How I Use Automation for Mac Power Users

Most of you know me for the Mac Power Users Podcast that I co-host with David Sparks. On that show we regularly talk about productivity tools and workflows that allow everyday Mac users to become “Power Users.” One of the questions David and I are most often asked is about some of our own workflows, specifically about how we create the podcast. This month I thought I’d take a sneak peak behind the scenes and talk a bit about some of the productivity tools, tips and tricks that I use produce the show with the hopes that you can use some of these ideas in your own life.

I have dozens of snippets setup specifically for podcast related replies

I have dozens of snippets setup specifically for podcast related replies

TextExpander

TextExpander is one of my most used tools on my Mac, and now iOS. In a nutshell, TextExpander allow you to pre-program longer “snippets” of text that you can expand by typing just a few keystrokes. You can use TextExpander with individual words and phrases or to compose entire documents. I use TextExpander daily for everything including correcting typographical errors, adding email signatures, filling in boiler plate text and more.

For the podcast TextExpander is an invaluable tool, especially when you take advantage of the fill-in forms that allow you to customize snippets based on the circumstances. We receive hundreds of bits of email feedback each week and I still try to provide a reply to everyone who writes in, that simply would not be possible without TextExpander. I’m able to use TextExpander to create standard responses or bits of responses and then customize my emails using TextExpander.

I also use TextExpander for filling in pre-configured blocks of text I have a number of custom created TextExpander snippets with HTML code for creating the shownotes each week. I also have pre-configured snippets for sending off instructions to guests. This allows the show to maintain accuracy and uniformity.

Sanebox

Another tool I use for managing the flood of email we receive each week is Sanebox. I receive easily 100 email messages each week with feedback relate to the podcast and that volume of email in my inbox would simply be overwhelming. I’ve been a long-time user of Sanebox to automatically filter my email. All unimportant emails are filtered into a “SaneLater” folder while I’ve tweaked the filtering so that show feedback goes into a custom “Feedback” folder. 

As a general rule, I process through the SaneLater folder at least once a day and make adjustments as necessary. Having a separate Feedback folder is nice because it allows me to pop into the Feedback folder as I have a few extra minutes and work through the backlog. 

With Sanebox I can create rules and exceptions so emails from certain people or with special keywords always end up in my inbox and I’m less likely to miss important messages. Managing the massive amount of email I receive simply would not be possible without this tool.

Time zones are always tricky

Time zones are always tricky

TimeZones

Another important aspect of the podcast is scheduling. At least a couple times a month David and I will have guests on the show to share their workflows. Scheduling can be difficult , especially when you’re dealing with multiple hosts who span several different timezones. I use a couple of apps to assist with scheduling.

TimeZones by Jared Sinclair allows you to at glance to check the time in a number of time zones but its killer scheduling feature is “Quick Check” which allows you to look up a future date and time anywhere in the world and convert it to local time. I was recently trying to schedule a recording with a guest in Amsterdam and another in California and Time Zones worked beautifully.

Calendar Paste

Create custom calendar invites

Create custom calendar invites

Once we’ve coordinated a date and time I use Calendar Paste to create a calendar event. Think of Calendar Paste like templates for calendars, you can create a number of common events and include the title, location, duration, specify which calendar, alert information and any notes. Calendar paste will remember this and when activated, pre-populate a new calendar event leaving you to select only the date and time. For scheduling Mac Power Users guests, I’ll create an event on a shared calendar, and my pre-populated Calendar Paste template includes in the notes field a few paragraphs of standard instructions and technical information for our guest. I entered this information once when I setup Calendar Paste and I never have to enter it again. When it’s time to schedule a podcast, I select the “Record Mac Power Users” template from my list and an event is created leaving the only task for me to send an invite to the appropriate guest in my calendar app.

 

Hazel

Hazel makes automating file management tasks easy

Hazel makes automating file management tasks easy

The final tool I use extensively for automating podcast production is Hazel. Hazel is an App that will allow you to automate file management. You can setup specific folders for Hazel to watch and then perform certain actions based on a series of if/then criteria. 

For example, when we record an episode of the podcast both David and I each record our individual audio tracks and then I make a separate audio recording of the Skype call. These tracks are then combined in post production (in a method sometimes called creating a “double-ender”) to produce optimum audio quality. After a show is recorded I have to compile each of these separate pieces of audio and send them off to our audio engineer. Hazel helps with this process.

Once we’re done podcasting for the night David has to upload his file to me. Problem is, in the past he would forget which would delay the editing process. After forgetting a few times, David setup a Hazel rule on his computer to automate this process. On David’s computer Hazel is set to watch for his audio recording to finish (configured based on attributes that is unique to his recorded file) and re-names the file appropriately and saves it to file we share on a Transporter. Without David having to take any action, the file is uploaded to me. Likewise I have a Hazel rule setup on my end to watch the destination folder for the file when it arrives and take specific action on the file to process it and save it in a specific location with my audio file and prepare it to send to our audio engineer. 

