Avoid boring, repetitive work by getting your computer to do it instead
Save time, fight drudgery.
If you find yourself repeating the same computing tasks day in, day out, you should know that there is a better way. Whether it’s resizing images or filling out spreadsheet columns, many modern applications can be programmed to repeat one action on their own.
These actions are typically called macros, though they go by various other names as well, depending on the software you’re using. You don’t need to have any coding knowledge to set them up, and they can save you a huge amount of time at your keyboard.
If you’re using a software application that doesn’t support the use of macros, there are third-party tools to fall back on that can automate processes across any program in Windows or macOS.
How to automate tasks in Adobe Photoshop
In Photoshop, these shortcuts are called Actions, and you can use them to apply the same crop, the same resize, or the same effect to a series of photos over and over again. The Actions pane might already be open, depending on how you’ve set up the application, but if not you can choose Window and Actions to see it.
Photoshop gives you a few Actions to get started with, and you can run any one of them by selecting it and clicking the play button at the bottom of the pane. To the right of the play button is a folder icon, which you can use to create a new set of Actions—this lets you group actions together to keep them more organized.
To make your own Action, click the create new action button (a plus symbol inside a box), which is just to the right of the new set button. You can then give it a name and put it into a set (or folder). Recording starts immediately, so do whatever you need to do inside Photoshop and then click the stop button (to the left of record). Your Action will be added to the list and can be launched directly from there whenever you need it.
How to use macros in Google Sheets
For the time being, Google Sheets has macros built in, while Google Docs and Google Slides don’t. This makes sense, in a way, because you’re more likely to be repeating the same tasks while working on a spreadsheet, like formatting dates or adding up the numbers in two separate cells.
With a spreadsheet open, click Extensions, Macros, and then Record macro. A new panel will pop up at the bottom of the screen showing that you’re in recording mode, so carry out the actions you want to save and then click Save. On the same panel, you can choose between Use absolute references (the macro will record precise locations like A1 or B2 in the spreadsheet) or Use relative references (the macro will record locations relative to where it started, like three cells to the right).
To use your macros, click Extensions, then Macros to select something you’ve recorded (or Manage macros to edit or delete them). You can actually get more advanced with macros in Google Sheets by writing your own scripts, though you’ll need a little bit of coding knowledge for this. If that intrigues you, we’ve previously written about the process in more detail.
How to create macros in Microsoft Office
You can set up and use macros in Excel and Word if you own the Microsoft Office suite—so whether you want to fill out spreadsheet columns, repeat document headings, or automate something else, these applications can speed up the process. PowerPoint supports macros too, but you’ll need to code them yourself—you can’t record them step by step.
First, open a spreadsheet or document, then choose File, Options, Customize Ribbon, and check the Developer tab option on the right before clicking OK. Open this newly visible tab, and pick Record Macro—you’ll be asked to give it a name, you can assign a keyboard shortcut to it, and you can also create a new button to launch it from the ribbon menu.
Work through the steps of the action you want to record, then choose Stop Recording from the Developer tab (you can also pick Pause Recording if you need to take a breather). Once you’ve created macros, you can launch them via the keyboard shortcut or ribbon bar button you’ve created, or you can click Macros on the Developer tab to see a full list.
How to set up macros for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge
Many of us do much of our computing inside a web browser these days, so it can be useful to enable macros here too. While there isn’t yet a browser with macro support built in, you can add the ability to record tasks to Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge by installing the comprehensive iMacros extension. It’s free with a limit of 50 steps per macro, and you can remove this limit and get more features with a one-off $99 upgrade payment.
Once you’ve installed the browser extension, you’ll see a new iMacros button in the toolbar at the top of the screen. Click this to open the tool’s main interface. Then switch to the Record tab and click Record Macro to work through the steps you want to save and repeat, on whatever website you like. When you’re done, click Stop and then Save & Close.
To get back to your macros and launch them again, switch to the Play tab inside the extension window; you can also edit and delete macros by right-clicking on them. It’s all simple and straightforward, though if you know your way around a code editor you can manually edit the macro scripts as well.
How to repeat tasks in other Windows programs
If you want to repeat tasks in a Windows application that doesn’t have built-in macro support, you can turn to a third-party program for the job. We don’t have the space here for a full round-up of options—there are quite a few—but we can point you toward one of our favorites, which is the free Pulover’s Macro Creator.
The cluttered interface can be a little off-putting at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it—and there are plenty of example macros included to help you figure out how everything works (double-click on any of them for a closer look). You’ll also find plenty of help and tutorials on the application’s official website.
To jump in and create your own macros, click the red record button on the toolbar, then hit F9 to begin recording keystrokes and mouse actions. When you’re done, hit F9 again—your new macro will be added to the master list and can be edited and run from there. For playing back selected macros, F3 is the default key, but you can customize this (as well as many other settings and features in the program).
How to record macros for other macOS programs
There aren’t quite as many macro recorders on macOS as there are on Windows, but there’s still a decent enough selection for you to browse through. These recorders will create macros that work across any program, so you can enlist their help if you need to repeat tasks in applications that don’t have native macro support.
Of the options that we’ve seen, Macro Recorder is one of the best: It will set you back $7.89, but there’s a free trial you can use to see if it suits your needs first. The tool manages to be simple to use and intuitive, while still offering several more advanced features that are likely to be useful (such as the option to delay recording by a certain number of seconds).
To record a new macro, simply click the Start Recording button at the top, then work through the actions on your Mac that you’d like to record. When you’re done, click Stop Recording. You can save and load macros by clicking Menu in the top left corner, and if you choose Menu, then Settings, you can customize various options (including which mouse and keyboard activities to record and which to ignore).