A big theme at Asian Efficiency is our love of productivity apps. We have constant discussions internally and with our Dojo community about which apps are the best for which task (spoiler alert: there rarely a “best” app in all cases, but there is always an app that will work best for you and your situation).
There is so much quality software out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the options. In this post we set out to show you the applications we consider essential for getting serious work done on your Mac.
Whenever I set up a new Mac, these are the first apps I install. While I can use a Mac without them, I am not nearly as productive. A good productivity app should reduce friction and amplify good habits, and all of these meet those criteria.
#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 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.
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.
#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.
#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 find and open files quickly, do things like 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. 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 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.
#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.
#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.
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’re an email nerd (no judgement).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Mike likes 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.
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
Clarify – At first glance, Clarify looks like just another screenshot markup utility. Where Clarify is different is its combination of screenshot capture/annotation ability with a document creation feature. It makes it really fast to create step-by-step instruction documents without messing around with copy and paste or formatting. Once you’ve quickly captured and automatically created your document, you can export it to PDF, Word, HTML, or send it to Evernote.
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. For the rest of us, Graphic is a well-designed and surprisingly feature-rich vector application that is surprisingly 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).
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.
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 – 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.
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 – 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.
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. Any time 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 modules). It allows you to record your screen easily and edit your screencasts with callouts, transitions, annotations, and much more.
Scrivener – Scrivener is the king of long-form writing tools and prized by authors. 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), though some people use Ulysses for that as well.
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 I type 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.
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.
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 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.
FruitJuice – Anyone who has used a laptop will know that battery performance will degrade over time. There are best practices for extending the life of your battery, but almost no one remembers to do them. FruitJuice monitors the health of your battery and reminds you when to plug in and unplug based on Apple’s recommended usage patterns. Now that batteries are not user replaceable, you want them to last as long as possible and FruitJuice (hopefully!) will help you do that.
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.
Moom – Apple implemented a very basic version of split screen starting 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.
Shush – Mike works from home a lot and has 4 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 videoconferencing, 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!
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.
See anything we missed?
Did your favorite Mac application not make our list? Let us know what Mac apps are an essential part of your workflow in the comments.
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