Daftest, best productivity tip

I promise you this is the best tip you’ll hear all week unless you boss has just said you’ll be fired if you don’t pull your finger out. Actually, when you’ve read my tip you might even prefer your boss as he or she is at least succinct and pithy. My advice is long-winded and a chore – but the chore is the thing.

Just pretend for a moment that this works. Starting the next morning you get to your desk, write down what you do and the exact time. Everything you do.

What do I mean by everything? EVERYTHING.

Every time you do it. Every and every. No exceptions. Yes, even “Went to Loo”. “Skived off to write CV behind boss’s back”.

If you’re thinking that’s a waste of time, yep. It is. You’ll end up with an enormous list of utter trivial nonsense – “10:19 Slammed phone down on another sodding PPI call” – but the list will be enormous. It will be far more than you expect and you will have done at least substantially more than you would normally. The time it takes to write that line down is more than made up for by how you start getting twitchy when too many minutes have gone by without doing anything.

You’ll find yourself thinking I can phone Burt, I can email Susan, I can look up that account mess. Suddenly things you’ve put off or just not got around to become these quick things you can do for your list. So you do them and guess what? They’re done.

You will go insane if you do this every day but in emergencies when you’re overwhelmed and feeling like you aren’t capable of doing the job you were hired for, adding this extra burden relieves you. It makes you concentrate on the right here and now instead of the big picture and you need that.

By the way, I cheat. I use TextExpander to pop in the date and time. You knew there’d be technology somewhere. But there doesn’t have to be. A pen will do.

18 June 2015 – 09:00 Stopped nicking articles from my own Blank Screen newsletter

Essentials: TextExpander

I just wrote this on MacNN.com:

Get this essential Mac tool for speeding up your typing

Here’s the thing: yes, TextExpander speeds up your typing, but some of us like typing — and some of us are 120 words per minute. If you’re one of the latter, that doesn’t automatically rule out that you wouldn’t be interested in the venerable TextExpander’s speed, but we figured it wouldn’t be that much use to us; or so we thought. Doubtlessly, if you are a slower typist, then the speed is the key reason to buy TextExpander — but it does so much else, it is so useful in other ways, that we are now dependent on it, and wish we’d bought it ten years ago.

Hands On: TextExpander 4 for OS X, TextExpander 3 for iOS – William Gallagher, Electronista (18 January 2015

Well, I wrote that and then I wrote a lot more, almost every bit of it finding new ways to enthuse about this software. It is that good, seriously. I found out while writing this review that I’ve been using TextExpander for 10 months. Can’t believe it – and yet I find that easier to comprehend than the fact that there was ever a time I wasn’t.

Read the full piece.

Best productivity deals now on

So you’re stuffed and sleepy and you’re watching Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas Special. Before Doctor Who begins, go grab some of the very best deals there are for productivity tools and advice.

Email and Paperless Field Guides
All of David Sparks’ Field Guide books are half price. That includes his excellent one on Presentations plus a title I’ve not read 60 Mac Tips and a title I’m not interested in, Markdown. However, by far the best and most useful to you right now are his books on Email and a very wide-ranging one called Paperless.

Read that and you’ll transform your working life. Read his Email one and you’ll make so much more use of your email that you will enjoy it.

David Sparks’ Field Guides are all iBooks that cost now cost around £3 or $5. I actually can’t confirm the UK price because I’ve bought most of these already so the iBook Store doesn’t tell me the price anymore. Get them on the iBooks Store or check them out on Sparks’ official site.

The Blank Screen
My own book is half off too: it costs you £4.11 and after it you’ll be creative and productive. I may have mentioned this book before but this is the first the Kindle version has ever been on sale. Grab a copy now.

Drafts 4
This app for iPhone and iPad looks like a very simple notebook kind of thing. It is. Tap that icon and start typing. If you never do anything else with it, it’s still good because it’s somehow just a pleasure to write in. I can’t define that, can’t quantify it but also can’t deny it. I just like writing in this notetaking app and in fact I am doing so right now.

What happens after you write a note, though, is what makes this special. I’ll send this text straight to The Blank Screen website. But I could choose instead – or as well – pop it onto the end of note in Evernote. Chuck it over to my To Do app OmniFocus. (Which reminds me, OmniFocus for iPad is not on sale but it’ll still be the best money you spend on apps ever.)

