple Pencil worth your while.


  1. Again, the handwriting recognition is remarkable, so you hardly ever need to do this  ↩

  2. Trust me, this is candy for math nerds  ↩

Deciding to Move from Squarespace to WordPress

This site is still in its infancy. While it was created in March, I only started posting in earnest in May, and have steadily increased the frequency of content over the past couple of months. I’m managing a couple a week, along with relevant link posts. It is still early days, but the traffic is increasing, and interest is growing.

The site is currently built and hosted with Squarespace, which is a fine platform for any number of use cases. The advantages of using Squarespace are obvious, it is quick and easy to build a site, the templates are visually appealing, and you don’t need to concern yourself with scaling hosting for spikes in traffic. I have been reasonably happy with Squarespace, for starting out. Something that comes with the territory, however, is learning certain things about your preferred workflow. As you start to develop your blogging style, you are more likely to pick up on shortcomings in the tools at your disposal. As I get further into this, there are some examples for the way that I work – or rather the way that I wish to work – that are starting to get in the way.

The first, and probably the biggest annoyance, is I write in Markdown. While it is possible to use Markdown with Squarespace, the service only supports a very basic implementation, which means adding nice touches like fancy looking footnotes [1] requires both implementing awkward hacks, and converting your posts to HTML before adding them to the site. Both of which undermine one of the platforms major selling point – i.e., ease of use. Further awkwardness is encountered when working with images in your posts.

Squarespace has its own content delivery network (CDN), which for the most part is great, but in some cases it is another double edged sword. The CDN takes care of compression, and makes the media assets of your site load easily, regardless of where your audience is. However, working with Markdown or HTML on Squarespace you lose some of the benefits of those formats when working with images. Essentially, you have to leave the images out of your composition and load them separately, and the file management is by far the poorest feature of the platform. If you want to use the Squarespace editor and work with images in the manner that the platform is designed form, then it is great. Unfortunately, that doesn’t suit my workflow at all. What I am left with is a fiddly process of uploading images after the text, and dragging them into place. This might not sound too bad, but the reality is a degree of trial and error that can be frustrating. Dropping the images into the post splits up the text [2] in seperate blocks, which don’t always line up the way you want them to. Often I have to adjust the wording of the post to make the image sit right. Or I can use another workaround by inserting what Squarespace calls a spacer, but that results in excessive white space through the post. There is more, the Squarespace interface shifts your whole site top the right to accomodate its sidebar as you edit design elements. This may well be a by-product of the template that I use, but something to be aware of, you can get things looking the way you want them, only to have them move out of place again when you leave the style editor.

Delivering mixed content blog posts is one thing, and to date I have been willing to persevere with it, but the most vexing side-effect of that is the way it pushes me to do so much of my work for this site on my Mac. Don’t get me wron, I love working on the Mac, but these days I am doing more and more serious work on the iPad Pro, and I want to be able to manage the site on the go. Sure enough, Squarespace has an app for creating and managing your posts on an iPad, but it has some bothersome problems. First, the images problem is made worse by the fact that the app considers those mixed content posts to have complex layouts. If you edit posts that have images placed alongside or wrapped by text, it will collapse their layout so the images are at best inserted between paragraphs – the images are then increased in size to fit the margins. The app will warn you before doing this, but if it happens you have little choice but to return to the Mac. You can of course access the web editor on the iPad, but it is designed for precision use with a mouse, so you are asking for trouble trying to use it with a touch interface.

Unlike WordPress, there is no longer a posting API for Squarespace, meaning the only way you can use a third-party editor for composing your blog posts is cut and paste. This applies to working on macOS just as much as it does to iOS, but it provides nothing like the same degree of difficulty. Crafting a Workflow, or a similar process in Editorial or 1Writer on the iPad will allow you to manage the Markdown to HTML problem, but the app’s integration with the iOS share sheet is poor, so you are still left with cut and paste at the end of it – and that is before you get to the images. It is true that you can just simplify things, and working with simple layouts in the app does work well enough.

