workflow

My Blogging Workflow

I have received a lot of questions asking precisely what my workflow is for getting blog posts up. The whole process is a bit more complicated than it probably should be but here goes:

 

Step 1 — Choose a Topic

The first thing I need to do for a significant post is choose a topic. For a long time, I kept a list of topics in OmniFocus, but at the end of the day, that's not the best place for them. Then, for a while, I kept the list in Apple Notes, but ultimately I added a category in Ulysses under the "Blog" project called “Ideas". There is a series of very short notes in that folder that could be a single word or a few sentences about an idea for a blog post that I may want to write someday. This one was called “Explain a Post” and had been sitting in the Ideas folder for about four months. Once a week, usually Saturdays, I look through the list and pick two or three notes with the same strategy used when buying cheese: pick something interesting and different but not too smelly or old. 

 

Step 2 — Mind Map

If the idea is going to need some planning, which in my mind is any post of four paragraphs or more, I start a MindNode mind map on the post. It will start with just a few nodes, but I will let the idea cook over a week or so, occasionally stepping into MindNode and adding things that my subconscious comes up with. (I thought of that clever part in the previous paragraph concerning cheese while actually buying cheese.) After about a week, I'm usually ready to start writing. 

 

Step 3 — Move the Cursor from Left to Right

Now comes the hard part of moving the cursor across the page. If I'm typing the article, I will go ahead and do that right in Ulysses, but I move the Ulysses note from “Ideas” to “Cooking”. I usually block a few hours every Saturday afternoon to do some writing for the blog, and in those cases, I will do most of the writing with dictation. For dictation, I use Dragon for Mac or Dragon Anywhere on iOS, which I'm doing right now. As an aside, when using Dragon for Mac to write stories, I do it in TextEdit, which works swimmingly with Dragon’s voice commands. When I dictate, I just dictate the first draft. I don’t do a lot of edits with my voice but instead move the text to the Ulysses “Cooking” folder where I review and edit it via the keyboard.

Either way, I continue banging away at it until I'm more or less happy.

 

Step 4 — Grammarly To the Rescue

Last year I bought a subscription to Grammarly. I was never a fan of computer-based grammar checkers until I signed up for a trial with Grammarly. The service works better than I expected. I was hesitant to pay the annual subscription fee, but when I considered the fact that I pay for my shoes with words, it made the cost easier to digest. All significant posts get run through Grammarly after I finish writing them. If you ever want to know which posts don't go to Grammarly, they are the ones with typos.

 

Step 5 — Rest

After I finish this process, I put the corrected text out of Grammarly and back in Ulysses, and I give it a day. Waiting 24 hours to come back and do an additional reading of the post always makes it better.

 

Step 6 — Add Links

Towards the end of the process, I go ahead and add links to the post. I usually do this using this clever Keyboard Maestro script if I'm on the Mac. It isn’t much more difficult with Ulysses on iOS. If there are links to products, I use Affiliate on Mac or Blink on iOS to add affiliate links.

 

Step 7 — Send to Editor

I have a good friend who reviews my more significant posts for me, makes any corrections that I missed, and then sets up the post for publication in Squarespace. To pull this off, I export the document from Ulysses in rich text format and send the file through a card in Trello. I have a template project in Trello for just this purpose, so if there is anything unique with the tags or the images, I can add it to the Trello checklist. It's only in the last year that I asked someone to make this last pass and handle the Squarespace setup. Now that I see how useful it is, I wish I had done it sooner.

Step 8 — Publication

Once my editor finishes the review and sets up the post, I go through and read it one last time in Squarespace and set the publication dates. If I'm really on my game, I will even get a link to Twitter once the post publishes. We have this big group for the Mac Power Users on Facebook, but I rarely have the guts to post a link there.

Obviously, not every post goes through all eight steps, but my best posts do.

The Workflow for iOS Update

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Every time I write that people should still be using Workflow for iOS automation, I get a certain amount of flak. Apple bought Workflow earlier this year, and the reason for the purchase was not so they could keep developing Workflow. With no inside knowledge, I'm guessing the Workflow developers are spending most of their time working on some fancy new automation for integration into the iOS operating system. (Why else would Apple have purchased the company?) However, I don’t think they are spending all of their time on the new project.

Workflow has been steadily getting updates since it went “in-house”. Most recently they released version 1.7.7. It adds iOS 11 drag and drop and iPhone X screen support. It also supports the new Apple HEIF and HEVC image and video formats. The update even adds a few new features, my favorite of which is the ability to save a templated OmniFocus project to a specific folder.

