Apple acquires Workflow

Apple has acquired Workflow, a popular app for automating iOS actions.

I don’t use Workflow as much as I would like to, but, for some tasks, it saves me a lot of time and energy. I’d like to delve into it more deeply.

Gruber:

This certainly provides ammunition against the argument that Apple no longer cares about power users. For me this is Apple’s most intriguing and exciting acquisition in years.

Gabe Weatherhead is less convinced, highlighting how Apple described the acquisition by giving prominence to Workflow’s accessibility features rather than automation:

I think this is bad news for anyone that relies on Workflow to make iOS useful. If all your eggs are in that one basket then you better hurry up and build a new basket. I’d love to be wrong on this front, but I don’t think automation is a priority for Apple or for iOS. The URL support isn’t just languishing on iOS, Apple has actively killed access to some features in launcher apps. But, who knows. Maybe these three new hires will completely change the Apple culture where Sal couldn’t.[^sarcasm]

(He’s referring to Sal Soghoian, who was Product Manager of Automated Technologies at Apple until they removed the role late last year.)

Whatever happens in the longer term, some predictable changes have been made already:

How to time-shift the internet

Note: this was originally a couple of long emails to a friend who is getting into RSS but feeling a bit overwhelmed. Here it is, slightly tidied up to remove the personal attacks and spelling errors.

Most of my internet ingestion is time-shifted. I think most people do this to a greater or lesser extent; here’s my current set-up for those who might not be doing it at all or need more inspiration.

The problem: I don’t have time to do anything with this right now

Do people ever ask you if you read a particular article, or watched a certain video, and you reply “I saw it, but didn’t have time”? This article might help you.

The general principle I will describe is to expose yourself to more things that you might find interesting, educational and/or inspiring, while at the same time freeing yourself from having to stop what you’re doing and deal with them the moment you see them.

Carve out anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours of free time and you’ll be able to enjoy these things without feeling the pressure of a boss peering over your shoulders while you are avoiding work, or eating up mobile data on the move.

The bedrock: RSS

This article assumes you are somewhat familiar with the concept of RSS feeds and use a feed reader. If you’re not, it’s a service that allows you to subscribe to websites (hereafter ‘feeds’) and let their updates (‘items’) come to you in one place, rather than you visiting a few dozen bookmarks every day.

The obvious choice is Google Reader (GR). I find the GR interface a little ugly and I prefer to use Reeder as an interface on both OS X and iOS. There are services other than GR available but they tend to involve setting up your own server, which is beyond the scope of this article.

I subscribe to a reasonably large number of feeds (177, says GR) but I don’t feel overwhelmed. I tend to eschew feeds that publish dozens of items a day—more than half of my feeds only update with a new item once a day, or indeed less often. For purposes of alleviating chronic OCD, I keep them organised in different folders: A/V, football, technology, etc. I also have a folder called ‘High’ for the important feeds that I want to read before anything else. (Tip: It’s actually called ‘1: High’ so it appears at the top of the folder list.)

Two or three times a day I take a few minutes to triage my unread articles. Both GR (the website) and Reeder (the OS X application) support keyboard shortcuts for flying through your unread feed items quickly and easily. I only use a few on a regular basis, but even using a couple of fingers makes things so much easier. I go through with my right index finger on j, tapping s every time I get to something that needs more than a few minutes’ attention. Moving down with j marks each item as read, and you won’t see it again; you can optionally mark the entire contents of the current folder as read by pressing shift-a (GR) or a (Reeder).

When you get to the end you’re left with a list of things that you want to investigate further. I review this list of starred items most evenings. The longest anything will stay starred and therefore ‘unprocessed’ is a couple of days, if there is a backlog or if I am away. Going through this list, if I have time, I’ll read, watch or otherwise act on it there and then. If it takes longer, depending on the type of content, I’ll send it to different services to investigate when I have more time—more on these below.

When I’m done doing whatever it is I’m doing with it, I unstar it until there are none left. You can navigate your starred list using j and k, unstar with s, and open items in your browser of choice with v (GR) or b (Reeder).

