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Top 10 Productivity Apps for the Mac, 2016 Edition

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One of the best things about the Mac platform is that the tight integration between hardware and software which allows you to do some amazing things with Apple’s flagship product. But with so much quality software out there it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the options, so in this post we set out to show you the applications we consider essential for getting serious work done on your Mac.

Top 10

These are the apps that are irreplaceable. Whenever I set up a new Mac, these are the first applications I install. Using a Mac without these applications feels foreign because I use them so often.


#1: Dropbox – While you could argue that isn’t really an app (more of a service), Dropbox is essential for how we work at Asian Efficiency. All of our shared files, blog posts, 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 writing workflow.


#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.


#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.

If you’re a crazy person who hasn’t purchased TextExpander yet, you can use this link and save 10%. We also have a video guide to using TextExpander if you need some help to get started with it.


#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 not only find and open files quickly but also do things like quick calculations, search your clipboard history, control iTunes media playback, and so much more. 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. Just make sure you pick one!


#5: OmniFocus – The absolute best task manager for Mac and my digital brain. Nothing comes close to OmniFocus for serious task management, but it’s also evolved to have a very nice user interface which makes it a joy to use on any Apple platform (not just the Mac). 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 you’ll make it back in spades.

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.

Keyboard Maestro

#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. I wrote an article about Keyboard Maestro awhile back that includes some video examples to help you get started.


#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 our good friend Brooks Duncan over at DocumentSnap actually has a webinar he does on the app.

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 my workflow. Developed 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 I’ve used it so much over the years that I 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. There are tons of extensions already available, and Brett Terpstra has even created a free utility to make your own called PopMaker.


#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 I use on a daily/weekly basis that play a very important part in my workflow.

Safari / Chrome – Mac OS X has a built-in web browser (Safari) that’s actually very good and very fast. It’s our recommended browser, but it doesn’t support Flash out of the box. While I would actually argue that’s a good thing, occasionally you’ll stumble upon a Flash-dependent site and in that case we recommend Google Chrome. Chrome is also very good, but it tends to eat up your laptop battery a lot quicker than Safari.

Reeder – While many people look to Twitter for their news, 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.

Skype – Skype has its issues, but it’s still the best way to do voice and video calling on your Mac. We use it ever day for our daily huddles here at Asian Efficiency, and it’s indispensable if you do podcasting of any kind.

Airmail, Postbox, MailPlane, MailMate – There are a lot of great email clients available for Mac, but Apple Mail (or 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’re an email nerd (like me).

Tweetbot – There aren’t many great third-party Twitter clients (due to Twitter’s sometimes rocky relationship with its developer community), but Tweetbot is great. 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.

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, you need Transmit.

iThoughts X – iThoughtsX is the premier mind mapping app for Mac. It’s not the prettiest, but is easily the most functional and includes several features you won’t find anywhere else. The developer is incredibly responsive and the application is updated frequently. I personally use iThoughts X on an almost daily basis.

MindNode – MindNode is another great option for mind mapping software and has a great user interface. It’s more than enough for most people, but lacks some of the power-user features available in iThoughts X.

Screenflow – Screenflow is an essential tool that we use when creating video course content (like the Dojo modules). It allows you to record your screen easily and edit your screencasts with callouts, transitions, annotations, and much more.

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.

Byword – I prefer to use plain text whenever possible and usually write in Markdown, and Byword is an absolutely beautiful text editor that provides a distraction-free writing interface so I can focus on getting words on the page.

Ulysses – Ulysses is another excellent plain text editor with a couple great features that Byword lacks, but I usually prefer to write in Byword because it handles plain text files stored in Dropbox better than Ulysses does. If you have a longer writing project though, Ulysses is great at organizing groups of files.

Scrivener – Scrivener is the king of long-form writing tools. It has a lot of very powerful research and organizational tools that are great if you’re working on a longer project (like a book, for example). Scrivener is overkill for my everyday use, but it is still an essential Mac app for me.

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.

Evernote – 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.

BusyCal – BusyCal is an incredibly powerful calendaring application that has a lot of advanced features (like my personal favorite, the ability to set a custom week length view). It supports pretty much every calendar type available and is rock solid.

Fantastical – Fantastical is overall a very good calendaring app with a beautiful interface, but it does have a couple bugs with how it handles calendar invites. If you don’t manage a lot of calendars though, Fantastical is great and its natural language input is excellent.

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.

Caffeine – Caffeine is a very simple menu bar application that when activated keeps your computer from going to sleep.

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.

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.

DaisyDisk – Disk space can be scarce (especially on laptops), and Daisy Disk is a utility that shows you exactly what is eating up all your precious hard drive capacity. It also allows you to collect files via a very nice user interface so you can free up that coveted space easily.

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.

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 uplaoding to FTP), and 2) it gives you a “Drop Bar” where you can collect files before doing something with them. I use this all the time on my MacBook Pro to collect a file from the Finder location before I drag and drop it into another application like a Keynote presentation.

Flux – Flux is an essential 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.

iStat Menus – This handy utility gives you a wealth of hardware information about your Mac, from network statistics to internal temperature to battery life to CPU usage.

