I used to be the sort of person who would constantly switch the apps I used for work duties. Every week, it seemed, there’d be something shiny and new I’d want to try out.
I really, really don’t recommend doing that; it’s a massive productivity killer. You just spend your entire time configuring each app, learning how to use it and getting bogged down in Reddit threads for support when you run into shortcomings.
The trick to being super productive with a Mac (or any device, for that matter), is to find a core set of apps on which you can rely to get your work done super-fast. And stick with them.
Finding that group of apps isn’t easy, such is the wealth of third-party developers out there making these wonderful tools. But that’s a nice problem to have. So, today, I though I’d share with you the five most important apps I immediately install on every Mac I buy.
This one gets top billing, because a huge amount of the work I undertake involves writing. It’s my bread-and-butter, and the tool I use to craft each sentence needs to be bullet-proof.
I’ve gone back and forth between a number of writing apps. Microsoft Word (yuck), iA Writer, Bear, Notes, Byword, Google Docs and Scrivener have all received a thorough going over during my daily content work.
Up until a couple of years ago, Scrivener was my writing tool of choice, but a number of frustrating bugs and rather archaic syncing setup forced me elsewhere. That’s when I found Ulysses, and I haven’t looked back.
It’s not perfect. For instance, it’s damn near impossible to find the date you created each document, and despite the cross-device syncing being less convoluted than Scrivener’s (which relied on Dropbox), it sometimes flat out _refuses_ to synchronise any changes.
But I love it. I think it’s Ulysses’ ability to strip back the writing experience yet retain useful productivity features is what does it for me. For instance, I can immediately switch to an all-screen, distraction-free word processor if I want. Yet, if I need to refer to research material, I can run Ulysses in a number of multi window/pane modes to avoid constant alt-tabbing.
Pretty much everything I write starts its life in Ulysses. It’s even taught me the basics of Markdown, which everyone should learn.
2. Spark Email
If I’m honest, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Spark.
On the one hand, it’s probably the best email client I’ve used (and I’ve tried a lot). It effortlessly syncs between devices and makes setting up email on a new Mac or iOS device as simple as signing into just one of your email accounts (everything is backed up and synchronised, including additional email accounts you have connected, settings and signatures).
It also has a genuinely useful ‘Smart Inbox’ feature which groups emails by type in a way that finally makes sense for my email workflow. The way it displays email threads is also as clear as it should be (I find other email clients make an absolute pig’s ear of this) and I love the ‘send later’ and ‘remind me’ features.
Where it falls down is, I think, memory management. And I say “I think”, because I’m not entirely sure if that’s why Spark is one of the main battery hogs on my M1 MacBook Air. I’ve just checked and, as usual, it’s sitting like a naughty child under the “Using Significant Energy” list in the macOS battery drop-down menu.
If this issue continues, I might have to look elsewhere. Which would be such a shame, because Spark really is the best email client I’ve ever used.
It’s hard to get too excited about a calendar app, but Fantastical boasts two features which make it an absolute gem.
Firstly, it features a lovely widget that sits in your menu bar. Click it, and you’re treated to a little calendar which shows a full month followed by today and tomorrow’s upcoming events. As glanceability goes, it’s perfect; I use it to quickly check what I’m doing next and for grabbing a date when needed.
Secondly, it has what is perhaps the best AI calendar input system I’ve ever used. Simply drop down the aforementioned mini calendar, and in the text input field at the top, start typing your calendar entry.
“Meeting tomorrow at 2pm with Dave in the board room for two hours remind me”, for instance, will force Fantastical to place a calendar item with every detail perfectly filled in, from the description to the exact duration, location and reminder.
The time this saves accumulatively during the week is transformative.
Just like writing apps, I’ve gone back and forth between to-do list apps. The only one that has ever stuck is Omnifocus.
This is partly because I’m so deep into it now that turning back the clock and opting for a different app would take far longer than it’s worth, but it’s also because I enjoy the raw power and headroom offered by Omnifocus.
It’s therefore slightly ironic that I really only use Omnifocus as nothing more than a glorified to-do list.
Get Things Done (GTD) aficionados will love the way you can fine tune your inbox, tasks, projects, tags, forecasts and reviews. But I just add my to-dos in each day and assign them a project. Beyond that, I use the repeating tasks function, notes and… that’s about it.
I’m massively underutilising Omnifocus, but I don’t care. I’ve developed a complete affinity with a very specific bunch of features it offers, and without it, I’d be lost at sea. I love the fact I can glance at the calendar view and see how many tasks I have coming up each day. The integration Omnifocus offers with my calendar is also useful, as is the link to Spark, which enables me to quickly throw in emails as tasks.
It’s not cheap (by today’s standards), but I’m more than happy to pay for an app as comprehensively developed as this, and which syncs perfectly between my countless devices.
Some of the work I do for clients is billed by the hour, but that’s not the only reason I use Toggl.
This simple time logging app has become a hugely important productivity tool for me. I use it religiously and find myself cursing if I ever realise that I’ve forgotten to either start or stop a timer.
Toggl reveals how productive I’ve been at any given moment. Because I only use the timer when I’m undertaking ‘proper’ work (as opposed to the admittedly rare times these days when I idly chat about the weather with peers and clients), if Toggl tells me I’ve achieved four hours of work one morning, that’s four hours of work.
It’s a huge motivator.
But Toggl also reveals where I’m investing my time. I categorise each time entry by client and project, which enables me to see where my effort is being expended and whether or not I’m correctly balancing the load. The fact Toggl sends me a report at the end of each week to summarise what I’ve done is the icing on the cake.
Tracking your time like this might seem like a real pain-in-the-you-know-what, but Toggl’s brilliance is that it’s so easy to use. Turning it on and stopping it as desired is a two click affair and it syncs perfectly between devices. I do it now without thinking and of all the apps on this list, Toggl has completely transformed the way I work and how I measure my productivity.
What’s on your Mac?
I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours. What are the five apps you couldn’t do without on a daily basis?
Trust me – narrowing them down isn’t quite as simple as you might think.