In Jeff Brownscheidle’s life as a thru-hiker and writer, automation plays an unexpected role. With Ulysses and the Shortcuts app, he’s tightened his technical routine on the trail to save time for the actual writing as well as battery life. You can exclusively download Jeff’s shortcut here, too.
Automation is having, shall we say, a moment. Spreading its tendrils through our lives everywhere from our homes to our cars and to the supercomputers disguised as smartphones stashed in our pockets, its promises are many. More efficiency, less time wasted on the perfunctory tasks of daily routines, and more focus on the things that really matter.
Perhaps chief among the places you might expect to remain outside the reach of automation is the one I now call home for half the year: wilderness. Six months ago, I left behind the career I’d always known to turn the page on a new chapter of adventure, converting pastimes of long-distance hiking and writing into a full-time endeavor. In those first months—measured equally by nervousness and excitement—my wife and I finished the unfinished, plumbed the depths of what makes a trail, walked through a living history book, and revisited the scene where my long simmering love affair for trails began.
As an engineer, automation was a way of life, a tool to accelerate progress toward technological advancement. As a hiker, defending a detachment from technology that was synonymous with wilderness had always been central to the experience, a line drawn between two sides of my persona. But as a desire to connect my experiences on trail to an audience around the world grew, I found myself brokering a tenuous accord between these strangest of bedfellows.
The paradox of long-distance hiking as a day “job” is the illusion of infinite time that accompanies it. Prying apart sunrise and sunset, alongside stunning scenery and sometimes brutal weather, tasks like water filtration, photography, and image post-processing compete for time with 10 to 12 hours of hiking. And at the end of it all is a bed beneath the stars where I pick up Ulysses to at last begin the ritual of writing.
Accomplishing all of that each day requires a little bit of help, especially when you’re writer, editor, publisher, and webmaster of your own website. Want another twist? Everything I do on trail needs to be both sensitive to battery life and capable of running without an internet connection. Enter: Ulysses and Shortcuts.
Despite the initial unease of bringing automation to the wilderness, it wasn’t long before I realized the potential that even basic shortcuts had to reduce the distance between thoughts in my mind and words on the page. Limited by time both on trail and in the periodic resupply stops along the way—not to mention the challenge of having only an iPhone at my disposal—much of the writing experience is turned upside down. Tasks like image and SEO optimization, normally deferred until publication time so that the focus can land solely on the writing now must be done up front.
Beginning with Ulysses version 24.2, those tasks became a whole lot easier to accomplish before the proverbial pen (read: thumbs) ever hits the proverbial page (read: screen). With the introduction of several new shortcut actions, Ulysses’ already excellent support for automation in the Shortcuts app has gone to a new level.
Detailed metadata about Ulysses sheets, previously available only via x-callback schemes, is now more readily accessible thanks to the Get Callback Identifier and Resolve Sheet Identifier actions, allowing users to bridge the gap between basic actions such as Get Sheet and more complex x-callback-URL actions. Always wished you could send images directly to a Ulysses sheet via Shortcuts? Now you can with the Add Image to Sheet action, complete with fields to specify the image caption, title, width, and export-as fields.
The result? Better backend organization and SEO for you and a better experience for your audience. With the introduction of the new shortcut actions powered by Ulysses, I took the opportunity not only to update my own pre-writing shortcut but also to rewrite it from scratch so that any user can take advantage of it, regardless of their specific workflow or level of comfort with Shortcuts. Simply download the shortcut, answer two import questions, and prompts will guide you the rest of the way. Already comfortable with Shortcuts? Roll up your sleeves and have some fun tailoring it to your own needs.
Not an iPhone or iPad user? With the arrival of MacOS Monterey—and despite a very bumpy start—the Shortcuts app has now officially come to the Mac. As Apple declares the Shortcuts app to be “the future of Mac automation,” Mac users can now not only develop their own shortcuts but run those—like the one above—originally written on iOS or iPadOS.
The engineer in me joins the writer on every adventure down each new trail, and it’s that side that can’t help but wonder at what lies in store for the future of Ulysses and Shortcuts. Perhaps the ability to sort sheets within a group; or to access all metadata in the Ulysses library via native shortcut actions without the need for x-callback-URLs at all; or to edit/delete sheets; or even to batch publish sheets in the background.
I’d welcome them all, because each new feature brings an opportunity that all writers can appreciate, one that Ulysses already excels at: the opportunity to clear the clutter that stands between thinking about writing and actually doing it.