How To Use Automator To Save Time and Work More Efficiently

In this multi-part guide we’ll be talking about using Automator to help you learn to let your Mac do your work for you. We’ll start with an overview and then a series of simple examples to help you get comfortable and give you some ideas on how you can put Automator to work for you.

Demystifying Automator

As its name suggests, Automator is designed to help you automate or streamline actions on your Mac. We’ll go through how to create these but first lets talk about what we might use Automator for and how this can be helpful to you. Much like your Zapier Zaps, Automator workflows are designed to simplify and streamline your work by taking over your repetitive tasks and actions. This is either an activity that you do multiple times per day or perhaps it’s a single action you do only occasionally but it’s made up of a multitude of repetitive steps.

Actions like this have been available using scripting tools like AppleScript or using Macros in a program like Excel but the beauty of Automator is that you don’t need to know any specific language to use it. This makes it an option for users of all skill levels.

Automator uses a simple drag and drop interface to create your workflows. For automator, a workflow is a series of steps that you want it to follow. Each step performs a specific action in sequence and when the actions are threaded together you have your automated workflow. Don’t worry if your workflows are simple, some of mine are only one or two steps. The idea is that you can not only process items more quickly but you also will get consistent results. I file or 10 files or 1000 files, a well written workflow will give you the exact end result you need, every single time.

The Automator Interface

  1. To the far left is the action library. This is broken down in to different sections based on file type or application you wish to use for your recipe.
  2. Choosing an action will filter down the results that match that particular action.
  3. To the right is the workflow builder.
  4. To build a workflow you drag the actions from the left over to the right. Actions will run from top to bottom and they can be rearranged by dragging them up and down within the workflow builder.
  5. The results of running the workflow will appear in the Results area. This is useful for verifying your workflow.
  6. The Log area will show the status of all of your workflow steps and how long they took to process. Simple workflows can run in seconds while more complex multi-step recipes that are processing a large number of files or items may take hours.
  7. This area will let you record manual actions for your workflow as well as allowing you to manually run or step through your recipe.

Automator Document Types

There are currently eight different methods within Automator to cll upon your workflows. The process you create within could be similar for any of them, they determine what you need to do to call upon your scripted actions.

Workflow: A Workflow is a series of actions that can be run from within Automator. These are useful for one off Automator recipes or when you need to specify a number of different values within your workflow.

Application: Applications are self-running workflows. Any fies or folders dropped onto an Application will be used as input to the workflow.

Service: Services are contextual workflows available throughout OS X. They accept text or files from the current application or the Finder. Services appear in the Services menu which is available when right or control clicking on a file.

Print Plugin: Print plugins are workflows that are available in the print dialog. They accept PDF versions of the document being printed.

Folder Action: Folder Actions are workflows that are attached to a folder in the Finder. Items added to the folder cause the workflow to run and are used as input to the workflow.

Calendar Alarm: Calendar Alarms are workflows that are run when triggered by an event in Calendar. They receive no input.

Image Capture Plugin: Image Capture plugins are workflows that are available in Image Capture. They receive image files as input.

Dictation Command: Dictation Commands are workflows that are run when triggered by Dictation. They receive no input.


Wrapping UP

This covers the basics of what Automator is and hopefully you feel a bit more comfortable opening it and getting past it’s initially intimidating interface. Our next post will go over the Application Document Type followed by more guides that will help you put Automator to work for you.