In an attempt to be productive, I spend a lot of time optimizing my workflow with organizational tools, apps, and utilities. Some may argue that I’d be more productive if I just quit trying new stuff and focused on cranking out work with the tools I already know, but I’m a firm believer that a little extra time experimenting upfront can pay huge dividends in the long run.
In all of my experimenting, I’ve landed on a pretty solid list of the best Mac utility apps for organization and productivity that I can’t live without — the kind of tools that make people say, “How’d you do that?” Some are probably obvious, but hopefully you come away with 1 or 2 new ideas of how to optimize your productivity.
Every list MUST start with Alfred. Alfred replaces the built in Spotlight function on your Mac. Not sure what that is? Type command-space bar.
See that little search field pop up? That’s Spotlight. It searches your Mac for whatever you type. If you search for an application, you can then open that app immediately without either having to reach for your mouse, moving to the dock, and clicking the app icon, or (worse) opening a Finder window, going to Applications, then opening the app you want. On the surface, that may sound insignificant or unnecessary. Unnecessary? Maybe. Insignificant? No way! As you’ll find as we continue to dive into additional tools, all of these opportunities to save 10, 15, or 30 seconds here and there really add up over the course of a day, let alone a week, month, or year, and can prove to be significant optimizations to your productive capacity.
So, back to Alfred, it’s like Spotlight on steroids. At its core, it can search your Mac and launch apps, which is still my main use case. However, if you dig a little deeper, it’s functionality seems almost limitless. Beyond just searching for apps and files, you can do quick math without having to open a calculator; you can search the web without first having to open your browser; you can check definitions without opening a dictionary; you can check your clipboard history; control your music; view your contacts; and so much more.
That’s just the default functionality. You can also add what are called workflows that allow you to do all kinds of amazing, time-saving things. I won’t even attempt to get into all of that, but as a representation of its powers, I can control the lights in my house just from this little utility app. It comes in handy when the kids are sleeping and I don’t want to yell at Alexa to turn the lights off.
Alfred technically has clipboard history functionality, but I actually prefer a separate tool to handle that – Paste.
You might be wondering, “What exactly does clipboard history mean?” Great question. By default, your Mac is only going to save the most recent thing you copied. How often do you copy one thing, then copy something else, then maybe something else, then realize you want to paste something you copied earlier? If you’re like me, it’s non-stop. A tool to manage your clipboard history helps with that. It, as the name suggests, saves a history of everything you’ve copied so that you can paste more than just the most recent item you’ve copied. For this, I use Paste.
I love Paste for a few reasons. You can trigger it with a super handy keyboard shortcut (shift-command-v) that is not very different than the command-v keyboard shortcut you’re used to. Once you do that, a beautiful, yet simple little visual interface pops up from the bottom of your screen. You can scroll through your clipboard history, search, or view your “pinboards” which are snippets you’ve saved so they’re handy.
Another cool thing is that your clipboard syncs across your devices. Most people probably only work on one machine, but if you happen to work on multiple machines, you can copy something on your MacBook, head over to your iMac and see everything you copied on your MacBook.
One of the best ways to save time is to use a tool that automatically expands short text snippets. If you don’t know what a “saved snippet” is – it’s basically just a shortcut you can type which then auto expands to a longer message. If I find myself typing the same thing more than 3 times in a day, I’ll save it as a snippet. This comes in super handy for me when coding, but it’s great for email too. I often like to end emails with “Let me know of any questions – happy to chat further.” So, instead of having to type that out every time, I created a snippet where all I have to type is “lmk” and it will then auto-expand and type out the full message for me. That’s just one super simple example, but I use it for ev.er.ree.thing.
Many of the tools I use have some sort of “saved snippet” functionality built right in — Paste has it, Sublime Text/Code/Atom all have it, Slack has a version of it, I believe Macs even have something built right into the operating system. However, I still prefer a stand-alone tool to handle my saved snippets – TextExpander.
I find that it makes more sense to keep all of my text snippets in one spot, as opposed to storing some code snippets in my text editor, salutations in Slack, etc. With just one, centralized tool, I can use all of my snippets anywhere. If/when I try a new code editor, I don’t have to port over all of my saved snippets because TextExpander makes them available anywhere.
Say the next Slack competitor comes along and you want to switch – no need to transfer snippets if you’re using TextExpander
Say I get a new computer. I just install TE, log in to my account, and I instantly have my entire library ready to go.
My biggest complaint is that they recently switched to a monthly subscription model without really adding much additional functionality (just in my opinion) — but hey, everyone’s got to make a living. TE is still a must have in my toolbox.
Rocket is probably my absolute favorite app on my Mac because it allows me to use emojis anywhere, anytime, with just a quick keyboard command. If you’re familiar with Slack, Rocket works similarly in that you can type a colon and then some word, “poop” for example. This then let’s you insert the poop emoji anywhere you are, even right here 💩.
Not only is it awesome to be able to drop in an emoji anywhere, anytime, without taking your hands off the keyboard, but the idea of using emojis also fits into the theme of this article – efficiency. Why say, “Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious!”, when you can just do “😂”? It’s a super efficient way to communicate that we have fully adopted in our office.
during our review process, a colleague notified me that the operating system has a built-in way of accomplishing similar functionality – just type ‘control + command + space bar’ – slightly less seamless, but pretty handy!
