Mac Automation

How to regain two weeks of your life each year
by removing repetitive tasks

David Sinton, 11/27/05

Why be a slave to repetitive tasks? Every day we switch between the same applications, visit the same websites, and perform a range of tasks that involve opening the same files, in the same folders. Many of our actions each day are routine and mechanical. With all this repetition, how much of your day do you actually spend being creative?

Until you learn how to automate, you might not realize how much of your day, week, month, or even year is being eaten up by repetitive tasks. For example, are you someone that reads the news online? How many times in the last year have you opened your browser, and typed the URL into your address bar? Ok, maybe your one step ahead and you have bookmarked your favorite sites. Even then, think through the process you go through to get to that page. You have to load your browser, open your favorites, click the link, and then wait for the site to load. Between the news, investments, online advertising campaigns, and ebay, we each probably have at least 5 websites that are part of our 'daily routine'. We don't think much of it; it's only a few seconds. But why waste those same seconds, day after day, year after year? Isn't your Mac capable of so much more?

Let's take a look at the software we use. Whether you are a graphic designer, CEO, accountant, or entrepreneur, there are certain software applications we all use on a regular basis. If you're familiar with your Mac, then you keep these applications in your dock. But having to mouse down to your dock, find the application, click on it, and reposition it on your screen, gets tiresome and the time you waste ads up.

Maybe you're used to it, and so you don't notice it. I know I never thought twice about automation until I ran this basic test. I looked at the software I used on a daily basis, (Finder, Photoshop, Image Ready, Illustrator, BBedit, Transmit, Word, Safari, Apple Mail and Excel) and measured how many times I switched between them in an hour. The results seemed pretty standard; I switched applications approximately 40 times in an hour. I also found that on average it took me about 6 seconds each time. That means I spend 4 minutes an hour just switching applications. Well, what is four minutes in an hour? But at 8 hours a day, and 300 workdays a year, we're talking 150 hours a year wasted on simply switching between applications.

I use the word 'wasted' because there are various solutions. Once I realized how important automation was, I did some research and found some interesting results. Firstly, I found that your Mac has built into it's operating system the capability to set shortcuts. A shortcut is a key combination that performs a task. The most common shortcut is Command + C for copy and Command + V for paste. Unfortunately Apple's shortcut system (found in the Keyboard Shortcuts panel is in the system preferences) only allows you to set keys that perform within applications, and does not allow you to set keys for launching or switching between applications. This is somewhat of a flaw, because most keys already have preprogrammed shortcuts, and the need is for shortcuts that can launch or switch between applications.

Then I did a search for automation on
VersionTracker, and found a full range of software products. The two I tried, as they seemed most appropriate, were iKey by Script Software, and QuicKeys. iKey became my product of choice because it was so easy to use, fast, inexpensive and I could very quickly customize it to do just about anything.

I used iKey so that when I get to my desk at 8:00 am, the news, the surf report, and my stock portfolio are all waiting for me, neatly positioned across my 20" screen. That may only save me 5 minutes every morning, but that's 25 hours a year, and worth many times the cost of the application.

Next, I customized iKey so that I have shortcuts that instantaneously bring up the application I want to switch to. Option + M opens my mail, Option + P loads Photoshop, option + W for Word, every piece software I use has its own key combination. I calculated that instead of 6 seconds using the mouse to bring up an application, it takes only 1 second with a shortcut, which again saves me a hundred or more hours in a year. But it's not just time saved, I find automating is easier on my eyes. I spend less time searching the screen, and more time looking at the things that matter. And when I open a document the time savings are even greater compared with the usual scrabbling around to find where it's located.

Then there are those that take automation to the next level. I found people using iKey to perform combinations of tasks. They have set shortcuts that grab content from the web, reformat it, save it, and upload it to their server. The people who take advantage of automation on the Mac are not just professionals; they are also beginners and students trying to save their valuable time.

Script Software just released a version of iKey that is compatible with USB devices. It includes volume controllers that adjust your iTunes volume, external keys each dedicated to specific tasks, and endless possibilities with many button mice, game controllers, trackball and graphic tablets.

The question is not, "Should you learn to automate?". The question is, "How much should you learn to automate?" If you can add three weeks of productivity to your year in just a few minutes, it's time well spent.

Copyright ©2005 by The Mac Guild