Equally I could write a note in Drafts 4 and send it to you as a text message. Or an email. I don’t know that it’s actually got endless options but it must be close. And that combination of so very, very quickly getting to start writing down a thought and then being able to send your text on to anywhere makes this a front-screen app for me.

It’s down to £2.99 from £6.99 on the iOS App Store.

TextExpander 3 + custom keyboard
When I want to write out my email address I just type the letters ‘xem’ and TextExpander changes that to the full address. Similarly, I write reviews for a US website called MacNN now and each one needs certain elements like the body text, an image list, links, tags and so on in a certain order. I open a new, blank document, type the letters ‘xmacnn’ and first it asks me what I’m reviewing and then it fills out the document with every detail you can think of.

The short thing to say next is that this is via TextExpander and that it is on iOS for a cut price of just £1.99 instead of £2.99. So just get it.

Got yet yet? Okay, there’s one more thing to tell you. TextExpander began on Mac OS X and it is still best there. The iOS version wasn’t really much use until iOS 8 when Apple allowed companies to make their own keyboards. Suddenly you could switch to the TextExpander keyboard whatever you were doing or whatever you’re writing on your iPhone or iPad. That meant you could expand these texts anywhere. Fantastic. Except the TextExpander keyboard is somehow less accurate and harder to use than Apple’s.

So what you gained with the text-expanding features, you lost a bit with everything else you typed.

Except many other apps work with TextExpander. Apple’s ones don’t but Drafts 4, for instance, recognises those ‘xem’ or ‘xmacnn’ things and works with them. So buy TextExpander 3 for iOS in order to get these things set up and working. It’s a bonus if you like the new keyboard.

Get TextExpander 3 + custom keyboard.

Hang on, Strictly’s nearly over. These are my favourite deals on productivity books and apps available right now but remember that they won’t stay on sale for long. If you’re only surfacing from Christmas and reading this in February, ignore the prices and just focus on the recommendations. None of these are here just because they’re cheap, it is that they are superb and the sale is a great bonus.

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.


TextExpander Touch updated, improved

It is still harder to type on iOS devices with the TextExpander keyboard but a new 3.1 release plus iOS 8.0.2 has improved things. You want this because the very best use of the new iOS keyboarded feature is TextExpander and it is tantalisingly close to great.

The iOS 8.0.2 update has fixed the bug that meant you had to keep switching the keyboard on and off in Settings to get it to work. That’s a big thing, it would be the biggest thing except there is also now auto-correction.

A bit.

I don’t understand how it can have a bit of autocorrection. It’s as if developers don’t have access to the iOS autocorrection feature and so have to implement one themselves. That seems an enormous waste of effort and doubly so since it isn’t working. Whereas the TextExpander keyboard previously gave me no corrections at all, this one does some. Not many and not the same ones that the regular Apple keyboard does.

This wouldn’t matter a huge amount except that it is harder to type on the TextExpander keyboard than it is on the regular one. So the keyboard that is meant to speed you up with TextExpander snippets does speed you up – and slows you down too.

These new keyboards for iOS are solely for when you are typing on the glass of your device: they can’t use Bluetooth external keyboards. So I’m trying to write this on the glass of my iPad Air and I’m doing fine – except that I had to give up doing it on the TextExpander keyboard.

But at least I had a go where previously I couldn’t last a sentence.

One other improvement. TextExpander touch had one very good sound – the kind of bleep it gives when it expands some text – and one very irritating sound with the clicking keyboard. Before this update, you got both sounds or you got none. I couldn’t bear the clicking keys so I had nothing.

I so want this to work.

TextExpander touch 3.1 is available now in the App Store

New iOS keyboards: TextExpander in use

Android users have long, long had the option to replace whatever the standard onscreen keyboard is with anything else they like. Keyboards that are in some way better, if not for everyone then at least for some. That’s cool. The same idea has now come to iOS for iPhones and iPads and that’s cool too.

I just didn’t care. I type fine on the Apple one. Yet if the first thing I bought for iOS 8 was OmniFocus 2 for iPad, the second was the TextExpander keyboard. Switch that on and whatever you’re doing on your iOS device, you can instantly call up every snippet of text you use a lot or just want a lot or just always misspell.

No question: I was going to buy that TextExpander keyboard and I was never going to look at the Apple one again.


All this about using TextExpander snippets where you couldn’t before – such as Mail or any Apple app – is true.


I just don’t like it.