There are design elements on Squarespace that are dependant on the site template, but even when available might not work very well. The nature of The Appademic, as a site for bringing together tech and education, lends itself to link posts. I have separated them out from the main blog, as I’m not a big fan of sites dominated by link rolls [3]. Unfortunately, the template that I use doesn’t render block in a sensible way – there is no indentation, for example. This leaves me with another awkward workaround, among the bad options for this I have landed on adding a rich text block, but this adds yet more layout complexity – and to posts that should be the simplest of all.

I want to be clear, this is not a post bagging Squarespace. There is so much to like about the platform – both for functionality, and the company’s support of content creators more generally. For a lot of people, it is an obvious choice given how easy it is to use if you are happy to work as the platform wants you to. The visual design aspect is pleasing, one thing I have been very happy with is the way the site looks. It took no time at all to get everything setup. For photography sites, the CDN, and template the gallery designs make for one of the best experiences going around. This site, however, is not a photography blog. Neither is it a store front, another area that Squarespace excels in. Squarespace also gets a hard time about search engine optimisation, which I would urge you to take with a grain of salt due to the army of affiliate marketers working on WordPress selling would be bloggers on themes, plugins, and all manner of other snake oil to ‘make it rain’. The free source and extensible architecture of WordPress is its biggest strength, but it also opens it up to the current zeitgeist of internet sharks.

Having said that, I do have a genuine problem on Squarespace in that my use of Markdown and HTML seems to create errors in the data that Google and other search engines index [4]. If you are going to use the platform in the way it was designed – composing and posting with rich text, using a simple structure, and so on – you will not encounter the same problems. If you are an edge case for the way you work, like it appears I am with this site, it is worth considering how this might affect your discoverability [5]. The other side of that equation is that you are more likely to have readers stick around if they land on a slick looking site than if they find a dog’s breakfast on the end of those search results. Squarespace is not going to let you down in that regard. But more than that, Squarespace is in some sense a set and forget situation, you don’t have to concern yourself with more moving parts — there is hosting to manage, so you don’t have to deal a server. You don’t even have to go outside the platform for your domain management, everything is self contained within Squarespace. These are compelling selling points for the service. Again, be wary of affiliate marketers when choosing between WordPress and Squarespace, while WordPress is not difficult to use or to learn, it still takes time to master, and to my mind not only will Squarespace will get you up and running a lot quicker, but nobody is getting a cut to tell you that [6].

Why post any of this? Well, the workaround I mention above have created enough friction for me that I have made the decision to migrate to a self-hosted WordPress installation before the site gets too big to contemplate that. The main reason is the workflow, I need the flexibility that WordPress can offer for working with Markdown, and on iOS. If you have made it this far through this post, you can probably tell it hasn’t been an easy decision – even now I have my doubts. This site is paid in full for another six months on Squarespace, which is another reason to not take this decision lightly. As I have gone back and forth, reading innumerable frustrating and vapid articles, sifting through the noise of resellers, affiliates, hosting companies and self-appointed gurus, I have continually come back to the one thing that matters to me most in this, my ability to work in the way that I want to. Ultimately, The Appademic is a site about doing your best work – whether as an academic, a student, or any kind of creative nerd – and I feel it is bordering on disingenuous to be writing about that via a means that contradicts the message. I looked seriously at static engines, particularly Jekyll, which is not only a brilliant solution, but is perfectly adaptable for mobile use. Inevitably I settled on WordPress for the flexibility and better ability to eventually open out the site to other writers.

The Appademic will still operate as usual for the moment, as I clone it and test it elsewhere. However, any content going up in the next few days will be basic by necessity. There are bound to be mistakes, although I am working hard to mitigate them. If you happen to find any, please contact me to let me know. I will post an update on the other side to report on how it all went, but it should be obvious when the site design changes that the switch has been made.


  1. Such as this  ↩

  2. The Markdown blocks as the platform calls them  ↩

  3. There are notable exceptions, and they are not without their place  ↩

  4. You can address some of this by switching on Developer Mode to gain full access to the code, or using code injection hacks, but neither is an ideal solution  ↩

  5. Note, this is a contentious point too, there are plenty of people likely to say it won’t make a difference  ↩

  6. To be clear, this site uses affiliate links, in fact the only source of revenue – a very loosely applied term, as trust me this site runs at a loss by a long shot – is by way of links. However, not only is that is far from its reason to exist, but nothing is linked without personal experience and more often than not, considerable personal expense. I would hope the difference is pretty obvious. You can learn more on the disclaimer page  ↩

Automatically Filing PowerPoint Presentations – Automator, Hazel, AppleScript

This came from a response to a fellow traveller in the Mac Power Users Facebook group. I was about to share the Automator action and Hazel rule that make up this little scheme when it dawned on me that this is a good opportunity to share a fairly straight forward workflow you can easily automate.