Marked 2 – Marked is an essential writing app for me because it show live previews of your files. For example, I can write in Byword on one side of the screen and see live changes in marked on the other side of my screen. Since I write mainly in Markdown, this is really convenient to make sure that

Moom – Apple implemented a very basic version of split screen with El Capitan, but Moom remains a very powerful windom 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.

Napkin – Napkin is a great app for annotating screenshots and creating documentation. It’s great for calling out certain features and makes it easy to redact personal information.

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.

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).

PixelMator – Pixelmator is a feature-rich Photoshop competitor at a fraction of the price. It allows you to do just about everything Photoshop does and has a couple unique features as well, plus it’s a one-time purchase instead of a monthly subscription so you actually own your software instead of renting it.

Shush – I work from home a lot and I have 4 kids, so my house can be a little noisy sometimes. This can be problematic for team meetings, but Shush allows me to mute my microphone except when I press a hotkey to activate it so 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.

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.

Spillo – I use a Pinboard account to keep track of web pages that I want to access later, and I use Spillo’s Safari extension to capture and tag these URLs that I want to share.

Tapes – 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.

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 I prefer Backblaze because the team is made up of former Apple engineers and the Mac client is much more polished and easy to use than some of the other alternatives.

Cloak – Most people don’t think twice about using public wi-fi (but you should). Cloak is the easiest way to automatically secure your connection on public networks and keep your sensitive data safe from prying eyes.

See anything we missed?

Did your favorite Mac make our list? Let us know what Mac apps are an essential part of your workflow in the comments!

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Posted by Bojan Djordjevic  | August 9, 2011 at 9:54AM | Reply

Since I am a MAC user for just a couple of months I found quite a couple of gold nuggets here

Posted by Bojan Djordjevic  | August 9, 2011 at 9:54AM | Reply

Since I am a MAC user for just a couple of months I found quite a couple of gold nuggets here

Posted by Bethany OConnor  | February 24, 2012 at 11:59AM | Reply

I must tell you…I couldn’t be happier to have found your site.  I am currently obsessed with making myself more efficient and it has been frustrating researching efficiency strategies on the web, as I feel I have wasted a lot of time (!!!!!) weeding through a lot of less-than-helpful information.  That has NOT been the case with Asian Efficiency; I find myself hanging on your every word!!  I have one quick suggestion for you.  I am not reading your posts sequentially…instead, I’ve been bopping around via links and my own searches.  Sometimes I read your advice and love it but then I wonder how current it is.  I can’t seem to figure out when your posts were published, other than to look at the comments section and see how long ago people started commenting.  Would it be possible to include a “published date” with your posts?  Just a suggestion!  Thanks again for all of the stellar information!!!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | February 25, 2012 at 10:07AM

Great idea Bethany, we’ll take it into consideration and thank you for the kind words.

Majority of our articles are evergreen (timeless) and if something is out-of-date it will be updated within the article. So if you are reading more articles you can assume it’s the most current version and that the information is timeless.

Posted by Laura  | May 24, 2013 at 10:26PM

Except the references to MobileMe functionality! :)

Posted by Michael  | March 20, 2014 at 8:34AM

Aaron and Thanh, I must second Laura’s feedback — this list is worth revisiting two years after writing it. As Laura mentioned, MobileMe’s end was announced on October 2011 – with packs removed from stores as early as February 2011 – before final shutdown June 2012. Shiftit may be good but boy, takes it to another level, yet retains simplicity at a level of your choice.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | March 21, 2014 at 3:55AM

Added it to our content schedule. 2014 edition coming up sometime soon!

Posted by Bethany OConnor  | February 24, 2012 at 12:19PM | Reply

PS:  I can’t believe you didn’t mention the Alfred App!!!!  Have you tried it???  BEST APP FOR EFFICIENCY EVER!!!!!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | February 25, 2012 at 10:05AM

I’ve been a longtime user of Launchbar (in the article above) which does the same thing as Alfred. Application launchers are great time saver apps.

Posted by Andrew Lawrence  | April 3, 2012 at 4:43AM | Reply

You never mentioned NovaMind. Wondering if you had thoughts on it.

Posted by Chris M. Gordon  | April 13, 2012 at 3:22PM

I have to second the notion for Novamind. A bit pricey, but a great app. Probably the best app for mind mapping.

Posted by LD  | September 25, 2013 at 10:00AM

novamind is awesome. but after using for a while, it lags quite a bit. im gonne try mindjet though.

Posted by Guita Resurreccion  | April 11, 2012 at 5:29AM | Reply

Thanks for all the great recommendations, so helpful for a mac newbie like me. Subscribing now. :)

Posted by Jonathan  | July 12, 2012 at 7:07AM | Reply

You rave about MailPlane elsewhere, and I’ve switched to it and couldn’t live without it. it belongs on this list, I think.

Also, Perian is discontinued.

Posted by JCocchiaro  | October 2, 2012 at 6:22PM | Reply

You’re an excellent resource – thanks!

Just curious, what do you think of Things (task management software)? Have you used it?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 2, 2012 at 6:27PM

I’ve personally never used it. They recently came out with a new version that is supposedly quite good. I’m a big Omnifocus user myself.

