Robot Hands Typing on Keyboard

If you haven’t heard of macros, you’re misusing this computer — you’re doing far more work than you have to for no reason at all. Sort of like putting your friends on the roof of your car and pushing them places. The fact is: if you do anything more than twice, the computer should be doing it for you. That’s what computers are for! You don’t need to know how to script your XML-interrupts to do it — “macros” are simple commands where you can show the computer what to do and it’ll remember. Like training a temp before going on holiday, only he won’t mess up your desk and there’s no risk of him replacing you.

While everyone needs documents, or spreadsheets, or whatever, your specific daily tasks are unique. Making macros to perform those is the ultimate embodiment of the Smartlife idea, of investing some setup time to make your life easier for ever after. Not quite happily ever after, because you still have to work, but “easier ever after” is pretty good when you’re still getting paid. Most people avoid macros because of the “time discounting” effect; they only see the present cost (of sitting down and working something out) and devalue the future benefits (of never having to repeat yourself ever again.) If you don’t see why that’s a bad deal, you just don’t know how long “ever” is –- or to put it another way, wouldn’t it be nice to complete entire tasks with a press of a button? That’s what macros are for.

There are three beginner levels of macro-making:

1. Program-specific Macros

Some software is entirely based on repetitive tasks, and the only reason it doesn’t do it all automatically is we’re still a generation from Terminators taking our jobs. But most major programs let you record macros, usually under the “Tools” menu, and most important of all: it’s included in Excel (a.k.a. “The King of the repetitive task.”)

Excel Macro

Excel Macro

This is perfect for beginners, as programming an Excel macro requires no “programming” at all. Instead, you start it recording, do what you want done, then hit “stop” and assign a shortcut key. There are a few pointers for first-time macro-makers:

Use the keyboard instead of mouseclicks. A computer-controlled cursor can be upset by window placement, but arrow keys and ctrl+ key shortcuts do the same thing every time.

Test every macro several times on a fake worksheet! We know this sounds slow, but a macro is a computer-controlled bulldozer — used right it’ll save you years of work, used wrong it’ll destroy anything in its path.

A minor error (or change) in the macro doesn’t mean you have to scrap it. You can step into the macro in the Tools/Macros/Edit option, and the steps are laid out in code.

You can save macros just for one workbook (so you don’t have to remember twenty different key commands), or more useful ones in Excel itself.

Remember to disable macros in spreadsheets you send to others! A macro-enabled file will set off all kinds of virus warnings with the recipient.

2. Platform-specific: Apple Automator

Apple Automator

Apple Automator

If there’s one thing Apple knows, it’s advertising. If there are two things, it’s advertising and integration, and Apple does an excellent job (if only because that makes the advertising easier). The Apple Automator tool is everything the company promises — a super-slick interface that can automate any number of tasks involving multiple applications.

Automate Tasks Across Apps

Automate Tasks Across Apps

The only thing wrong with Apple Automator is that you can’t use it on all computers and, in fairness, you could tell that from the name. The intuitive graphical interface guides you every step of the way: there are automatic explanations and hints for every action, and then there’s the Apple Automator Forums. Let us just say: you can’t pay for tech support that good. The Apple Forums have long been an example of what the Internet could be if it was used right. As long as you obey the simplest rules etiquette and don’t treat others like employees, you’ll find a near infinite source of assistance. Because anything you want to do, someone else has already done.  And if you ask nicely they’ll show you how.

3. Independent Macro Programs

If you need to work with several PC programs at once, or your company is based around a “legacy” system that doesn’t have macros and still thinks four-color display is newfangled trickery, you need a third-party macro program. One of the most popular at the moment is Workspace Macro: an all-in-one macro recorder which can copy your mouse input, keyboard commands, and program-specific instructions (which you should use whenever possible to avoid computerized confusion). It’s the most powerful option, as it will work in most situations, but also the most challenging in terms of the time discounting effect –- because you’ll really have to sit down and learn it.  Luckily it comes equipped with full help files and example macros.

Workspace Macro

Workspace Macro

Unfortunately it does hold some of the better features (like hotkeys!) hostage for the Pro version, and as we all know, “Pro” means “give us money.” The free demo will let you work out if it’s worth your investment* and the online tutorial video should give you a good idea of what the program can do.

Macro Editor

Macro Editor

*Let us tell you now: macros are ALWAYS worth your investment, in terms of time and money. The real question is: “Am I the sort of person who makes things easier for myself, or the sort who keeps clicking on Facebook until the deadline is hovering over my head?”

Image credit: Inok / iStockphoto

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