Let’s talk about tools, services, and apps that can help you reduce cognitive friction during your day.
Computers are great at doing the boring, automated stuff we don’t like to do. So why not automate common tasks (like performing backups of your computer), pre-make decisions for your computer to carry out on your behalf (such as auto-filing certain email newsletters), and generally just find ways to make yourself more efficient?
I think the biggest reason we don’t do these things is because we don’t care. Seriously. In the moment, it seems easier to just continue suffering through our broken and inefficient workflows that it does to take a step back and consider if there’s a better way.
You could spend an extra 5 minutes every day for the rest of your life sorting through the spam and newsletters in your email inbox, or you could take 15 minutes today and tell your computer to do it for you.
I think another reason we don’t set stuff like this up is because we don’t even know what options are available to us. And so that’s why I’ve put together this brief list of all the apps, tools, and services I use to help me do things better when I’m at my Mac.
Email Rules: In an ideal world, the only emails that would show up in your inbox are the ones you want to read. Email is not the enemy, but it sure can get unwieldy in a hurry.
Step one is, of course, to unsubscribe from all the incoming email newsletters you don’t want to get. I am subscribed to some email newsletters because I like what they have to say; some of these emails I keep out of my inbox and auto-file them into my “Bacon” folder. I also have rules set up to flag certain emails that contain the word “sponsorship” or “typo”. And I use VIP sparingly — my accountant and my wife send me an email, it will set off a push notification on my iPhone.
Keyboard Maestro: This is a utility app for bending your Mac to your will. It’s hard to explain what KM does because it can do just about anything. I use it to launch certain apps with just a keyboard shortcut; I use it to streamline the exporting of my podcast audio out of Garage Band; I use it for doing bottom-posting email replies when appropriate; I use it to automatically launch the Doxie importing software and to import all my document scans as soon as I’ve plugged my Doxie Go into my Mac; and more. Basically, what Keyboard Maestro is good at is automating certain certain tasks for you
Hazel: Hazel is like the cousin to Keyboard Maestro. While also great at automating tasks, it works under slightly differently contexts. Hazel works with the files on your computer, and mostly runs under the hood. You can have it do things like automatically clean up all the files on your Desktop at the end of the day and move them into a “Desktop Cleanup” folder. Hazel will notice if you delete and app and then ask if you also want to clean up all the system files related to that app. Hazel can automatically take any new images you’ve added to Lightroom to your NAS drive and copy them onto your NAS drive for backup and archival purposes. And more.
LaunchBar: The whole point of an application launcher is to quickly get to the files and apps you frequently access on your computer. You bring up LaunchBar with a keyboard shortcut, type in the first few letters of an app, bookmark, or file that you want and LaunchBar presents a list of the best results sorted by most-likely-what-you-want.
As you use it, LaunchBar learns your most common searches and provides weighted results. There’s a lot you can do with LaunchBar, custom searches, zipping and emailing files, and more. I wrote a whole review about the latest version here.
TextExpander: Surely everyone reading this knows about this utility app which runs in the background on your Mac to expand snippets of text into sentences, words, dates, and whatever else you can imagine. It makes a great tool for quickly punching out common things you type on a regular basis (such as common email replies, email signatures, misspelt words, etc.) For example, I use the snippet
;hometo automatically insert my home mailing address. (A tip about using the semicolon before the word: that helps guarantee that the snippet isn’t something I would type in any normal situation.)
1Password: Another app I hope you’re familiar with. Yes, 1Password is great for storing all the various logins and other sensitive bits of information. But it’s also a very efficient tool. When I need to log into something, insert my Credit Card info, or whatever, a quick keystroke to bring up the 1Password quick entry window and I’m off to the races.
Fantastical: Fantastical is an awesome calendar app. And one of the things I like most about it is how quickly accessible it is (since it lives in the Menu Bar, a keyboard shortcut brings up the app instantly and I can see the list of my agenda). But I also like the natural language parsing. When it comes to events and appointments, we all just naturally speak in sentences. And so, having a calendar app that interprets that language so well makes it much easier to enter in new events (and reminders).
Time Machine: I can’t stress how important it is to have regular backups of my computer. And Time Machine takes all the thought out of it by automatically backing up my computer to an external hard drive several times per day.
SuperDuper: I also like to have a bootable backup of my computer. And I use SuperDuper to do this every night. And there’s an option in SuperDuper that will automatically launch the app and begin a smart update backup as soon as I plug in my USB drive. So that means, when my computer’s apps are all closed out and I’m ready to do the nightly backup, all I do is plug in the USB drive.
Maximum internal storage: One thing I’ve learned about computers is that there is never enough internal storage space. I would rather spend my time taking photos and listening to music than shuffling files around. And so I always get as much internal storage as I can so hopefully I don’t have to keep fighting that ceiling.
BreakTime: A simple app that reminds me to move around every 45 minutes.
Timing: A utility app that tracks how I spend my time when on my computer. Hindsight is 20/20 you know?
iBank 5: This financial management app has auto-import rules that properly re-name and assign transactions when I’m importing them from my bank. It also has income/expense reports, budgeting, and more. I know that any banking software worth its salt will have this, but I use iBank because I think it’s the best. I do all my own bookkeeping, and having as much of the busywork automated by my software helps me so I only need to spend less than 5 hours per month doing my books. (iBank also becomes extremely handy come tax season.)
Tweetbot: I use lists when I need a quieter timeline and I use some muting rules so I don’t see certain tweets that I’m not interested in (such as those “whatever daily is out!” announcement tweets).
Things I need to improve at
For the sake of transparency, I want to be clear that I am not Mac Zen Master. My desk isn’t always free of clutter (it’s usually not), and there are many areas of work that I know I can improve on.
Such as my podcasting workflow. I record a podcast almost every single day, and it takes me time every day to save, export, master, and publish it. The routine is almost the same every day, but I haven’t found a way to speed up that process now that I use Auphonic for mastering the audio after I’ve exported out of Garage Band.
I also recognize that one of the greatest ways to work smarter isn’t by using a “hack”, but by simply getting better at focusing and seeing a task through to the end.
I know there are places I can get better at focusing and at improving my own habits. Such as not checking Twitter as often as I do. Or improving my habits for processing incoming emails. Even my task management habits need help. (Don’t tell anyone, but I often find myself playing the “due date game” with my tasks instead of properly assigning due dates based on actual urgency and then reviewing all my projects on a regular basis.)
It can be easy to get hyper nerdy about this stuff, and to spend forever and a day tinkering and fiddling and “optimizing”. I listed out the above things not to say that you should be utilizing them as well, but instead to give you an idea of perhaps one or two ways that you could work smarter.
It just boils down to being mindful about the work we are doing. When we notice that there’s something we do repeatedly, step back for a moment to see if there’s a way to automate that task. And if there is something we do that annoys us, step back for a moment and question if that task is truly necessary — or if it can be delegated to someone or something.