This is a fairly common need among students. Most good lecturers will share their presentations with you for their classes. Automating the filing of those slides is both, a good way to save a little time, and a way to ensure a consistent and reliable filing system. I don’t know about you, but my file management can get a little haphazard when done manually.

The situation is simple. Before or after class you are either sent, or given access to download a Powerpoint presentation with the slides for that particular lecture. However, you would rather have a PDF copy – or images as my MPU colleague prefers. There are a few ways you can come at this. If you simply want a PDF copy of the presentation, you can use Hazel to call an AppleScript and convert the file, rename and move it, and you’re done. If on the other hand you want images, you could do the conversion with an Automator workflow and simply add the ‘Render PDF as Images’ action to the end. Thereafter, it is a simple matter for Hazel to move the new file to wherever you want it. I tend to have it placed in my PDF Expert folder in iCloud, so I can markup the presentation on the iPad. Here is what the two versions of Hazel rules, and the Automator workflow look like:

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations With Hazel
Automator Workflow does most of the work here.  Either Hazel or Automator can rename and move the file

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations
Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations

If you want to build the Automator workflow yourself — and, there is no better way to learn how to use it — there are a couple of things to look out for. If you have any version of MS Office prior to 2016, you might be able to use the built-in automator action that looks like this:

Convert Powerpoint To Pdf
Previous versions of Microsoft Office included Automator Actions. Whether or not they work will depend on what version of PowerPoint created the presentation

Whether or not that will work for you is going to depend on the version of PowerPoint used to create the presentation. There appears to be some obscure bug with passing Office file names to Automator. As far as I can tell, MS Office no longer supports Automator directly, so you have a choice of hacking what you can from the 2011 actions or using AppleScript. Rather than messing around, trying to debug incompatible actions, AppleScript is your friend here. You can download the script itself here. It is also included in the Automator workflow, which you can download below, along with the Hazel rules. Happy Automating!

Downloads

Hazel Rules

Automator Workflow

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part II

Automation Utilities

Picking up where I left off with the first Mac automation post; we covered some of the more well known Automation utilities on macOS in Text Expander, Automator, and Hazel. To be fair, at least one of the areas I cover this time around is likewise pretty well known, but I also want to highlight a couple of unique utilities that qualify as automation tools. These tools have both explicit and implicit utility for study, research, or indeed any academic related workflows. As with all such suggestions, the limit to what you can do with this kind of software will be somewhere between what you can dream up, and how much time you are willing (or able) to sink into them.

Popclip

 

Automating Academic Workflows

Popclip is one of those apps that highlights a gap in design reciprocity between iOS and macOS. We have always had the right-click [1] context menu to access functionality in OS X or macOS, but Popclip brings an interpretation of the context menu from iOS back to the Mac. The need to port contextual functionality such as copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad led to the creation of the ubiquitous black speech-bubble that appears from a long press on those devices. Popclip takes that idea, brings it to the Mac, and makes it extensible with customizable actions. I have become so used to using it that if ever I’m on a Mac without it I get a little lost. I use it for text transformations [2], Shortening URLs, dictionary and thesaurus lookups, adding tasks to my task manager, adding links to Pinboard or Instapaper, adding references to Papers, translations, and the list just keeps going. This link will take you to the pre-packaged extensions that are available, but the good news doesn’t end there. Not only will a Github search reveal many more ingenious uses for Popclip, and you can even code your own. To get you started with customization, check out Brett Terpstra’s Popclip Extension Generator

Alfred, Launchbar and others (…but mostly Alfred)

Automating Academic Workflows

 

A lot of Mac nerds would argue that a Launcher is the purist’s starting point for workflow automation. If you want to keep your hands on the keyboard, then using a launcher is essential. Spotlight has developed well beyond its basic search capabilities in the past few years to the point where, although still relatively basic, it is much more than a mere search engine and application launcher nowadays. What’s more, Spotlight comes baked right into macOS, so a lot of people will find that hitting command (⌘) space will allow you to do a lot more with the keyboard than you realised.

