Appearance: Automators Episode 73

In my second appearance on Automators (part of the Relay FM network),1 I’m back to talk with David Sparks and Rosemary Orchard once again about Drafts. We dive in on some of the new stuff from version 26 which introduced custom themes and syntaxes. We also touch on a few other updates from the first version to now as well. I hope you enjoy it.

There were a couple of things in the episode that I wanted to follow-up on here, including the homework assignment David gave me. I’m thrilled that the time spent with David and Rosemary gave me the idea, which made me reconsider some things with my personal journaling and changed how I’m doing it going forward.

Theme Switching with Workspaces

Ever since I’ve used workspaces + action groups to create what I called modules, I’ve used a script actions to switch between them. Originally, I set each workspace, action group, and keyboard row individually; once the action and keyboard group options were added to the workspace manager, I simplified the actions. I keep the single action in every one of my action groups which I use in the keyboard row to use on the iPhone for quick access to switch. Where I use this switching method a lot is on my iPad, using a hardware keyboard. All of my modules are brought up with keyboard shortcuts, assigned to ⌘2 - 9; both ⌘1 and ⌘9 are reserved by Drafts for the draft and action list show/hide, respectively.

With the addition of themes, I’ve now modified the modules I have to include themes that I want to use in those different contexts. I’m sure I’ll update this more over time. I primarily use dark mode, so that’s what I currently have in there. But you could also modify the scripts to include light themes as well. Here’s my Modules action group as it stands today for you to play with and make your own. You’ll need to change the theme names in each of the module actions, else you might get an error.

I haven’t quite yet cracked the switching of syntaxes based on themes. I have, however, leveraged Matt Gemmell’s previous Switch Syntax action and created my own which provides a list of all the installed syntaxes. It’s not automated, but it does the job when I need it. I’m sure Rosemary is working on something even more clever…

Automated Journaling

On the show, we talked about some of the automations I’ve used (in most cases, continued to use) frequently. One of my journal shortcuts saves the text of the journal as a PDF for future reading. That’s when David brought up a great suggestion: using a Shortcuts automation at a specific time to automatically save the journal at night so I don’t have to do it manually.

It took a few modifications to my original shortcut, but I have the automatic saving of journal entries figured out. The Journal • Save shortcut searches my Journal workspace for today’s journal entry, gets the content of the draft, creates an entry title (formatted Journal Entry yyyy-MM-dd), creates a nicely-formatted PDF, and saves the PDF version to /iCloud Drive/Shortcuts/Journal/.2 I manually move these once a week during my weekly review for now, until the Shortcuts team actually gives me that built in feature.3 This action can be used with Shortcuts automation; if you choose to run the automation without asking, it will run automatically in the background. I have mine set to run at 11:00 pm every day, and in my testing since we recorded, it’s been working fantastically.

This then lead me to change the way I’ve been journaling, so that I can just automate the creation of the journal entry and never miss a day. The old way of starting my journal is answering a couple of questions: did I wear my watch to sleep to get data out of AutoSleep – a feature that is broken due to an iOS 14.5 bug  – and how did I feel when I woke up. Here’s a secret: I’m not sure I sleep all that well generally, I never use the quantifiable data in any meaningful way, and I don’t know that I need a reminder of how shitty all that can be and make me feel. If I want a pretty chart or other meaningful insights, I’d be better off going into AutoSleep or the Health app to get it. Weighing the importance of sleep tracking vs daily journaling, having a journal entry for every day that is just automatically there just makes more sense. Using the Journal • Start shortcut in conjunction with another Shortcuts automation which runs at 6:00am, and automatically starts a journal entry for me without any interaction on my part.4

I’ve been running this for the week, and it’s been really great so far. Removing the friction of interacting every time I want to start and save a journal entry has made me want to journal more. Sometimes, it’s those little things that get you change your mind. I’m calling this a win.

Thanks again David and Rosemary for having me on, and for the idea to be a better Automator!

  1. You can find my first appearance here
  2. I am having a shortcuts bug where the file from Shortcuts gets created with a -2 suffix, which is hyper annoying. I have to manually fix them. I’m sure it’s something I could solve with a script, but I haven’t had the time. It’s a bug, and the Shortcuts team works it out. Additionally, I would like to have the ability in Shortcuts to save the entries to the Journal location I keep in iCloud Drive. Would make life a lot simpler. 
  3. I tried to use a script in Scriptable to move the files from the Shortcuts folder to my preferred journal location in iCloud Drive, but it often took a while to run. I can quickly move the files once a week, so I’m not too worried about it. Maybe a future update of my journal workflow will happen if features come to iOS 15. 
  4. if you want to use this exactly, you’ll also need the Journal • Forecast shortcut as well. 

