Doing Less by Doing More with Mac Automator

Many times, you might need to perform a repetitive, trivial task on your computer that's tedious and time-consuming. Fortunately, with the Automator app your Mac can do some of these tasks for you. With Automator, you program your Mac to perform specific tasks that you don't want to do yourself.

Automator lets you choose from a library of predefined tasks — actions — which tell specific apps and utilities on your Mac what to do. By stringing these actions together, you can create simple workflows that act like apps: for example, retrieve a web page and read the text aloud, or rename groups of files automatically.

Actions typically work with one of four types of objects:

  • Files and folders

  • Music (audio) files

  • Digital photographs

  • Text

To work on different objects, such as text or digital photographs, each type of action automates a specific program on your Mac, such as the Finder, iTunes, iPhoto, Safari, Calendar, or TextEdit. Most actions need to accept input, and every workflow needs to end with an action that does something to data.

For example, if you create an action that retrieves a web page from the Internet, its input would be a specific website address, such as www.nytimes.com. You can also make an action more flexible by having it ask you for input or retrieve input from another action.

After an action receives input, it does something with that input, such as renaming files a certain way. Many actions also create some form of output, which can be used as another action's input.

For example, you can combine two simple actions. The first action (say, Get Specified Text) retrieves a chunk of text. Then the second action (Speak Text) uses a computer-synthesized voice to read the text. You have to link actions that use compatible input and output, so an action that produces text as output can't link to an action that uses MP3 files as input.

A workflow is saved as a document. After you create a few simple workflows, you can move on to more complicated tasks. Follow these steps to create a workflow using the predefined Automator actions:

  1. Double-click the Automator icon in the Applications folder.

    Or you can click the Launchpad icon on the Dock, double-click the Other folder, and then double-click the Automator icon. (If Automator is already running, choose File→New.)

    A dialog appears where you can choose the type of data you want to manipulate, such as an application or a calendar alarm.

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  2. Click a template icon, such as Workflow, and then click the Choose button to open the Automator program window.

  3. Click a library category in the Actions Library (left pane) of the Automator window, which contains the action you want to do.

    If you need an action that works with text, click the Text library. If you need an action that involves the Internet, click the Internet library. A list of actions, stored in your chosen library, appears in the right column of the left pane of the Automator window.

  4. Drag and drop an action from the right column of the Actions library to the workflow area (right pane) of the Automator window.

    Or double-click the action to add it to the workflow.

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  5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 until you have a series of actions.

    If you want to move an action, click and drag it to a new position.

    To delete an action, click the "x" in the upper-right corner of the action.

  6. Click the Run button or choose Workflow→Run to test your workflow.

    Click the Step button or choose Workflow→Step to do one action at a time and see where any problems show up. Repeat to go to the next step.

    A white check mark in a green circle next to Results lets you know the step works.

  7. (Optional) Automator displays an error message when an action can't run. Do one of the following:

    • Delete the faulty action and replace it with another one.

    • Add another action that outputs the proper data that the other action can accept as input.

  8. Choose File→Save to open the Save As dialog.

  9. Type a descriptive name for your file, click the Where pop-up menu to choose a location to save it, and then click the Save button.

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