Being productive in the modern age of information is a difficult task. There are simply too many distractions: notification, emails, messages which compete for our attention and make concentrating on a task harder than it should be.
With this article, I want to outline software and tricks that I learned to make myself more productive on a Mac. A lot of these apps are also cross-platform so even if you don’t have a Mac this guide might be useful
So sit back, get a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy the read!
The way I organised this software list is by topic. I also added a quick description of the app so that you can skim through whichever one you are interested in.
Most of these apps are free. Those that are not are marked with “($)”:
- Dozer: Menu Bar Icon Management
- Stats: CPU, RAM and Temperature usage
- Spark: Better Mail
- ItsyCal: Menubar Calendar
- Numi: Menubar Calculator
- TickTick: Task Manager
- BitWarden: Password Manager
- Vivaldi: Chrome Without Compromises
- Amethyst: Window Management and Desktop Management
- Latest: Keep Your Apps up to Date
- KeyboardCleanTool: Clean up your Keyboard
- Lepton: The ultimate snippet manager
- Amphetamine: Keep your Mac awake
- MiniDiary: Record your thoughts the smart way
- Little Snitch ($): Take control of in and out traffic of your Mac
- uBlock Origin: Stop ads from distracting you
- Signal: Text Privately
- Other Browsing Essentials
- LaunchBar ($): Finding files more quickly
- BetterTouchTool ($): Master Shortcuts, Trackpad Gestures and the TouchBar
- Onyx: Clean up your Mac
- DaisyDisk ($): Find out what’s taking the “Other” space
- Netron: Quickly inspect ML models
- Spoof: Spoof your Mac Address
Dozer: Menu Bar Icon Management
Productivity requires you to avoid distractions and clutter. The menubar is active throughout any work you do so it’s essential to keep clutter to a minimum.
Sometimes you have apps that are essential to your workflow like Docker or a VPN Utility, that live in the menu bar but you don’t need to look at constantly.
A way to deal with this is with Dozer. You can hide your apps and use a shortcut to unhide them and see the full menu bar.
This simple trick can save you from having thousands of icons in your vision to concentrate on what you are currently doing.
Stats: CPU, RAM and Temperature usage
If you are a developer, or running heavy apps you might be interested in simple stats like CPU, GPU, RAM, Network, Disk usage and Temperature of your device.
Going into the activity monitor is an option, but it is tedious if you do this often. Keeping it in the menubar (perhaps in Dozer’s overflow menubar) could save you a few clicks.
Stats does precisely that. It keeps all these useful stats about your mac on your menubar. You can customise each widget’s appearance, value and there’s also an option for fan control (though it seems like the authors are still working to make it better).
Spark: Better Mail
As an avid Apple Mail user, about two years ago I switched first to AirMail and then I settled on Spark. It is available on Android and iOS (and iPadOS) and the company is also working on a Windows versions.
Spark has an intuitive User Interface and integrated calendar which make creating events and sending emails very easy (and also reduces clutter in the Dock).
One of my most used features is the swipe gestures:
These make it easy to sort emails by just swiping on them. You can also pin emails so they remain at the top, for things like airplane tickets or important emails.
I particularly use this feature to turn emails into TickTick Tasks.
One of Spark’s key features is the Smart Notification. It only lets personal or important emails give you a notification on desktop, while muting other emails such as newsletters (or specific senders).
This feature is optional, but I encourage you to try it. It works wonders for me.
Send Later, Email Templates and More
Other features in spark include a Send Later feature that lets you choose when to send an email (time and date). Email Templates for when you repeat the format of your emails for example when sending weekly reports or when approaching an investor by email. These features and more can save you valuable time and effort.
If you are in a larger team you should check out Spark for Teams. I have not used it personally but I’ve heard great things about it.
Itsycal: Menubar Calendar
Perhaps one of the simplest yet useful apps in the list. Itsycal stays in your menubar reminding you of the current date, but can also show you events for any day you select. It is extremely useful in case you want to look at the schedule for a day and set meetings quickly.
Numi: Menubar Calculator
Numi is a menubar calculator that you can summon with a shortcut. The nice thing about Numi compared to the built-in calculator is that you can have a long formula and essentially modify it, convert it to a different unit, and also add text descriptions to a formula.
I personally also use Numi for quick notes when I need some paper. Numi has a stay-on-top feature that makes it ideal for this, especially coupled with a BetterTouchTool touchbar button (check out the section on BetterTouchTool).