Drafts 26: The Customization Update

Back when I wrote about my wishlist for Drafts 5.0, I wanted to have a custom syntax for the editor in Drafts. At the time, this was based on my usage of other text editing apps, and I wanted a theme with a bit more color for MultiMarkdown. Now we are almost 3 years into the latest major version of Drafts, multiple large feature updates later, and we are finally here at tapping into the realization of its visual customization potential with version 26.

I’ll cut right to it – the customization of the appearance through themes and extending the syntax of text in the editor is going to open up a whole new world to explore within Drafts. The modularity that exists with workspaces and actions is about to get a whole lot bigger with the inclusion of custom themes and syntaxes. I won’t be able to provide a bunch of different options here, for a big reason: this is about making the app yours.

At a high level, both theme and syntax files are JSON files. I’m sure this might scare some of you already. But thanks to the documentation for creating themes and syntaxes, it makes life a bit easier. While you could use Drafts for creating/modifying these files, I’d recommend that you use different tools to do this. In the process of creating some themes and syntaxes that I’ll cover, I’ve used Jayson to create/modify the JSON files and Pastel to create a color palette based on my website theme. Both apps are free to use for the basics, and I cannot recommend them highly enough for this purpose.

Creating themes and syntaxes is great when using both Jayson and Pastel on the iPad with a keyboard and trackpad.

Custom Themes

This is where I suspect most of you will be modifying Drafts to suit your needs. There is an extensive theme file where you can customize just about anything: there are two separate areas for editor and interface colors. If you already have an existing app or website theme that you want to start with, I’d be first begin at the Drafts Directory; you’ll find many themes that might be close to what you’re looking for already. If you can’t find one there, then I would recommend that you start by creating a custom color palette in Pastel to make sure you have the hex codes associated to the colors at your fingertips. This makes the next part of the process a bit easier. As you explore the actual theme file in JSON, you can easily add colors to the palette to cover the different theme elements.

To create your own theme, start by exporting an installed theme.1 To do this, select the editor preferences (the Aa icon in the bottom right), select the “Theme” tab at the bottom, and swipe right–to-left to export. If you have Jayson installed, you can use the share sheet to “Open as JSON”; from there, you can save the file. For each theme that I’ve used as a starting point, I’ve immediately gone in and edited the name, author, and the description; this saves you from confusion when you import that theme later. When you import your theme, you can then share it to the Directory.

There are many theme options available with the currently installed syntaxes. I suspect most of you will modify only a theme to start before stepping up to a custom syntax. The wonderful thing about themes is that it can change the way everything looks within the app. I personally wanted to have a custom theme base on my site, which wasn’t difficult to create: I have both a dark and light theme for my site. But I also like coding actions in Drafts, and wanted to have a specific theme: one theme I like for coding is the Darker Dracula theme created by Jake Bernstein. Themes are also scriptable, so that if you want to change the way the entire app looks when you write vs when you code, you can can do this within an action to swap workspaces.

My current theme options

As I said, I think themes is where most people will go for Drafts customization in the short term. There’s nothing like a fresh look to an app to make you want to use it more, and with the options that Drafts provides to change every color throughout the app, you can make it the custom theme you’ve always wanted. That said, theming isn’t without its faults. One big item that I feel is missing is a built-in interface to create and modify theme colors based on the built-in syntaxes. This would make theming more accessible to users if everything was self-contained in the app. Though I love Jayson and Pastel, having to use other apps for this purpose is a point of friction for many people. I’d even settle for a web-based version which would save your theme to the directory, and allow an install via a link. But built-in is almost always better. My hope is that in the future, we will see this added.

Custom Syntaxes

Custom syntaxes are going to open up entirely new possibilities for using the app. I’m very excited to see how Drafts power users create new syntax definitions for their uses. Because this requires a good working knowledge of RegEx, I think this is something that is going to have more impact for the future; this is something that isn’t for the faint of heart, and will require some trial and error to get done. But once you have what you’re looking for in a syntax, you can do a lot more. I can see some interesting possibilities open up for users in the future, but more on that later.

There are a couple of simple examples to cover here, which showcase some of the potential of the app. I’ll start with a simple Twitter example. I often use Twitter to compose tweets; most time I delete them, but sometimes I sit on it for a bit and exercise restraint like a normal person. With a simple Twitter syntax to highlight usernames and hashtags, you can now see how your tweets will look before you post them. Or if you even post them at all. This could easily be modified to include cashtags $ for companies, assuming you know RegEx.2

Twitter markup is nice for when you don't want to be on twitter.

Another example of how a syntax could be applied is task marks. There is a great demo of using Task Marks, which has multiple options for tasks. This can be custom tailored to suit your needs. This syntax demonstrates different styles, like standard and three state tasks, but also adds new elements like on/off tasks or percent complete. If you’re able to manage the custom syntaxes, you could extend an existing syntax to include some of those elements. These additions could open up new possibilities within Drafts for task management.

