Bookmarking. It’s something I’ve always struggled to find a good solution to. The in-browser features don’t really make it easy to quickly find common URLs, and I’ve tried to use other websites in the past, but they just didn’t seem to stick in my mind.
What I’ve Tried Before
The closest I’ve come to finding an answer is in Alfred, which I’ve blogged about before. There are a few different ways you can bookmark with Alfred, but I didn’t quite find that any of them matched what I was looking for.
First, I tried using the ‘web search’ feature to associate bookmarks with particular keywords. The problem with doing this though, is that you need to remember the exact keyword to call up the site you want. As as a result, it isn’t all that great for keeping track of lots of different locations.
Another solution was to use the Alfred Snippet Manager. This could be a really good solution, as you would be able to search by the title and description that you enter, as well as the content of the actual URL itself. However, if you already use the Snippet Manager for predefined replies – more like a clipboard manager – then having a large number of bookmarks in there could pollute the results, increasing the time it takes to find the things you need effectively.
I set out to find an alternative, and made use of my old Delicious account to create a workflow that could search through my bookmarks by making use of the private RSS feed. It worked, but was a bit clunky, and not as intuitive as I’d have liked. That meant that I didn’t ever really make use of it.
The real solution came in the form of a different app altogether…
I stumbled upon Shiori completely by chance, and was surprised I hadn’t seen it mentioned anywhere before.
Both the website and the app itself are beautifully simple, and easy to use. You simply set it up to connect to a Delicious (free), Pinboard ($11 annually) account, or both. Personally, I use the latter – as Delicious keeps making changes to their service which break things. The $11 is worth the money. Call up the interface with a hotkey, and you can search through all of your bookmarks in an interface that is awfully similar in feel and operation to Alfred.
The similarity isn’t a criticism, as Alfred is amazing. You can search via tag, words, or even abbreviation. Like Alfred, the more you use the app, the smarter it gets – picking up on the type of searches you use most commonly to find particular bookmarks. Because it uses your login details (and doesn’t just pull it from the RSS like my hacky method above), it’s really fast too.
There’s also a hotkey that can be set to bookmark new websites quickly from the browser. If you have Keyboard Maestro installed, Joseph Schmitt has created a pretty sweet workflow which you can assign to an additional hotkey. It takes the highlighted text and automatically adds it into the ‘notes’ field. More on Keyboard Maestro in a later post.
This type of bookmarking is often called ‘social bookmarking’, as they are largely designed to be public, to share with friends etc. I’m not really into that, and prefer to keep my URLs private. Shiori makes it easy to automatically tag new bookmarks as private, to avoid having to do it manually yourself every time.
You can add in certain domains (if you want to keep particular – ahem – websites – private), but if you stick in an asterix, it will capture them all.
In summary, I love Shiori. The design is as nice as Alfred (and it works just as well), it arguably works better for bookmarks, and it helps keep things compartmentalised. Snippets are now assigned to one hotkey, Alfred another, and Bookmarks another.
Where can I get it?
You can download Shiori for free (yes, completely free) here.
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.
No, not that kind…
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:
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’.
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:
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:
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:
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.
From day one when I started working at Automattic, there was a strong focus put on different tools and apps that would help out with our daily tasks. Everybody is a power user, with their own tips and tricks, which means there are plenty of different things to explore.
One of the tools that was used by a few people, and championed by my pal Bryan is Alfred (If you don’t use a Mac, sorry, you may as well stop reading now). At first I was suspicious. I installed the app, but was never all that convinced. It didn’t fit neatly into my existing workflows, and it felt more like a hinderance than a help. In the past couple of months though, Alfred has become indispensable… so much so that I find myself lost when I use other people’s Macs.
Note: Some of the functionality I am describing requires the PowerPack, which currently costs £17, but you can try out the core features for free. The PowerPack has definitely been worth it for me, but bear that in mind.
What is Alfred?
There are plenty of other articles online to explain exactly what Alfred is, so I’ll be brief.
Alfred is the ultimate quick controller tool for your Mac. It’s like TextExpander, OSX Spotlight, Clipboard manager, and multi-search toolbar all rolled into one… but even better than that.
You start by assigning a hotkey to bring up the Alfred search box. It looks something like this:
I experimented with a bunch of different key combinations until I settled on ⌘+K. This might seem like a weird choice, but it felt like the best option given the way my hands naturally sit on the keyboard.
This unassuming search box has the power to become the command centre for your whole Mac.
How many times do you search Google, Facebook, IMDB, Wikipedia, or anywhere else a day?
To borrow Bryan’s advice: Whenever you search a website, consider adding it as a custom search in Alfred.
This is what the screen looks like:
I have a whole pile of custom searches, but most of them are for work, so I’ve only shown those that will be common for most folk.
Setting these up is pretty straightforward, so I won’t go into details – instructions can be found on the Alfred site itself. What’s important is how it works. Say I want to search IMDB for a particular movie. I would call up the Alfred box with my hotkey, and then type IMDB, followed by the movie title. Like so:
Hit enter and I get taken straight to the search results, rather than having to go to imdb.com first. The same sort of setup can be used for almost any site that has search.
One of the features I use most often is the ‘Snippets’ feature. This has two main functions: a clipboard manager, and a storage for commonly used pieces of text that you don’t want to have to type out over and over again. You can access this through the main Alfred box, but of course you can assign a specific hotkey if you use it frequently. For me, that’s ⌘+O.
If you are familiar with tools like TextExpander, you’ll find the concept familiar: you input all of your predefined texts into Alfred, and then you can recall them at will through the use of a short phrase. I used to use TE and really liked it, so was hesitant to move over to Alfred’s way of doing things. It seemed counter-intuitive to press a key combination to bring up a window and then type in the keyword for my predef, rather than just typing in the predef directly.