The TextExpander keyboard itself saves you all this time with expanding out snippets of text that I use a lot but then it loses me far more time because it is substantially harder to type on. The overall QWERTY keyboard is smaller than the regular Apple one but also each key is remarkably smaller and harder to hit.

I make far, far and three times far more mistakes typing on that TextExpander keyboard. And what you gain in its snippets you lose with the autocorrection and suggested words. There are no suggested words and ‘d like to say that there is no autocorrection but every now and again suddenly I will get a correction automatically applied.

Plus, getting this keyboard means both downloading it and setting it up. The final stage of setting it up is to tell your iPhone that yes, you want the TextExpander keyboard to have full access to your device. Fine, but that option doesn’t appear at all until you’ve been in once, set up everything else on the keyboard, come out and gone back in again.

And then regularly, even routinely, you will swap to the TextExpander keyboard and it will warn you that you haven’t set this full access up. Oh, yes, I have. Oh no, you haven’t.

I suspect that’s a a bug at Apple’s end but the fact that I get it is often is probably tied to how I don’t, afterall, stick with TextExpander’s keyboard. I swap back to it to do a particular complex snippet, then I return to Apple’s own where I can actually type.

That can only happen when you’re using the onscreen keyboard: I’m writing now on my iPad using a keyboard case and it is impossible to use the TextExpander keyboard or switch it on so that I can use my snippets.

So it’s a great idea but it has this first version bug which is probably Apple’s, it won’t or can’t use the regular autocorrection service and the keys are tiny. I think it’s also an ugly keyboard.

Which means I’m a bit disappointed. I wasn’t interested in iOS keyboards before but I am very interested now and it is a disappointment.

TextExpander’s keyboard extension comes with the latest version of the app, which costs £2.99 UK or $4.99 US.



The good, the great and the bad of iOS 8

Bad things first, since you’re wondering.

Initially I thought it was running visibly slower than iOS 7 on my iPhone 5. It was. There was definite lag, even when swiping between home screens. But I’ve been running iOS 8 since last night and now, about an hour after I last grumbled at that lag, it’s gone. The phone feels fast again. But it really had been bad enough that I was going to suggest you hold off unless you have a new iPhone.

I’m going to suggest that anyway. Let everyone else work through this. But when you do update on an older iPhone, and it is worth it, be prepared for it to take a few hours to get back up to speed.

On my iPad Air, by the way, it was immediately perfect. Fast and responsive, not one single pixel of a doubt that if you have an iPad Air you should upgrade to iOS 8 now.

On both machines, though, Safari was irritating. There’s this thing called Private Mode – if you were fussed about nobody seeing who you bank with online, you switch to Private Mode and Safari doesn’t track the address, it doesn’t keep the details in its history. When you’re done, come out of Private Mode and nobody can see that you’ve been to Offshore Islands Dodgy Bank Co. Fine. I didn’t realise I’d switched into it but I had, on both machines, before upgrading. After the upgrade, all existing tabs were considered to be in Private Mode and there is no way to say no, hang on, I want this one to be un-private. I had to swipe-to-remove each separate tab. And to keep important ones, it was copy-and-paste on the address. It won’t be an issue again but it was a pain today.

So was setting up 1Password. The only part that was iOS 8’s fault is the way you have to set up the ability to use 1Password extensions, to be able to be there in Safari and say oi, 1Password, pop my username and password in here. It’s just slightly confusing how you do it, and since I’d been through a very similar but not identical process adding Pocket, it was more confusing still trying to fathom the difference. (Pocket isn’t a lot better: it gives you the error message ‘not logged in’ when you first try to use it but you’re on your own figuring out how you therefore log in.)

Generally I’ve found that 1Password is a marvellous app in every single possible way bar anything to do with upgrading to new versions. It’s just a bag of frustration. The company goes to lengths to make it all automatic but since it goes wrong every time, the automation becomes a barrier to trying to fix it. Less an upgrade cycle, more alchemy. I sweat through it every time because the app is worth it, but I do also file bug reports every time.

So this is 1Password’s fault rather than iOS 8’s per se and actually it worked perfectly on my iPad Air. But I had to delete and reinstall it on my iPhone to get it to stop crashing.

Other annoyances that aren’t really iOS 8’s fault: TextExpander is a paid upgrade. It’s only £2.99 and it’s of course fair to charge for the new functionality that I will use a lot, but there was no mention of this before so it was annoying. Also, the new keyboard that TextExpander provides is simply ugly. That doesn’t help. But the functionality, that’s great.