Below is a list of several services which could be new to you, or you might find different ways to use services you already use.

Saving text to read later: Instapaper

Instapaper is the grandaddy of read later services. Much imitated, it’s still my favourite. Initially an iOS app, there is also an Android version, although it is maintained by a different developer.

Instapaper strips the ads, menus, comments and other unneccessary cruft from a page and leaves you with just the nicely formatted text for you to read at your leisure. Everything you save to Instapaper is added to your reading list. You can use the bookmarklet, a button that sits in your web browser’s bookmarks bar, or from other apps that it integrates with, like Reeder. I tend to save non-time-sensitive articles to Instapaper in case I get a backlog of articles to read and don’t get it in time.

Once you’ve read an article in Instapaper you can send it to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc to share with your friends.

Instapaper has a ‘sister’ blog called The Feature, which links to a selection of longer articles on varying topics.

Video: YouTube, Vimeo and Pocket

Almost everyone I know uses YouTube but relatively few have (or use) YouTube accounts. You don’t need to be a video-maker to make use of an account; just by signing up you can use various features to bring things of interest right to you.

First, sign up for accounts with YouTube and Vimeo and subscribe to your friend’s uploads. Then, every time you see a video on YouTube or Vimeo that you like, and you’d like to see more by that account, subscribe to its upload channel.

Then grab the two RSS feeds (one for your YouTube subscriptions, the other for Vimeo) and add them to GR. Anything uploaded by your favourite video makers will then appear in your GR list.

Tip: Keep an eye on the ‘suggested feeds’ bit in YouTube: I’ve found a few interesting and informative channels in there.

Pocket started as ‘Read It Later’, an Instapaper clone. But while Instapaper is best for text, Pocket is better for videos. Sign up for a Pocket account and add the bookmarklet. Whenever an interesting video pops up in your GR, open it in your browser and click the ‘Save to Pocket’ bookmarklet. Even when the irritating pre-roll ad is playing. Reeder for iPhone and Mac (but strangely, not iPad) has a ‘send to Pocket’ button to make things even easier.

Tip: Using ifttt you can also use the ‘watch later’ buttons in YouTube and Vimeo to send things to Pocket.

Later, when you have time, open Pocket (they have free apps for many OSs/devices) and see your lovely list of interesting/educational/amusing/cat videos. Feel free to cancel your TV subscription and watch these instead. Again, you can share to social services after you’ve watched each video.

Another tip: add videos you like to your ‘favourites’ playlist within YouTube or hit the ‘like’ button on Vimeo. Then, whenever you’re with a group of people and you’re watching videos (I know you think this is dumb but I bet you’ve been in this position many times), you can whip out your list of favourites and off-handedly say, “Hey, don’t suppose you saw this”, and BLOW THEIR MINDS with your excellent taste in cat videos.

A few suggested channels to help you learn new stuff

  • Crash Course: two concurrent topics (currently ecology and English literature) explained by brothers John and Hank Green. It’s fast-paced and engaging.
  • PBS Idea Channel: Mike Rugnetta examines ‘the connections between pop culture, technology and art’. Contains lots of Arrested Development references.
  • OU Learn: A plug for my department’s channel. Educational videos from The Open University.

Podcasts: Huffduffer and iTunes/Podcast.app

For a long time I was a huge podcast fan. I lived a 30 minute walk from work and often wanted something to listen to other than music on my journey. I subscribed to dozens of them in iTunes, which synced to my iPhone. After a couple of years I struggled to keep up with the many podcasts that sat there unlistened to. In the summer of 2012, I gave up. I deleted all my subscriptions in iTunes and simply stopped listening. I missed the good shows I was listening to, but not the self-imposed pressure of having to keep up.

I’ve reently started using Huffduffer instead, picking and choosing individual episodes to listen to. Sign up for an account and add the bookmarklet. Whenever you happen upon a link to a podcast episode that interests you, you can hit the bookmarklet.