Alfred WorkflowsGoing beyond Spotlight to incorporate automation is where the best third-party launchers excel. As far as which launcher is the best? That honestly depends on who you talk to, but there seems to be a fairly solid consensus that the contenders are LaunchBar, and my personal favourite Alfred.

Both LaunchBar and Alfred are limitlessly extensible; LaunchBar with Actions and Alfred with Workflows. It is difficult to say how one might choose between them [3], but you may find the keystrokes for one, or the other, more intuitive for the way you work. Other than that admittedly abstract and vague selection criteria [4], it is fair to say the user community around Alfred appears much more engaged and accessible. Both the official site and forum, and the unofficial Packal site, are loaded with workflows, advice and friendly automation ninjas willing to help you down a rabbit hole, or back out of one.

Again, I use Alfred for all kinds of things. The screenshot of my workflows is only part of the picture. Searching my Papers library, converting documents with Pandoc[5], searching my Pinboard bookmarks, making currency conversions, task management input, natural-language entry of calendar events, time-stamping notes, Image Optimisation, file management. Alfred is an onion, and in reality I have barely peeled back the first layer. There is a built-in clipboard manager, and text-expander style snippet function. Anything that you can automate via scripting can be triggered via a launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar, which means they capable of all kinds of complicated tasks. As a bonus, they can manage the simple things too, I even lock, logoff and shutdown my Mac with Alfred – and Alfred also has an iOS remote app that allows me to control my Mac from my iPhone or iPad.

These are not the only two apps of this kind, of course. There are die-hards still using the OG launcher, Quicksilver, and given it is open source and free, for some it remains worth a look. Another old favourite of long-time Mac users is Butler, from Many Tricks. There is the lightweight Launcher [6] from Nulana, which is reknown for its advanced calculator and script launcher. Finally, a couple I feel are worth keeping an eye on, the open sauce Zazu App that bills itself as an extensible launcher for ‘hackers, creators and dabblers’, and perhaps the most interesting new app in tis area Lacona, a natural language launcher built on Node.js that already has web automation triggers through IFTTT. [7]

Dropzone

Automating Academic Workflows

Dropzone is another extensible utility that can thread automation actions into your workflow. Another example of an app that is incredibly useful even in its most basic use cases, or can be bent to one’s will with a little ingenuity. The basic premise is very simple, Dropzone is a menu bar app that extends the drag and drop capabilities of your Mac, it houses destinations and automation actions on the ‘drop zone’. You can use it to hold, copy or move files between apps [8], configure it to upload files to cloud services or an FTP server, or social media sites. The real power of the app lies in the customisable actions – I have scripts for renaming files, stripping formatting from text, making animated GIFs, shortening URLs, and so on – but Dropzone also makes for an excellent conduit to other parts of your system. For example, as part of my workflow for posting images to this site I will take a screen shot and drag it to the images folder configured in Dropzone, from there Hazel will invoke an Automator workflow [9] to resize the image, then pass the file to ImageOptim for compression and removal of personal metadata. I could easily automate the whole process, but I don’t want every single screenshot I take sent to the same place, so Dropzone allows me to have a little more control over the file picking.


  1. Or option-click for you die hard, old-school Apple nerds  ↩

  2. Such as capitalisation, Sentence-case for formatting titles, clearing formatting, hyphenating etc  ↩

  3. Some people solve this by using them both, but I’m yet to find something I need LaunchBar for that I can’t do with Alfred  ↩

  4. And the fact the Alfred’s developers have a commendably irreverent name Running with Crayons  ↩

  5. Rather than using the command line  ↩

  6. Yes, an imaginative name that  ↩

  7. Lacona is available with Setapp, a subscription app store I intend to cover soon  ↩

  8. This might sound silly, but for anyone working with fullscreen apps or split-screen it is seriously handy  ↩

  9. The same workflow in the previous article  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I

If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details, signatures or often repeated phrases.

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.

Automator

Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

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Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.

Hazel

Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

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Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automator Workflow