You may be surprised to find out that your typing workflow may be 150 years old. If you’re not using a text expander then the way you’ve been coding and typing is from the 1800s. The good news is I’m going to give you 7 quick ways that you can put a text expander to work for you. Don’t worry it’s painless. You’ll never go back to that yucky, yester-century (2 centuries, technically) workflow. If you’re already using a text expander my list will give you some new ideas for making the most of it.
If “text expander” sounds like a made up word, I assure you it’s not. I don’t blame you though. Several years ago I worked in the shipping office of a steel building manufacturer. A prank they’d play on new hires was to send them to fetch a “metal stretcher”.
Usually the new person would wander off immediately without much thought. The request was always phrased so matter of factly that few would ever question it. It would always be fun to see just how long it would be before they came back with a “Wait a minute here!” or even “I can’t find one.” Some times they’d be gone for 20-30 minutes. One guy even disappeared for close to 2 hours as he walked about hunting unicorns.
The truth was no magical device existed that allowed you to stretch cold, hard steel. Text expanders, however, do actually exist. They’re no unicorn, but they do seem magical once integrated into your work day.
A text expander is an application, or feature, that allows you to create shortcuts. These shortcuts, when typed, expand out into bigger things. For example, you might enter “omw” and it could expand to “On my way!”
That should give you the basic idea, enough to understand the list I’ll be giving you.
Let’s brush up on some history first though…
The Not-So-Modern Day Keyboard
Until recently, I assumed the QWERTY keyboard was invented in the last 30-40 years. The QWERTY keyboard has actually been around since 1873. Christopher Latham Sholes invented 5 years after he created the first successful typewriter in 1868.
It’s 142 years later and the QWERTY keyboard is still the most used keyboard in the world. You can find it used with desktop computers, tablets, gaming consoles and mobile phones. Only the functional keys that were added around the letter keys seem to change. Other than that the typing workflow hasn’t changed much in quite some time.
If you’re wondering if I’m going to say to abandon the QWERTY keyboard, relax. That is not what I’m recommending at all. I’m just as accustomed to using it as you probably are.
Go To The Next Level With A Text Expander
If you’re not using a text expander yet, then it’s time to introduce yourself to one. If you’re already using one, great! Perhaps my list will give you a few new ideas to try.
Choosing A Text Expander
I don’t want to dive too deep into any specific text expander apps in this post. What I recommend is doing a comparison on features. Try to get the most bang for your buck, based on your budget. You may want to start out with a free app to begin with, or check out a free trial. You can always upgrade to a more robust app once you’ve gotten use to using one.
Here’s a few text expanders you may want to check out:
- xType – Mac OSX | Free
- TextExpander by Smile Software – Mac OSX | $34.95 | Free trial available.
- PhraseExpander – Windows | $59 Standard, $149 Pro | Free trial available.
- PhraseExpress – Windows | Free for personal use.
- aText – Mac OSX | $4.99 | Free trial available.
- AutoKey – Linux | Free
I use aText for Mac. It has fewer features than TextExpander by Smile Software, but it has everything I need so far and is $30 cheaper. There are some more options out there that I haven’t included. Feel free to do some Googleing if you’d like to do some more comparing.
Text Expanders For Mobile – iOS, Android
There are some mobile text expanders available for both iOS and Android. For iOS, you might try TextExpander Touch. For Android, you can check out Textpansion or PhraseExpress for Android. Before you drop any cash you may want to try the text expanders that your mobile OS has built-in. Their functionality is basic, but for convenience alone they’re worth checking out.
Keyboard Shortcuts On iOS
You can set up text expansion using iOS native keyboard shortcuts using the following steps:
- Go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts
- Click the “+” icon on the top right of the “Shortcuts” screen
- In the “Phrase” field enter the text you want the shortcut to expand into, E.g. Be right back.
- In the “Shortcut” field enter the shortcut (E.g. brb) you’ll enter to get the full phrase entered in the previous step.