Posted by Jan Dreher  | April 4, 2013 at 4:29PM | Reply

First: Thanks for your wonderful blog!
Second: I use Byword all the time, it syncs Text and even my prefered markdown-formatted texts perfect between all devices, mac and iOS. It’s thin, fast and solid. That’s my only additional recomodation!

Posted by Ray  | May 12, 2013 at 9:50AM | Reply

Adobe has changed their software model to subscription based only. Many, I included, do not use Photoshop that often and paying for a product that one never owns is not going to happen. Do you have any other recommendations? The Pomodoro app is not available in the US iTunes store.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | May 12, 2013 at 2:50PM

I still like PS CS6, but I’ve heard a lot of buzz on Acorn 4 and Pixelmator. Those might be worthwhile checking out.

Posted by JHallThornton  | June 12, 2013 at 11:06AM | Reply

These posts are really great and very helpful. Does anyone know of a download scheduler? I am often places that restrict downloads during the daytime hours and I would like to be able to set downloads for the middle of the night. Thanks for your help

Posted by Monika Grasley  | April 30, 2015 at 2:39PM | Reply

Thanks for all the tools. I am looking for easiest (and inexpensive) collaborative tool I can use with my board. A place where we can keep minutes, notes etc and use to communicate with each other. What would you recommend?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | April 30, 2015 at 6:27PM

Check out rocket board:

Posted by Mark Barton  | March 23, 2016 at 1:00PM | Reply

I like the updated list of Mac apps. I have been happy with LastPass for a while now and it sounds like 1Password is similar. I don’t see a reason to switch, as LastPass does the secure notes and they are available on all my devices. I find it a handy way to have bookmarks available across different browsers and platforms and the ability to create a share folder makes sharing some of the data with my wife easy.

Posted by Alex Kashko  | March 23, 2016 at 6:37PM | Reply

Interesting list of Apps.

One of my rules is to use free stuff where possible. Otherwise I would spend a LOT. Maybe when I eventually get a business of the ground or my writing starts bringing in real money.

Word Processing, Spreadsheet etc: Open Office and LaTex (texshop) where appropriate.

Video capture/screenshots: Jing

Photo processing: The Gimp and sometimes Graphic Converter.

Mind Mapping: Xmind, but I have stopped using it recently as the latest version outs up a “Buy pro” splash screen and has other irritating features

Concept mapping: CmapTools Also has issues, mainly with search but unlike VUE it works on MAC. Useful for looking at relationships between things and for argument mapping. I used ot use Compendium but it has a bug in the latest MAC version

I scan as much as possible and prefix file names with keywords. This means I can find them even if I did not file them where I thought.

I tend use TextWrangler as a go to text editor and currently my to do list is in this and I cross tasks off as I do them. I also have paper to do lists that feed the digital version

I use Google drive for quick transfer from Tablet or phone to IMAC,

I do not use Evernote since I do not always have an Internet connection when out of the house.

Posted by Shaozhi  | March 24, 2016 at 8:32PM | Reply

Same here. I’ve been using LastPass for a few years and love it.

Posted by Shaozhi  | March 24, 2016 at 8:35PM | Reply

Great post. I use Wunderlist as my task list, and I use CrashPlan for online backup. Both are great apps.

Posted by Deanna  | March 30, 2016 at 8:48AM | Reply

While MAC is great, I’m a Microsoft administrator and don’t see a MAC anywhere in my future. For those of us in the Microsoft world, can you make another list of incredibly useful stuff?

Posted by Paul  | March 30, 2016 at 6:45PM | Reply

Great list. Given me some awesome ideas and a good reason to spend money on software. All in the name of productivity 😉

Posted by Niraj  | April 1, 2016 at 8:59AM | Reply

Excellent article, Mike. Great list, picked up some useful tools. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at

Posted by Manu  | April 8, 2016 at 6:53AM | Reply

Not Mac specific, but I really like workflowy.


Posted by Donald Kepler  | April 20, 2016 at 4:24AM | Reply

I recommend this Mac cleaner for removal of old, unused and unwanted files and applications from Macintosh HDD. Start cleaning up now

Posted by Miguel  | July 13, 2016 at 10:19PM | Reply

Surprised not to see Default Folder on the list. Saves time saving and opening from favorites and others.

Posted by Linda Williams  | September 28, 2016 at 4:53AM | Reply

Hey Ray, I think you can find some pretty decent alternatives to Adobe’s software. Affinity Photo is one of them, it’s a really powerful editing tool.
I would also recommend BatchPhoto for batch processing images, it’s a real productivity booster.

Posted by CViorel  | November 12, 2016 at 3:59AM | Reply

This is a good list. I use many apps from this list in my activities. But particularly I like to use to apps: one is Hyper Dock, which show a preview of window when hover an open app icon, and iClock – A cool, and highly customizable clokc which allows me to create alarms, see world clock, time differences and other.

Posted by JP  | November 25, 2016 at 3:39PM | Reply

I enjoyed reading this article. Do you think you could do the same but for Windows 10?

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