Siri Shortcuts 2: What *am* I doing with my time? by Will Ringland

This is the second part in a multi part series. Part 1 exists here: Siri Shortcuts 1: Outsourcing Self-Control

I’ve been on the digital health train for years and am really happy that the screen makers are trying to help us understand our habits. With information comes power... assuming you’re paying attention. Screen time is really useful and I think it will help quite a bit for my self-obsessive, hyper-controlling, Quantified Self utopia 1 where I understand All The Things and Never Do The Bad Things2. But, macroscopically, it doesn’t think they way I do.

Tracking my categories.

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The categories I care about are broader than what Apple uses with Screen Time,. In that, app categories are dictated by the categories developers assign on upload. So, yes, IG is a social networking3 app but I care less about that specific segment of apps and more about what the apps do to my mind.

what these apps amount to, for me, is a distraction. They waste my time. I always feel better doing things like reading books or writing when compared to falling into the endless scroll of a social media app. but these are not the only things that waste my time. TV services, games, sub sections of the podcasts4, even, can constitute a distraction in my life that can otherwise be better spent.

Sir Shortcuts allows me to trap more applications and track broader information about them, information I care about, more than Screen Time.

My phone screen looks like this.

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We’ll talk about each of the Shortcuts in that first line.

Distraction

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1: distraction

Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/28369413176f435ea3789b74d421c189]

I’ve talked through this one in detail before but I’ve added to it since last time. I downloaded Tally5 and every app launch will trigger a counter update I have for each application as well as track the usage of the workflow in a particular way. If I launch the app and choose the distraction option, I’ll increment a counter for that.

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And since we shouldn’t exclusively slap wrists, I track the times I launch but don’t do the bad thing.

2: Spending

Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/9926fdb777ef48b591872e7c5fea2265]

This workflow adds just a little bit of friction to me buying something. Amazon’s One Click has done wonders for my Kindle library but, my internet friends, I have not read most of my Kindle library. See everything above re: Distraction. But man, I am good I giving Amazon money.

So, when I launch the Shortcut, it asks if I actually need the thing. If so, ok you can’t keep going. But otherwise, let’s just chuck that into OmniFocus and the “someday/maybe” tracking list I already have.

I am less concerned about the specific launches and branches I take here. Any spending gets tracked elsewhere - like Mint - and is processed as part of different lifey tasks I follow6. I’m not awful with spending but I’m much less likely to buy unnecessary stuff if I just ask my self if I actually need the thing.

Similarly, I am both great and terrible at reviewing my Someday/Maybe list. So maybe the item will disappear for a few weeks and I won’t care by the time I get back to it...

3: Safari

Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/3133e787b4d444ff9ea05f232e255fb5] Ever have trouble with the rabbit hole? Like hours lost in Wikipedia? Yeah..... This Shortcut is intended to control that.

This one is complicated. First: It asks for a search term. If that term has a “.” in it, I’m probably just looking for a page directly so I will open it in Safari directly.

Otherwise, ask if I’m searching a definition or google. I write a lot and want quicker access to dictionary tools so I will launch the dictionary if I want that definition.

Otherwise otherwise, I will launch a google search. I increment another tally because... data. Then change the spaces in the term to pluses and launch the search URL directly with the term embedded in it.

I’m re-thinking the word piece as I’ve had very few lookups and, if I’m writing, I can select the word > long press> and lookup directly on iOS. So, this one may be over engineered

4: Finance

Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/73d2ceb037f84d43be8891a3e3840200] OK.... I’m gonna tell you something a little embarrassing. This one mostly exists to have a full row of red icons. I wanted the strong color blocking more than I have a “problem with finances.”

I mean, sort of. I have some long term investments and, occasionally, track them obsessively. When the market crashed a few years ago, I compulsively checked my 401k and fretted over all the Doom and Gloom obviously befalling me. So locking that down in some way is useful for very specific cases. Because, really, I’m 36... investments recover.

Or America will devolving into Mad Max-style dystopia anyway and that’s why I should spend less time on my phone and more time practicing knife throwing7

So this one is pretty much a glorified app launcher excluding some special handling for Chase and Edward Jones whose apps are fucking terrible.

