In many ways, Shortcuts is “learning to code“ for the masses, and Shortcuts as a programming language should have the educational support, technical resources, and community development that Apple’s user base deserves. At least to match the quality and values the company imbues into all of its other products.
I agree. Although Apple has used Siri and will introduce App Intents this fall as simple entry points into the Shortcuts app, there’s a lot more that could be done. As Cassinelli argues, that includes better action descriptions, debugging tools, and more active curation of the Shortcuts Gallery. Shortcuts has made a lot of progress over the past few years, especially when it comes to meeting experienced users’ needs. Now would be a good time to focus on bringing new users into the fold.
Undo send, allowing you to recall a message for 10 seconds after sending a message
Message scheduling with suggested and fully-customizable future delivery times and dates
Follow Up, which surfaces requests you’ve made in messages for which you haven’t received a response
Remind Me, a snooze-like feature for scheduling messages to reappear in your inbox later
Missing recipient and attachment alerts
For the first time in quite a while, that list makes Mail a much more attractive alternative to third-party apps. Mail won’t match every feature offered by third parties, but my needs for advanced email client features are fairly modest, which I expect puts me squarely in the demographic that Apple is targeting.
Mimestream offers Gmail’s excellent search and other features in a native Mac package.
Until recently, my email use was split between Mimestream, which is only available on the Mac, and Spark on iOS and iPadOS. The split wasn’t ideal, but because I handle most of my email on my Mac, I tolerated it.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been using Mail exclusively on all of my devices, which has been a refreshing change of pace. Still, it’s not perfect. Of the features I use most in third-party mail clients, the single biggest shortcoming of Mail is its clunky implementation of deep linking.
I drop links to email messages in my notes and tasks all the time as a way to quickly access important contextual information. Mimestream offers Gmail URLs, and Spark can create its own app-specific and web URLs right within those apps’ UIs.
I like the way drag and drop on the iPhone and iPad links a message to its subject, but having to use drag and drop is clunky.
In contrast, on iOS and iPadOS, you can only link to a Mail message by dragging it out of Mail into another app’s text field. I’ll take it, but I’d prefer if I could quickly generate a link from the share sheet or with Shortcuts instead. The situation on the Mac isn’t much better, requiring users to resort to AppleScript to construct a URL that links back to a Mail message.
With weeks of Ventura testing ahead of me, I decided to see what I could do to improve the situation. The result isn’t perfect: I still have no choice on iOS and iPadOS but to drag and drop messages. However, I’ve improved the experience on the Mac using a combination of AppleScript and a shortcut that I trigger using Raycast to link the subject of a Mail message to its URL. For added context, my shortcut adds the sender’s name too.
When Shortcuts debuted on the Mac in Monterey, Apple added more ways to run an automation than anyone expected, but there was one big omission. Shortcuts wasn’t included in Monterey’s share menu. That was a big disappointment for anyone (like me) who has built a lot of shortcuts that rely on the share sheet on iOS and iPadOS. That’s why I’m happy to report that this fall, when Ventura is released, Shortcuts users will, at last, be able to trigger their shortcuts from the Mac’s Share menu.
Enabling Shortcuts’s share extension in System Settings.
Shortcuts was toggled off by default in Systems settings on my Mac, so you may not see it if you go directly to the Share menu. To enable it, open System Settings and go to the Extensions section of the Privacy & Security section, where you’ll find it under Sharing. Once toggled on, you’ll be able to select it like any other Share menu item, which will display a list of shortcuts that accept the input that the app you’re using offers.
Running a Shortcut from the share menu in Safari.
My testing is ongoing, but despite some bugs, the new Shortcuts share item works well across a variety of system and third-party apps. For example, Safari can pass the active webpage, its URL, and a PDF to Shortcuts, where I’ve used the input with actions like Get Current Web Page from Safari, Get Details of Safari Web Page, and Get Contents of Web Page.
Safari’s inputs also work with File actions like Save File, which can be used to create nicely-formatted PDFs of webpages. However, due to what appears to be a bug in Shortcuts, PDFs can only be saved if the URL is also passed as input to the Save File action, resulting in the creation of a PDF and two HTML files of the webpage contents. Another limit of Safari’s Share menu support is that it currently doesn’t work with text selections.
