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Productivity boosters

Open Your Often-Used Applications at Login Most OS X users I know follow the same pattern. In the morning, they login and then spend a few minutes launching their most-used programs. This requires lots of Dock clicking, or scrolling about in the applications folder, neither of which is a productive use of anyone’s time.

Instead of working the mouse so quickly after login, let OS X do the work for you. In the Accounts System Preferences panel, you can create a set of Login Items that run when you log in. Click on your account in the list of accounts, then click the Login Items tab. There will probably be several things already listed, even if you’ve never visited this tab before. That’s because many programs add their background tasks to this screen, so that they’ll run when you login.

To add your own programs to the collection, click the plus sign below the list of programs. When the file browser opens, click on the program you’d like to run at login and click Add. (You can add more than one at a time—just hold Command while clicking to mark multiple programs.)

You can also open documents—say you have a budget spreadsheet that you work with every day. Add it to your list of login items, and Excel will launch and open the worksheet for you.

All of this will add some time to the login process, but in the end, it’s faster than doing it yourself. Since you won’t be madly reaching for the mouse and keyboard right away, you can use that time for productive tasks, such as finishing your Double Grand Half-Lite Superccino Latte with Extra Foam.

Open Often-Visited Web Sites on Login In addition to paying attention to your “real” work, of course, you also have an entire World Wide Web to monitor. Safari will let you create a collection of sites in a folder and then, by enabling the Auto-Click feature (in the Bookmarks -> Show All Bookmarks screen) for that folder, you can open them all in tabs with one click.

To gain yet another few minutes for your Superccino, however, you can automate this process as well. Safari’s AppleScript support isn’t perfect, but it’s enough for this job. Open Script Editor, in Applications -> AppleScript, and type in this code.

	tell application "Safari"

activate
tell application "System Events"
tell process "Safari"
click menu item "New Window" of menu "File" of menu bar 1
end tell
end tell
set the URL of document 1 to "http://www.apple.com"
my new_tab()
set the URL of document 1 to "http://www.macworld.com"
end tell

on new_tab()
tell application "Safari" to activate
tell application "System Events"
tell process "Safari"
click menu item "New Tab" of menu "File" of menu bar 1
end tell
end tell
end new_tab

The part of this code that opens your sites are these two lines:

	my new_tab()

set the URL of document 1 to "http://www.macworld.com"

Repeat these two lines as necessary for as many pages as you’d like to open—and remember to edit the URLs that appear in the code above.

Select File -> Save As, name your script (something like “Open My Sites”), set the File Format pop-up to application, and save it somewhere where you won’t accidentally erase it.

Now return to Login Items, click the plus sign, and navigate to your saved script. The next time you login, Safari will launch and open the sites you’ve listed in the AppleScript.

Save Time with Automator Automator is one of the hidden gems in OS X 10.4. You may have been scared away from it because you’re “not a programmer” or you don’t know AppleScript. The truth is that you can do a lot with Automator without knowing anything more than drag and drop. Here’s a simple example to get you started.

Say part of your job involves scaling images to be e-mailed. You have to do this with tons of images every day, so putting them all in iPhoto, e-mailing them, and then taking them out again would be a big hassle.

Instead of opening your image editor, launch Automator. When the program’s window appears, click on Finder in the Library column, then drag the Get Selected Finder Items action to the blank work area on the right. Click on Preview in the Library column, and drag Scale Images to the work area below the Finder command that now sits there. In the Scale Images box, pick either To Size (pixels) or By Percentage from the pop-up menu, and enter an appropriate value in the box next to the pop-up. (Automator will offer to add an action that will duplicate your files first, in case you don’t want the originals overwritten. Feel free to let it add that step if you wish.) Congratulations—you’ve just written your first Automator workflow!

This simple two-step workflow will automatically scale the selected images to 640-by-480 resolution. Save it as a Finder plug-in, and it’s available with a Control-Click on any image or images in the Finder.

To make your workflow useful, select File -> Save As Plug-In, give your plug-in a name (“Scale to 640,” for instance), and make sure the Plug-in For pop-up is set to Finder, then click Save. Switch back to the Finder, and select one or more graphics files—if you didn’t tell Automator to make a copy, keep in mind that whatever images you select will be permanently scaled.

With your files selected, control-click on them, then move to the Automator entry in the pop-up menu. Hover your mouse there for a second, and a sub-menu will slide out containing your Scale to 640 workflow. Select it, and your chosen images will scale. It’s that simple.

Experiment with the other built-in features of Automator; it really is a good tool to ease repetitive tasks. If you like what you’ve seen, visit automator.us and check out the Examples and Free tabs at the site for more great ideas.

Automatically Process Files in Folders Folder Actions are another great timesaver in OS X that you may not have used before. Basically, with Folder Actions, you can attach AppleScripts and Automator Workflows to folders. The attached Folder Action will run whenever a new file is added to the watched folder, letting you get work done without lifting a finger.