Whilst it takes a bit of getting used to, where Alfred really wins is its fuzzy search matching for predefs. Whilst before I would have to remember the exact phrase, in Alfred it will show you all of the similar responses. This means you can have far more variations than you could remember, and find them easily through the use of a common word. When dealing with DMCA takedown notices, I use the word DMCA in the title. Start typing one, and the list narrows down to the relevant ones. Combine this with the clipboard history (which you can set the retention duration for, or disable altogether), and you have everything you need for working in support at your fingertips.
What’s even cooler is that Alfred will remember the selections you make most frequently, and float them to the top of the list, which is a major time saver. This is something that applies for all of the app’s actions, and is difficult to explain just how helpful it is without trying it for yourself.
Workflows are one of the more sophisticated parts of Alfred. Here, you can create complicated recipes that do all sorts of things (or use ones already created by other people).
Here are some examples of the sort of Workflows I have set up:
Launch Alfred Preferences – I am constantly modifying or updating the snippets I use in Alfred. As a result, I’ve set up a hotkey (⌘+;) to bring up the preferences panel. You can download this here.
Connect to VPN – I have a number of VPN services that I use to connect to different countries for testing and anonymity purposes. Rather than have to manually connect up to these through the Mac task bar, I have it set up so I can hit one key combination to connect to London, one to connect to the USA, one to Romania, and so on.
Shorten URL with bit.ly – By typing in ‘bit into the Alfred box, I can paste a URL and have it automatically shortened using the bit.ly service. What’s even cooler is that this works with your custom shorteners. In my case, it shortens using http://allmy.fr – which I own.
Control PopClip – PopClip is an awesome wee tool for the Mac that another colleague and friend Mark introduced me to. It pops up a whole host of configurable actions you can take on text when you select it. I wasn’t a big fan at first, as it was popping up at inappropriate times, but it did have a lot of potential to be really useful. I created a workflow to toggle PopClip on or off using a keyword, or to bring up the menu with a hotkey when you want it. You can download that here.
Check if a site is down – To check if a website is down globally, or if it’s just me experiencing problems, I type ‘down’, followed by the URL. Alfred checks with http://downforeveryone.com/, and displays the result.
Open apps with a hotkey or short phrase – e.g. typing ‘sn’ into the Alfred box to open Simplenote. (More detail on the hotkey part in a section below)
Search for and play songs from Spotify – Self explanatory. (#)
Randomise your MAC address – for when you need a new MAC address to bypass time restrictions on the WiFi in hotels/airports/cafes.
IP Address Check – Quickly check your internal and public facing IP addresses. I use this to confirm if I’m properly connected to a VPN or proxy.
Show Workflow Commands – Remembering these workflows is hard. This workflow creates an on-screen list of all the commands with details of what they do. Very handy!
There is a whole pile of different examples over on Packal.org, so that’s a good place to start if you are looking for inspiration.
If you aren’t using a password manager yet, stop reading and go install one. Seriously. You remember a master password, and these applications both generate strong passwords as well as storing and filling them in on websites automatically.
I used to swear by LastPass, and was perfectly happy with it thank you very much. Then I discovered that Alfred integrates with 1Password.
As well as being able to trigger the 1Password application with a hotkey or phrase, I can search for stored logins from the Alfred box, hit Enter, and get taken straight to the website and automatically logged in.
This means you need to spend a bit of time tidying up your stored URLs to ensure that they are correctly set to the login page rather than the signup page, but it’s worth it. I’ve now completely switched over to 1Password as a result.
One of the more complicated tricks (in terms of setup) I’ve found with Alfred relates to the use of Hotkeys.
Hotkeys are awesome things. They let you fire up apps, or specific workflows without having to search for anything in the Alfred box. The problem is, a lot of the key combinations that are available are already used up by system commands in OSX.
A guy called Daniel Setzermann has come up with a novel solution to this. It essentially involves installing a couple of tools to re-map your Caps Lock key to the unusual key combination CMD + ALT + CTRL + SHIFT – aka the ‘Hyper Key’. This kills the use of your Caps Lock key, but really… when do you ever actually use that anyway? Never. That’s when. At least, you shouldn’t be. If you need to change text to all caps, you can always get a workflow to do that for you.
This takes a wee bit of time to set up, and even I was hesitant to go through the steps, but stick with it; it’s well worth the initial effort.
The beauty of this is that you can now set up really great hotkeys like CAPS + S to launch Spotify, or CAPS + C to launch Chrome, etc. Here’s an idea of what my workflow for this currently looks like, though I’m still adjusting it to find what combos stick best in my memory:
Daniel explains how to set this up really well on his site over here. (Scroll down a wee bit till you find the relevant bit)
But… this sounds awesome. Why has it ruined your life?
It is awesome. At first, I was reluctant. Changing habits and your engrained workflows is difficult, and I didn’t really get how Alfred would be all that useful at all, even despite the explanations of some really smart people.
Having stuck at it though, I don’t think I could live without Alfred (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration). Alfred is like the gateway drug to productivity.
One of the results of using Alfred more is that I’ve finally reduced the size of my dock, and hidden it completely (until I mouseover). I no longer need to launch things from the dock, and I can quickly see what’s open by Command Tabbing, so I’ve opened up a whole extra bit of screen real estate that I was previously chained to.
Whenever I use somebody else’s Mac, it’s a nightmare. It feels unbelievably clunky and old. I’ve switched from a personal approach based heavily on clicking and moving the mouse about to one that is primarily hotkey based. I haven’t even really scratched the surface of what’s possible in this post… and I’m still discovering new things every day. Alfred lets me launch things quickly and smoothly, to concentrate on what I’m actually meant to be doing. No more trying to remember where that particular network admin page is located… Alfred knows.