- TEST IT OUT, the last thing you want to do is not have it work when you need it.
Personal Dictionary On Android
You can set up text expansion using Android’s Personal Dictionary using the following steps:
(Note: These steps work only with the stock Android keyboard. Tap Settings, Language & Input, and make sure you’ve selected Google Keyboard under the Keyboard & Input Methods heading.)
- Go to Settings > Language & Input > Personal Dictionary
- Select the language option that meets your needs.
- Tap the “+” icon on the top right of the screen.
- On the first line enter the text you want the shortcut to expand into, E.g. Be right back. (50 character limit)
- On the second line enter the shortcut (E.g. brb) you’ll enter to get the full phrase entered in the previous step.
7 Quick Ways
Without any further delay here are 7 uses for your text expander that will make it your hero.
1. Code Snippets
Chances are your favorite code editor or IDE offers support for custom snippets. You might be thinking why would I want to use a text expander for my code snippets? Well you just might be surprised.
Next time you’re using Codepen or JSFiddle think how awesome having snippets would be.
Or perhaps you’re in an interview where you’re using an online, collaborative coding tool. Many of these are a glorified text box with some light syntax highlighting. If you have snippets in your text expander you can quickly do your setup. Then all you have to do is focus on the solution for the problem they gave you. (Note: I’d recommend giving your interviewers a heads up if you plan on doing this. It could disqualify you if it goes against one of their policies. Although, I’d be a bit suspect of any company who didn’t appreciate automation. Especially when it comes to coding.)
I recommend using a text expander that allows you to sync your shortcuts. I use aText which has built-in syncing with Dropbox. If your text expander doesn’t offer syncing, you may still be able to sync it. You can do a lot of neat things with symlinks. Do some searches on Google to see what you can dig up for your OS. (If you need a hint drop a comment and I’ll see what I can do.)
Quite often we overlook the fact that we reuse a lot of the same phrases. We can use a text expander to speed up our communication. We can speed up the output of our most used quips and sayings!
- “morn” ⇨ “Good morning!”
- “rsvp” ⇨ “Please RSVP if you plan on attending.”
- “date” ⇨ “Thursday, January 22nd, 2015” or “1/22/15” or any format your text expander supports
- “rvrp” ⇨ “Please review and reply when you get the chance.”
Sometimes the repetitive nature of what we say can cause us to say them in an impersonal way. We can cheat and use the text expander to add some life and vibrance back into what we’re saying. Consider mapping things like “Hey Rick” to “Hello Rick, how’s you’re day going?” That’s just one example, but you get the idea. Use this sparingly though.
3. Remembering Things
(Note: I do NOT recommend storing sensitive information in your text expander shortcuts.)
Another thing I like to use a text expander for is memory. After many years of marriage I have no problem remembering my wedding anniversary. I still have trouble remembering some of my friends’ birthdays and anniversaries though.
I definitely recommend entering these into your calendar and setting up reminders. It is still helpful to create some shortcuts for the moments you need to know in an instant. Trust me these moments happen more than you might suspect.
Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
- “anny” ⇨ “July 14th” (replace with your own anniversary)
- “jdbday” ⇨ “John Doe’s birthday is 8/16, born in 1987.”
- “carinfo” ⇨ “License# SAMPLE1, Make: Dodge, Model: Ram, Year: 2015, Insurance Provider: XYZ Co., Insurance Policy#: 3A9433XYZ”
- “pobox” ⇨ “PO Box 191, San Francisco, CA 94105” (Please note this is not an actual PO Box addy.)
- “myvision” ⇨ “Insert your personal vision statement here.”
Setting up templates can save you a lot of time. They are where you can get some of the biggest value from a text expander. They are well worth the time to configure.
This takes what you learned in Communication a few steps further. Crafting email templates will surprise you by how much time it saves. If you send the same type of email often, remember DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself). Create a template!
