The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).
After laying some basic groundwork on the joy that is keyboard shortcuts, I want to take things to the next level and hopefully help you step up your game. While built-in shortcuts are great, they are limited. They usually only handle a single action, they are often limited to a single app and, annoyingly, the same functions tend to differ from application to application. Thankfully for us, we have a tool to solve each and every one of these problems in Keyboard Maestro, an app that manages to be powerful while remaining easy for even a novice to use.
Keyboard Maestro is a lot of things. It’s an application switcher, a clipboard history manager, it can mimic features of applications such as LaunchBar and TextExpander and it helps you create your own shortcuts. I tend to shy away from swiss army knives (the wave of apps that try do everything). While Keyboard Maestro risks falling into this territory, it was easy enough to shut off things like the app switcher and clipboard history to hone in on where I feel this app really shines: in allowing you to create your own macros and assign them to triggers like keyboard shortcuts that can be used across any and all of the applications on your system (or that can be tied to specific applications).
Any geek, especially those who dabble in the productivity space, tend to think in workflows. We examine how we do the things that we do. This is usually a three-step process: (1) consider your work, (2) define the most efficient steps to accomplish it and (3) automate the hell out of it. Simply put, Keyboard Maestro removes friction and reduces the steps needed to really get things done. There are several ways to accomplish this. You can find specific apps or you can use geeky things such as Services or Automator. But so far, I am yet to find an easier way for a novice to start automating their workflows than Keyboard Maestro.
It can be a challenge to explain what Keyboard Maestro does, as it is capable of such a range of tasks. For the sake of simplicity (and to be merciful to both of you reading this), let’s focus in on the automating of workflows. Two things you are going to want to consider when creating a macro are the trigger and the actions. There are a variety of triggers that can set off your actions. A specific time, starting up your system or a specific act or hotkeys1 can be used to kick off just about any set of actions you can string together.
While you can really use this everywhere and and anywhere, I find I use it most for writing and email management. Here are a few quick examples:
Email: I use Disqus to manage the comments on this blog which allows me to reply by email. When I usually reply to messages, my email signature gets added to the end of every message. I’m not looking to post that all over the web so I would always highlight any undesired text, hit the delete key and start typing my reply. Now, I’ve created a macro that quickly highlights and deletes the signature for me allowing me to jump into my response and move on with my day a little bit faster. Another pet peeve of mine is Gmail’s reluctance to allow you to add a label to a new outgoing message. While I really only use one it is central to the way I work. Any message awaiting a reply gets marked @Waiting, this enables me to stay on top of all messages that are awaiting a reply. Gmails current limitation forces me to send the message, then go to my sent folder, select the message I just sent, tag it and return to the inbox. This has now been automated and with a single keystroke, the message is sent, labeled and I am back in my inbox.
Writing: Pretty much everything I write is in Markdown, a format that keeps everything I write future proof, easy to read and ready to be converted to HTML for posting to the web. While certain apps like Byword have excellent built in Markdown shortcuts, I wanted to have a set of keys that worked universally across all of my writing applications. It doesn’t matter if I am working in nvALT, Byword, Scrivener or any other app I happen to be playing with, Keyboard Maestro made it easy to create an array of keyboard shortcuts for formatting in Markdown. I also use it to quickly move text around my system for posting. Right before posting to my site, articles ends up in nvALT for final editing and formatting. From there, I copy the text and tag the post as “Posted”. After that, the text gets pasted into MarsEdit, I separate the title from the rest of the post and send it off to my blog. It once took several steps and as you can see from the video below, they now they all happen by at the touch of a single shortcut.
Here’s a screenshot of the macro for those who are geeky enough to care.
While all of this sounds complicated, these macros are actually extremely easy to create. There are two ways to create new ones, manually or by recording your actions. The manual process comes in handy when you want to have things like pop ups for filling in text that will vary from use-to-use, but most of the time, the record feature will be the best way to go. You create a new macro, hit record, do exactly what you want to do. Keyboard Maestro tracks your steps and turns them into a new macro. Once you stop recording you may need to remove a few extra steps at the beginning and the end (as getting in and out of the app are recorded), but once that’s done, all you need to do is set your trigger and save the macro.
The learning curve here is a little steeper than most apps, but the payoff is worth it. Once you really dive in and start automating nonsense, you’ll see the difference that Keyboard Maestro can make. It helps you make your computer your own by enabling you to do the little things you always wished it did. It lets you automate tedious repetitive steps with ease and keeps your focus on the thing that matters most, the work you want and need to achieve.
A fancy name for keyboard shortcuts. ↩