Commonplace Books Part 6: Automation Revisited

Software Technology

If you read books at all (and I mean even if you read just a little) you should consider keeping a commonplace book. I am writing a series of articles about commonplace books and this is the sixth article in the series, which talks about the enhanced automation I am using with my commonplace book.

If you are just getting into this series with this article, I suggest you start at the beginning of the series and work your way through:

Commonplace Books Part 1: What Are They?
Commonplace Books Part 2: Why Keep One and How?
Commonplace Book Part 3: Choosing a System
Commonplace Books Part 4: My Setup Using Ulysses
Commonplace Books Part 5: Automation

What’s New With My Automation?

My change in iPads is what actually drove my change to commonplace book automation. You may have read my recent article titled “Going Back to the iPad Mini.”

Going Back to the iPad Mini

My daily use of the iPad mini—and, more specifically, my use of the iPad mini for reading—is what really drove my ability to enhance my automation of adding commonplace book entries. Before switching to the iPad mini I used a dedicated e-ink device (a BOOX Nova 2) to read my Kindle books on. And while the Nova 2 did allow me to take handwritten notes, the process was a bit cumbersome and it required me to import my notes into my commonplace book later instead of immediately adding the note right when I take it. So as a result, I found myself having to process months of commonplace notes at a time rather than just adding the note when I took it.

With the iPad mini, I am able to use the Apple Pencil and add any handwritten notes I want to the passage in the book I am retaining for my commonplace book. And because I am using iOS I am able to use Shortcuts to automate the process and immediately add the note I just took into my commonplace book. So the addition to my automation is adding in the ability to annotate the copied text from the book (highlight, underline, or write in my own thoughts on the passage) and then attach that annotated text into the Ulysses entry in my commonplace book.

How Does the Shortcuts Automation Work?

The Shortcut I am now using is very similar to the Shortcut I published in my “Commonplace Books Part 5: Automation” article, but it adds an additional prompt. It asks you if you would like to annotate the text you are copying from the book and adding to your commonplace book. If you select “No” then the shortcut simply adds the text along with the tags/keywords you specified into Ulysses. But if you select “Yes” then the shortcut does the following:

  1. Creates a PDF out of the text you selected from the e-book you were reading on your iOS device (it takes the text from the clipboard)
  2. The PDF file is then saved to a specific folder in iCloud (I call it “CPB” for Common Place Book)
  3. I then open that saved PDF file via the Shortcut script in PDFpen for iOS. I tried a lot of different PDF annotation tools including the built-in iOS annotation feature, but everything I tried added the annotation to the PDF in such a way that it didn’t show up when converting the PDF into an image. So likely you will need to use PDFpen for iOS if you want this to work. The iOS app PDFpen doesn’t actually exist anymore. The original company that developed it, Smile, no longer develops the app. The app was picked up by a company called Nitro, and Nitro has since changed the name of the app to Nitro PDF Pro. I have not used this app, but it is likely that Nitro PDF Pro will still work with this Shortcut.
  4. I then do my annotating within PDFpen for iOS and save my changes and switch back to Shortcuts. (You must manually switch back to the Shortcuts app, this is not automatic.) The Shortcut is set up to pause until you return to the app before it continues.
  5. Shortcuts then convert the PDF into a PNG image and attach the image at the bottom of Ulysses sheet so that I capture my annotations and/or additional notes along with the original text from the book. Note, you could also add it as an attachment but I like to see the annotated version in line with the main Ulysses sheet.

You can download my Shortcut here.

Closing Thoughts and a Few Caveats

In case you didn’t read my previous articles on keeping a commonplace book, the main reason I chose the Ulysses app for my commonplace book was for the ability to automate reading a random entry from my commonplace book using the Shortcuts app. If you don’t revisit your commonplace book on a regular basis, then you aren’t getting as much out of keeping a commonplace book as you should. So as a reminder, here are links to the two Shortcuts you will need that grab a random entry from the Ulysses commonplace book entries and presents it to you. The first Shortcut is called “GeekDad Random CPB Quote” and can be downloaded here, which is then called by the second Shortcut called GeekDad Read Random CPB which can be downloaded here (which is the only Shortcut you need to run as it calls the first Shortcut). Note, you will need to go into both Shortcuts and read through the notes, and modify the Shortcuts as indicated to work with your Ulysses library and HomePods. The shortcut gives you three options:

  • HomePod: Siri will read the entry to you on the HomePod that you designate in the shortcut
  • This Device: Siri will read you the entry on the current device you are using
  • Text only: no audio, it just shows you a quick view of the random entry on the screen for you to read yourself

I also wanted to give you fair warning about the current state of Shortcuts. Apple has rolled out Shortcuts on the Mac, which is great. But I have found that Shortcuts has been less than reliable at times. A Shortcut that worked perfectly for me yesterday will fail on me today and work again perfectly tomorrow. I will also have the Shortcuts app crash on me or more often than not simply stop responding. I suspect Apple had to push the Shortcuts team pretty hard in order to bring Shortcuts to the Mac and, as a result, the latest versions of Shortcuts on iOS are suffering some stability problems. So if you run into issues with Shortcuts just keep this in mind. I suspect the “flakiness” of the Shortcuts app is only temporary and, in my opinion, the power Shortcuts bring to iOS is worth the patience. The other thing to keep in mind is the annotation shortcut I shared with you above has a lot of steps and is pushing Shortcuts pretty hard and, as a result, it isn’t 100% reliable. I really wish I could say I could rely on Shortcuts, but sadly that just isn’t the case as of the time I am writing this article. However, I feel the annoyance of not having the Shortcut work from time to time is worth it when the Shortcut does work because this Shortcut is taking a lot of friction out of my commonplace book workflow (even if I have to occasionally run it several times to get it to work).

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