A Guest Post by David Turnbull of Adventures of a Barefoot Geek
Life hacking has evolved to mean many things but at its core it’s a term for geeks to describe their love of using tech skills to save time, automate boring tasks and confuse people with their array of hot keys, shell scripts and jargon.
As I become more comfortable with expressing my ideas through writing I felt it was time to focus on achieving the same aim with a bit more efficiency and cleverness. These are the solutions I came up with.
Write with Markdown
Writing for the web isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. There’s the ugly necessity of writing out HTML which, while not in any way difficult, makes your writing less readable during the editing process.
Markdown is the answer and the best way to explain Markdown is to show you what it does.
Let’s look at a standard HTML tag:
<strong>Bold text goes here</strong> and now the Markdown equivalent:
**Bold text goes here**. Doesn’t that look much nicer?
Every common HTML tag has a Markdown equivalent, allowing for improved readability while writing. On a small scale you may not notice much of an improvement, but click here to see a screenshot of this article written in Markdown.
For use with WordPress, install the Markdown for WordPress plugin, which converts the syntax to HTML for your reader but maintains the original syntax for editing.
There’s the added advantage that writing Markdown syntax is quicker than writing out HTML and, in combination with TextExpander (more on this in a second) the time spent formatting your posts will be cut down to seconds.
Speed up your workflow with TextExpander
TextExpander is a killer app and a necessity for serious bloggers.
Here’s an example of its power:
Let’s say I want to create a link using the Markdown syntax. The syntax for that is
[Anchor text goes here](http://sitename.com). It’s not much typing by default but all I need to type is
TextExpander recognises that I’ve typed
- Replaces it with the syntax I want.
- Inserts the URL I wish to link to between the parentheses (taking it from the clipboard).
- Launches an input field titled ‘Anchor text‚Äù that lets me add the link’s anchor text between the square brackets without breaking my flow. (Example)
Let that sink in for a moment. This is one example that saves me 2-3 seconds for every link I include in my articles.
Imagine how much time you could save after setting up your own rules. TextExpander do provide you with thousands of text substitutions out of the box though, so there’s no upfront work required to experience the benefits.
If you use Windows ActiveWords provides similar functionality.
Edit blog posts with any text editor
Text editors are the perfect writing environment. They allow you to focus on what truly matters ‘the writing’ and aren’t bogged down with cumbersome controls that encourage fiddling rather than effectiveness.
Wouldn’t it be great to write and edit blog posts within a text editor? Sure, you can copy and paste text into WordPress, but what if there was a better solution?
All it takes is the ability to edit text fields (like WordPress’ HTML view) using your text editor of choice. Any Cocoa-based browser (like Safari) should allow this by default, but if you’re like the majority of web workers who use Firefox then install the It’s All Text! extension. Setup a hot key and KA-BLAM you’re able to edit any text field you wish with a text editor.
When writing with Markdown this trick lets me combine TextMate’s syntax highlighting with WordPress’ automatic save system. It’s the best of both worlds.
To get most text editors working with the Firefox method you may need to read this article.
Improve your writing with clever formatting
One of the age-old writing principles is to write less. Detail is fine, clutter is not. But we like to fill up space. We’re compelled to fill blank pages with content, even if it dilutes what we’re saying.
To combat this tendency increase the size of the text you write with and give yourself less space to fill.
Within TextMate, for example I write with size 14 text and have it so the text wraps after 78 characters. This means that even a small paragraph fills up plenty of space, satisfying my ego while deflating the word count.
Build a comprehensive backup system
If you’re putting a lot of work into a project without any redundancy you’re never going to have peace of mind. Spending 30 minutes building a bullet-proof backup system is one of the best time investments you can make.
- Setup an email forwarder through cPanel ‘something like [email protected]’ that directs to a Gmail account. Use this one email address for backing up all of your blogs.
- Create a filter in Gmail that identifies emails being sent to your email forwarder. Set this filter to archive your emails, label them as ‘Backups’ and mark them as read.
- Install WP DB Backup, configure it via the settings page and start building an archive of your blog’s database.
Amazon S3 Backups
Amazon S3 offers storage that’s dirt cheap on a small scale. I have a 6+ month archive of my largest blog and I’m still paying less than $0.50 per month.
To take advantage of this:
- Install the WP S3 Backups plugin for WordPress.
- Create an Amazon S3 account.
- Connect the two elements by entering your access key and secret key (which are both available in your S3 control panel) into WordPress.
It’s worth using S3 Backups just to backup your blog’s files but an additional copy of your database won’t go astray.
- Real time cloning of your files
- Security fixes without your intervention
- Handling massive amounts of data
Once the tool is released to the public (sign up for the beta) it will be a premium service, but from the little we know it sounds like a worthwhile expense.
Automate with Automator and Folder Actions [Mac OS X]
Before switching my blog about the Nintendo 3DS from WordPress to Tumblr (which is a story for another time) I would add 600 pixel wide images to the beginning of each post. This was a manual process until I decided to use OS X’s built in software to automate it.
Folder Actions allow you to automatically run a workflow built through Apple’s Automator when a file is dropped into a folder of your choice. There’s too much flexibility in Automator to explain it all in one post, but here’s a rundown of what I created:
- I find an image for article I’m writing and save it to a specific folder.
- Folder Actions recognises this and runs an Automator workflow I created called Rename, Crop and Convert Post Images.
- The image file is renamed with a predefined structure, cropped to 600√ó250 pixels and converted to a JPEG.
- Growl notifies me that the process is complete and that the image is ready to be uploaded to the blog.
All this happens in one quick motion without any input aside from initially saving the image. It took 10 minutes to setup (including the learning curve) but would’ve saved me hours of my life each year had I maintained that structure.
You may not need to resize images as I do but there are plenty of linear activities you need to do that Automator can handle.
And that wraps it up for the 6 killer life hacks I’ve recently adopted. I have a tendency to switch systems somewhat erratically though, so don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong if you play around with different strategies rather than trying to conform to what works for me at the moment.
Speaking of different strategies, what life hacks do you use to improve the quality and efficiency of your blogging?