Best new app in ages: Workflow for iOS

I’ve been holed away in an apartment in Paris, as you do, with only barebones internet connection and a lot of gorgeous city to look around. It was meant to be a working break and some work was done but, between us, it worked more as a break. A stillness, a bubble. And I thought I’d be recommending that to you.

I may yet.

But the last thing I downloaded as the Eurostar train went under the Channel was the newly released Workflow for iPhone and iPad.

Wait. This is more relevant than you’re thinking. If I hadn’t gone off for these days, I would’ve downloaded Workflow and I would’ve fully reviewed it but there’s a difference between fully and fully. The fully reviewed review I would’ve written you would doubtlessly have been praising and it would’ve begun:

Workflow lets you automate various things your iPad software can do. So things that take you several steps and need several of the regular iPad apps can be turned into one.

This is true. I’d have sounded enthused too, because I am, but I think you’d have got that more from the tone than from anything specific. Automate. Great. I’d have given you an example, too, but while I got the concept and I’ve been looking forward to this app, I wouldn’t have done you a great example. I couldn’t have done you a great example because I couldn’t think of one.

But being away, having the time to play, I’ve got one. Full disclosure: it may not seem that great to you. But, grief, it’s great for me and this is what’s so good about Workflow: it lets you create tools that are great for you.

Previously on this… In one of my freelance jobs it helps me to keep an eye on various news outlets and when I see something that could be useful, I save it to Evernote. Now, I’ve got an Evernote notebook for it and I could copy the text from an article and paste it there. I’ve done that. I can also email the article from the web straight into Evernote. I do that a lot. What I don’t do is remember how.

I can remember how to email into Evernote, that’s fine. But saying which notebook gives me pause because I can never remember its name. And I’d like to add tags, things to help me find articles later, but I can never remember how to do that.

And now I don’t have to.

With Workflow, when I spot an article online that I want to save, I tap Safari’s Share button. There’s a Run Workflow button that appears. Tap that and I get all my Workflows. Pick one I’ve called Research and, wallop.

Workflow takes the article, the web address, pops it into an email, does the trickery to say what notebook and what tags there are, and it’s gone. Sent. Saved.

It doesn’t actually save me a lot of time but it saves me enough that I do it more often. And that’s the thing about automation; it makes things easier as well as quicker.

Workflow is on sale at £1.99 but the price goes up soon. Get it on the App Store.

Is it worth automating your work?

I now write a lot on here via Drafts 4 and there’s a thing that used to take me three steps that now takes one. (If I’m quoting an article, I would take three trips back and forth from my browser to where I was writing the story: once for the big quote, once – if I’m lucky – for the title, author, date and name of the site and then once more for the website URL address. Now I copy the author and date while Drafts 4 grabs everything else and then pops it all into a new article in precisely the sequence and layout I like.)

Call it three steps I’ve lost: two of the copying-and-pasting ones plus one for the layout. Quotes on The Blank Screen are always indented and followed by a block that has the title, author, site plus date and is a link to the original. Also, somewhere in the rest of the article I’m writing I will direct you to read the full piece on the original site. Drafts 4 gives me a typical “read the full piece” line of text and makes the words “full piece” be a live link to that original. I will change that sentence eight times out of ten but it’s there waiting to be changed.)

It shocks me how much speedier I am having got rid of these two or three tiny little steps but I am and it is vastly more so than you would predict by just removing the time they took. Part of it is concentration: the steps were clear and simple but took skipping between apps and in the time that would take, my mind would wander.

So I do resist trying to quantify how much time an idea or a method or an approach will save me and, given how fast I type, I am deeply suspicious of even the great TextExpander‘s claim that it has so far saved me 229 hours typing since 19 June 2013 when I bought the thing.

I’d like TextExpander to give me a clue how long it took me to set up the various little snippets of text that it will expand out for me. And I’d like to know how long it took me to setup Drafts 4 exactly the way I want. It wasn’t trivial: I think Drafts 4 is remarkable and remarkably easy to use but I set it up for me through a fair bit of trial and error. If you told me I spent two hours setting it up, I’d believe.

And I’d think that worth the time because such a small change has made an enormous difference to me. Many automated things have made a big difference, I’m really only surprised that I don’t do more. You know about Drafts 4 now and TextExpander, but there’s also IFTTT. Every time a story is published on The Blank Screen, a copy gets added to an archive in my Evernote account. If you say something lovely about me on Twitter, I’ll tap that little Favourite button – and without my doing anything else, I know your tweet has been saved for me to another Evernote document. I seem to use Evernote a lot.

OmniFocus. I live in OmniFocus. I think the most automatic of the automated options to do with OmniFocus that I use is Mail Drop and I really, really use that. If you send me an email with a task in it, I’ll forward that straight into my OmniFocus To Do list. Apparently I’ve used that 1,977 times and the most recent was 3 hours ago. With a bit of digging and a Wolfram Alpha day-counting search, I can work out that this means that since I’ve had OmniFocus Mail Drop, I’ve used 2.89 times a day on average. I am truly astonished that it is as low as that.

I started using it in December 2012 and there’s no way my little brain can remember how long it took to set up but looking at the process now, I’d say it was ten minutes with nine of them spent reading what I had to do. If you want to use it yourself, it’s free but you need OmniFocus and you should have a look at this Omni Group explanation.)

All of which is a long way to say a short thing: automation can speed up your work like nobody’s business but it takes time to do. So to roll out my favourite quote from The Simpsons, if you’re wondering whether to automate your work: “short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but”.