Task marks open up some interesting possibilities.

Being a novice to all of this, I started with the existing MultiMarkdown syntax which ships with Drafts. Just like the themes, I exported it to Jayson, and was able to add two new patterns to check for: **_bolditalic_** and _**bolditalic**_. With a little help from Greg Pierce, developer of Drafts at Agile Tortoise, I got the needed regular expressions to add both to my custom version. I also added the way links are displayed: I wanted to make the links almost disappear from view, especially since I operate in dark mode 99% of the time, and that the text size is smaller relative to normal text size. These combined effects make it so that I’m not really reading the URL when editing, but I can see the full URL if I want to look at it. These small changes really can make a visual difference in the editor, and this example of Draftsdown – my simple MultiMarkdown fork –  shows how the subtle changes can make a big difference.3

Nahumck Dark theme in Markdown, MultiMarkdown, and Draftsdown syntaxes. Note the small, but meaningful differences between them.

There are a lot more examples I could cover, but I think that over time, other examples and use cases will emerge. I’m sure that the Drafts community will come up with more clever things that I will, so I would make sure to keep an eye out over there or on the Directory for new and exciting uses of custom syntaxes. There will be multiple flavors of Markdown coming from users who like a specific version that suits their needs. Differing navigation methods will be used to navigate a draft for more than just headers. I’m sure that someone out there will pioneer a new way of bullet journaling with a custom theme and syntax, which is certain to be awesome. And maybe, just maybe, Merlin Mann will finally get what he’s wanted: a completely new syntax of Markdown + TaskPaper. That was too much to ask before, but now? That’s entirely possible if you take the time to develop it. If only we could get folding headers…4

Other Improvements

Balance While Typing is another one of those usability features that I am thankful to have added to Drafts. I honestly didn’t know I wanted it until the beta hit, and I don’t want to go back to the way things were before. This makes typing in syntax elements for things like Markdown [links](url) and [[wiki-style]] links even easier without the need to have a custom action to do it. Simply typing as you would normally brings the first element in – a ( parenthesis, for example – and adds the coupled element ) after the cursor, essentially wrapping the text you type next to be wrapped like it should be. This works for parenthesis (), braces {}, brackets [] and quotes "". It is important to note that this is as advertised: “While Typing”. This will not apply to text written already; for those you will need to use custom actions for each type.5 This is on by default so that most users can discover it, in case you do want to turn it off. I personally have it on, as I’ve found it to be more helpful than harmful in my day-to-day use.

There are several updates to the Drafts Directory. First, you’ll find the addition of the aforementioned syntaxes and themes.6 There are now also update notes for the actions if they have been updated. You’ll also be able to update the actions right within Drafts; note that the update process is manual for now, and only available for items installed after the rollout of the feature. In the future, I’m excited to see the option for an automatic update for actions. And finally, action versioning, first introduced in version 22, has been extended now to action groups. This is great for those that have giant action groups of their own so that users can easily update these action groups rather than delete and reinstall them.

Extending the Modularity

This update of Drafts is going to, given some time, open up another level of Drafts development. It will further extend the modularity of the app beyond workspaces and action groups into full-fledged mini text apps to suit your needs. Want to go from writing to journaling, but have the entire app change from dark to cyan? Go for it. Want to go from journaling to task management? You can change that look too with a theme and a syntax. What about if you’re a fan of another app’s color scheme like Ulysses or Bear? With a little effort, you can match those apps as well. But it doesn’t stop there: you can change the way the app will function for you as you apply a custom syntax. And when you combine the power of a custom syntax with a custom theme, you can create new, modular apps within Drafts.

I’m still getting up to speed with creating both custom themes and syntaxes. Admittedly, I’ve had a lot going on recently, and I haven’t had the proper amount of time to really dive into this update as much as I’m hoping to in the future. But I can absolutely see the amazing potential that it’s bringing. I’m going to spending some time over the next few months figuring how to make Drafts work even more for my use cases. Three years ago, Drafts got the update that changed it forever. And three years in, we’re getting major updates to core functionality Drafts that are making me excited to keep using it.

  1. This way you have a good foundation for the theme you’re trying to create. 
  2. I do! Kinda. Not really. It’s a work in progress. 
  3. I plan on expanding this in the future. 
  4. Consider this my official feature request, Greg. 
  5. Yes, those are in order for parenthesis, braces, brackets, and quotes. 
  6. I expect a lot more to be added over time. 