We also have a volunteer who assists us with preparing shownotes each week. I want to make sure that I get a preview copy of our show off to the volunteer as quickly as possible so they have plenty of time to prepare the shownotes. Hazel watches for the Skype recording (based on criteria I setup that is unique to the file) and as soon as I’m finished recording an episode I use Hazel to upload a copy of the Skype call to a shared dropbox and trigger an automator action to prepare a pre-formed email to our volunteer advising them the show has been recorded and is waiting for them in the dropbox.

We’ve recorded more than 250 episodes of Mac Power Users over the years and using these tools and workflows have helped streamline the process and keep production on track. I hope you’ve found a few useful ideas here that you can use in your own work.

Disclosure: Smile, makers of Text Expander, Transporter and Sanebox are sponsors of Mac Power Users

This article first appeared in the May 2015 Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/

App Camp For Girls Fundraising Countdown - Go Team MPU!

Yesterday App Camp Founder Jean MacDonald posted an update on the App Camp For Girls fundraising campaign and what's at stake if the organization doesn't reach their goal of raising $100,000. The campaign is winding down with a deadline of July 1 to raise $100,000 and just over $46,000 to go as of the time I write this post. 

Earlier this month, David and I put out the challenge to Mac Power Users listeners to help us fund a Mac Power Users Team at an upcoming camp this summer. We offered to match out of our own pockets the first $1,000 of contributions. I'm proud to say that our audience has come through for App Camp in a big way and to date 77 listeners have contributed a total of $6035.00!  We were so blown away when Jean MacDonald joined us on MPU 260 to discuss her workflows for creating and running a nonprofit we decided to set a stretch goal to try to gain the support of 100 or more MPU listeners by the time the campaign closes. If we do, David will fly out to meet Team MPU in Portland and we'll Periscope some of their adventures.

We have one more week to help App Camp reach their goal, can you help us get there? To participate in our Team MPU challenge, here's what you do:

  1. Donate to the App Camp Indiegogo campaign as you normally would. You can even choose from one of the available perks.
  2. So we can "credit" your donation to Team MPU, e-mail a copy of your donation receipt (feel free to redact any personal information, but leave the amount) to feedback@macpowerusers.com with the words "App Camp 3.0" (no quotes) in the subject line.

Thanks for your support of this worthy cause.

Mac Power Users #261: MPU Live: My Machine Just Kernel Panicked

We braved some major technical difficulties to bring you a MPU Live this week. Jeff Richardson of iPhone JD joins David and me  to chat about the Apple Watch, we follow-up on Dropbox,Photos.app and photo workflows meal planning, DevonThink, DevonThink, storing items locally without sacrificing drive space and travel tips.

My MacBook Air goes off for service tomorrow, thanks to everyone in the live chat room who stayed with us through some challenges.

Mac Power Users #260: Creating and Running a Nonprofit with Jean MacDonald

One of my favorite people, Jean MacDonald, the founder of App Camp For Girls, joins us to talk about her experiences creating a nonprofit. Jean discusses the genesis of App Camp, generating community support, the logistics of running, funding and marketing.

Jean also gives us an update on the progress of funding "Team MPU" and we announce a special stretch goal.

Simplifying Email

Email is a necessary evil. I’ve spoken about the subject frequently on Mac Power Users and my pal David Sparks has written a book on the subject. But it’s still a topic of frustration for most of us. We feel overwhelmed by the volume of email we receive and are unsure how to manage it. I’ve made a few changes to my email workflows the past six months to simplify the way I manage my email. You may find some of these techniques help you.

Streamline Email Accounts

My mailbox setup

My mailbox setup

Over the years I’ve collected email accounts. I went through a phase where I tried to register my name on every popular email service, then I had my old college email account, another from a former ISP, one I used for friends and family, others that were used for various organizations I was member of, another I used for tech related work, and another I used for the day job. Managing all these accounts became a burden.

A few months back I decided I would allow myself only two accounts. One for work (which had to be segregated) and one for personal use. Decreasing the number of accounts I used decreased a lot of overhead. It meant I had fewer places to check for new mail, fewer sets of folders to manage for organizing message, fewer sets of rules to organize messages, fewer accounts to backup, etc. 

I consolidated my accounts in a couple of ways. First, there were a few accounts that I just decided to let go. They were simply kept for nostalgia purposes of spam collectors, it was time to say goodbye. Other accounts I decided to keep but setup a forward option to send messages to my primary account. Over time I will change the email addresses for services that I use these secondary accounts and I may eventually decide to disable the forwards and let a few more accounts go.

