I’ve often said that it takes a lot for me to switch from one piece of software to an alternative.
I wasn’t always like this. Before I started Mark Ellis Reviews, I’d regularly try out different writing apps, productivity tools, and project management platforms on my Mac.
That was fine back then; there was less of a commercial imperative behind my use of that stuff. If I had to spend half a day configuring Trello or a couple of hours moving and organising all of my writing work in Scrivener, I hadn’t really lost anything. If anything, it was fun.
Today, things are rather different. I work in very tight production timescales, and that means I need systems and processes that remain consistent and reliable.
I realised the other day that one of the key components of this strategy is the macOS menu bar. I’m not a heavy user of that area of the screen, but there are five apps up there that I couldn’t do without; you’d need a crowbar to remove my grip from them, in fact.
I’d heard about TextExpander from countless other creators before I took the plunge and tried it myself. Those people regularly talked about its time-saving abilities and the constant inspiration they encountered for creating new ‘snippets’.
I held off for ages, until last year. And I haven’t looked back since.
For the uninitiated, TextExpander simply helps you build a database of text that you type repetitively. Whether it’s your mailing address, email sign-off, or company VAT number, you can simply add it to TextExpander and assign an abbreviation (which is essentially a keyboard shortcut that calls up that stored text).
I use TextExpander for everything from the aforementioned, obvious stuff to my brand HEX colours, blog CTAs, and social media profile URLs. It’s one of those apps I wish I’d started using a long time ago.
The only problem that comes with integrating TextExpander comprehensively into your workflow is that you end up with more snippets and abbreviations than you can remember. That’s where the TextExpander menu bar app comes in. One click of the drop-down and you can quickly search for a specific snippet and remind yourself of the abbreviation.
Maybe it’s my ageing memory, but I use it for that purpose constantly.
I’m a long-term Fantastical user. It’s a superb alternative to the macOS Calendar app for many reasons, but one of the most important is the included menu bar app.
If I had to pick one menu bar item from this list that I couldn’t do without, it would be Fantastical. It’s so useful that you barely need to enter the full-blown app; the menu bar version allows to you check your calendar items, create new events, and search. It’s rather beautifully designed, too.
And, yes, it’s also the quickest and most convenient way to reference dates and days of the week!
When it comes to my history of switching between apps that serve the same purpose, my biggest vice was always to-do list apps. Trying them out was almost an addiction – an unhealthy, time-sucking addiction (and, no, the irony isn’t lost on me with that).
However, a year or so ago, I made the switch from Things 3 to TickTick. Partly inspired by my obsession with everything MKBHD does (he’s an advocate of this app), and partly necessitated by the need to regularly switch between iOS and Android, this particular change will, I think, stick.
TickTick is a brilliant to-do list manager but it also features a satisfyingly simple menu bar app which lists my tasks (by any number of filters and groupings), enables me to check off those tasks, and create new tasks. No frills, no unnecessary user interface elements, and absolutely no faff – that’s what task management is all about.
I’m often asked why I use Dropbox.
Why don’t I rely on iCloud Drive instead?
Why don’t I put my fancy Synology NAS to proper use as a remote file system?
The answer is really simple: I don’t have the time to explore any alternatives. And Dropbox just works.
File management is one of the most boring yet necessary elements of any business, and it’s one of the few things I haven’t actually faffed about with in the past. I’ve been using Dropbox for years (yes, I pay for it) and the thought of moving all of those files and folders elsewhere is rather unpalatable.
It works. It syncs. It offers another form of backup. Even the recent changes made to the macOS version haven’t halted play.
I’m sticking with Dropbox – end of story.
The inclusion of the Dropbox macOS menu bar app in this list is as dull as file management itself, but I click on it every day to check the sync status and grab file share links. It’s a habit, it can doubtless be done better and cheaper elsewhere, but I really don’t care.
There; I feel better now.
5. macOS Focus mode
Ok, so this isn’t technically an app – it’s a feature within macOS. However, it’s easily one of my most used macOS features and it’s the first Control Centre item I move to the menu bar when setting up a new Mac.
I don’t even use that many focus modes. The most important for my business is ‘Filming’ which basically turns off everything in the outside world bar my girlfriend. Whenever I’m filming, podcasting, or doing something creative which requires total focus, ‘Filming’ gets turned on, and I always use the macOS menu bar shortcut to do so.
If you’re yet to dive into Apple’s brilliant focus modes, I urge you to give them a try. You can create your own and tweak them significantly to match the level of reachability you desire from the outside world. And that’s before we get into the realm of automation with Shortcuts and Filters.
There are lots of lists like this on the internet – I’ve published plenty myself. This one might, on the face of it, be the least interesting, but that’s kinda the point.
Menu bar apps in macOS aren’t supposed to be exciting or punch-you-in-the-face surprising. They’re supposed to do mundane jobs incredibly well, and the fact that my menu bar isn’t sagging with the weight of twenty disused apps is a testament to how important that area of the screen is to me.
I’m confident there’ll be a gem above that’ll help with your own productivity and efficiency, but if I’ve missed an app that you rely on every day, share the love in the comments section, please!
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