Tidbits

Tally

Any Shortcut that uses Tally has kind of an annoying need to jump back to Shortcuts to finish the action. The app is stand alone and doesn’t seem to have a built-in x-url response action to auto-jump a user back to the Shortcut in process. There’s probably a way to accomplish that with scripting in Shortcuts but I’ve not yet investigated.

You need to pre-create your Tally lists otherwise it will error. Though I seem to be getting errors still. Not sure what's up with that...

Also, to get multiple tally lists, you have to pay for the app. And you should. Give money to developers so they keep developing.

I also have a weekly action to pull all the counts for the week and reset all the counters. I have a recurring task as part of my weekly Sunday review process to launch the Shortcut. The shortcut grabs all the counts, resets the counters, and creates a shell DayOne journal entry which also starts my weekly journaling workflow

Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/ce6a143e236041b7beb061efc55590d2]

Templates

Here is my general Tally/Launcher template workflow Shortcut share link: [https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/ef3b68581983409195050a75985d9847]

Not very fancy but it can get you started.

Denouement

So... I obviously do a lot with iOS. I use an iPad as my primary device, often remotely connecting to my Windows workstation even to work out of my office during the week. I started all the Shortcut designing for my Phone which just really amounts to a distraction in my life. If I could get rid of the phone, I probably would.

Which also means that getting all of this working on my iPad has completely different set of circumstances I’m trying yet to understand. Here’s my iPad screen so far.

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It’s a mess.

The primary problem is multitasking. I use slideover windows constantly and can use Shortcuts to launch apps in that mode usefully. Right now, Shortcuts will run in the slideover window iff you had Shortcuts recently open there. And then it will still take over the main window, disabled, until you tap “done” in the Shortcut window.

I hope I’ll be able to have more control over that eventually but until that point, I’m probably going to need to put a bunch of straight applications back in the dock.

Later: my utility and audio shortcuts. And my art and productivity shortcuts. Also a bonus shortcut I call “sweet nothings” to send nice little messages to my wife. Generally about her butt.

  1. We are at war with Facebook. We have always been at war with Facebook.

  2. Like I said before, bad is relative. Social media, games, and all that serve useful purposes. We’re more talking about Bad Things as destructive behavior - using these apps to the obviating of other tasks.

  3. And so is.. Find my Friends.. ?

  4. Some. Some are engaging more than distracting. Cortex, for example, I shouldn’t listen to at work otherwise I’ll be horribly unproductive for paying such close attention.

  5. It is literally exactly what you think. It talkies things. But it integrates well with Siri Shortcuts so it takes way less effort to capture app launches.

  6. Are you watching your spending? You should be. He says to himself....

  7. For real. My [instagram][1] with way too many photos of knives in stumps. Also: cats!

  8. [1]: http://instagram.com/angrybunnyman

Siri Shortcuts 1: Outsourcing Self Control by Will Ringland

Technology is amazing. I can spend hours reading news about panda bears and kittens and sloths and dissolve into an endless stream of continuous scrolling. Great! Yes?

I mean, maybe. Like it’s not inherently bad but we are certainly encouraged to do less than good things with our time. And I have not been, historically, the best at keeping myself away from the less good things.

I don’t want to bury the lead so understand that this whole post is all about outsourcing my self-control. it is the next logical step in my evolution towards easy productivity, one influenced by my desire to remove as many decisions from my life as possible.

This method of self-management started many years ago when I decided I choosing clothes to wear every day was more taxing than I really wanted to deal with. And Steve Jobs entere(img)d my life with his sartorial minimalism and the the iPhone in 2007, both of which were revelatory for me.

Fewer decisions means more willpower available at any given time. More willpower means more focus. More focus means more useful work1

So, logically, it totally looks like this: ‘Fewer decisions> willpower> focus> iPhone’

Totally flows. Yes? Yes.

Shortcuts

IOS 12 introduced Siri Shortcuts2,an automation tool that Apple and developers can hook into their applications to allow function-level workflow linking on iOS. Where macOS has Automator (and other scripting languages), that’s what Shortcuts is to iOS. At a single tap, I can run myriad things all linked together by Shortcuts.