I don’t know how long we’ve got left with Workflow. But isn’t that true about everything in life? I expect the Workflow team will be allowed to continue to nurse the app along until they release their next big thing which, at the very earliest, would be iOS 12 in a little less than a year. Workflow has enough awesome that it’s worth using, even if just for a year.

Workflow Update and Status

This week Workflow got a middling update. The update includes lots of bug fixes and improvements for iOS 11. This is further evidence that Apple is committed to keeping the lights on for Workflow at least for the next year.

Last week when I was at the CMD-D conference I got to spend time with some of the Workflow developers and they were actively soliciting ideas and thoughts about the application from me. They weren’t acting like someone who thought their app already had one foot in the grave.

I have no idea what’s going on at Apple. If I was a betting man, I would say that some version of the Workflow feature set is going to somehow get incorporated into a future version of iOS, but until that time it seems that Apple is happy to keep paying people to keep the current version working.

I still get emails from people suggesting I’m nuts to keep using Workflow after it’s been acquired by Apple. My reply is that I think I would be nuts not to use it. One of a few things is going to happen:

  1. Apple will continue to support workflow for the foreseeable future until shutting it down without some sort of replacement.
  2. Apple will continue to support workflow for the foreseeable future until replacing it with some new technology (hopefully) incorporating a lot of the ideas and motivation behind Workflow.

In either of those scenarios, Workflow will continue to work for the foreseeable future. This week’s update supports iOS 11 and supports this point even further. Workflow is, in my opinion, the most powerful utility available on the iPhone and iPad. It quite literally allows nonprogrammers to develop their own custom apps that can speak with multiple applications and make their lives easier.

An added benefit of many Workflow users is that it sends a message to Apple that iOS users want automation and power tools, just like Mac users. More of that … please!

Best of all, the application is now free. Even if you’ve never picked up Workflow, now is a great time to kick the tires.

Using Workflow with Multiple Apps

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I have so many Workflow recipes, which prompted several emails asking me to share. I already shared quite a few of them in the Workflow Video Field Guide but since publishing that I've added several more. Over the next couple months I'm going to share some of the more interesting ones.

The Home Screen Post Workflow

I occasionally post the home screen of interesting readers and friends on this website. Setting up those posts require several things. First I need to send the questions to the home screen guest along with some instructions (like requesting for headshot). Next I need to set up the publication task and OmniFocus. Finally I do all the edits and preparation of the post in Ulysses.

After doing this manually for what seemed like the millionth time, I finally got wise and created a Workflow automated process. The Workflow steps are in the screenshot below.

The Email

If I start this process on my Mac I do with a TextExpander snippet but since I'm going to be using this workflow to also create an OmniFocus and Ulysses project, I decided to combine it all in workflow on iOS. The workflow asks for the name of the person and any additional text I want to add to the email. It saves those two items as variables and then opens a body of pre-written text and drops in the name and additional text data I just captured. It then combines all of this into a third variable for the combined text.

I appreciate that using Workflow's Magic Variables, I don't need to necessarily declare variables anymore. Nevertheless, this one was prepared long before they added magic variables and I've never bothered to change it up. It works fine as is.

Next I take the variable containing the combined text and drop it in a new email message. Because I know that this is going to be an email about a home screen post I can even insert the subject line in the Workflow. All I need to do when the workflow activates is pick a recipient and the email fires off.

The OmniFocus Task

Next the workflow opens up OmniFocus and creates a new task to publish this home screen post using the variable for the person's name. The beauty of this is I'll have to type their name and once and it gets used in several applications. (Note this does not create an OmniFocus Project. I’ll show that one off in the future.)

The Ulysses Sheet

Finally, I create a new text file with the name of the post, dropping in the name variable one last time. I then use that text to open up a sheet in Ulysses to hold the text for the home screen post. Having that text file ready in Ulysses is a nice reminder for me and when I receive the responses from the home screen guest, I simply drop them into Ulysses and work from there. You'll note there is a long string identifier for the group name in Ulysses. This is how Ulysses knows to put the text file in a specific location in my Ulysses hierarchy where I'd expect to see these posts.

Overall, this is a very simple workflow but when it saves me a bunch of time. Indeed, this is one of those things that is now faster for me on iOS than the Mac because of the way all these apps can work off a few variables. Do not underestimate the power of Workflow to take one little bit of information and use it in multiple key applications. To me that is one of the application’s best features.

