What is the best productivity app on the Mac?
We all have our opinions, and declaring the “best” app is almost impossible. What might be the best app for me may not be right for you, and an app you love may not be quite what I need.
One advantage that Asian Efficiency has is we have a team that lives and breathes productivity and we’ve been evaluating tools and productivity methods for years. We debate apps internally every day, and we all come at it from different angles, backgrounds, and age ranges.
In addition, we have a highly intelligent productivity community called The Dojo where tools and techniques are shared.
When I started to compile our annual list of the best Mac apps this year, I polled the growing AE team and members of the Dojo to see what the favorites are.
Here’s our list of the top 10 productivity apps of 2018, and some more tools that didn’t quite make the top 10, but are still great.
(Just remember – you want to avoid Shiny Object Syndrome. Only start digging into a tool if it is something that you actually need! If you don’t need it, set it aside for now. It’ll still be available when you’re ready to put it to use.)
Whenever we set up a new Mac, these are the first apps we install. While we can use a Mac without them, we’re not nearly as productive. A good productivity app should reduce friction and amplify good habits, and all of these meet those criteria.
#1: Dropbox – Dropbox is essential for how we work at Asian Efficiency. All of our shared files, blog posts, media, etc. are stored in Dropbox which makes it very easy to collaborate on projects as a team even though we are located all over the world. This is the very first thing I install when setting up a new Mac as it provides the sync and storage foundation for my workflow. iCloud Drive is getting better and better so maybe someday Dropbox won’t be necessary, but for our needs it is hard to beat.
#2: 1Password – The absolute best password manager for Mac. Essentially it works by having you creating one master password, which then grants access to all your other passwords. These passwords can be randomly generated inside of 1Password, which means that all your individual passwords are incredibly strong and near-impossible to hack. You don’t have to remember all of these passwords though as your single master password gives you (and only you) easy access to all your other passwords and can even be triggered when unlocked via a keyboard shortcut that autofills the information in your browser for you. 1Password also gives you the ability to store credit card information, secure notes, software serial numbers, and other important (but sensitive) information like passport numbers, your SSN and bank account details securely. See an example of how Thanh uses it in his life.
If you need to securely share some passwords with others, there is 1Password Families and 1Password Teams. These let you have Personal Vaults and Shared Vaults so you can keep some passwords just for yourself and some passwords available to family members or co-workers. With 1Password Teams, you can make it so that some staff can launch and log in to websites without being able to see the password. My wife and I use the Family plan at home, and it is great to be able to share passwords for important sites.
#3: TextExpander – TextExpander does exactly what it says on the tin – expands text. It sounds really simple, but once you develop the mindset of watching for things you type repeatedly you’ll start to see hundreds of things that you can automate with TextExpander. You can even use the more advanced features like fill-in snippets, date/time math, and optional selections to create some very powerful and personal email templates. We have a video guide to using TextExpander if you need some help to get started with it. Some members of the Dojo prefer Typinator which is not subscription-based, but members of the AE team like TextExpander.
#4: Alfred/Launchbar – Alfred and Launchbar are both classified as application launchers, but that’s just scratching the service of what these apps can do. They allow you to find and open files quickly, perform quick calculations, search your clipboard history, control iTunes media playback, create custom searches, and so much more. There are even custom workflows you can create or install to expand their functionality and control your Mac with the keyboard. Think of them as Spotlight on steroids. Both of these applications are excellent, and which one you decide to use will be determined by personal taste (Mike and I use Alfred, Thanh uses Launchbar). Just make sure you pick one!
#5: OmniFocus – The absolute best task manager for Mac and my digital brain. OmniFocus is a powerful task manager with a very nice user interface which makes it a joy to use on Mac, iOS, and Apple Watch. OmniFocus has a lot of features and is very powerful so it can be a bit intimidating to get up and running with it, but if you invest the time to learn how to use it, it will be time well spent. We have a whole library of free OmniFocus tutorials here or if you want our step-by-step system you can join our course here. We’re really excited about OmniFocus 3 that is coming out in 2018 – among other features there’ll be tags, more flexible scheduling, and a limited web interface.
#6: Keyboard Maestro – Keyboard Maestro is an application to launch macros on your Mac, which can be used to automate just about any repetitive task. Basically, Keyboard Maestro automatically performs certain actions whenever a particular trigger is activated, which could be something like a hotkey combination, connecting to a wireless network, or even connecting a specific USB device to your Mac. Once you start applying these macros, it will change how you use your computer. Mike wrote an article about Keyboard Maestro awhile back that includes some video examples to help you get started. A recent Keyboard Maestro use case for me: when I start up my Twitter app on my Mac, it will automatically kill it after 5 minutes. This stops me from getting lost into reading about whatever the outrage of the day is.