TickTick: Task Manager
Task managers are a must-use tool. Whether you are a student or just a busy person, organizing your tasks is essential to achieve true productivity. TickTick lets you organize tasks into categories (lists) and set dates, add notes (eg. comments), tags (eg. meeting, deadlines), and more interesting features which I will discuss in further details.
TickTick is also cross-platform (Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android etc…) which makes it a seamless experience to keep track of tasks on the go. TickTick also has a menubar option to see your tasks as well as widgets to add in the MacOS sidebar.
In the past, I have used Todoist but eventually hated the fact that the most wanted features were always delayed in favour of features that had little practicality. TickTick has a long history of listening to customers’ feedback and personally always had positive experiences with it.
One of my TickTick’s favourite feature is the calendar sync. It essentially syncs all your tasks as a calendar event which you can then visualise together with other events to organize your day. TickTick also offers an in-app calendar as a premium feature that syncs with your calendar helps you visualise tasks by category.
Quick Task Creation
You can add a task really quickly using a shortcut. This will prompt a pop-up text bar as shown above which automatically parses language and allows you to tag a task (#plan), set a deadline (2 pm), and assign it to a category (~development).
I coupled this shortcut with a long press of the top right corner of the trackpad using BetterTouchTool to make it extra fast to add tasks.
Keeping track of your habits is a must to make sure you do them regularly and get motivated. TickTick has a really nice UI for this, and unlike other habit-tracking apps, you can visualise your habits in the calendar (optionally) to make sure you don’t forget to do them, as well as a reminder and a small calendar view to keep track of your habits at a glance.
Pomodoro timers have become an essential tool for modern productivity. TickTick places the timer in the menubar and turns it into a countdown that helps you keep track of the current Pomo. You can also play relaxing background music and quickly access your tasks to add/remove/complete an item.
Once you start using TickTick you’ll never be able to go back. If you are currently using Reminders, Microsoft ToDo, or a calendar. TickTick takes productivity to the next level.
Bitwarden: Password Manager
Bitwarden is a fantastic open-source free password manager with amazing mobile apps and cloud service. The sync functionality makes it one of the few truly great password managers. It’s definitely a step up from in terms of features KeepassXC and a free alternative to 1Password (which is also not open-source and therefore not worth it).
Another nice feature is that you can check your password against a database of leaked passwords to make sure your accounts are secure.
Vivaldi: Chrome Without Compromises
There are two types of people: those that use Chrome and others that use Firefox (sorry Safari users…). Though both of these browsers have their issues:
- Firefox (for me) tends to have a cluttered UI, as well as a weird call-home feature active by default (seriously guys?). A lot of websites are also optimised for Chromium given the larger user-base. It also has no tab management feature built-in by default (though there are ways around it). The privacy features are great though.
- Chrome is really clean in terms of UI, nice tab management clustering, however the privacy is absolute garbage.
EDIT: I updated my take on Firefox removing the point about fewer add-ons and clarifying the points about privacy and adding tab management as relevant points.
Vivaldi is based on Chromium, has built-in privacy features (such as adblocking, tracker blocking), and will not support Google’s FLoC (ad technology to keep track of users). Vivaldi also takes tabs to the next level by “stacking them”:
You can also easily search through your tabs with CMD+E:
These features come in really handy when you are doing research and have 20+ tabs open and need to find a specific tab.
Vivaldi also has amazing tab-tiling features which make it useful to compare articles or items to buy side-by-side:
Vivaldi also has a long history of privacy features, listening to feedback and rolling features really quickly. I would recommend it if you want to upgrade your browser experience.
Having lots of windows sucks, especially once you are researching and multi-tasking. A good way to handle this is with a window manager like Amethyst. Amethyst automatically arranges windows in a systematic way, allowing you to see all your windows at once. You can control the behaviour from a menubar app which also allows you to disable the behaviour.
There are other simpler alternatives to Amethyst such as Magnet.
I now move on to useful apps that although I don’t use everyday, help me manage my device.
Latest: Keep Your Apps up to Date
Keeping all your apps up-to-date can be a pain, especially since you’ll have some apps from the App Store, some from the internet, and others from brew. Latest solves this problem by showing you all your apps and shows you those that need updating.
Very straightforward and useful!
KeyboardCleanTool: Clean up your Keyboard
Have you ever had to clean your keyboard and had to either lock your Mac hoping you don’t type your password incorrectly and get locked out, or having to turn off your laptop?
KeyboardCleanTool is a simple solution to disable your keyboard temporarily to clean up your keyboard. Elegant and slick!