And with that, I have completely re-engineered how my phone works.

Before iOS 12

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Folks that have been following me for a while recognize the above. Every few months, I would rework my app structure to better organize things I wanted to access and those I didn’t want so much. The above is roughly where my phone has been for about the last year.

The majority of easy-to-access, stuff-I-wanted-to-use3was super close to my right thumb and very few things had badges.

At work, I have similar structures in place where distractions- Facebook, Instagram, Feedly, and similar - are locked down behind a few layers of protection4. I also run Manic Time, a time tracker that watches the active window and allows me to categorize each of those active apps. The idea here is that I can see where I’m spending my time and adjust if it is dissatisfactory. It’s beyond “am I spending too much time on FB (I hate FB)” and more “how much time am I spending reading and writing email”.

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Yellow = administrative. Grey/Black = QA. Red = management The “usage” line second from time is active/inactive computer time (red means meetings here, pretty much).

IOS 12 has allowed me to build a structure similar to Manic Time in that I can lock down or track my app usage even beyond additional features in iOS 125.

So this is what I did this weekend.

Now my phone looks like this.

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Each row and color is meaningful and feeds into my own time tracking and self managing process. Generally, the stuff closet to my right thumb is stuff I want to do more and have quicker access to. Each row of icons falls into this descending pattern.

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I spend most of my time in OmniFocus so that is the bottom right. Messages is a necessity of life6 As is email7. The hardest to reach icons are the things I don’t want or need to do less. Making them harder to hit makes it easier to avoid. It’s just adding a little extra friction. Each color equates to, like my Manic Time reports, categories of activity I wish to understand.

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Red = distraction. Things like Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, or Safari that I don’t want to use as much.

Blue= audio. These are quick ways to run certain playlists whichI use to help focus on certain tasks. These are more “utility” but wanted them to be visually distinct.

Grey = utility. Weather, Settings, Home automation, and Calendar stuff. Tings I use daily for specific tasks.

Purple = productivity. Things I want to do more of or feeds hobbies, work, or other goal-oriented activities. Reading, thinking, writing, and a special “focus mode” button I’ll write about later.

But why so plain?

A majority of what I have here was possible through other applications like Workflow or LauncherCenter Pro using x-url schemes. But x-url schemes just don’t make enough sense to me for that to have been effective. IN the 3 years I’ve been using Workflow, I only made 3 workflows that used x-url schemes to do anything more than cursory “launch this specific thing in an integrated app”.

Also, I couldn’t enter an ASCII space character for the title!NOW I CAN! Suck it, app names!

What the shit does all this mean?

My machinations are legion here so I’m not going to go through all of them right now. I’m going to write more about what each, specific icon does so you can get an idea of what I’m doing. So this is going to be the short version.

(Some) Things I want to write about in the near future:

  1. Why the categories and colors
  2. The template I use to store time tracking data and wrap all the Shortcut applets
  3. How I limit access in a less aggressive manner than Screen Time does

Reducing distraction

My relationship with my devices is complicated. My phone is a necessity to stay connected to the world. If I could chuck it, I would, but I love my friends and my wife. So, I keep it around. Otherwise, i’s hard to do much productive stuff on it. I don’t really care for even simpler thing,m like reading, because of the form factor. I find myself spending hours on the infinite scrolling of Twitter and Tumblr if I don’t protect against it.

And, as noted before, willpower - the thing you need to resist the allure of never ending, gluttonous rage-fest that is Twitter10 or Facebook. Even pared back as much as I have them, I still get served up useless but engaging anger-fodder by all those fancy algorithms.

Outsourcing control of those things means I have to think about it less. So lets look more closely at what I’m doing for that, in particular.

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From left to right:

  • Distraction shortcut
  • Spending shortcut
  • Safari/lookup shortcut
  • Money shortcut11

Containing a wandering brain

The Shortcut that lives behind the Distraction icon does the following:

  1. Ask me if I really want to be distracted
  2. If yes, how would I like it?
  3. Sets a timer to inter up me 5 minutes later

Here’s what happens if I say yes:

So I go to the app, but you can see on the last screen that a timer is running. So I can get my distraction fix and know that something will break the possibility of a trance caused by all that dopamine.

