How to Automate Your Workflows on iOS

Let your phone work without waiting for you.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Anything you do on a regular basis (which you can’t eliminate or delegate) can and should be automated. If you have to do it, you may as well make it as easy as possible. (You’ll also waste less time procrastinating and actually do it.)

It’s not even the big things that need automated. Sometimes, it’s the small things—the deaths by a thousand cuts—that we appreciate more.

On macOS, you have AppleScript, a powerful language to create custom workflows and tie apps together. There’s also Automator, an app that lets you create workflows by combining actions with drag-and-drop simplicity—no programming required!

On iOS, there’s the aptly-named Workflow. Like Automator, you create a workflow by dragging together a series of actions. Each action performs a task and passes the result on to the next step.

To be honest, I didn’t really get what Workflow was capable of when I first heard about it. I knew how Automator (and AppleScript) worked, and I knew that wasn’t possible on an iPhone. It only made sense after I downloaded it and started using it.

So let’s create one of the workflows that I use the most: telling my wife I’m on my way home.

If you don’t have it yet, grab Workflow from the App Store. It’s free. It’s the best $0 you’ll spend today on increasing your productivity. Install the Home ETA workflow from the Gallery.

Right here, you have a useful workflow. With just a tap, it will get your current location, figure out how long it will take you to drive home, and compose a text message to the recipient(s) of your choosing. (It won’t actually send it for security and privacy reasons.)

If you open the workflow, you can see it currently has five steps:

  1. Get your home address.
  2. Get the travel time from where you are to your home.
  3. Get your current location.
  4. Compose a text message.
  5. Send the message to the specified recipients.

But I want a better message. The travel time is an ideal estimate, and I want to allow a little extra for the time it takes me to get to my car, get out of the parking lot, and wait for red lights. Plus, the engineer in me doesn’t like the implied precision of a to-the-minute ETA.

So let’s tweak it.

First, let’s pad the estimate by 10%.

  1. Swipe right (or tap the Actions button at the bottom of the screen).
  2. Search for the Calculate action.
  3. Drag the Calculate action to the right and drop it in the workflow after the Get Travel Time action. (This is easier to do on an iPad.)

  4. Configure the Calculate step to multiply by 1.1. This gives us a 10% buffer on the estimate.
  5. Update the Text action to use the Calculate result instead of the Travel Time. I prefer the wording, “I’m leaving (Current Location | street). I’ll be home in about (Calculate) minutes.”

Congratulations! You just tweaked an existing workflow to better suit your needs! You’ll be designing bespoke workflows in no time.

I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to round the estimate up to the next five-minute interval. (For example, “I’ll be home in about 20 minutes” instead of “17 minutes”.)

There are multiple ways you can kick off the workflow:

  • Tap on it in the Notification Center widget.
  • Do a 3D Touch on the app icon.
  • Open the app and run it.
  • Tap it on my Watch.
  • Add a shortcut on my home screen.
  • Add it to Launch Center.

And there’s more. Action extensions can be run from the action menu in many apps. If it started with text, I could type something in Drafts and invoke the workflow from there. It’s really flexible.

Actions aren’t instantaneous. Sometimes, you’ll wonder if it’s would be faster to just do it manually. It probably isn’t. When you have nothing to do but wait for your phone, you’re just aware of how long it’s taking. But the phone never has to wait for you, so it’s faster (and certainly easier) than doing the steps yourself. You’ll get more consistent results, too.

The next time you’re jumping between tasks, ask yourself whether this is something you could automate. If it is, check the gallery to see if someone else has already solved the problem and shared it. If not, create a custom workflow and share your solution with the world.

Question: What is your favorite workflow to be more productive on iOS? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.