You’ll be able to subscribe to this RSS feed in your podcatcher of choice (mine is the iOS Podcasts app). The obvious analogy is Instapaper for audio: you’ll have a list of things you want to listen to at a more appropriate time.

You can also follow people within Huffduffer by adding them to your ‘collective’. There aren’t a huge number of people that use Huffduffer, but once you start saving podcasts, you’ll see a list of people that saved similar things to you. Add them if they seem interesting. Your collective has its own RSS feed, so add this to GR. Then you’ll get probably-interesting podcast episodes in your GR list. For anything you want to listen to, open it in your web browser and hit the ‘Huffduff it’ bookmarklet.

These general principles will work for other audio services, like audioboo.

Suggested podcasts

  • Back To Work #95: I love Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s podcast, ostensibly about work and productivity and contraints and comics. This episode is the first in a series talking about David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. If you’d like to apply more workflows to your wider life like the ones discussed here, it’s worth reading.
  • Things I have Huffduffed

Albums you want to listen to: Spotify

This one is simple, but underused. If you subscribe to any music blogs in GR, chances are you’ll come across reviews of albums you want to listen to, but you don’t have 45+ minutes right there and then. Or, you might get a recommendation from a friend while you’re out and about. In each case, I simply search for it on Spotify and star it. If you use Rdio, add it to your queue.

Whenever I want to listen to something new, I have a list of 50 or so starred albums waiting for me.

Twitter

The obvious way to time-shift Twitter is to use the favourite button. If you come across an interesting tweet that you don’t have time to act on (i.e. send to any of the services above, or reply to, or whatever), you can hit the favorite button. Later, review your favorites, do whatever you need to do, and unfavorite it until there are none left. Easy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t do this. I use favorites as ‘likes’ for things I, well, like, or find funny. If I see a tweet and don’t have time to do anything with it, I’ll email it to myself.

Gmail

Which leads me on to email, and Gmail in particular. This is slightly different, in that you likely don’t treat email as ‘entertainment’ (unless you get several hundred emails a day, which I’d say is hilarious). In any case, the system of triaging GR works just as well in email, enabling you to separate the processes of reviewing your inbox and doing the work.

The setup I’ll describe is for using the web version of Gmail, but the theory can probably be applied to any email client. You likely already use a variant of it.

You can set up your view of Gmail into sections. If you hover over ‘Inbox’ in the left-hand list, you’ll see a button to reveal various inbox options. Choose ‘Priority Inbox’. This should give you the following sections, from top to bottom: Important and unread; All starred; Everything else. I can’t remember if it does this by default, so customise them if not.

All the email that Gmail thinks is important and that you haven’t opened goes at the top. The middle section is where the email to follow up will go. The bottom section is for email that is less important. You can teach Gmail what is important and what isn’t, but it has a pretty good stab at it anyway.

Triaging your email is no different to triaging GR and requires exactly two fingers. Start at the oldest unprocessed email and keep your right hand little finger on the ] key. If the email requires no action or follow up, press it. If it takes more than a couple of minutes to read or reply to, press s to star it and move on with ]. If you can act on it quickly, then do so. By the time you’ve gone from oldest to newest, you’ll be at inbox zero, a place few people get to. Celebrate with your beverage of choice.

You’re left with starred email (hopefully not too many) that each need some action—whether the action is ‘read’, ‘do’, ‘defer’, or ‘delegate’ or whatever. Everything else is safely archived for you to search for later should you require. You can then go through your email without the burden of not knowing what else is hiding in your inbox, and without a too-high number of unread items looming at you.

Tip: If you’re into labelling your email, you can easily do that with just a couple of keystrokes as you go. In Gmail, press the ? key for a list of shortcuts.

Over to you

There you go. A 2,300 word article that you probably should have Instapapered in the first place. But also, a list of pretty easy methods that will enable you to:

  • Expose yourself to a greater number of interesting things;
  • Quickly triage and mark what is (or just looks like it could be) important/interesting;
  • Do something with it at a more appropriate time.

Any similar ideas I’ve missed? Let me know on Twitter.