Lepton: The Ultimate Snippet Manager
Coding is a very repetitive task. You’ve probably found yourself in a position of deja-vu having to rewrite code. A snippet manager can help you log pieces of code that you use often and search through tagged snippets to quickly reduce the time you spend writing code. The more you do this, the easier it will be to get a new project up and running.
Amphetamine: Keep your Mac awake
Amphetamine is a little utility app that stops your mac from going to sleep. Ever had to download something in the background or needing an SSH window on your terminal to quickly run something?
Amphetamine can help you. It can be controlled from the menubar and lets you program all sorts of rules to best manage your awake time.
MiniDiary: Record your thoughts the smart way
Recording thoughts regularly can help you train your memory as well as helping you reflect on past events. I’ve found MiniDiary to be a great app for this.
I think the nicest feature is the privacy and encryption focus of the whole app. Having a physical book to write your thoughts is nice, but paper can decade over time, can be lost, but most importantly physical access can allow anyone to read thoughts you may be uncomfortable sharing. MiniDiary encrypts everything you write and thus helps you being in control of your thoughts.
There’s also a relatively nice search feature that lets you search through your entries which can help you find specific thoughts. It’s especially powerful if you tag everything you write so you can search for specific keywords.
Privacy has become very important lately and arguably apps that improve privacy also improve your productivity by stopping distractions such as ads, or loading webpages faster. My favourite website about privacy-related software is Privacy Tools which has a much more extensive list of software you can use to protect your privacy. Here are my favourites:
Little Snitch ($): Take Control of in and out traffic of your Mac
Did you know that some apps do a call-home to send usage and personal data? Ever wondered if there’s a way to stop Google or Facebook from accessing data from your applications?
LittleSnitch is what you are looking for, it is a firewall that lets you control virtually everything that goes in and out of your Mac with an interactive UI. You can also have rules to stop your Mac from connecting to ad servers or malware servers. LittleSnitch will ask you whether you want an app to connect to a specific server and compile a list of rules.
Another nice feature is that it lets you visualise the location of the IP your Mac connects to as such:
This is also a perfect utility to identify any potential malware, as LittleSnitch will ask you whether you want to accept the connection or not.
uBlock Origin: Stop ads from from distracting you
uBlock origin is an open-source ad-blocker and a must-have plugin. Ads nowadays are probably one of the major sources of distraction while surfing the web. From stuff to buy on Amazon, to new music albums to holidays websites — It’s almost impossible to keep a sane mind while working.
uBlock Origin (don’t confuse it with uBlock) helps me stay focused on my tasks, I use it with ad lists that stop asking me whether I’m okay with advertisement cookies, and block anti-adblocks (No, I won’t turn off my adblock until you stop featuring intrusive ads). It is also great to block malware sites which makes surfing the web a better experience, even for less “techy” people.
Signal: Text Privately
Signal is by far my favourite messaging app. Nobody should have access to your conversations other than you. If you use Whatsapp, Messenger, or Instagram you’re essentially giving up on your right to privacy and it doesn’t need to be this way. Signal does pretty much everything you’d expect a messaging app to do: tagging, replying to a specific message, sending locations, reacting to a message, customize your background, as well as more niche features like automatically delete messages after a certain amount of time.
Ultimately, you may think “I don’t care about my privacy, big tech already knows everything about me, I’ve got nothing to hide”. This argument is silly in itself and has been debated over and over (there’s even a Wikipedia page about it here ). Essentially, would you say the same as your right to freedom of speech or to vote? Additionally, would you need to have something to hide to enjoy privacy? I think we can all agree that transparent walls in a bedroom, and the lack of curtains are a bad idea and you shouldn’t need to justify having them in your because you have got nothing to hide.
Privacy is also crucial for our own personal development, with Emilio Mordini arguing that it is by discovering that we can hide a part of ourselves from others we become “individuals”.
The main point is that you do not need to use the big companies to text your friends and Signal provides a solid alternative to it.
As you may expect from a privacy-focused company, Signal does not collect any data about you and it is run as a non-profit. If you can, you should consider donating (https://signal.org/donate/) to support server costs!
Other Browsing Essentials:
Finally, just some nice extensions that support your privacy:
For the last section of this blog, I have collated some apps and utilities which I consider essential but are a bit more complex to use. Let’s dive in!
Launchbar: Find Files More Quickly
Spotlight is okay, but have you ever searched for a specific file and tons of irrelevant results are displayed instead? This is because Spotlight’s index cannot be personalised much. Launchbar on the other hand allows you to add custom keywords to files, to help you find them faster. You can also customise the index to remove specific files and folders which is incredibly powerful when you have lots of development packages, since Spotlight has the bad habit of indexing pretty much everything you have on your laptop.