Here’s what happens if I choose to read

I offer myself a chance to do something more useful. I still set the timer because, as a distraction, I still don’t want necessarily lose a bunch of time to it. Especially if I’m in the office.

Here’s what happens if I say no:

It’s cheesy, but IU found that pleasing fireworks GIF specifically for this. I may add more later but think if it as a little reinforcement to doing the “right” thing.

What does it look like?

The Shortcut looks like this and interested folks can download it [from here directly][2].

This is why I say it’s similar to LaunchCenter Pro which can do similar. But it couldn’t branch as well nor integrate with the system as seamlessly. For example, if the target application didn’t have a registered URL scheme with Apple, you couldn’t launch that app. Apple can expose core Springboard launching functions and skip the URL scheme concept entirely.

What it gets me

It’s a little brutal but it works with my brain. A few nudges can help me do other things than stare at Instagram but, ultimately, I’m not going to beat myself up for spending time online. Escape can be helpful and therapeutic. I just don’t want it to get out of hand.

I mean, after a week with SCreen Time, I average about 36 minutes on social apps a day. It doesn’t track stuff I do on my workstation but it isn’t all bad. Technology is technology. Advancement is generally good but with new good things come new traps for our still mostly monkey brains. Social media feels good.

But for me, they don’t feel as good as writing a nice 1700 word essay about productivity.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Not necessarily about “work” at my hobby job, but it is. More that I want more focus in anything I’m trying to accomplish. See Wrestling With Franklin, Bunny Rope, Paper Warren, that book I wrote, running, or other.

  2. For the Initiated, we all know that the Workflow app was actually the precursor. Apple bought Workflow last year and, lucky us, we are living in the Best Realirty where all the stuff in Workflow is integrated deep into the operating system in a way a 3rd party developer could never otherwise do. I mean, x-url schemes really weren’t getting much better than they are.. and that wasn’t so great.

  3. This is a rare instance where I had a game in easy reach. Once I played through Monument Valley, it went into the Distraction folder before being deleted entirely a few weeks later.

  4. Chrome extension - Simple Blocker - and no saved passwords. My FB password is.... 32 characters long. To access FB on my work machine, I have to click through the extension and then log in with that random jumble of alpha characters.

  5. See Screen Time, Apple’s “digital well-being” features.

  6. Alyska sends me cute pictures of our cats most days!

  7. Booooo. I really dislike email on my phone so I leave it there as a way to triage stuff so that I have less junk too deal with when I get back to my office.

  8. Audio being a little odd insofar as it is more a fool to help me focus rather than something specific I’m tracking. More later.

  9. Seriously, why can’t I turn off the app names? I know what the icons mean. LET ME REDUCE CLUTTER!!!!

  10. Or even the friggin’ news....

  11. This is more for the color consistency. Looking at my finances is generally useful but I’ve definitely been a problem at work when I lose time looking through my 401k statements, bank statements, and other investment things. I worry about money more than is helpful. More on that layer.
    Maybe.

1000 Needles by Torrence Fisher, Swordguy Whips by Will Ringland

1000 Needles(針千本, Hari Sen-bon), also known as Blowfish, is a Blue Magic spell and a monster ability. Although it is not exclusive to them, the attack has become the trademark ability for the cactuar. The spell sprays a steady stream of needles at a target, and deals exactly 1,000 HP damage regardless of Defense, armor, Protect or (at times) Evasion. Source: http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/1000_Needles

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Here’s the TL;DR for this whip review: this is the best paracord whip I have ever thrown.

Did I ever tell you about the few months I tried to make my own whips? It was weeks and days of over and under braiding, over under undulation matching my mood with the project.

Over 2
Under 2
Pull for tension
1 strand up
1 strand down
Repeat

It was months of plumbing the depths of my own obsession. When I take an interest in something, I am relentless, like a rushing wave, and pour myself over and under every detail of what I’m learning.

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Over 2
Arm up. The whip flows over your should.
Under 2
Arm down. The whip flows down the handle, the thing, the fall, the cracker and....
Cattleman’s crack.

There are limits, I’ve found, in my fascination. I would reach a metaphorical berm, a literal physician barrier, on the beach and crash against it. When you finish the first belly, you cover it with a paracord layer. This keeps it integral and begins building the taper, the latter of which is how a whip cracks. It is arguably the most important piece. Being unable to keep a tight braid on the first belly sabotages the whip.

My missing hand rarely interferes with things I really get into but this is one of those cases. Even the simple belly plaiting - 4 strands one other side, over 2, under 2 weaving side to side proved too hard for my one hand. My interest, along with the rising winter, receded.

The enjoyment, doesn’t die, however. Never dies. Just limited, physically, by the environment this time. My favorites whips, the best crackers, are all leather. The desire to crack outdoors persists in the winter, though it is at low tide. I do not take my leather whips out into the ice and snow and water just waiting to infiltrate the weave. Paracord whips, however, are water safe and I had been constantly searching for the right paracord whips.

Over 2
Up with paracord
Under 2
Down with leather

No paracord whip I had ever encountered could match the flow of leather and I left any cracking session with one vaguely disappointed.

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I first found Torrence Fisher, proprietor of Swordguy Builds (Etsy link no longer resolves) after watching videos of him winning a freestyle cracking competition at the LA whip convention this year. He was using a paracord whip and it moved like nothing I’d seen before.

Over 2
Up with belief in paracord
Under 2
Down with frustration over winter cracking

Lucky for me, he made the whip he used in that competition. And he was clearly my kind of nerd, I learned, when I found photos of a few video game inspired whips he’d made. I contacted him immediately about a custom build.

The goal was this: make a whip with great flow inspired by my favorite, little, pointy jerk from Final Fantasy: the cactuar. Bane of every game, especially at earlier levels, as the little bastard is nimble and mean. It’s primary attach, 1000 Needles deals 1000 HP of damage always. At best, a fully-leveled character has 10 hits, if the party encounters only 1 cactuar.

You never encounter a single cactuar.

Over 2
4 cactuar pop out of the sand to fight
Under 2
4 cactuar under the ground, impossible to hit

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The overlay design is inspired by the spiny douchebag. The handle resembles the black lines and spines of the cactuar. It seems fitting that you grasp this part given the pain the beast, and the end of a whip, can provide.

The transition knot is embellished with the two yellow/green cuffs. Like little lightning bolts, the yellow strands are obviously there to increase the speed of the whip.

Obviously.

The thong itself sees a few different patterns done in different shades of green. Aside from the attractiveness of each pattern, the overall effect gives the whip an organic, lush feeling. It is springy, smooth, and beautiful.

Where the thong meets the fall is something I’ve not seen before. Rather than a 4 plait point (fall hitch) knot, Fisher has tied a twisted paracord fall to the end of the thong which eventually tapers into itself and then knots to the cracker. (The internet calls this a tapered twist fall)

This is devilishly clever and a benefit you can only get from paracord because it is hollow. This makes the taper that much more gradual and less likely to steal energy from the crack.

In fact, this whip is so well made that I cannot tell where strands were dropped while plaiting. Previous paracord whips I’ve seen had lumps in them, generally from a poorly dropped strand in a belly cover which results in kinked whips.

Lumpy whips are not flowing, loud whips.

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Fisher added a little loop on the butt off the handle so I could attach a little cactuar charm I’ve had for years.

He and I independently named the whip 1000 Needles. I’t’ll cut through your armor so be careful with it.

Little details make the whip

The whip flow is remarkable. It tapers invisibly and bends and curves like a willow branch. Little things like coiling it to put it in my bag is joyful experience. I’m not being cute, it is markedly easier to put this whip away than any other I’ve had before.

It’s the detail work that gets you here. Smooth transitions between parts of the whip, from dropped strands, and carful attention to the decorative pats all build into a marvelous experience with this whip.

Having never before had a paracord I felty I could recommend without caveats, I’m pleased to say that this the best paracord whip I’ve ever used and everyone reading this should drench Fisher in custom whip requests.

It’s good timing too because he has just released a series of Halloween whips and a few specialmodels, also using techniques I’ve never seen before.

Cracking on