December 15, 2012, 7:20 AM — Once again, you find yourself sitting in front of your computer, eyes glazing over as you press the same sequence of buttons over and over to get something done. Maybe you had to create a complex folder hierarchy for a set of projects. Or maybe you had to copy, paste, and format the same sort of data multiple times.
Whatever the task was, it probably wasn't much fun.
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The good news is that you can code your way out of such busywork, even if you're not a programmer. Here are five powerful automation tools that can help.
When trying to automate something, it's wise to stop and think about the domain you're trying to work with. Does your task mainly involve repetitive text entry, or is it about moving and creating files? Narrowing the field will help you find the right tool for the job more easily--and when it comes to file operations, you can't go wrong with Directory Opus.
Priced at $69 (in Australian dollars), Directory Opus is one of the costliest file managers around; it's considerably more expensive than, for instance, Total Commander ($44). That said, if you work with files all day, Directory Opus is worth every penny. You can customize all of your buttons, toolbars, menus, and commands, setting your own hotkeys and names for everything. You can also change the layout to look like anything from a dual-pane commander-style application to regular Windows Explorer to something uniquely yours.
This level of customization leads to easy automation: Directory Opus has its own built-in set of commands, making up a simple scripting language. For example, you can designate a single keystroke for creating a new document bearing today's date in a specific format (2012-12-13, 121213, etc.). You can arrange to select a collection of files and quickly rename all of them according to some scheme, or you can build a macro that selects all of the DOC and JPG files in the current folder, zips them up in an archive with a name and type of your choosing, and emails them. In other words, Directory Opus can help you automate just about any task that involves manipulating files, and its commands are well documented.
No article on the subject of automating daily work is complete without a mention of VBA (Visual Basic for Applications). You can't download and install VBA, but you probably already have it: It's built into Microsoft Office. If you're looking to automate any work that you do in Word, Excel, or Access, VBA is the tool you need. You can use it for just about anything, from entering text to formatting a document to working with external files to creating custom Excel functions.
One of VBa's best features is that how easy it is to get started with. You can record a macro of yourself doing something (say, selecting some text and making it bold), and then use the built-in VBA editor to see what the macro looks like in code form. You can access the VBA editor by pressing Alt-F11 or by using the Developer tab on the Ribbon (though you must make that tab visible first).
The editor is a complete development environment, with built-in debugging tools, auto-completion, context-sensitive help, and more. When you're viewing a macro in the editor, you can easily customize it and gradually learn new abilities according to whatever you need for your project. In fact, working with VBA is one of the best ways to get into programming. Each macro is bite-size, and you can put it to use right away, making your work go more quickly and less tediously.
No matter what program you type into, you probably type some of the same things over and over again. Consider email greetings and signatures, or stock phrases related to your job ("Thank you for your interest," and so on). What if you could enter all of that repetitive text by pressing a key or two? This is what PhraseExpress does--and then some. It's free for personal use and $50 for business use after a 30-day free trial.
Saying that PhraseExpress is a text replacement program is a bit like saying that a computer is a typewriter. Yes, you can save common snippets of text and quickly insert them with just a keystroke or two (a very useful feature); but you can do a lot more, too. For example, PhraseExpress can recognize when you correct a typo, figure out on its own certain typos that you commonly commit at the keyboard, and start offering corrections before you even notice that you've mistyped a word. It can enter dynamic information into snippets, such as today's date, or even the date six days from now. It can prompt for variables (like a person's name) and insert them in the right place in a snippet. And after installing a free add-on file from the PhraseExpress website, you can even use PhraseExpress as an inline calculator: Just type something like (10+5)*7= and the app will offer to replace that text with the correct result.
Powerful though it is, PhraseExpress has some limitations. For one thing, it's not a proper programming language: You can't easily configure variables, and the built-in editor doesn't offer line numbers or auto-completion for commands. Another problem involves the documentation: Its maker (Bartels Media) does provide some online documentation, but the information isn't especially thorough. On the other hand, PhraseExpress comes packed with useful examples--so if you like to learn by example, you might be able to find a macro similar to the one you need and then just customize it.
For years now, whenever I've needed my computer to handle something out of the ordinary, I've reached for AutoHotkey. Much like PhraseExpress, this simple (and free) script processor can respond to hotkeys and "hotstrings" (type wbr and AutoHotkey can replace it with "Best Regards"). But AutoHotkey's quick-and-dirty nature disguises a mature, powerful programming language that can handle everything from complex math operations to HTML transformations to creating whole user interfaces (windows, buttons, and all).