If it takes you longer to automate something than this automation will save you, don’t do it. Except I really would not have predicted how much saving those steps by Drafts 4 would save me time and effort. Rather than just shrug and admit that your mileage will vary, let me show you the reason I wanted to say all this to you today:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 09.42.24

That’s by xkcd and while it’s the full image, while you don’t see any more of this one, there is much, much more to see and relish on the xkcd site.


Recommendation: Keyboard Maestro for Mac

I mean it when I say TextExpander seems to be everywhere I turn and I also mean it when I say that Mac and iOS app is becoming a mandatory tool for me. But it’s not the only utility that watches for your keystrokes and does interesting things with them. There is also Keyboard Maestro.

Here’s what it does, nicked from the official website:

Whether you are a power user or a grandparent (or both!), your time is precious. So why waste it when Keyboard Maestro can help improve almost every aspect of using your Mac. Even the simplest things, like typing your email address, or going to Gmail or Facebook, launching Pages, or duplicating a line, all take time and add frustration. Let Keyboard Maestro help make your Mac life more pleasant and efficient.

Keyboard Maestro Official Site

No, I think we need a specific example. Also from that site:

Use function keys to launch or switch to your most used applications. For example, you probably often switch to the Finder, your Email client, your Web Browser, your Word Processor. Consider putting these and other frequently used applications on function keys.

Launch Scanner Application When Scanner is Connected. Set up a macro that automatically launches your scanner application when your scanner is connected, and quits it again when the scanner is disconnected. This works brilliantly with the ScanSnap scanners – open the lid and the scanner software launches, close it and the scanner software disappears.

I’ve used both of these. If I tap F14 on my office iMac, it takes me to OmniFocus. If that beloved application isn’t using, then while I check my pulse to see what’s wrong, Keyboard Maestro launches OmniFocus and then switches me to it.

It is very, very useful yet I don’t use it enough. I set up keys for OmniFocus, Evernote, Mail, Safari and since you can forget Keyboard Maestro when you’ve done that, I’ve forgotten it. But I did get it around the same time as I bought both TextExpander and Hazel – I expect I’ll be back talking about Hazel very soon – and my brain only took so much in.

Whereas this fella learnt it all and wants to show you. Let me have his say and then go to the Keyboard Maestro site to buy it.

Stop visiting websites. Make them come to you.

It genuinely astonishes me how many people haven't even heard of RSS. If you have and you're even now looking at this through an RSS newsreader, hello. I've got nothing for you: skip along to the next story from your next favourite website. But if you haven't heard of it before, you have now and I want to evangelise you into trying it yourself.

This is what happens when you try it, this is what I do every day. Sometimes many dozens of times a day. Waiting for the kettle. Standing in a queue. Taking a break from work. I'll just read the news on my iPhone or my iPad or my Mac, whichever is in front of me at that moment. And whatever news has broken since I last looked. There are websites I read every single article on yet rarely go to. There are others whose headlines I read every day and often then go to in order to read the full article.

It definitely means I read more websites than many people, but I don't take any longer doing it.

To do this, you need an RSS newsreader. There are eleventy-billion newsreaders in the world and there are ones for PCs, Macs, iOS and I presume also Linux and Android. Windows, OS X, anything. Everything. There are free ones aplenty but I bought one called Reeder for iPhone/iPad which cost me a whole £2.99. I would be surprised if I haven't read a million words in that app.

But just Google “RSS” and your computer or phone of choice and take your pick.

Then go to a website you like and look for the RSS button. It's that orange one with white stripes like radiating waves and it's often the orange one that says RSS next to it. Click on that and you'll either wallop off automatically to your RSS newsreader with the site just waiting for you to say yes, add this one forever – or you'll get a new webpage. Copy the link, open that in your RSS reader, say yes, add this one forever, and you're done.

RSS isn't the friendliest concept: you understand it but some sites make it hard to find and then offer you options you're not interested in. If you're given a choice of RSS links, one will be called Atom and one will be called RSS. I truly have not one single clue what Atom is: I've never tried it.

And I have tried a lot of sites. Something like 300 at the moment.

Two quick things. You'll notice I've now said RSS umpteen times and not told you what it stands for. I think it's like DVD; you know what it is and you watch a billion DVDs but you may not know that it stands for Digital Versatile Disc (or was going to stand for Digital Video Disc originally). RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Exciting.

The other thing is just that I can't recommend Reeder without warning you that the Mac version isn't on sale at the moment. Various changes to the world meant it stopped working and the update isn't here yet. It's taking quite a time but I like Reeder so much I'm waiting for it.

That's it, carry on. And see you in my RSS feed. I've got two. Oh, yes. Two. Get me. Actually, yes, get me: my personal Self Distract blog has an RSS feed at and The Blank Screen is on

Quick: get Keyboard Maestro (Mac) for 44% off

Why 44%? It’s a funny discount to have but it’s a discount and it’s big, so as long as you are very speedy, go take a look:

Keyboard Maestro lets you automate huge long sequences of things that you do on your Mac all the time. I’d tell you more but I’ve never used it. Not even with all the recommendations I’ve heard and the fact that I used to be addicted to a thing called QuickKeys that did much the same thing. But with this sale, it costs £12.20 and it’s worth the punt. 

So I’ve just bought it on this offer and I’ll let you know what I think of it in action. However, I found out about this from an email which insists the offer is valid for today only. When you go through the checkout it suggests there are (currently) six days remaining on the offer so either something’s wrong or, more likely, I’ve misunderstood something. Go take a look at it today, just in case.