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Introduction

After reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I’ve been slowly but surely decluttering my digital life, removing the bloat and distraction in an effort to be more present, and more productive. 

My attention is less fragmented by pings and unnecessary notifications, and my days are now filled with intentional productivity, rather than unintentional busyness. 

I’ve written this guide to intentionally reconsider the use of every significant feature and every app that is currently within my Mac setup. 

With an accumulation of years of computer use, I feel like we often end up with bloated systems, because we’ve lost the supposed purpose the app/feature was meant to provide in the first place. 

This guide is in an effort to correct that. 

From how I set up my Mac and apps I use on a day to day basis, from the perspective of intentionality and essentiality. A kind of standard of operations, if you will. 

Part One: Desktop

I endeavour to keep my desktop as clean and minimal as possible. This prevents unnecessary distraction, and promotes a focus on single tasking. I will now run through each element of the desktop and explain how I have it set up. 

I use the Mac app Alfred for document search and as an app launcher.

I have four spaces open at any one time, and assign an app to a space. This makes task switching fast and efficient and maximises screen real estate. It also promotes single tasking with only having a maximum of 4 applications open at a time. These applications include Chrome, Drafts, Things 3 assigned to a space each with Slack and Spotify sharing a space.

I keep my desktop background uniform across each space. Opting for the desert series that comes with macOS Big Sur. These backgrounds are also dynamic, changing with macOS dark mode

I have considered hiding the menu bar in the past, but due to the fact there are a few key indicators I prefer constant reference to (pomodoro and clock), I leave it visible. 

From right to left, I have the menu bar setup with the following:

Clock:  I have this set to 24 hr time and without seconds visible. When considering the essentialist nature of each item, if I can achieve the same result with less physical space, I opt for that. In this instance adding AM or PM serves no purpose when you can just use 24hr time. This icon also serves as a place to access the notification centre, which I use extensively and will explain later.

Control Panel: I think the slick new feature of macOS Big Sur is the ability to keep all the utility icons that are typically accessed from the menu bar, in this control panel.  For me, this includes WIFI, Bluetooth, Display, Sound, Battery and Music and make the whole desktop and macOS experience a lot less cluttered. 

Flow: I work exclusively within a Pomodoro style framework and Flow is the app I use to manage my time in conjunction with Time-blocking and my own personal productivity method. This app is cheap, has an extremely clean UX and pleasing UI. I simply set my predefined work perimeters, start and minimise the timer, then get to work. The countdown timer keeps me on track, accountable and manages my break times. I can work all day like this.

If you have a requirement for more apps than what I have shown, I can recommend a little piece of software called Hidden Bar. It allows you to customise which menu bar icons are hidden (or shown). Anything to the right of the Hidden Bar icon is shown, and anything that has been dragged to the left of it is hidden. This can then be accessed by clicking on the icon to toggle the view.

Dock

As mentioned previously, my dock remains hidden on the desktop. Its function is obsolete with the addition of Alfred as an app launcher, and all it does is take up screen real estate.

From left to right I have the following apps fixed to the dock:

Finder: This is standard on all Mac Operating Systems and can’t be removed. Its use is to serve as a file explorer which I hardly need to do. If I could, I would probably remove it.

Chrome: Google Chrome is my default web browser. Most of my work is all integrated with Google Workspace so it just makes sense. I have endeavoured to make the interface as distraction-free as possible.

Things: I have tried too many productivity systems and app to count on both hands but have recently (re)settled on Things. The interface is clean and has minimalistic bells and whistles. I don’t really use complex to-do lists or systems anymore and am as productive as ever.

Drafts: Every thought, idea, piece of content, this post ends up in Drafts. After trying quite a few of the other more popular note-taking apps I feel Drafts provides the least resistance to entry and can manage all forms of text input. Shift + cmd + 2 gives me quick capture and all my notes can be tagged for easy organisation.

Craft: This is my goto app for writing and document creation. It is sleek as anything and native on Mac which adds to the sleekness. This app is used in phase two of my blog creation process. After I have drafted my post in Drafts, I proof, polish, add images and get the layout right before posting on WordPress. Highly recommended!

Slack: For work, Slack is the only form of communication I need to be regularly available on. I can highly recommend it as an alternative to the incessant email communications that some companies are so insistent on.

Spotify: I currently use Spotify for music streaming. Whilst I do love the curation ability of Spotify, I am not so fond of the poor pay rates they provide musicians. Once I have finished travelling I will most likely find myself a record player and move to a more analogue form of music consumption.

