On Computing

Understanding How to Use Shortcuts

Joel Howell

Article by Joel Howell Newsletter Editorial Board


Do you find yourself spending a lot of time on your iPhone or iPad running one task after another across a variety of apps? Think how much time you would save if you could automate those tasks, or even combine them into a single action. You can do all that and more with Apple’s Shortcuts app.

Offering a host of predefined actions, the Shortcuts app lets you create customized sequences or access a large gallery of existing shortcuts. After you set up a shortcut, tap it, and it will perform all the assigned tasks.

A shortcut can run on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 12 or higher, but you will need to be running iOS 13 and up on iPhone or iPadOS 13.1 and up on iPad to tap into all the app’s functionality. This includes integration with the Notes app in iOS 12.2 and, most recently, a new automation feature that lets you select actions to add to your shortcuts in a more user-friendly, step-by-step manner.

You can run a shortcut a number of ways. Opening the Shortcuts app and tapping a shortcut from the main screen is the most basic option. You can also add a Shortcuts widget to your home screen to trigger the sequence more quickly or integrate the app into Siri’s repertoire. Open the Shortcuts app and tap the Get Started button to kick things off.

Evernote is a note-taking app with a variety of uses. You can keep important ideas in it, anything from a list of recommended books to your personal catalog of recipes. With Evernote, you can capture notes by writing, recording audio, taking photos, uploading PDFs, sketching digitally, and more. One of Evernote’s selling features is that when you search for a word or phrase, the app looks not only in your text but also for pictures of the words in images. That means, if you snap a picture of a For Sale sign and later search for “sale,” Evernote will find it. Paying account holders can search PDFs and other uploaded documents from instances of words as well. Although we have listed Evernote as a “personal productivity” app rather than one for collaboration, you certainly can use it with a group to share notes and collectively create and edit them.

Microsoft OneNote is a note-taking app that can synchronize with other Microsoft products. While it is like Evernote in its core concept, OneNote has a different layout. Each page for notes is more like a pasteboard than a word processing document. You can insert text, images, and other assets onto the page and move them around at will. If you use Microsoft OneDrive for storage or Outlook for email and calendaring, then OneNote is a natural choice because it has tight ties to both those programs. OneNote has a number of math features. It also has some interesting features if you use it to record audio while also taking notes. When you play back the lecture, your notes reappear as if coordinated with the audio.

RescueTime does for your productivity what calorie-counting does for weight loss: It brings attention and insight to your actual habits. You cannot change your habits unless you know what they are. RescueTime is a time-tracking tool that records the apps you use, websites you visit, and the breaks you take while working. That way, you can see exactly how you spent your time. RescueTime also classifies each app and website you use into five productivity ratings, which you can change: 1) very productive, 2) productive, 3) neutral, 4) distracting, and 5) very distracting. It also categorizes them by type, such as communication and scheduling, social networking, entertainment, design, and composition, and so forth. RescueTime can also block distracting sites when you need to focus, and help you set goals for what you want to accomplish.

SaneBox can be a good service for improving your email filings. For a few dollars a month (the site says “only 23¢ a day”!), SaneBox goes into your email on the backend and puts messages that are not important into different folders that are not your inbox. How does it perform this magic? It figures out the difference between a “cold call” email and one from an acquaintance or business associate by looking at whether they are in your address book and other details. You also teach SaneBox by giving it feedback. Over time, it can be smart when it comes to deciding who and what is important to you. That way, you do less inbox triaging, which means you can focus on more important work.

Todoist is one of the most advanced to-do apps you will find. The free version of the app will get you hooked on its native language input, priority ratings, ability to assign tasks to other people (“It’s your turn to take out the trash, oh housemate of mine”), and other core features. With a free account, you can collaborate with up to five people per project, and you can manage up to eighty projects. Upgrade to a paid plan, starting from $36 per year, to get reminders, labels, filters, and the ability to add comments to tasks. Todoist has a Business-grade tier of service, too, in case you love it so much you want to share it at work, too.

Questions or comments? Drop me an email: jwh3@mindspring.com