Productivity Apps: Keyboard Maestro

keyboard_maestro_logoI’ve had this article on the back burner for almost three years now, but for the next thrilling instalment of my productivity app blogs, I’ll be turning to look at Keyboard Maestro.

Don’t let the somewhat dated website put you off, the app itself is unbelievably powerful. I have to admit to being wary when I first tried it out. The learning curve is steep, and the documentation pretty unclear – especially when compared to the other productivity apps that are available. However, after months years of sustained use, my feelings towards Keyboard Maestro have completely changed. It’s tough to get into, but so worth it. I honestly don’t know what I would do without it at this point.

So if Keyboard Maestro is so great, why did it take me so long to publish this? Well, there’s a few reasons. Firstly, there aren’t so many general use cases for Keyboard Maestro – at least not for me. Instead, it’s an app that’s best for repetitive tasks that are very specific to each user’s needs, which makes it difficult to give good examples. Secondly, it’s an app that you tend to set up and forget… before rediscovering it later on when your needs have changed, and you realise: “Oh! Keyboard Maestro could make this way easier!”. I’ve gone through that cycle a number of times, and after rediscovering just how awesome it is, I decided to finally complete this post.

What does it do?

Okay okay so Keyboard Maestro is great, but what does it actually do?. This is a good question, as it isn’t immediately obvious. Essentially, Keyboard Maestro allows you to take any task that you have to repeat, and automates it. If you’re familiar with Alfred, think of Alfred workflows, but on steroids. The key difference is that instead of having to write Applescript for every action you want to complete (which is still an option, by the way), there are a whole bunch of options baked in. Whether that’s telling the mouse to move and click on a certain point, displaying a popup message, getting an image size, filling in a field on a website, or whatever. You get a lot of control from the get go.

Keyboard Maestro Actions
Some of the ‘actions’ available.

 

The sheer power of Keyboard Maestro is also its undoing in a way. It’s easy to look at the list of actions and wonder when you will ever use any of them. The UI is not the most intuitive, and you’d be forgiven for giving up at the beginning purely on that basis alone.

If you want to carry out simple, general tasks, then there may well be a nicer app that lets you do those things. However, that isn’t the point of Keyboard Maestro. Keyboard Maestro is there to help you automate pretty much any task that you can think of.

In addition to the automation, there is a whole host of other cool features that you can do a deep dive into – such as an extensive multi clipboard manager, application switcher, and others – but for me the real glory lies in the macros.

What can it do for me?

 

One of the biggest hurdles to starting off with Keyboard Maestro is working out exactly what you’ll use it for. It takes a conscious effort to work out what tasks you could automate – which isn’t necessarily something you thought was possible beforehand. Once you do sit down and give it some attention though, you’ll soon come up with plenty. Do you have to fill out specific fields on a website more than once? Use a macro. Do you need to convert HTML to markdown? Use a macro. Need to extract URLs from a big block of text? Macro. The possibilities are endless.

As part of my job, I regularly have to review and respond to reports about different websites using a helpdesk system. Each one (generally) requires me to:

  1. Find the website URL in the e-mail and open it.
  2. Decide what to do.
  3. Note down the action taken in certain circumstances.
  4. Reply by copying a specific part of the original message, and quoting it back in a certain format before providing an appropriate response.
  5. Select a certain option to mark the issue as ‘Resolved’ or ‘On Hold’.

All of these steps are fairly straightforward, but a lot of time is taken up by clicking through the same tasks for each – even when I use a textexpander or snippet manager like Alfred. Sometimes the URLs are jumbled up and I need to fix them before opening or responding, or they are buried in huge blocks of text… etc. However, with Keyboard Maestro, I can reduce this all to a couple of key presses, with a couple of macros doing all of the following:

  1. Extracting all of the URLs from the messages, and opening them in new windows.
  2. Pasting the URLs in the correct quoted format at the top of the reply, along with the appropriate response.
  3. Adding whatever notes needed to track the action taken in a specific field.
  4. Marking the issue Resolved or On Hold as appropriate.