One part that is iOS 8’s fault: setting up TextExpander as a new keyboard could be more straightforward. It is pretty straightforward but there is a final option called ‘Allow Full Access’ and you can’t even see that option until you’ve been in, set up the keyboard, come out and gone back in again.

One last minor annoyance. This is the most unfair thing of me but OmniFocus needs an New Task button in the Today notifications.

But let me use that to segue on to the good and the great. The good to very, very good is this Today notification. Pick up your phone and without even unlocking it, just swipe down. We’ve had this for a time and I’ve rarely used it as much as I expected to, but now it’s got my choice of extras. I’ve chosen OmniFocus: it shows me my current tasks for the day and I can tap them as done, when necessary. I’ve also chosen Evernote, though, and that gives me buttons to create new notes.

I want both. I want OmniFocus to include a New Task button and I want Evernote to show me my recent notes. I think you can bet these will both come, but it’s oddly hampering today.

I really like the Today view though. And I really, really like the ability to get 1Password to pop in my details on sites. Apparently it won’t do credit cards yet, only logins. That’s a shame but also hopefully something we can expect changed soon. The number of times I book tickets or buy things online is exactly equal to the number of times I get 1Password to pop all that stuff in for me. So I want that too.

For all that I said Safari was irritating, in normal use after you’ve got past that Private Mode tick, it is really superb. Very fast, responsive, and I like how a pinch brings up all your current tabs and you can see what you’re doing, where you’re going.

The sharing extension in Pocket and Evernote is pretty close to fabulous. Again, once you’ve set it up. But to be on any website and tap to send it to Pocket or to Evernote, wallop, done, sold, I will be using this all the time.

The only reason I don’t call that full-on fabulous is that there is something else that is. Siri. When it’s plugged in to mains power, you can say aloud “Hey, Siri” and ask it whatever you want to ask it. At any time. Without pausing. I reckoned I would use this all the time in the car where I think of tasks I’ll need reminding of, but this morning I had an entire conversation with Siri without pressing the button once. Because it’s plugged in to mains by my bed while I charge it.

I need to say that Angela is away, I wouldn’t have a natter with Siri at 5am if she weren’t. So maybe I won’t use that all the time. But it is freaky fabulous.

Overall, now it’s setup, I think iOS 8 is pretty freaky fabulous. And yes, the first thing I did after installing it was buy OmniFocus 2 for iPad. Happy now.

One key reason to love iOS 8: TextExpander

Previously… TextExpander is this great, great Mac app that is bleugh on iOS. Yes, you could still tap a couple of keys and have them expand out to pages of text, but you had to leave whatever app you were in. Leave Mail, go to the TextExpander Touch app, tap the couple of keys, select all the expanded text, copy, go back to Mail, paste.

Short alternative: you never bothered.

It was worth having TextExpander Touch for those apps that did allow it to work, but there weren’t a huge number of them and none of Apple’s did. So no joy in Mail, Safari or Pages. None of that.

Now, as of today and the moment that iOS 8 drops, it’s all change. The new iOS 8 allows alternative keyboards and TextExpander provides one. Whatever you’re using on your iPhone or iPad, you can be using the TextExpander keyboard and that means all apps, everything, everywhere, includes TextExpander features.

I’m about 80% ecstatic. I was 100% but it turns out that I prefer the ‘normal’ Apple iOS 8 keyboard. TextExpander’s one looks a little weedy to me and, potentially more seriously, if you use this then you lose the new auto-complete suggestions feature of Apple’s keyboard. That’s where it tries to calculate what word you’re likely to type next and offers a selection to you as you go. I don’t know yet whether I like that. But I should probably avoid getting used to it because it ain’t there on the TextExpander keyboard.

David Sparks has been on the iOS 8 and TextExpander betas and he’s produced this video. About half of its two-minute running time is devoted to how you set this stuff up but then he’s got examples of it in action. That’s the bit to watch for.

Wow – TextExpander to radically improve in iOS 8

Quick version: TextExpander will include a new system-wide keyboard that lets you trigger snippets and thereby expand text.

You’re looking at me like you want the slow version.