A PDF of a MacStories article created using Shortcuts via the Share menu.
Safari is where I expect to use Shortcuts’ Share menu the most, but it works with other apps too. So far, I’ve used Shortcuts from the Share menu to:
Convert a PNG image to JPEG
Open a file from Finder
Add a PDF to Keep It for Mac
Send a PNG from Pixelmator Pro to Keep It for Mac
Add Mac App Store URLs to the Trello board we use to organize our Club MacStories newsletters
There are other ways to accomplish any of these things without a share extension, but the Share menu lets you trigger your shortcuts from the context in which you’re working, which I prefer.
The addition of Share menu support is promising, but it still needs work. In addition to the Safari limitations and bugs I mentioned above, it’s worth noting that if a shortcut fails from the Share menu, the app becomes unresponsive and needs to be quit and restarted before it will work again. Also, Shortcuts’ picker window opens behind the app you’re using, so if your app window is in the center of the screen, Shortcuts’ picker might be hidden. Interaction with the app from which you trigger a shortcut is blocked while your shortcut is running too.
The Share menu, which has undergone a redesign in Ventura, removes a couple of features that would be useful with Shortcuts that I hope are added back. First, it’s no longer possible to reorder share extensions in System Settings. I’d like to move Shortcuts to the top of my list, but I can’t. Second, because the Share menu is now an independent floating pallette instead of a submenu of File → Share, individual share extensions can no longer be assigned a keyboard shortcut in System Settings.
Notwithstanding some rough edges, though, it’s good to see Shortcuts come to the Share menu. I’ve found ways around its omission from Monterey, but none have ever seemed as natural as clicking the share button in an app’s toolbar. Hopefully, by the time it’s released in the fall, Shortcuts’ share extension will do everything on the Mac that it can do on the iPhone and iPad.
For these reasons, as you can imagine, when Apple got in touch with me last November asking if I wanted to try out one of the new MacBook Pros with the M1 Max chip, I welcomed their suggestion with a mix of surprise, trepidation, and, frankly, genuine curiosity. What could I, a longtime iPad user, even contribute to the discourse surrounding the comeback of the Mac lineup, the performance of Apple silicon, and the reality of modern Mac apps?
But I was intrigued by the proposal regardless, and I said yes. I was very skeptical of this experiment – and I told Apple as much – but there were a few factors that influenced my decision.
First and foremost, as many of you have probably noticed, I’ve grown increasingly concerned with the lack of pro software (both apps and OS features) in the iPad Pro lineup. As I wrote in my review last year, iPadOS 15 was, by and large, a quality-of-life update that made iPadOS more approchable without breaking any new ground for existing pro users of the platform. As much as I love the iPad, at some point I have to face its current reality: if Apple thinks iPadOS isn’t a good fit for the kind of functionalities people like me need, that’s fine, but perhaps it’s time to try something else. If my requirements are no longer aligned with Apple’s priorities for iPadOS, I can switch to a different computer. That’s why I believe 2022 – and the upcoming WWDC – will be a make-or-break year for iPad software. And I don’t think I’m the only iPad user who has felt this way.
Second, the arrival of Shortcuts on macOS Monterey gave me an opportunity to expand and rethink another major area of coverage for MacStories, which is automation. Along with iPad and iOS, I consider Shortcuts the third “pillar” of what I do at MacStories: with the Shortcuts Archive, Shortcuts Corner and Automation Academy on Club MacStories, and Automation April, I’m invested in the Shortcuts ecosystem and I know that our readers depend on us to push the boundaries of what’s possible with it. With Shortcuts on macOS, I felt a responsibility to start optimizing my shortcuts for Mac users. That meant learning the details of the Shortcuts app for Mac and, as a result, use macOS more. From that perspective, Apple’s review unit couldn’t have come at a better time.
