Using Automator to Make Your Life More Productive [Mac]

Using Automator to Make Your Life More Productive

Surprisingly, few people use the OS X batch processing and automation app Automator even though it is an easy-to-use and powerful tool. You can just about automate any sequence of events in OS, actions linked to various software, and the presets saved as a “workflow.” It’s like an action in Photoshop, a batch process, but so much more sophisticated than that. It’s even more powerful if you combine the power of Automator with the power of Applescripts, OS X’s native scripting language.

In this article, we will show you four cool things you can do with Automator. Once you have done these, perhaps you’ll start to experiment yourself and use it more often to automate your frequently used processes.

1. Word Count

Curiously, not many apps have a built-in word count, which is odd as with a lot of situations you have a limited amount of words, or worse still characters, that you can use for your text. You would think more apps would have this feature, but since they don’t, let’s add it with Automator.

Open Automator and choose to create a Service workflow.

Open Automator and create a Service workflow.

Add a “Run Applescript” action, leave the “Output replaces selected text” box unchecked, and type or cut and paste the following script into the action:

on run {input, parameters}
    set theWords to count words of (input as string)
    display dialog (“There are " & theWords & " words in this selection." as string)
end run

Save as “Word Counter MTE,” and the next time you want to count words in any app, select the words and go to the “Application -> Services” menu, and one of the selections will be “Word Counter MTE” (in supported apps).

Create a service to count words in any app.

Some apps don’t recognise the text is selected for various reasons, but many apps will. If they do, you will get something like the following output:

View word count for selected text.

2. Make Desktop NASA Image of the Day

This is a great one if you get easily bored with your desktop image. Using RSS feeds and Automator, you can make an application that when you run it seeks out the RSS feed for NASA picture of the day, downloads all the pictures from the feed and sets the top one as your desktop image.

The desktop image settings you have will remain, so set the image to cycle through all the images in your new directory every thirty minutes for a background slideshow.

Do as you did just now and open Automator, but this time choose to create an Application workflow.

Create an Application workflow.

Add a “Get Specified URLs” action and give it the URL:

Add a Get Specified URLs action and give it the URL.

Next drag in a “Get Image URLs From Articles” action and select “linked from the articles” from the drop-down.

Drag in a Get Image URLs From Articles action.

Choose a “Download URLs” action and drag that to the workflow. Choose a new directory, like for example Pictures -> NasaPictures.

Choose a Download URLs action.

And finally add a “Set Desktop Picture” action.

Save it to the desktop and run it. The folder will fill with fresh NASA pictures and begin cycling through them as you work.

3. Convert Graphics by Dropping Images onto an Icon

This is a really neat one. This creates an icon you can drop files onto and convert them to jpeg, even resize them.

Create an Application workflow.

Drag in a “New Folder” action and type in the name CONVERTED FILES (type a space after the words) and a location for the folder to be created when the app is run from the drop-down.

Now click the variables button on the left-hand side next to actions, and you get some variables to drag in. Select “Date & Time” and drag “Current Time” to the space after CONVERTED FILES. Type another space after it, then drag “Today’s Date” after it.

Select Date & Time and drag Current Time.

Use the drop-down on Today’s Date and select anything without / characters in it. This will not be tolerated by the file system.

Use the dropdown on Today's Date.

Add a “Get Folder Contents” action and drag this under the last action. This prepares the file for processing.

Add a Get Folder Contents action.

Add a “Change Type of Images” action and select JPEG from the dropdown. You can at this point add conversion options, but for now we’ll skip that and save.

Add a Change Type of Images action.

Save the Application to your Applications folder, then locate it in the finder and drag it to the Dock.

Now when you run it by dragging any kind of file to it, a folder will be created on the desktop, and a JPEG version of the file will be saved to it.

Run it by dragging any kind of file to it.

4. Batch Rename

And finally a trivial but laborious task, renaming multiple files. Obviously this is something that should be approached carefully, but with a bit of clever coding, we can make this job a lot easier than it has been before.

This time create a new Workflow workflow. Yes, there is a workflow called Workflow. This is to create workflows that can be saved for later editing.

Create a new Workflow workflow.

Drag these two actions into the workflow: “Get Specified Finder Items,” and “Rename Finder Items.” If they are hard to find, search for them in the window at the top of the list.

Drag these two actions into the workflow.

Configure it per the above screenshot. Add the files you want to rename to the top window. On the bottom window choose the method you want to use to rename. Choose to rename the files sequentially, add a new name such as “bird pictures” and then place a number after the name in the drop-down menus. Choose to make the numbers all three digits long in case the number creeps over 100.

An example of the file names you will end up with is displayed at the bottom of the action.

Once you’re happy with the naming action, press the play button at the top right of the Automator window, and the actions will run. Before the action, they look like this:

Before the action.

And after, they look like this:

After the action.


Save it as a Workflow. Now you can load the workflow, run it in Automator and change the files you want to rename each time. If you rename files in exactly the same way each time, then you can perhaps save it as an application.

Do you already use Automator to make common tasks easier? What are your favourite actions? Tell us in the comments below.

Phil South
Phil South

Phil South has been writing about tech subjects for over 30 years. Starting out with Your Sinclair magazine in the 80s, and then MacUser and Computer Shopper. He's designed user interfaces for groundbreaking music software, been the technical editor on film making and visual effects books for Elsevier, and helped create the MTE YouTube Channel. He lives and works in South Wales, UK.

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