Recycle Bin: As this can’t be removed, I leave it in the dock.

Notification Centre

I use the notification centre quite frequently. Here I place widgets for information that is required semi regularly. Information such as tasks for the day (Things 3) and schedule (Fantastical), two apps I consider these two apps the holy trinity of task and time management.

I also have a few key notification alerts set up. These include communication apps such as, Messages, Slack and FaceTime.

Part Two: Apps

For the last part of this post I will run through every app I have installed on my Mac and it’s defined purpose. If it has no purpose it gets deleted, unless it’s part of the Mac system apps and can’t be.

1Password: I store all my logins and other important information in 1Password. Whilst Google does provide a password service and I could be using that, I felt more comfortable using a dedicated solution. This also allows you to store other important information securely such as credit card information and documents.

Alfred: This app has replaced spotlight for me as a search and launcher. I like being able to customise what folders are searchable and have found launching applications much faster vs Spotlight. I by no means use this app to its full capacity but have heard it can be pretty powerful.

Anytune: As a musician, I am regularly learning new songs. Anytune is one of the best apps out there for slowing down and working things out by ear.

AppCleaner: When deleting apps from macOS, often files are left behind that should no longer be. AppCleaner finds all the related files and deletes them along with the program file.

Backup and Sync from Google: I’m pretty much embedded in the Google ecosystem when it comes to cloud storage. This app keeps everything on my Mac, including photos and documents nicely synced.

Craft: This is my goto app for writing and document creation. It is sleek as anything and native on Mac which adds to the sleekness. This app is used in phase two of my blog creation process. After I have drafted my post in Drafts, I proof, polish, add images and get the layout right before posting on WordPress. Highly recommended!

Drafts: At the expense of sounding like a walking billboard for thee developers of this app, Drafts is literally where text starts for me. I haven’t yet found an app that makes get thoughts to text as frictionless as Drafts does. There’s a quick capture function on the Mac, and the iPhone app instantly opens on a blank page for quick entry, perfect for writing thoughts and ideas down before you lose them!

Fantastical: Because I manage multiple calendars, I need one dedicated calendar app to manage them all and Fantastical does a sound job of it. I particularly like the widget that can be set up in the notification centre to give me a quick overview of my day without having to open the full app every time.

Flow: As mentioned earlier, I work exclusively within a Pomodoro style framework and Flow is the app I use to manage my time, in conjunction with Time-blocking and my own personal productivity method. 

Google Chrome: Google Chrome is my default web browser. Most of my work is all integrated with Google Workspace so it just makes sense. I have endeavoured to make the interface as distraction-free as possible.

Python 3.8: I’ve recently started learning Python and this is the latest version of the language.

Slack: For work, Slack is the only form of communication I need to be regularly available on. I can highly recommend it as an alternative to the incessant email communications that €some companies are so insistent on. 

Spotify: I currently use Spotify for music streaming. Whilst I do love the curation ability of Spotify, I am not so fond of the poor pay rates they provide musicians. Once I have finished travelling I will most likely find myself a record player and move to a more analogue form of music consumption.

Steam: I have Steam installed so I can play Sid Meiers Civilisation 6, I’m not a big gamer but I have been playing the Civ franchise since the very beginning and continue to enjoy a game every now and then.

Sublime Text: I have read that Sublime text is one of the best for coding, so currently use this for coding practice. Seems to serve its purpose for now but if there’s anything better out there let me know.

Things 3: I have tried too many productivity systems and app to count on both hands but have recently (re)settled on Things. The interface is clean and has minimalistic bells and whistles. I don’t really use complex to-do lists or systems anymore and am as productive as ever.

System Apps (can’t remove): App Store, Automator, Books, Calculator, Calendar, Chess, Contacts, Dictionary, Facetime, Find My, Font Book, Home, Image Capture, Launchpad, Mail, Maps, Messages, Mission Control, Music, Notes, Photobooth, Photos, Podcasts, Preview, Quicktime Player, Reminders, Siri, Stickies, Stocks, System Preferences, Text Edit, Time Machine, Apple TV, Utilities, Voice Memo.

So there you have it, my complete Mac setup and all 16 essential apps that allow me to be productive and get work done. If you haven’t yet, I’d recommend doing a similar exercise and going through every app you own and asking the question, what is its purpose?

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