Third, and perhaps most important to me and least helpful for you all, is one of my greatest fears: becoming irrelevant in what I do. As a writer, I guess I shouldn’t say this; I should say that I write for me, and that I would write regardless, even if nobody read my stuff. But as a business owner and someone who’s gotten used to having a medium-sized audience, that would be a lie. I love the fact that I can write for my readers and get feedback in return. I love that I can write something that is wrong and be corrected by someone. I don’t want to lose that. Do you know what’s a really easy way to make it happen? Grow into someone who’s stuck in their ways, only writes about a certain topic, and doesn’t think anything else is worth trying or even remotely considering. In my case, I don’t want to look back at MacStories in 10 years and regret I didn’t at least try macOS again because I was “the iPad guy” and I was “supposed to” only write about a specific topic. I make the rules. And the rule is that curiosity is my fuel and I was curious to use macOS again.
So that’s my context. For the past six months, I’ve been using my MacBook Pro instead of the iPad Pro to get my work done on a daily basis. I’ve kept using the iPad Pro to test my shortcuts, read articles, and write in places where I didn’t have enough room for a MacBook, but, by and large, I’ve lived the macOS lifestyle for half a year by now.
As we head into WWDC, here’s my story on how this experiment went.
John: One of the hardest things about a new project is keeping it under wraps until it’s ready. That was true of Automation April in general, but it was especially true of the Shortcuts Contest. As soon as we’d decided on the outline of what the contest would be, we knew it was something that had the potential to be special by bringing together the MacStories and broader Shortcuts communities for a single event.
We couldn’t be happier with how this year’s inaugural Automation April Shortcuts Contest went. We had over 200 shortcuts submitted to compete in six categories:
Best Everyday Shortcut
Best HomeKit Shortcut
Best Mac Shortcut
Best Media Shortcut
Best Productivity Shortcut
Best Overall Shortcut
The shortcuts we received were remarkable, and as we’d hoped, they ran the gamut from simple automations that solved one problem exceptionally well to shortcuts that offered broad functionality more like an app than an automation.
Having gone through every one of this year’s submissions, we’ve got a deeper appreciation than ever for just how vibrant and creative the Shortcuts community is. Across every Apple platform, its users are creating clever automations to extend the power of their devices and sharing them with a community that is incredibly generous with their time and efforts in helping others to learn how to build their own shortcuts.
With so many excellent shortcuts from which to choose, picking the winners was tough, but fortunately, we had a crack team of Shortcuts experts to help judge the submissions. Thanks to Simon Støvring, Matthew Cassinelli, Christopher Lawley, Jason Snell, Rosemary Orchard, Alex Cox, and David Sparks for their participation. We appreciate the time each was able to take sifting through this year’s contest submissions.
We’ve also got a little surprise for readers. Alongside the winners in each category, we’ve included a handful of honorable mentions to showcase some of our favorite shortcuts that didn’t win a category. I think you’ll see from the quality of these bonus shortcuts just how deep the field of submissions was.
With that, it’s time to reveal our first ever Automation April Shortcuts Contest winners and share the shortcuts they’ve created.
All the shortcuts I created for Automation April this month.
It’s the final week of Automation April, and before we get into the details of the final batch of 10 shortcuts I’ve prepared for this week, I just want to express my gratitude toward all readers – old and new – who checked out MacStories this month, entered the contest, or signed up for Club MacStories. The response to Automation April has exceeded our most optimistic expectations: we received over 200 shortcut submissions for the contest, which is why we’re taking a few extra days to sift through all of them before; look for an official announcement of all the winners next week.
For this final group of 10 shortcuts, I’ve assembled another pretty diverse list of utilities for iPhone, iPad, and Mac that integrate with different parts of Apple’s operating systems. There’s a shortcut that automatically deletes old files from Finder or the Files app; another that finds the unique identifier of a specific task in the Reminders app; there’s a shortcut that gives you a weather report for the location of an upcoming event in your calendar. In case you missed the previous collections of shortcuts, you can find them here and here.
So, with Automation April coming to a close, let’s dive in one last time and check out the details of the shortcuts I’m sharing this week.