​A Long Sunset for Workflow

 MacRumors reports that the Workflow team has confirmed in a recent customer support email there will be no further features but imply they'll do maintenance updates. Specifically, they wrote:

 "But just so you know, we have no further planned updates for Workflow. That being said we are continuing to support Workflow's current functionality and have no plans to end support, so let me know if you run across any bugs or crashes." 

We all knew this was coming. In hindsight, we should have known it was coming this soon. Whatever Apple hired the Workflow team for, it was not to continue developing Workflow. They've obviously already started on some sort of integration of Workflow-like tools in iOS.

However seeing it there, in black and white, that the app that I use repeatedly, every day, is now frozen feels pretty bad. I'm constantly writing new Workflows to automate working on iPhone and iPad. I currently have 53 workflows that I've written myself or boosted from somewhere else on the Internet.

Whatever Apple is working on, I find it highly unlikely that it will ship with iOS 11 that gets announced in just a few months. So my guess is we'll wait until iOS 12 to get the Workflow replacement, which is most likely 14 months from announcement and 17 months away from release. Will Workflow still function up until that time? I sure hope so.

“Super Important”

There’s a small tidbit at the end of John Gruber’s post about the new Mac Pros.

I asked about scripting and automation — whether Apple still sees scripting and automation as an important part of the pro market. Federighi: “We think scriptability and automation of the system remain super important.”

I'd agree. Power users and large company deployments all rely on scripting to get their work done faster. Craig Federighi’s affirmation about scriptability and automation here is re-assuring but, at the same time, Apple is sending some mixed messages:

  • Apple laid off Sal Soghoian, the biggest advocate of automation and scriptibility. Sal not only got users excited about these tools, he was also fighting the fight inside Apple to make sure automation and scriptibility got updates with the operating system and inside Apple’s own software.
  • Apple not only laid off Sal, they eliminated his position. As Sal explains, “Recently, I was informed that my position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies was eliminated for business reasons.”
  • Apple has been very slow about pushing automation forward on iOS. The current URL-scheme automation methods exist because of clever developers, not Apple. While extensions are a start, there needs to be more.
  • On the plus side, Apple purchased Workflow, a leading automation app for iOS. Some are worried that this acquisition spells doom for the future of Workflow. I think they are going to fold it into the operating system making it (possibly?) even better.

I agree with Craig Federighi that automation and scripting is “super important” but I’d also remind him that if that is the case, we need more than words right now. WWDC is just a few months away and it sure would be nice to see that Apple is moving the ball forward for automation and scripting.

The Case For and Against Apple's Purchase of Workflow

There was a bit of surprising news today out of TechCrunch from Matthew Panzarino. It looks like Apple bought Workflow, which is–in my opinion–the single most useful utility application on the iPhone or iPad. I love Workflow so much that I made a MacSparky Video Field Guide about it.

Workflow is an application that allows you to glue together other applications on iOS and create automated tasks. For instance, I use a Workflow recipe to automatically date and file PDF documents on my iPad. Once I figured it out, the process is actually faster on my iPad then it is on my Mac.

I once made a joke on Mac Power Users that the only reason Workflow got approved was because someone must have naked pictures of somebody important at Apple. The application seemed just so contrary to Apple's general position of iOS simplicity. (Not that I'm complaining.) Over the years, the Workflow team has continued to innovate with this application, adding new features often and allowing us to automate work on the iPad and iPhone that we only dreamed about just a few years ago.

Frankly, I'm mixed about the idea of Apple purchasing Workflow:

The Case against It

There was another innovative application on the iPhone years ago that Apple purchased called Siri. Once they bought it, the pace of innovation slowed down and while it’s great that the Siri got incorporated into the operating system, there's a lot of us that still miss the old version that had some crazy new innovative feature with each update. I think there's a legitimate concern that Apple will do the same with Workflow. They could simplify it and incorporate Workflow into the operating system so everybody has a bit more automation but nobody has the vast library of options Workflow currently offers. We certainly aren't going to get the frequent updates once Apple takes the reins.

The Case for It

In a lot of ways, it feels to me like Workflow is held together by chewing gum and rubber bands. The Workflow developers have (brilliantly) taken advantage of every little toe hold in iOS that allows them to move data between applications. They do things with URL callbacks that make your head spin. All that being said, there are inherent limitations as to how far Workflow can go as an external application outside of Apple.

If, however, Apple absorbs Workflow into the operating system with the intention of bringing real power user tools to iPhone and iPad users, I believe they could go even further than the current third-party version of Workflow. Imagine if Apple created APIs that allowed any app to tap into Workflow's automation tools. Imagine if we could string together automation steps that allow users to press one button and have five different applications lend a hand to getting work done. Once (if?) Workflow gets inside the iOS security sandbox and becomes an integrated Apple product, Workflow could become much more powerful. These are exactly the kinds of power tools for iOS I've been yammering about lately on this blog.