A frequent email I send is a release notification (cause oh yeah, I ship baby!). The benefits for creating a template for this type of email is two-fold. First it speeds things up. Secondly, it reminds me of everything I need to include in the email.
At work we use Scrum for our product teams. Despite the method you use, it is beneficial to create issue or ticket templates. These templates will contain the format for all the info you should enter. For example, I have templates for the following:
- Definition of Done – Static, agreed upon definition.
- Acceptance Criteria – A template usually filled out by the Product Owner for stories or the Engineering Lead for technical tasks.
- QA Details – Description, Steps to Replicate, Expected Result, etc.
Evernote Note Templates
This is a newer idea that I’ve explored. Like many others I use Evernote as my digital brain. I prefer working with only the task at hand in my real brain, when possible. So I send Evernote everything and then schedule it using a GTD based system.
It is great to have some templates for starting notes:
- Meeting agendas
- Research projects
- Goal related tasks
A list is like a more powerful version of a Remembering Things type of shortcut. You can create a list shortcut for any type of list you might keep. The sky is the limit.
If someone asks you what your favorite bands are you could type “favebands”. BOOM, you now have them sitting right in front of you. I know you probably know most of these off the top of your head, so the memory value might be lower. You can, however, send them a reply with your top bands with a few keystrokes.
I’ll give you another example, with a bit more practicality. Remember the “carinfo” example I gave you earlier? That’s great if you have only one car, but what if you own 2 or more. Break out the list baby! “mycars” or “ourcars” and you can have a bulleted list pop out the deets on all of your cars.
Some other ideas:
- Project specific technology stacks (this should be documented somewhere, but for convenience)
- iPhone or Android installed apps (helpful when setting up a new phone or telling someone about the apps you use)
- Favorite blogs
- Favorite authors
- Reading lists
The main takeaway here is lists kick ass! Add some to your text expander for a much happier workflow. Trust me.
6. Terminal Commands
Some people might categorize these in as part of Code Snippets. Others might ask, “Do you even dotfiles bro?” The answer to that is yes, yes I do. I like to keep my favorite commands and aliases both in my dotfiles and in my text expander.
Well keep in mind that you’re not always in your own shell. There are plenty of times as developers where we’re working on a remote shell via SSH. Few times do you find a remote shell setup with your favorite tricks and shortcuts. With a text expander you can still have a few tricks up your sleeve.
For example, one of my most used commands is a grep search with color output. The next time you need to find every instance of a string within files in a directory, recursively, try this:
$ grep -r -i -n --color='auto' "your search text goes here" *
I have that setup with the shortcut: “,greps”
A bookmark manager is a hell of a thing. It allows you to organize all your favorite sites and get to them with just a few clicks. I find bookmarks work great for front pages and specific articles.
For deeper links with non-typical structure it can be helpful to have some shortcuts. At work we use Atlassian JIRA for issue and story tracking. If I click on my bookmark it takes me to the default view for JIRA. This means I have several more clicks to reach a specific ticket.
So I setup a shortcut that expands out the entire first part of the URL for direct access to a ticket. All I have to do is enter the ticket number at the end of it and hit enter. This saves me a lot of time.
Another great way I’ve found to use URL shortcuts is with API queries. I do a lot of work tying up front ends to backend services. When testing responses from an API, it helps to have some quick ways to enter the queries. I find this true for both endpoints with query strings and ones that are RESTful.
My goal is to motivate you to try out a text expander or add to your existing shortcuts. It does save a lot of time and automate a lot of things for you. I took a lot longer than I should have before I added one into my workflow.
I want to remind you again to not put sensitive information into your shortcuts. It may be tempting to create a “cccard” or “bankacct#” shortcut. Perhaps some login credential shortcuts. Be safe, be smart.
Lastly, I want to say that this post did not touch on advanced uses of text expanders. I’d be happy to do another post on advanced techniques in the future. If this is something that would interest you make sure to let me in the comments below.
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