The only thing Keyboard Maestro doesn’t do is decide what action to take – which is just as well really, for a variety of reasons!

Like many of the examples, that one is very specific, but it demonstrates a bit of how granular and useful Keyboard Maestro macros can be – and will hopefully get you thinking about your own use cases. Here are some other more general tasks I regularly deploy macros for:

  • Inserting a URL wrapped in a href tags.
  • Pasting text with different styles of quotes depending on the situation.
  • Parsing blocks of text to extract URLs and/or e-mail addresses.
  • Getting ID numbers from long URLs.
  • Pasting items in a bulleted or numbered list automatically.
  • Filling out forms online.
  • Copying the current URL from my browser window (and doing stuff with it).

The most powerful and useful ones are those that have very specific, work related use cases. With a bit of imagination, you’ll come up with your own, so I’d encourage you to give it a bash.

Triggers

To wrap this up, I wanted to highlight one more feature of Keyboard Maestro that makes it stand out from other productivity apps. For those veterans amongst us who regularly make use of workflow improvements, it’s easy to run out of hotkey assignments, and Keyboard Maestro has a bunch of different ways to solve that problem. First off is the use of ‘palettes’, which lets you assign the same hotkey to different macros – and then select them from a menu – or to activate different hotkey sets depending on what you’re working on that day.

If you already use Alfred, Keyboard Maestro is a brilliant complement, rather than a replacement in this way too. There is a specific Alfred workflow that lets you search and trigger Keyboard Maestro macros from the Alfred search bar, which is incredibly useful for those that you may use occasionally, but don’t want to dedicate a precious hotkey to: Alfred Maestro.

Finally, triggers aren’t just confined to mere hotkeys. Oh no. Pretty much any event you can think of can kick off a macro. If you want certain changes to happen when you connect to a particular WiFi, you can make that happen. Execute commands remotely by running Keyboard Maestro on a server? Why not. Run certain checks when a USB device is plugged in? Easy. You can even have Keyboard Maestro react to MIDI notes and values, which opens up a whole world of interesting hardware controllers aside from the keyboard… something I’ll be exploring in the next post.

In the meantime, go forth, and automate!

 

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Productivity Apps: Hazel

Time for another look at one of the tools I’ve found that has come to be invaluable in staying productive whilst working online. That is ‘Hazel’: a personal maid for your computer.

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CC Picture by ‘Robert Wade’

No, not that kind…

This kind:

Hazel-hero

Hazel is the most wonderful sort of productivity app, because you just set it up, and let it go. It carries on quietly in the background making sure that your Mac is kept clean and organised without you having to worry about anything. It’s so good in fact, that I had forgotten most of the tasks I had designated Hazel to look after, and so had to go back in and check for writing this article.

So what is it for?

I used to always get criticised by colleagues for having a desktop cluttered with all sorts of files – the tech equivalent of having a messy bedroom. The reality was that the desktop was the first place to pop up in the save dialogue, and it was handy to drop things there for quick access. I tried everything to get it under control, including monthly clear outs, and apps like desk drawer… eventually I just hid the icons on the desktop completely, so at least nobody else would know that they were there. The shame.

Hazel takes repetitive tasks like clearing up your desktop, and does it for you automatically. Ever since I hired in her help, my laptop has been more organised than ever before.

How does it work?

Setting Hazel up couldn’t be much simpler. There’s no intrusive menu bar icon (unless you want there to be), and the app runs as from a straightforward preferences pane. Here’s what mine looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.22.18

You choose the folder or location on your computer where you want Hazel’s actions to take effect on the left hand side, and then in the right hand side you set up the sort of things you want Hazel to do.

What sort of things can you do?