#7: Hazel – Hazel is an automated file organization utility that can watch whatever folders you tell it to and organize your files according to whatever rules you create. For example, I have a Hazel rule that watches my Download folder and if anything is over 1 week old it labels it “Red” and moves it to my “Action Items” folder on my desktop, which I clean up at the end of the day. Hazel is also an essential part of pretty much any paperless workflow, and we have an article that takes you through a simple setup. For more Hazel tips, check out this article. Inside the Dojo we have even more workflows that are shared by our members.
#8: nvALT – nvALT is in desperate need of an update, but it’s still an essential part of our capture workflow. Forked by Brett Terpstra, nvALT is a quick way to take notes using just your keyboard. Just hit a keyboard combination and nvALT opens, ready to capture whatever you throw at it. As you type, it will search your existing notes and if you want to create a new note just hit “Enter”. It’s a very simple, lightweight program and best of all it’s free so there’s no reason not to try it. Rumor has it that Brett is working on a commercial replacement, but we’ve used it so much over the years that we will gladly pay whatever he decides to charge for it.
#9: PopClip – PopClip is a menu bar application that opens up an iOS-style interface whenever you highlight text on your Mac. It includes the standard commands like cut, copy and paste, but also has extensions that let you do a lot of different things (like formatting text or sending to OmniFocus). You can send emails, post tweets, apply Markdown rules, etc.
#10: Bartender – One of the great things about the Mac is that there are a ton of awesome Menu bar applications (like the aforementioned PopClip & nvALT), but if you have a lot of them your Menu bar will quickly become cluttered. Bartender keeps you menu bar clean by controlling which application appear in the main menu bar, which ones appear only in the Bartender menu bar (a sub-menu for your menu bar), and which ones are hidden completely.
Best of the Rest
There are a lot of other applications that we use on a daily/weekly basis that play a very important part in our workflows.
“Netflix for Apps”
There are a lot of great apps in this list. Before you pull out your credit card, we want to point you to a service that many AE community members love: SetApp. With SetApp, you pay a monthly subscription and get access to a large list of Mac apps, including many in this article. The subscription includes upgrades too.
As we mentioned last year, expect more productivity apps go the subscription route. SetApp is a great way to get some of the best apps for one price.
Communications & Calendar
Airmail, Postbox, MailPlane, MailMate – There are a lot of great email clients available for Mac, but Apple Mail (or Mail.app) isn’t one of them. Apple Mail seems to always have Gmail-related bugs, and it doesn’t support Gmail keyboard shortcuts which can save you a lot of time processing email. Fortunately, there are several great alternatives. Airmail is an absolutely beautiful email client that integrates with just about every productivity app out there. Postbox is a powerful email client with some unique features (like domain fencing, which prevents you from sending email from the wrong account accidentally). MailPlane is great if you like the Gmail web interface but prefer a native app, and MailMate is an incredibly powerful keyboard-centric email client if you like writing in Markdown. Inside our Escape Your Email course we go in more detail how to setup an email workflow with these apps for maximum efficiency.
BusyCal – BusyCal is an incredibly powerful calendaring application that has a lot of advanced features (like Mike’s personal favorite, the ability to set a custom week length view). It supports pretty much every calendar type available and is rock solid.
Zoom – ”That’s it, we need a replacement for Skype!” said Thanh when our Daily Huddle went off the rails due to connectivity issues one time too many. We settled on Zoom, and it has been rock-solid every since. All of our team meetings, both voice and video, are done with Zoom and we’re happy with it.
Slack/Hipchat – We have virtually no internal email here at Asian Efficiency, and much of that is due to Hipchat which we use as an internal communication tool. If you need an answer to something right away or need to have a discussion about a certain topic, a tool like Hipchat or Slack will allow you to reach a resolution much faster than an email thread. Atlassian, the maker of Hipchat, is releasing Stride, which we plan to test out this year.
Tweetbot – There aren’t many great third-party Twitter clients, but Tweetbot is one of them. It’s a beautiful and full-featured Twitter client that has fantastic support for multiple accounts and lists, and also has powerful mute filters to block out the noise and show you only what you want to see. Now that Twitter has announced the end of their Mac app, it is even more useful.
Safety & Security
Backblaze – If you don’t have an online backup of your hard drive, sign up for Backblaze right now. There are several online backup solutions available, but the AE team likes Backblaze because the Mac client is much more polished and easy to use than some of the other alternatives.
Encrypt.me – Most people don’t think twice about using public wi-fi (but they should). Encrypt.me (formerly known as Cloak) is the easiest way to automatically secure your connection on public networks and keep your sensitive data safe from prying eyes.
Little Snitch – A firewall program for the Mac. It’s a little annoying in the beginning when every program starts calling home to check for updates, but once it’s up and running it runs just fine and will tell you when someone is trying to access your computer (or when an app is trying to connect out without your knowledge).
