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Keyboard Maestro and the automation mindset

Keyboard Maestro always sounded like a useful app, but I wasn't sure how I would ever use it. Now that I have it, I keep finding new ways to use it.

I think Keyboard Maestro is perhaps one of the more difficult apps to explain, because how I use it might vary greatly from how you use it, but once you get to know how it works and some of the things it can do, maybe you'll see how you might use it.

Some simple use cases for Keyboard Maestro

At its simplest, Keyboard Maestro can do things like TextExpander where you type a few letters and have it expand to a much larger message, but that's really a narrow view of what it does. In fact, I prefer to use TextExpander for those sorts of uses. I use Keyboard Maestro for more complicate situations.

For example, have you ever tried to add a bunch of iOS apps to an iTunes library, only to have iTunes warn you that some of the apps already exist? If you have, you know what follows. Each time iTunes finds a duplicate application, it will stop everything and ask if you want to replace the app until you press "OK" and then it will continue. Keyboard Maestro can wait until iTunes asks and then answer for you. I once left iTunes running like that and went to lunch, letting Keyboard Maestro do the menial work for me.

Keyboard Maestro can trigger events to happen when an app quits or when it launches. For example, when SuperDuper launches, Keyboard Maestro automatically unmounts my Time Machine backup (because I don't want Time Machine to interfere with SuperDuper). When SuperDuper quits, Keyboard Maestro unmounts the SuperDuper clone (otherwise Spotlight tends to find apps and files on both drives) and remounts my Time Machine drive.

When I am using Microsoft Word and have an open document, Keyboard Maestro automatically saves the file for me every 3 minutes, so I never have to worry about losing work.

Mac OS X supports customizable keyboard shortcuts for menu items, but they have to include the Command key (⌘). With Keyboard Maestro, I can assign any keyboard combination I want, and if I accidentally use the same keyboard combination twice, Keyboard Maestro will pop up a menu and let me choose between the two of them.

Putting several steps together

As I mentioned, the key (no pun intended) to using Keyboard Maestro is to start getting into the mindset of thinking "Could I automate this?" whenever you find yourself doing something repeatedly.

For example, I access a database of journal articles that are available to download as PDFs. I recently discovered that if I email those articles to myself, the database will include all of the citation information necessary. But emailing them is a bit of a pain. Each time I find an article I have to click on the 'email' button, which triggers some JavaScript which reveals a place where I can enter my email address. I have to type my email address, then I have to copy the title of the article into the Subject: line, then I have to check the box to say that I want the email to be "plain text plus the attachment", then I have to hit the 'Send' button. Once it is sent, I have to click 'Continue' to dismiss the alert that tells me the email was sent, and then I have to go back to the previous page in my browser history.

All told there were twelve steps involved for each article, and some of those steps had multiple keystrokes involved, such as 'type my email address.' (Actually I was typing my Send To Dropbox email address, so the PDF and the email body with the citation would also get saved.)

With Keyboard Maestro, once I decide that I want to save an article, I simply press one keyboard combination, and it does all of the necessary steps. It even brings me back to the previous page so I can continue searching. Not only does Keyboard Maestro do these s steps approximately 100 times faster than I could, it never accidentally misspells my email address, or hits the 'tab' key three times instead of two times, or forgets to check the box that says 'Yes, include the PDF in the email.'

The end result is that I have more time to spend doing what I want to do (looking for interesting articles) and don't have to spend any time or mental energy on the boring, repetitive, easy-to-make-a-mistake parts.

Do you install a lot of applications?

As someone who tests a lot of software, I find myself running Installer.app a lot. Anyone who does this a lot knows that there are usually about 5-6 different screens that you have to go through from start to finish.

  1. Click install
  2. Click Continue
  3. Click Agree (to the EULA)
  4. Click Continue Installation
  5. Wait for it to finish
  6. Click Close

If you've done that often enough, you know that you can press 'Enter' and 'Tab' (or Shift + Tab) to get through those, but it's a lot faster to have Keyboard Maestro do it for you. (You'll still have to enter your password manually, so don't worry about accidentally opening an installer and having something bad happen.)

Do you make backups?

I make backups of my calendar and contacts information every week. Well, at least I always intend to. But, well, if it relies on me remembering to do it, I probably won't do it.

With Keyboard Maestro I can schedule this backup to happen automatically. So now, every Monday at 9:00 a.m. I get a Growl alert which says "Backing up Contacts" (which alerts me that it's about to happen so I don't accidentally interfere with it), then the Contacts app opens, and Keyboard Maestro selects File » Export » Contacts Archive... presses 'Save' when prompted, and then quits Contacts app.

Then the entire process repeats with BusyCal.

The whole process takes a few seconds, and all I have to do is wait.

(Speaking of automation, I won't even mention that those backups are automatically saved to a particular folder using Default Folder X, and that once they are saved, Hazel automatically zips them and moves them to Dropbox. Oops. Well, maybe I'll mention it just a little.)

Automation reduces annoyance

Computers are great, but sometimes we have to do things that are repetitive and boring. Computers should be doing those repetitive and boring things for us. Keyboard Maestro makes it easy to get your computer to do some of those annoying things for you. All you have to do is figure out the parts that can be automated, and then sit back and watch as your computer works for you. OK, so Keyboard Maestro isn't exactly a robot butler, but it's still a step in the right direction.

A demo is available from the Keyboard Maestro website, a full license is US$36. While that may seem like a lot to the "Apps should be $1! Or free!" crowd, those of us who value our time and satisfaction will see it as money well spent. Download the trial and spend some time with it. Don't dismiss it because there's a learning curve. Start small and figure out some little ways to use it, and then watch as you develop the automation mindset. Once you get used to thinking this way, you'll wonder why it took you so long.



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Mac

Once you get into the automation mindset, Keyboard Maestro will be your new best friend.