One promising note is that it appears the members of the Workflow team are taking jobs at Apple where they will continue to press for iOS automation from inside the mothership. I wish them much success.

Holding Our Breath

For now all we can do is wait and see. If you haven't tried Workflow yet, shame on you. The application is now free so you have no excuse not to go download it and give it a shot. Spend a few minutes in Workflow and you will find ways to save time on your iPhone and iPad.

Drafts Gets Friendly with Workflow

A few weeks ago, Agile Tortoise released Drafts 4.1.2. My favorite new feature is the “Run Workflow” action. That's right. Drafts and Workflow are now like peanut butter and chocolate. Now I can fire off a Workflow from Drafts with a single tap. The action step can be configured with the name of a workflow and you can even specify the text sent to the workflow. There is a sample Drafts action that lets you round-trip convert markdown to rich text that I've already found handy.

Not to be outdone, the gang at Workflow added their own option in app to add a Workflow to Drafts, which opens Drafts and automatically creates the action. I love it when smart software developers gang up to make their apps even more awesome for us nerds.

New MacSparky Video Field Guide: Workflow

I've been spending a lot of time with the Workflow app (website) (App Store) as of late. Workflow is one of the most powerful apps available for the iPhone and iPad. Using Workflow, you can combine functions from different applications to make things happen on your iPhone and iPad wicked fast. Because it's so flexible, Workflow is difficult to get started with. That's where this new video field guide comes in.

The Workflow Video Field Guide starts with a few, easy workflows and builds upon them over the course of an hour to turn you into a Workflow pro. By the time you get to the end, you'll be able to roll your own workflows and change the way you work on your iPhone and iPad. 

Some of the workflows in the video include:

  • Build your own animated GIF and share it.
  • Automate notifications to family and friends when you're running late.
  • Send a message to your family so they know when to expect you home.
  • Get a Google Street View picture of the address of your next appointment.
  • Have your phone automatically give you the travel time and directions to your next appointment.
  • Share your location with friends and family with one tap.
  • Easily send screenshots to your Mac via AirDrop.
  • Automatically send photos from your phone to your Mac.
  • Have your iPhone show the location of your photos on a map.
  • Upload images to Dropbox.
  • Convert images to different file formats automatically.
  • Resize and send photos.
  • Blast photos out to multiple sharing services with one workflow.
  • Share your most played music.
  • Get walking directions to the nearest coffee or tea shop.
  • Have your iPhone or iPad look at your calendar for a given day and prepare a message displaying your availability.
  • Create custom iOS extensions
  • Save documents, websites, and other data directly to PDF
  • Create a custom workflow to take a picture of a receipt, give it a custom name, and save it to Dropbox.
  • Build your own tip calculator app. (Yup. Tip calculator.)
  • Set up a workflow to check your battery level, adjust your screen brightness, and send you a message.

Workflow has over 200 available actions that you can mix and match to make your iPhone and iPad dance for you. Don't you want to see that? This screencast is fully bookmarked, an hour long, and engineered to make you a Workflow master. You can download it for $9.99.

Did you say you'd like to see a sample? Then here you go.

Workflow: iOS Automation

I’ve been teasing the Workflow app on Mac Power Users for too long. Now you can buy it (iTunes). Given the way Apple’s been so wibbly-wobbly about iOS lately, I’d recommend buying it right now.

Imagine OS X’s Automator on your iPhone and iPad and you are pretty close to Workflow. It has a series of actions it can perform that can be stacked (yes, like LEGO) that allows you to create some pretty powerful workflows. There are a lot of available actions. In fact, there are too many to list here. As an example. Here are the text based actions.

In addition to building these workflows, you can activate them through the Workflow extension or Launch Center Pro. For awhile I’ve been wondering, what is the next Drafts? What is the next app that will completely change the way I use my iOS devices. Workflow is a contender for this title. If you've got any interest in automating iOS, this app will solve a lot of problems for you. 

If you’re not an automation geek, the app ships with a nice collection of prebuilt workflows that can do things like share your availability, make a GIF image, upload your last photo to Dropbox or AirDrop a screenshot. It can also give you your ETA to home or walking directions to the nearest coffee shop, read a QR code or calculate a tip. There is also a mechanism to share workflows so I suspect we’re going to have even more interesting user workflows in the not so distant future. The app is 40% off for a limited time so go get it.