My favourite feature however is InstaSend. Once you select a file you are interested in, you can “Send” it to specific applications or modify it however you prefer. For example, say you want to find your wedding photo and send it by email, you’ll do
- Press “CMD+Space Bar” and part of the file name eg “Wed” for “Wedding.png”
- Press “Tab” (selects the current file)
- Type the app you want to send it to, like “Mail”
- Press Enter
As simple as that. This will create a new email with the attachment of your wedding photo. Of course, this is just one example of how to use LaunchBar’s actions. It has over 1000+ features which include things like Text Manipulation, Clipboard History and quick Web Searches.
You can then visualise how much time you’ve saved by using LaunchBar. These are my stats:
There are alternatives to LaunchBar, for example, Alfred or Raycast. I don’t feel strongly about any of them (though Raycast is still in its infancy), but I think having a launcher is essential for accessing your files without ever lifting up your hands from your keyboard.
BetterTouchTool: Master Shortcuts, Trackpad Gestures and the TouchBar
The Macbook has arguably the best trackpad available in the market of laptops. It’s slick, fast and accurate but what makes it truly powerful is combining it with BetterTouchTool (BTT). BTT allows you to convert any gesture you do on the trackpad, into a precise shortcut. You could lower your volume by rotating counter-clockwise, minimize a window by scrolling down with three fingers, activating do-not-disturb mode and way more actions that you should check out. BTT also has a really active community that shares presets and general tips.
But the fun does not end here. You can create keyboard shortcuts as well as customise your touchbar. BTT allows you to create any button in the touchbar to make it actually useful. There’s presets online available, my favorite is AquaTouch:
So essentially, BTT is a must-have tool to create your own shortcuts and make you more productive. The nice part about it is that you decide which shortcuts will do what, and have full control over it. The developer is also a really nice person and have chatted with him a few times over email.
Onyx: Clean up your Mac
Onyx is a tiny utility that lets you run maintenance and cleaning tasks as well as verifying your system. It helps you clean up cache that eventually ends up slowing down your mac and take up space, especially the “Other” space. I usually run it about once a month.
DaisyDisk: Find out what’s taking up space
DaisyDisk is a nice utility app that lets you visualise what’s taking space in your disk. Sometimes you forget about old files, big apps, or just junk that’s hidden in your disk. DaisyDisk runs a thorough search throughout your disk to identify what’s taking space and help you clean it. I find this super useful to clean up the “Other” space that a lot of times ends up taking more than half of the space on Mac (be careful with it though, do not delete random things).
Netron: Quickly Inspect ML Models
Rather niche problem but, have you ever had multiple ML models made with different architectures and then being unable to differentiate them? One quick thing you can do is to open the models with Netron, where you can quickly visualise the architecture and choose your model.
Spoof: Spoof your MAC Address
Spoofing your MAC address is almost always a good idea when you are using public Wi-Fi networks. This is because anyone can scan the network and identify your laptop and use your MAC address.
Another example where spoofing your MAC address is useful is when you connect to “timed” Wi-Fi networks, for example at airports. These work by recording your MAC address and timing your session. The nice thing about spoof is that you can quickly change identity and have virtually unlimited time on the free network, which is extremely useful in case your flight is cancelled and you have to wait hours at the airport.
This utility is also surprisingly simple to use, just a quick terminal command and POOF! you’re spoofed.
Of course, this guide is relatively short compared to the amount of good software out there. I think some honourable mentions should go to these apps:
- iTerm2 — makes using and customising the terminal a piece of cake.
- Zettlr — probably the most advanced and cleanest markdown editor (I used it to write this guide).
- youtube-dl — download music and videos from websites.
- AppCleaner — helps you uninstall an app properly.
- AudioBookBinder — bind MP3 files into audiobook files.
- iMazing — perfect replacement to iTunes.
- IINA, — modern and native video/audio player that does not suck like VLC.
How to Support Me
The best way to support me is to share this article with your friends! If you do want to donate money, please consider donating to the app developers themselves. Alternatively, please donate to the Signal Foundation (https://signal.org/donate/) or your local charity. COVID-19 has made life incredibly difficult for some people, so your donation will make a difference :)
Disclaimer: I do not use any affiliate links and I do not get any income if you decide to purchase these apps. These are the apps that I use every day and that I hope will make you more productive.