First, TextExpander is a utility that is fantastic on Macs and okay on iPhones and iPad. I’ve been working on the new book, Filling the Blank Screen – which is out as an ebook on Friday by the way, paperback next month – and so naturally I have typed that title a lot. I mean, a lot. But when I’m at my Mac, then whether I’m writing the back cover blurb, whether I’m completing a contract, whether I’m discussing the publication in emails, I can just type the letters xftb. Type that and the words “Filling the Blank Screen” are entered for me.

You can work out what the ftb means in xftb. The letters are up to you and the x is just a good habit to get into: few real words begin with x.

Now, I love typing and I love it so much that I ignored TextExpander for years. But it isn’t just for the odd short sentence: I have a bio snippet that after I type four letters, I get 300 words of biography text. A few times a month I’ll be asked for a bio so I type that snippet and then I edit the result to fit whatever is needed or whoever has asked me.

TextExpander also makes sure you are consistent: I don’t do this myself but there are many people who use it to automatically correct regular typing mistakes. So for instance, I keep mistyping “the” as “hte” (I wonder if that’s a cry of hate coming from my soul, as you do) which means I could set TextExpander to replace ‘hte’ with ‘the’ every time I type.

It’s also great for complex yet repetitive pieces of text: once a week I send a certain email to a certain person and I start it with a TextExpander keystroke. That does fill out the email with lots of detail but it also pauses to ask me for the new bits. I fill out a little form that appears and then TextExpander pops all the new bits into the pre-written email and I just hit send.

This is in all ways great.

When you’re on your Mac.

On the Mac, it works everywhere. On iOS it doesn’t. Apple doesn’t allow anything like this to run everywhere so the makers of TextExpander have to persuade app developers to play nice. Many, many do, but not all and not including Apple. So there’s no TextExpander support in Mail on my iPhone, for instance.

Now, Apple announced that iOS 8 will allow app makers to create keyboards. I did not give a damn. Not a monkey’s, not half a monkey’s, I heard Apple say it and it was out my other ear before they finished the sentence. I am fine with the regular keyboard on my iPhone and iPad, fine.

But now Smile Software, the makers of TextExpander, have announced that they will be one of the app companies providing a new keyboard.

And that keyboard will let you expand TextExpander snippets. Everywhere.


This is huge and transforming because now you will always be able to use TextExpander. In anything. Anything.

I’m sold. Can’t wait for iOS 8 now. Go take a look at Smile Software’s announcement which includes a video demo.

TextExpander, again

You know when you hear of something, you seem to keep hearing of it? Everywhere? I don’t know why this would be the case with TextExpander this week, since I’ve been using it for months, but it is. Many, many times this week I’ve read of a new use for this software or I’ve learnt how it can help me.

I’ve mentioned TextExpander a lot too. It’s software for Apple gear – utterly fantastic on Mac, less so on iOS – which lets you type a short code and have that be automatically replaced by as much text as you like. I use it for signing off emails; I don’t like signatures but if I’m sending to this person, I’ll have TextExpander pop in that sig.

I use it in the writing of The Blank Screen email newsletter every week: to include video in that, you have to remember a set of codes and I don’t. I used to have close the latest newsletter, open up the last one, copy the codes out, then reopen the latest one and paste. Now I just type the letters “xembed” and, bing, it’s all typed out for me.

But those codes represent maybe half a line of typing. It’s not long, it’s just difficult to remember. My signatures range from one word (“William”) to a couple of lines with my contact details. Now Academic workflows on a Mac has shown how to use this to write entire letters:

The time it takes to write recommendation letters usually increases dramatically with the years spent teaching in a University. This is not a responsibility that should be ditched: many former students – especially those applying for academic positions – deserve glowing recommendations which should be hand-crafted and long. Even in this business Mac automation tools such as TextExpander can take care of the routine and let you focus on creative and important parts.

I almost always conclude my letter with a standard phrase which looks as follows:

Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions about Anton‘s competencies or Lund University.
Thank you for your attention in this matter and I wish you to select the best recipients of your scholarship.
Aleh Cherp

TextExpander for Writing Recommendation Letters – Aleh Cherp, Academic Workflows on a Mac (17 July 2014)

Cherp has one TextExpander snippet, as they’re called, which spits out all of that but with options. You’d hope so, unless Cherp only teaches students named Anton. But take a look at the full piece for how it’s done – and if you’re already a TextExpander user, you’ll find the complete details for how to do exactly this yourself.

And if you’re not a TextExpander user, go get it and change that.