Graphics & Information Sharing
Graphic – If you are a designer or someone who works heavily with vector drawing and illustrations, you are probably subscribed to Creative Cloud and using Illustrator and Photoshop. If you don’t need that much power (or don’t want to pay for that subscription), Graphic is a well-designed and surprisingly feature-rich vector application that is inexpensive.
PDFpen – PDFpen is the swiss army knife of PDF editors. Developed by Smile Software (makers of TextExpander), PDFpen allows you to do things to PDFs you didn’t think were possible like edit text & images, and includes OCR to make your PDF documents searchable (which makes it an essential part of any paperless workflow).
Snagit – There are many apps for capturing and marking up screenshots (including Tapes mentioned below), but if you want an app that does it all, Snagit is one of the most powerful. You can quickly capture images and video with a few keypresses, do all sorts of annotations, and quickly share them to the clipboard or the cloud. If you share it to the cloud, it will automatically put the link in your clipboard. You can even do scrolling and panoramic capture to capture more than what you see on the screen at any one time.
Tapes/Loom – We are big on documentation here at Asian Efficiency, and we use Tapes often to record quick screencasts that are automatically uploaded to show others how to do certain tasks. This is also great for customer support as it allows us to demonstrate via video how to solve customer problems. Tapes hasn’t been updated in quite some time, but Loom is a more modern replacement.
Writing & Ideas
Byword – I tend to do most of my writing in Ulysses (see below), but Byword is a beautiful Markdown editor that is great for writing plain text that is not part of a larger project.
Day One – We’re big fans of daily journaling, and Day One is far and away the best app for this. The Mac app syncs with the iOS version, which is where this app really shines.
DEVONthink Pro Office – If you have a huge amount of information to keep track of, DEVONthink is hard to beat. You can capture research, documents, email, and web clipping to one place, and DEVONthink’s artificial intelligence can help you file and find the information you need. It’s a complex application, but many power users embrace it. Here is a quick guide we have written.
Evernote/OneNote – Evernote is a great tool for storing reference material. It’s free with a paid upgrade for additional features and more storage space, and allows you to quickly store information using the web clipper and access your information when you need it on any device. OneNote is free and has a huge fanbase, especially among Windows users. Its tight integration with MS Office makes it a compelling choice for people in that ecosystem, though the Mac app is more limited than the Windows version.
MindNode –MindNode is a great option for mind mapping software and has a beautiful user interface. There is iCloud sync between Mac and iOS, and it has a fantastic OmniFocus export feature. You can brainstorm project ideas and then have the project/tasks set up in OmniFocus with two clicks. Anytime I need to plan things out (including this article), I start in MindNode.
OmniGraffle – OmniGraffle is what we use to create most of our AE diagrams. It’s essentially the Mac equivalent of Microsoft’s Visio, except that it is much easier to use, and you can create some really powerful diagrams without having an extensive knowledge of modeling software. It also has an extensive built-in stencil function where you can search for extension stencils that other people have uploaded online to share.
Pages/Numbers/Keynote – Formerly known as the iWork suite, these three applications will meet the business/professional needs of almost anyone. And if you bought a new Mac recently, you probably got them for free. The real standout here is Keynote, which is both very powerful and easy to use. The animated transitions that are included with Keynote are top notch and allow you to make very professional looking presentations quickly and easily.
Reeder – If you still rely on RSS to keep up with your favorite websites (like this one) then Reeder is the best option available. Nothing else comes close in terms of design, and Reeder supports many different RSS aggregators like Feedbin, Feedly, Feed Wrangler, and many more.
Screenflow – Screenflow is an essential tool that we use when creating video course content (like the Dojo training videos). It allows you to record your screen easily and edit your screencasts with callouts, transitions, annotations, and much more.
Ulysses – Ulysses is an excellent pro writing app with a beautiful user interface that is designed to support your writing. It works well for writing blog posts, articles, and even longer-form content. You can export to HTML, Markdown, ePub, PDF, Word, or even straight to Medium or WordPress. These very words are being typed in Ulysses.
Amphetamine – Amphetamine is an updated version of the beloved Caffeine menu bar app. It has one main purpose: it keeps your computer (and more importantly your screen) from going to sleep. Very handy when on long Skype or webinar viewing sessions.
Chrome / Safari – macOS has a built-in web browser (Safari) that’s very good and very fast. I tend to use Chrome more as it is well-integrated with Google web apps and I like the way tabs work, but others on the Asian Efficiency team use Safari. One downside of Chrome is it tends to eat up your laptop battery a lot quicker than Safari. Which browser you use is personal preference.