This Is 40

Today is a day that will change my life forever. It’s a culmination of a bunch of events that have happened to me over the past few years. And for all that is going wrong with the world on a macro level, my micro-world has been full of great things. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To tell you where things are and where they’re going, I have to take you back…

Several years ago, things weren’t going well in my life; it was a mess, and everything was stressful in all the wrong ways. Life needed to change. So, I started making changes to improve things for my family and myself. It was a difficult path,1 and something I thought I’d never recover from. Of course, those around me – specifically my family – would often remind me that things would get better with time; the pain that I was feeling and had been feeling would be temporary, and life would improve for me. At the time, I was in a deep dark hole and didn’t know how life would get better.

But through patience and therapy, I started getting out of this hole and seeing how much of life was improving. As part of the coping and then healing process, I had buried myself in my work when I could while focusing on being a single father. And that effort with work started to bear fruit. I started to get recognized for my abilities and was given chances for more responsibilities that others in my position had not been offered. And recently, for the second time in a year-and-a-half, I have been promoted. I’m responsible for a lot, and I even have a new and exciting challenge at work ahead. Things with work couldn’t be better.

And for the first time, my personal life is matching how great my work life is. Life has been amazing, and I’m in love. It may be a bit cliche to say, but it’s a love that really is too deep for words; they simply would not do justice to describe the feelings we have for one another. I don’t know that I could have asked for a more perfect person in my life. I’m still in awe of her on a daily basis. I cannot fathom how I’ve done anything to deserve her as a partner. She’s the most amazing person I’ve known: she’s beautiful, smart, compassionate, supportive. When we decided to move in together, we didn’t know that the pandemic lockdown would be starting the next weekend. Throughout the pandemic, she’s been a mother-like figure to my sons and met any of the challenges of life with poise and grace. Being together so much during this time has only cemented our love, and I knew the answer to a question before I even asked it at the end of last year.

Planning a wedding in the midst of a pandemic isn’t ideal; in our situation, there are people from other countries that we would want to come celebrate with us. We decided to wait until near the end of 2022 to tie the knot with the support and company our family and friends. But the more we planned, the more we realized that we could not wait another day to marry each other. We still want the big event, but it feels right on so many levels to do something small first. So we decided to get married earlier than our original date in a small outdoor ceremony. Looking over the days that made the most sense, we chose to get married in March 2021. In fact, later today, we’re getting married.

This is also significant because today is also my 40th birthday. If I’m being honest, I’ve never been a fan of my birthdays. I’m sure there’s something in my past, but now that I’m old, I can’t remember. But what I can remember is that it’s just never been my thing. But this year, I’m making the exception. I’m getting the greatest present I could have ever asked for, and I’m starting a new chapter in my life. When today is said and done, I’m hers forever. My life is about to get even better. The best of my life is still yet to come.

This is 40…

  1. Divorce often is, but sometimes it is the necessary path. 

Fully Broken

Well, hello.

It is with heavy hearts (and overtaxed livers) that we tell you we just don’t have it in us anymore to keep on going. It’s time to take Fundamentally Broken out behind the woodshed and put it down humanely.

Go ahead now, turn away. You don’t need to see this.

The past year or so since we last recorded has certainly had some ups and downs. It came a lot of new responsibilities for both of us at work, and frankly at home too. Our lives — like everyone else’s — were disrupted beyond any rational comprehension, and we found we didn’t have the bandwidth to get on and record conversations anymore. We still talk almost every day, and Tim often says “fuck, why aren’t we recording this” and we laugh, but the honest truth is that we’re just not interested in producing this type of content for an audience right now, and collectively we just don’t have the time.

So we hatched a plan to keep the show alive in spite of the fact that we weren’t going to keep doing it. Seth suggested we find a new home for it on the Internet Archive and Tim looked into it. The Internet Archive is something that the world desperately needs, and we always find delight when we head there. In fact, it’s one of our annual donations because we believe in the mission and the people behind it.

We’ve created a page and the show will be available there from now on.1 It doesn’t make sense to keep paying for podcast-specific accounts for a show we aren’t doing, and this way, it’s still available for the eleven people (looking at you, Japan) who might ever want to hear it, and it becomes a part of the great ocean that is the 1s and 0s of the past.

We’d personally like to thank everyone who did listen. Your feedback and enthusiasm was a constant surprise to us, and we really appreciated it. We started the show because we thought there might be a place for a simple, honest conversation about a lot of things that interested or troubled us, and the response we received was that we were right about that. It resonated with people, and that was encouraging.

But like in all things, time and life change who we are and what we do, and now we set this little ship ablaze and push it out to sea, gazing fondly as it floats further from us.

Maybe we’ll do it again someday. Maybe we won’t. That’s the beauty of the future. You just never know.

~ Seth & Tim

  1. Tim will be working on making an official collection on, but until then, you can just use this page. This link will be updated when/if it ever gets made.