(If you’ve never used Folder Actions before, launch Folder Actions Setup, in /Applications -> AppleScript, and check Enable Folder Actions.)

Consider the Scale to 640 workflow from the prior example. To make your job easier to manage, as you receive images to scale, you drop them into a “Scale These” folder on your desktop. Using the workflow you wrote in the prior example, you can now completely automate this process.

In the Finder, navigate to your user’s Library -> Workflows -> Applications -> Finder folder, and double-click on the Scale to 640 item to open it in Automator. Delete the first entry in the workflow, leaving just the scale images command. Now select File -> Save as Plug-In again. This time, set the Plug-in For pop-up to Folder Actions. When you do that, a new Attached to Folder drop-down appears; set it to point to your Scale These folder on the desktop, then click Save.

Back in the Finder, test your new Folder Action by dropping an image file into the Scale These folder. When you do, you’ll see your workflow run (the status shows in the menu bar), and the image will automatically be scaled.

Take File Sorting to the Next Level If you download or receive lots of different files, you probably spend a fair bit of time organizing them. Movie files go here, pictures here, client project artwork here, applications to test over here, and so forth.

Using Folder Actions, as explained above, is one way to help automate this task. But it’s also somewhat complicated to set up, and you’ll need to know something of Automator and AppleScript to get the most out of Folder Actions. So here’s an alternative solution.

Using Hazel and some simple rules, you can automatically process files as they’re added to folders. This rule, for instance, will send any movies directly to your Movies folder.

Download and install the $16 Hazel, a System Preferences panel that makes it quite simple to use Folder Actions. (Hazel is also available for a free 14-day trial.) Instead of relying on AppleScript and Automator knowledge, you set up rules, much as you would in Mail, and then apply those rules to folders. Rules can do nearly anything, including setting labels, adding keywords, archiving files, and more—all based on files matching conditions such as “kind is movie” or “date last modified isn’t in the last seven days.” You can even use Hazel to automate the emptying of your trash—your Mac’s trash at least. You’re on your own for the kitchen trash.

Open Things More Quickly To be as productive as possible, take advantage of the three main spots OS X lets you store applications, documents, and folders for quick access: the Dock, the Sidebar, and the Toolbar. You’re probably familiar with storing things in the Dock—drag applications onto the area to the left of the vertical bar, and drag documents and folders to the area to the right of the vertical bar. The Sidebar is the area to the left of a Finder window, and you can store anything you like below the horizontal dividing line. Finally, the Toolbar is the area above a Finder window, and not everyone is aware that you can store things here, too. Just drag the item to be stored, hover for a second until your cursor shows a green plus sign, then drop.

Using these three areas, you can keep nearly everything within one-click access. As an example, keep your often-accessed folders in the Dock, where you can use the pop-up nature of the Dock to navigate into them as deeply as you wish. Keep documents that you access regularly in the Sidebar (where you can see both their name and icon), and keep often-used programs in the Toolbar. (Note that you can customize the Toolbar by control-clicking on it and choosing Customize Toolbar from the pop-up menu. Down near the bottom of the sheet that opens, you can change how the toolbar looks—check the box to use small icons, or show icon and text instead of just the icon, for example.)

Open things even more quickly If the above methods don’t seem efficient enough for you, then try a launcher. These programs are optimized to find and open programs and documents as quickly as possible. The “big three” launchers are Butler, LaunchBar, and Quicksilver, though there are others.

After installing a launcher application, you can open documents and programs by typing a keyboard combination (Control-Space) and typing a few letters. The launcher application compares your typing to a database of programs and documents, and displays matches on the fly. Unlike Spotlight searching an entire hard drive, however, launchers do this very quickly.

With a launcher installed, opening even the most deeply-nested program or file requires only a few keystrokes. All three of the launchers listed above can be downloaded for free, so why not try one out? Not using the mouse for every simple task can be quite liberating.

Create Custom Printer Setups If you have multiple printers, or even one printer that you use for different tasks, you can save a lot of time by creating custom printer setups for often-used modes. Consider an inkjet that prints both text documents and high quality photos on glossy paper. Setting up for either type of work takes some customization in the Print dialog—paper type, fine quality or draft quality, and so on.

Save time when printing by creating a number of presets for different types of print jobs and different printers. If you include the printer type in the preset’s name, it’s easier to find the exact one you want for a given job.

Instead of doing that every time you need to print, just do it once. Bring up the Print dialog, and you’ll see a Presets pop-up near the top of the window. You create presets by first defining your print settings, so visit the various setup screens—Copies & Pages, Layout, Quality & Media, etc.—to get things set just as you like. Once you’ve done that, click the Presets pop-up, select Save As from the menu, and give your preset a name. Create as many different setups as you need, for as many printers as you have. You might want to include the printer name or description in the preset’s name, just to make it simpler to identify with a glance.

The next time you need to print, just click the Presets pop-up and pick the one that matches the job you’re printing—and don’t forget to change the paper in the printer, if necessary.

[ Senior editor Rob Griffiths writes the Mac OS X Hints weblog. ]

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