I’ve used Tot by The Iconfactory on and off since it was released in 2020 and reviewed by Federico, but it never stuck. I never came up with a system for using the app that fits well with how I work. Instead, I would simply dump text and URLs copied from the web or jot notes to myself haphazardly in any of the app’s seven colorful dots. The trouble was that when I went back to the app to find something, I often found myself clicking and scrolling around a lot to find what I wanted.
With the introduction of Tot’s Shortcuts support, I immediately saw an opportunity to process Tot’s dots in ways that would make the app fit better with the way I use it. I still don’t have a system for the app’s seven dots. Instead, I’ve got a shortcut called Tot Dot Review that lets me parse and process Tot’s dots in several different ways that shows off Tot’s shortcuts actions along with a handful of built-in Shortcuts actions for extracting different types of data from text.
Tot Dot Review lets me quickly pull URLs, Apple Maps URLs, addresses, phone numbers, and dates from my Tot notes without skimming through each of the app’s seven notes. I can also copy Tot’s notes into Markdown-formatted text that I can copy and paste into another app for processing and delete the content of all seven Tot notes, so I can start fresh. The combination of options has made it easier to find and manage things in Tot, which has led me to use the app more too.
For the past week, I’ve been rethinking my approach to time tracking with the Timery app with a focus on simplicity and automation. I appreciate the insights into my habits and patterns afforded by time tracking and Timery’s excellent Reports view, but lately I’ve felt like my setup with projects, tags, and sub-tasks was too convoluted since it was based on a structure I designed years ago.
My daily routine is different now – and it’ll continue to change in 2022 – and I wanted to get rid of the overhead caused by a time tracking system that was too granular. For time tracking to be effective, you need to remember to start a timer whenever you’re working on something; too much friction in the process – such as having to carefully pick from a list of similar projects – defeats the whole purpose of it. There’s also the opposite problem – forgetting to stop a long-running timer – which John explained and fixed in a separate story for Automation April.
So I went back to the drawing board of my Timery projects and reorganized everything with simplicity and ease of activation in mind. I cleaned up my saved timers and shortcut that activates those timers, which I can now trigger system-wide via Raycast on the Mac and the Shortcuts widgets on iPad. I split my work projects into three main areas – MacStories, Club, and podcasts – removed redundant sub-tasks, and grouped related activities under the same tags for more reliable filtering.
How I access my saved timers from the Home Screen.
The approach worked well for MacStories and the Club, but podcast timers turned out to be a different beast. You see, when I sit down to record a show like Connected or AppStories, I need to take care of key tasks such as making sure my audio inputs are correct, checking out notes for the show’s outline and intro, and keeping an eye on the Connected audience in Relay’s Discord server. These tasks distract me from time tracking and, as a result, I often forget to start a timer for when I begin recording and, conversely, stop the timer when I’m done. I could automatically start a timer when a calendar event for a show is due in my calendar, but that also doesn’t work for me since it doesn’t account for the time before we actually record the show when I may be chatting privately with Myke and Stephen. Wouldn’t it be great if there was One True Way to automatically start tracking my real recording time when I start talking into the microphone for a show?
As it turns out, thanks to the latest update to Audio Hijack – the new version 4.0 that recently launched on macOS – there is. So for this week’s Automation April story, I’m sharing the custom system I created to trigger a single shortcut that starts time tracking in Timery based on the show I’m recording in that specific moment. Let’s take a look.
I’ve been using Timery to track my time using the Toggl time tracking service for several years now, and although I’ve gotten better at remembering to stop timers, I still forget sometimes. That’s why I built Stop Long Timer, a shortcut that periodically checks if you’ve had a timer running for a long time and volunteers to stop it. If you decline, Stop Long Timer offers to leave you alone for a while so you can wrap up whatever you’re doing.
Stopping a timer that’s been running for a certain period is the easy part. Timery has an action to check the duration of the current timer and another to stop a timer. What I wanted, though, is something more flexible because sometimes a timer has been running a long time because I’m deep in the middle of a project. In that case, I don’t want to stop the timer. In fact, I don’t want to be bugged again either. That part of Stop Long Timer is a little more complex and is a good example of how you can save data outside a shortcut to use as a reference point.