If you walk past my computer, you’ll notice that my application windows are almost always organized to perfection (for me). We all have numerous applications open at once, often times with multiple windows of that same app open as well. Stay helps you keep the madness under control.
Here’s how it works. You open an application and position it how you like. You can then “save” the location of this application window (or windows) for future use. This becomes powerful when you close an application or restart your computer, then reopen an application, Stay will automatically reposition your windows to the layout you prefer so you’re ready to start working.
The best way to understand this is to see an example. I’ll use my Finder setup as an example because I love having 4 Finder windows always open and it’s a layout that most people ask me about when they see it…
You can do this same thing for all the applications on your Mac, then run Stay once, and everything quickly reorganizes itself to perfection. 😍 🤓 It’s like beautiful OCD magic!
To support Stay, I love to use a tool like Magnet (Window Tidy is another great option). Magnet lets you snap windows to different sizes by moving an application window to a certain area of your screen and/or using key commands. Like a “magnet”, it snaps into place. This is great to quickly organize your open windows into a way that is more manageable. Then, you can “save” the position of these windows using Stay (see above).
This comes in super handy when, for example, I want to put a couple applications up side by side. I can just drag one to the right of the screen and it snaps into place, drag the other to the left and in 2 seconds, I’ve got a perfect side by side.
Security is super important, so every. single. person should have a password management tool on their computers, phones, tablets – everything! If you don’t, stop right now, and go get 1Password. It’s worth every penny.
It does a few things that are super critical:
- creates super secure passwords for you
- saves those super secure passwords for you and syncs them across all of your devices (if you allow it to)
- signs into your accounts for you, using your super secure passwords, so that you don’t have to remember them all, all the time
- saves you time by not having to sort through all your post-it notes of passwords
Here’s how it works. You create one password (hence the name) that locks your “vault” (your vault is where all your passwords are stored). Then, you can either manually add in all of your different accounts to this vault – email accounts, bank accounts, social accounts, etc. – or, every time you go to a website and sign in, 1Password will pop up and say “hey, want me to save that for you?” Yes! Always say yes. It’s then automatically saved into your vault.
Again, to get into that vault, you just have to enter your one, main password. You can then either copy and paste your credentials or use a handy keyboard command (command-\) to autofill your info for you when you’re on your bank website, for example.
The idea here is that as long as you can remember just one secure password, you’re able to make super long, complicated passwords because you don’t actually have to remember any of them.
Lastly, I know you keep hearing that you shouldn’t have the same password for multiple accounts – you really shouldn’t. 1Password makes this possible.
Lastly, it seemed appropriate to wrap up with a “clean up” tool. I recently tried CleanMyMac and really liked it. It’s now permanently running on my machine, monitoring my hard drive, memory, battery, etc.
Similar to almost all of these tools, it doesn’t necessarily offer anything that you can’t already do be default on your Mac, but it just makes things easier, bringing everything into one nice, well-designed app.
As noted, it’s constantly running to help clean up issues that may pop up like apps hogging memory or my hard disk getting full. However, I also run a manual cleanup about once a week. On average, this finds about 10-15GB of space that can be freed up. In the day and age of smaller (yet faster) solid-state hard drives, those extra gigabytes are precious!
I then run a few more maintenance tasks on about a monthly basis – verifying the startup disk; checking and repairing disk permissions; those types of things.
Maintenance tasks can be somewhat intimidating. A tool like CleanMyMac makes those important ongoing maintenance items much more approachable – that makes it worth it in my book.
Just for fun, a couple honorable mentions…
- Bear – The best app to replace the default “Notes” app. It’s gorgeous to look at and use. I use it every day. I wrote this article on it 😉
- Sip – A nice little tool that saves color palettes and a history of all the color codes you may have copied to your clipboard – super handy for designers and developers.
- Karibener – This is a complicated one to explain, but it essentially remaps keys on your keyboard to different functions. You wouldn’t ever want to do this, but technically, you could remap the “a” key so that every time you press “a” on your keyboard, it actually types “b”. A more realistic example – I rarely ever use the Caps Lock key (and if I need all caps, I can just hold down Shift), so I remapped it so that when I press “caps lock”, the computer thinks I’m actually typing “command+control+option+shift”. This then lets me create a bunch of custom keyboard shortcuts to do things I run on a regular basis. For example, I created a keyboard shortcut of “command+control+option+shift+r” that runs Stay (see above) which organizes all of my open application windows. Rather than having to press all five keys at the same time, I can just press “caps lock + r” and the command runs because I’ve mapped “caps lock” to “command+control+option+shift”.
- BetterTouchTool – Customize how your mouse and/or trackpad works. For example, when I mean to “left click” on my mouse, I often stray to the middle of my mouse so it’s more of a “middle click”. This doesn’t always register as a left click. BTT let’s me customize the width of the left side of my mouse so I have a larger clickable area. I realize that sounds crazy, but I would waste so much timing clicking and nothing would happen – this fixes that.