Copied – This app allows you to copy and paste back and forth between your Mac and iOS devices. Think of it as Handoff for copy/paste commands. It isn’t as seamless as Universal Clipboard in iOS 10/macOS Sierra, but it gives you more control and flexibility.
CleanMyMac – Disk space can be scarce (especially on laptops), and CleanMyMac is a utility that shows you exactly what is eating up all your precious hard drive capacity and you can free up a lot of space with it. You can also keep an eye on your Mac’s health to make sure it is running at top performance.
Default Folder X – This could probably be in the Top 10 section, because when I use a Mac without it I miss it terribly. It adds a wrapper to the Finder’s Save window which gives you quick access to open, recent, or favorite files and folders. A real time saver.
Dropzone 3 – Dropzone is a menu bar application that does two things: 1) It allows you to execute common actions on a file by dragging over the appropriate “hotspot” (like uploading to FTP), and 2) it gives you a “Drop Bar” where you can collect files before doing something with them. Mike uses this all the time to collect a file from the Finder location before he drags and drops it into another application like a Keynote presentation.
Flux – Flux is useful for anyone who works at night and cares about their quality of sleep. The blue light from your computer actually messes with your body’s natural circadian rhythm and tricks it into thinking that it’s not as late as it really is so that your body stops producing melatonin (the chemical that helps you fall asleep naturally). Flux adjusts the color temperature of your screen to a “warmer” orangish shade that is easier on your eyes and doesn’t keep you up all night even if you have to work late. macOS now (thankfully!) has Night Shift built in, but many people find that Flux does a better job.
Moom – Apple has very basic version split-screen functionality, but Moom remains a very powerful window management app. Moom allows you to quickly move and/or resize windows by either hovering your mouse over the green “Maximize” icon or by setting your own keyboard commands. It allows you to resize windows according to pre-determined grid sizes, and has a ton of customization options.
Shush – Mike works from home a lot and has 5 kids, so his house can be a little noisy sometimes. This can be problematic for team meetings, but Shush allows him to mute his microphone except when he presses a hotkey to activate it. This way people on the other end of my Skype conversations aren’t distracted by the background noise. You can also set it as “push-to-silence” making this application an effective “cough button” for podcast recording.
Transmit – There are a lot of FTP clients out there that will get the job done, but Transmit is the best. It has a ton of features, a great user interface, and is the fastest FTP client out there. If you transfer files often, Transmit is great.
Webcam Settings – More and more of our time is spent on camera doing video conferencing, webinars, and recording video. Many times we don’t have professional lighting and camera gear to do this, so sometimes the video quality doesn’t look as good as it could. Webcam Settings is a little menu bar app that lets you adjust exposure time, contrast, saturation, and white balance for your built-in or external webcam. If you have an external USB camera that supports it, you can also adjust auto-exposure and focus, zoom, pan, tilt, and many other hardware-level controls. It’s not vain to want to look your best on camera!
VirtualBox – Are you a Mac user that needs to run Windows? One option is to buy a separate Windows computer, but I like to use virtualization software to run Windows on my Mac. There are paid utilities for this, but for my needs the free open-source VirtualBox works perfectly.
Deliveries – If you order a lot of things online, you’ll definitely want an easy way to keep track of your packages. Deliveries does this, and will even detect a tracking number on your clipboard and add it to the application for you. You can even get notifications when your packages are delivered if you’re so inclined.
Paprika – If you cook, you should check out Paprika as a recipe storage solution. Paprika syncs with your iOS devices for use in the kitchen, allows you keep your recipes organized, and can even tell you what ingredients you need to pick up at the store.
Soulver – This is one of those I-didn’t-know-I-needed-it-but-once-I-tried-it-I-love-having-it apps. The best way to describe it is a natural language calculator. It lets you work things out and do calculations, formulas, currency, unit conversions, and much more. These can all be done with calculators and spreadsheets of course, but there is something helpful about being able to work things out the way I think them. It’s one of those apps I leave running in the background and flip to to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Be Focused Pro/Vitamin-R – We are big fans of the Pomodoro Technique for making progress on your most important task of the day. Be Focused Pro is a simple but nice pomodoro timer for the Mac, and if you need something with more power and flexibility, check out Vitamin-R.
Tooth Fairy – Do you use AirPods, and do you use them on multiple devices? Tooth Fairy is a small menu bar app that lets you quickly switch your AirPods to your Mac with the mouse or keyboard. No messing around in sound or Bluetooth settings required.
Timing – It’s difficult to know what changes you need to make unless you know how you are spending your time. Timing is a great Mac app that logs what you are working on (or are not working on, as the case may be) so that you can see how productive you really are. If you’re a Dojo member, there’s a discount code available for you inside the customer area (one of many perks being a Dojo member).
See anything we missed?
Did your favorite Mac app not make our list? Let us know what Mac apps are an essential part of your workflow in the comments.
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