February 2015 edit: This post was so useful I decided to expand it and create a page just for this purpose. That page is here: Apps I Use & Recommend
My Macbook Pro is the nerve center of all my productive efforts. It’s where I store my thoughts, track my progress, write my articles, and produce my work. Over the years I’ve selected a handful of tools which make everything so much easier. These all run on startup and are always there.
Dropbox: Keeps Everything in Sync
I never want to lose important data, so I make sure to save all of my most important files within the Dropbox folder. Without me doing anything, everything is synced online and accessible from other devices (for me, iPhone and iPad). About a year ago I took some steps to max-out the storage capacity of my Dropbox account to 22gb. It’s currently 98.2% full but I haven’t had to pay a dime yet. Really large files like high resolution images don’t get stored in Dropbox, they get backed up on an external hard drive.
Alfred: Because the Keyboard is So Much Faster
Alfred is a task launcher similar to Quicksilver or Spotlight (which is built into OS X) except far, far better. Why would you want to open apps and files with a keyboard instead of using your laptops trackpad? Because it’s much, much faster. Navigating finder or opening apps using the trackpad feels like molasses after you get used to Alfred. Plus it can perform complex operations like activate my VPN, define words using OS X’s built-in dictionary, perform mathematical calculations, and much more. It keeps stats on usage, too. According to Alfred, I’ve activated it 6,715 times since November 2, 2011 (an average of 16 times per day). Totally indispensable.
Cinch: Automatically-Sized App Windows
One small annoyance of OS X is that app windows don’t snap to the screen edges. If I open Finder, I want to use every bit of screen space. With Cinch, that takes me about one second. Drag your app to the top edge of your display and it’ll maximize automatically for a perfect fit every time. You can also drag apps to the left or right edges to make them take up exactly half of the display (either the left or right side) to view multiple apps side by side. Useful if you’re researching something in a browser while taking notes in another window. Cinch isn’t free, but it’s worth it.
F.Lux: Saves My Eyes at Night
I like to stay up late, and I’m often on my computer writing, researching, or creating something. F.Lux saves my eyes by automatically adjusting the display on my laptop so it doesn’t fatigue my eyes. Instead of white websites blinding me, they automatically dim to off-yellow which makes using my laptop after sunset far more comfortable. It helps you sleep faster as well, since bright lights at night disturb a natural hormonal process which is designed to make you feel sleepy at night. Staring at bright screens suppresses this natural process, which is why it’s so easy to stay up obscenely late if you’re staring at screens.
Fantastical: A Super Intelligent Calendar
Fantastical is a calendar that you can communicate with like a person. I input “Dinner at Eli’s house tomorrow at 8pm” and it automatically parses this phrase and inputs it into my calendar. No selecting dates or times – inputting events takes no more than 5 seconds. And what I find is that when you can input events that quickly, the mental barriers associated with creating events begin to collapse. So you enter everything, which makes it much easier to stay on top of anything. Fantastical works with Alfred as well, so I can input events in about 3 seconds. I also have Fantastical installed on my iPhone which reminds me of events while I’m away from my computer. Both are indispensable.
TotalFinder: Adds Tabs to OS X’s Finder
Adds tabs to Finder, making file management so much easier. TotalFinder has a handful of other features as well, but this alone warrants the price of entry ($18 as of today). I think it’s very likely that Apple will one day include this as a default feature of OS X (similarly to how Safari offers tabs), but until then, TotalFinder gets the job done perfectly. Truly a vital app for managing the thousands of files that live on my laptop.
1Password: Remembers All of My Passwords
If you’re like most people, you use one password (or a variation of one password) for every online account you have. You might be consciously aware that this is an insecure practice, but how could you possible remember different passwords for each online account? You don’t remember them – 1Password does, and connects you to these services with a click or a tap, from your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. I was using a variation of a non-English word as a password for everything for years until I switched to 1Password. Now I generate unique passwords for each new account that I create and they all live inside 1Password. Here’s an example password generated by 1Password to give you an idea of how difficult these are to crack: 7NKCJXsblLVqPSL6fgrX. You don’t want to be inputting these by hand, so having 1Password on every device you use is essential. Password files are encrypted and automatically shared between devices with Dropbox.