There are, however, a few accounts that I keep around and active so that I can send email from those accounts in situations where it’s more appropriate for a reply to come from a specific email address, rather than my personal address. This can be achieved in a few different ways depending on which email provider you use. Without going into great details, Gmail supports the ability to send mail from a different address or alias. In Apple Mail you can add multiple send-from addresses to a single account. Or, you can just setup an account for purposes of sending mail and not actually receive any mail at that account.

Sanebox helps me keep focus on the emails that matter

Sanebox helps me keep focus on the emails that matter

Filtering Out The Noise

One of the disadvantages of having several accounts filtering into one is you can bring a lot of junk. Not just spam, though that can be a problem, but noise from mailing lists and the like. 

I’ve been very fortunate that spam has not been a big problem for me. Gmail does a fairly good job of filtering out spam on the server side. I also use SpamSieve which I keep running on a Mac mini that is always on at my home. I’ve also been ruthless about unsubscribing from various mailing lists. You only want to follow unsubscribe links from emails from legitimate sources as spammers will routinely use false unsubscribe links as a means of confirming a valid email address.

Another tool I’ve adopted for filtering my email is SaneBox. (Full disclosure, Sanebox is a sponsor of my MPU.) Sanebox brings the ability to intelligently and automatically filter and prioritize email based on your previous interactions. For example, if a particular sender gets past your junk filters, you can toss them in the SaneBlackhole folder and never hear from them again. SaneBox also recently introduced domain wide filtering so if there’s a particularly ruthless marketing company that is bothering you, you can blacklist their entire domain. 

I have also become aggressive about filtering email out of my inbox. I have folders for mailing lists, folders for feedback for my podcast and website, folders that hold email deferred until a later time, and a folder for less important messages. These folders allow only my most important messages in my inbox so I can focus my attention there and process accordingly. Of course, you must train yourself to regularly check and process through these supplemental folders as well and not allow them to sit and collect messages for days. I make a point to Process my inbox to zero at least twice (usually around lunch and at the end of the day) an check my later folder at least once. Feedback and mailing lists sometimes get deferred to the weekends, but generally processed by the end of the week. 

While I use Sanebox now for almost all this filtering, you may be able to obtain similar results through the use of email rules. While Gmail has fairly advanced server-based rules, typically client side rules are more customizable. This is another case where having a home server that is always on processing your email can be helpful. There are also mail add-ons like Mail-Act On that expand Apple Mail’s built-in rules. Email rules can be very powerful and I encourage you to play with them. But be careful, an errant email rule can have unintended consequences, so it’s important you keep a close eye on your email as you are setting up and tweaking your rules.

Mail Act-On is a great tool for setting up rules to better manage email

Mail Act-On is a great tool for setting up rules to better manage email

Business Email During Business Hours

While I love my iPhone and iPad, it means that I’m never truly away from my office. This can sometimes create work/life balance problems and boundary issues. If you respond to a work-related email on a Sunday morning does it set a precedent that you are always on call and available? Certainly, there are times when urgent issues arise or working outside normal business hours is appropriate or expected, but I would caution about setting unreasonable expectations with your clients and coworkers. 

Therefore, as a a general rule (and there are many exceptions) I make it a point to respond to business emails during normal business hours. I also make it a point not to immediately respond to an email within minutes of it hitting my inbox as this too sets an unrealistic expectation for the recipient. There are a number of tools that can help with this. 

I again use Sanebox to create a “Tomorrow” folder that will defer messages to the next day. If I receive an email after working hours that is not urgent, I simply file it in the Tomorrow folder and it will reappear in my inbox the next morning. I have a similar rule setup for “Monday” which I will defer emails that come in over the weekend. 

I also use the Mail Act-On email plugin that, among other things, has a feature that allows me to respond to an email so I can get it off my mind or out of my inbox, but defer actually sending the reply until a specific time. Sometimes I’ll send the response the next business day, sometimes I’ll delay the response by 30 minutes to an hour.  MailHub has similar delayed-send features as well. 

Managing email is a constant battle and everyone must find their own workflow and set of tools that works for them. Hopefully some of these tips will help. 

This article first appeared in the February 2015 Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/

ScreenCastsOnline Monthly Magazine: Home Tech Review

This month’s issue of ScreenCasts Online Monthly Magazine is now available in Apple’s Newsstand App. In the June issue you’ll find an article from me about technology products for the home I’ve been using recently including the Ring Doorbell and Belkin WeMo LED Lights. 

The monthly magazine is packed with streamable versions of Don’s excellent video tutorials as well as articles, reviews and tips from authors including David SparksAllison SheridanWally Cherwinski and more. The magazine is free for ScreenCasts online Premium Members or available as a separate subscription or you can pickup individual issues. You can download it in the AppStore or find more info at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/