Andrew Burke

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iCal: The Lickable Cron
Posted on: 2006-05-05

I remembered trying out iCal when it first came out - I had used Claris Organizer long ago and liked it a lot, and found that iCal didn't do quite as much quite so well and was slow and clunky on the machine I had been using (a 400MHz G3 PowerBook).

I've recently been trying to enhance my productivity, and my partner, who is working on her PhD, recommended working in 45 minute chunks with 15 minute breaks - with an alarm to make sure I take the break. This supposedly keeps the brain fresh and keeps the slacker part of your mind from getting in the way, since it knows there's a break coming up.

So I tried to set up my PowerBook to play music at a specific time. After some research, I discovered that the key was iCal. Whodathunk?

I created a playlist in iTunes called "Wake Up!", with music that would get my attention. Then I went to Automator and built an executable action that simply fires up iTunes and starts playing the "Wake Up!" playlist - and one of the options in Automator is to save an action as an iCal alarm. I've got an item in iCal now called 'Work Finished Alarm' that calls 'Open File' 'Wake' '0 minutes before'. When I want to set up a work period, I click on that iCal item and drag it to 45 minutes in the future. When the time comes, it flashes a few messages in the menu bar (good thing I have a wide screen) and starts playing the music.

Having automated actions become iCal alarms is fantastic - my PowerBook can now run things on its own time. I know real system automation is done more efficiently in "cron, but that's for .sh files and UNIX scripts. With Automator and iCal, scheduled items can interact with the insides of Aqua applications and with the Finder.

Now that iCal is open all the time, I'm also using it more - for ' To Do' lists and for more detailed scheduling.

To figure this out, I had to spend quite a bit of time poking around Google and various forums. Turns out this is sort of mentioned on the Apple website, but only in passing on page 8 of the tutorial. iCal and especially Automator don't seem to get much attention - but they can be delightfully useful.

What's in the Wake Up! playlist? Punchy stuff like this from the Kleptones. But also, for easing out of work mode, the overture to Das Rheingold, which starts really quietly and eventually grows into a raging river, complete with Rheinmaidens. The slow start is especially good for waking up in the morning or from naps: it starts out almost unnoticeable, and eventually becomes impossible to ignore - especially when people start singing.

Also, the 45-minute work strech thing is pretty good for menial things like plowing through a list of bug fixes and interface tweaks, or for forcing yourself to work when you really don't want to - it's not so good for deep programming and architecture planning, since those are all about hours of uninterrupted Flow. While the most exciting work is the kind that inspires Flow, there's plenty of non-flow nit-picky stuff to do that really benefits from the 45-minute rule.

And, heck, with Ruby on Rails I can build an entire web application in 45 minutes. Okay, not a good one, but...

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