How to Create a Workflow on a Mac

by David Weedmark

Apple's Automator app can take the drudgery out of operations you do on a routine basis, like creating thumbnails from photos, reformatting images in an entire folder in one shot or pulling out the text from a Web page. Even advanced Mac users may find Automator a bit mysterious the first time they open it, but after you create your first workflow, you'll have a good understanding of how it works and its capabilities.

Workflows in Automator

Workflows in Automator consist of a series of actions. You specify which actions you want performed and in which order. Suppose, for example, you need to routinely pull text from online documents. A workflow in Automator can do this for you with three simple actions: accessing the Web page, pulling the text from the page and then putting it into a new text document. To create a new workflow, select "New" from the Automator File menu or press "Command-N" on the keyboard and then click the "Workflow" icon. Automator arranges its actions in Groups located beneath the Library option in the left menu. The Workflow pane on the right is blank until you begin adding actions.

Creating a Simple Workflow

You'll need three actions to have Automator pull text from a Web page and put it into a text file. First you need to tell Automator which Web page you want to use, so drag the "Get Current Webpage From Safari" action from the Internet group into the Workflow pane. Secondly, you want Automator to grab the text from the page, so drag the "Get Text From Webpage" action below the first action in the Workflow pane. Finally, tell Automator to copy the extracted text into a new text document. To do this, click the "Text" group and drag the "New Text File" action to the bottom of the workflow.

Selecting Your Preferences

Before running your first workflow, look at the available menus on the second two actions. To get text from a Web page, you can specify "Plain Text" or "Rich Text," which includes formatting. For the new text file you're creating, you can specify its text formatting, a name to give the file, which folder to put the file in and how you want it encoded in TextEdit. If you want Automator to confirm an action before it begins, like the "New Text File" action, click its "Options" button and select "Show This Action When the Workflow Runs." This is helpful if you are doing several Web pages in a row, as you need to create a new name for the text file each time. Save the workflow by pressing "Command-S" on the keyboard.

Running a Workflow

Before starting a workflow, make sure the application you want used is open and is the top, active window on the desktop. This is Safari in our example. Then click the Automator window, followed by the "Run" button. A green check mark appears beside each successful action. If an action fails, a red "X" appears beside the action. A second "X" also appears at the bottom of the Automator window. Clicking that bottom "X" displays a log to tell you what went wrong. After you master your first workflow, take a look at the other actions available to see what other workflows you can create.


Information in this article applies to Automator 2.4 on OS X Mavericks. It may vary slightly or significantly with other versions or products.

About the Author

A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has advised businesses and governments on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years. He has taught computer science at Algonquin College, has started three successful businesses, and has written hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines throughout Canada and the United States.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera moodboard/moodboard/Getty Images