Let’s take the top example from the above image for a closer look: ‘Move Screenshots to Pics > Screenshots’.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.24.29

I take a lot of screenshots throughout the day. Some of them are useless, and should be thrown away eventually, but others are quick notes, or things I want to hang on to for later reference. The default OSX behaviour is to place them on the desktop, which is convenient… at first. It can be a real pain to go through and move them all manually into a different folder. In the above image, you can see that I’ve set up different criteria. Basically if Hazel finds an image on the desktop that contains the words ‘Screen Shot’, it moves that file into a dedicated Screenshots folder under Pictures. That way I know where they all are, and periodically can go through them to see which ones I want to keep. The important thing is, they aren’t cluttering up my desktop, mixed in with all sorts of other guff.

Let’s say you don’t want to keep any of them indefinitely though. All you’re interested in is keeping the screenshots for the amount of time it takes to upload them online somewhere. No problem. Head on back to the main Hazel screen, create a folder grouping on the left for the Screenshots folder, and then create a new action to tell Hazel what to do with them:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.28.59

There’s all sorts of things we can have Hazel do here. In this case, if the screenshots have been added more than a week ago, we can get Hazel to Move them to the trash, or maybe Sort them into a subfolder named ‘old’, or archive them… or add tags to remind us to go back and clear them out. There’s all sorts of possibilities.

What’s even cooler is the level of gradation you can get in the timescales:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.31.47

You can get pretty specific about when, to make sure you target exactly the files you want.

What do YOU use it for?

Here’s an idea of the things that Hazel does for me:

  • Launches downloaded torrent files, and throws them away afterwards
  • Moves all downloaded, compressed files (zip/rars) into a single folder after 1 day has passed
  • Moves all downloaded RTF, DOC, DOCX, and TXT files into a ‘Misc Documents’ folder in ‘Documents’ after 1 day has passed
  • Moves all downloaded DMG files into a dedicated folder after one day has passed, and then deletes them from there once they get over a month old
  • Moves all downloaded app files into the ‘Applications’ folder (something I always forget!)
  • Moves all downloaded PDF files into a dedicated ‘Misc PDF’ folder under ‘Documents’ after 1 day has passed
  • Organises GIF, JPG, PNG, and PDF files into appropriate folders away from the Desktop
  • Deletes incomplete downloads that are aged from before this quarter

I also make use of the handy Trash settings:

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.46.48

The above is pretty self explanatory, but essentially it means that I hardly ever have to look at the Trash again.Oh, and the secure deletion option is pretty sweet. Not just restricted to Trash, Hazel can also keep an eye out for when I delete Apps, and offer to clean up the residual files that get left behind. If you later change your mind, and reinstate the application after deleting it, Hazel will offer to reinstall all of the associated preferences files for you!

Hazel keeps things ticking over, without me needing to worry about the little details in life.

But wait, there’s more…

Up until now I’ve really only scraped the tip of the iceberg with what Hazel can do. What I haven’t mentioned is that one of the actions that can be performed is to run an AppleScript or Automator workflow. This means that there are plenty of fairly complicated ways you can make use of Hazel if you sit down and take the time to work out the sort of tasks that would be helpful to your specific workflows. You are only really limited to your imagination (or the extent of AppleScript, anyway).

Here are some examples:

  • Set up a dedicated ‘resizing’ folder, where any images that get dropped in will be resized by Hazel and spat out to a subfolder.
  • Get Hazel to organise different files into different places based on coloured ‘flags’, like learning to ignore certain files from deletion if they are flagged ‘green’.
  • Organise PDFs saved from specific websites into dedicated folders. For example, if you download your payslips every month, Hazel can analyse the source and make sure they get put automatically into the right place.
  • Look out for e-mails from designated people, and send them to a particular Evernote project.

If you come up with any cool workflows, I want to hear from you.

How much and where!?

I know, I know. You want to employ Hazel right now. It’s understandable. You can get a free 14 day trial, or dive right in for a cost of $29 from Noodlesoft here.