Steve Jobs stated that computers are the “equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” He was supremely correct. I estimate that I’ve increased my rate of information consumption (mostly reading) and information distribution (communicating with others) by 30–50% in the last three years and ~500% in the last ten years. Over time, the additional information results in enormous gains in knowledge, reasoning ability, daily tactical optimizations, life strategy, lifestyle improvements, and more.
I use a lot of tools to accelerate my ability to process information. Some of these tools are explicitly focused on certain types of information, while others are general purpose computing tools. All of them help me do more, faster. I’ve organized this list into desktop apps and mobile apps. If a desktop app also offers mobile apps, I’ve provided links to the mobile version in the desktop section.
I should also note that there is never a reason to close any apps. I’m running on a mid 2014 Macbook Air with 8GB of RAM. I leave all apps open at all times. My computer performs just fine. Leaving everything open makes me faster because every app is available from the Command + Tab menu, and Alfred-based app switching is instant. You may ask “How do you get back to your desktop if you don’t close any apps?” I don’t. There’s no need to. