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.


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


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  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.

June 2016 home screen by Will Ringland

Darn tasks undone... 

Darn tasks undone... 

I like to track my home screen changes over time. I've been trying to get shots on the first of every month to understand how my priorities change, what things are important to me or deist reacting me.

What does my home screen mean to me?

The home screen on my phone is my portal to tracking and minor productivity. I desire to minimize distraction - games, notifications, even icons - so I have less cognitive friction to do something useful.

For example, only the following apps are allowed badges: - OmniFocus - Messages - App Store - Settings - Unibox

I have some other notifications set up but they all funnel through my Watch - messages, VIP emails, calendar events. Nothing else.

The idea is that, if I want my attention drawn, I want it drawn to helpful things on my phone. So that's app updates and tasks due today.

What has changed?

I removed one of the virtue tracker app/workflows - Rest. I wasn't using it and didn't care so: gone. The others I'm not super consistent but I just reworked them to require fewer steps to get actually more information.

I ditched MyFitnessPal and I'm thinking about getting it back. I tried 4? Maybe 5? calorie trackers in May and precisely 1 did what I wanted but it had The Worst Interface and food database of any I've tried.

I just want a tracker that can show via a badge how many carbs I've eaten in a day. Apparently I am the only one on Earth that does.


I added FB back. Ehhh....

I deleted Neko Atsume.

I added LinkedIn for a few things in working on. (I really dislike the app and service...)

IG forevahhhh.


So much open space man. So nice. So clean.

I'm considering adding some encouraging text to the bottom of the wallpaper since it's so open. It's kind of part of practicing daily gratitude, part just using space effectively.

I mean I have this huge phone. Why not do something with it?

Does this make me more productive?

Eh? I don't do "useless" things as much but I also don't regularly review my task list. I think I just dislike phones as a whole.

I'd rather carry my iPad and, say, mount it on my monitor to have my task list open constantly rather than carry a phone.

Maybe I just need to set regular task list check in times throughout the day...


The Original GTDer by Will Ringland

The precept of Order requiring that every part of my business should have its allotted time, one page in my little book contain'd the following scheme of employment for the twenty-four hours of a natural day.
- Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, chapter IX

Benjamin Franklin was probably the first productivity guru. Arguably, his books Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book of proverbs and aphorisms to guide behavior, The Way To Wealth, a booklet intended to teach people how to free themselves from debt, and his autobiography (1) which I have reference frequently were the first productivity guides ever written.

Today, people spend millions of dollars a year on productivity and self-help guides intended to make them more efficient, more profitable, more organized human beings. David Allan’s Getting Things Done, which is one of my favorite productivity books, is #38 on Amazon’s self-help book list. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is #1. Similar ones by Dale Carnegie rank #1 in Self-help sub categories too (2).

The reductionist summary of these systems, and most productivity tools, is “do things when they need to get done, not later.” There is a right time and place for each task you have and you should seek to do therm at that time. “Right time” is an elusive concept and one we would do well to consider.

There are two extremes to right time - right now and ever later. When you have no time defined for a task, it gets left to “later” until “task” becomes a crisis. Or, worse, you respond immediately to everything that takes your attention and never get to “task”, again, until it becomes a crisis. Half of a proper ordering scheme is defining when you’re going to do your things so that you don’t become either a drone to your tasks or an email worker.

I think Franklin had it right with his routine, referenced earlier, right at the beginning of his day:

Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness; contrive day's business and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study; and breakfast.

Planning. Not only planning but setting and keeping to a goal for each day of work. It is impractical to think that you can avoid the constant influx of distraction, Franklin didn’t have to contend with email let alone the other myriad distractions persistent internet connections catalog for us, but taking the time to order our days can do wonders for our productivity.

Covey’s second habit is “Think with the end in mind.” Allan’s planning system suggests starting at the end goal and working backwards when planning your project steps. Though these are more broadly minded than Franklin’s simplistic “contrive say’s business/take resolution”, his is the daily essence of long-term successful goals: work on your goals in a set way, every day.

It’s really about valuing your time and making efforts to control what you’re doing rather than reacting to everything that comes in.

Let each part of business have its time.

1. Mostly in chapter 9 which is entitled “Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection” in bold, capital letters. Frankling didn’t wilt in the face of large goals but waht’s the next action for attaining Moral Perfection?

2. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (affiliate link) is akin to GTD blended with Franklin’s own civic-minded awareness of society in his goal planning. Carnegie has “purer” productivity and leaderhsip books ranked in the top 20s on Amazon’s self-help lists too.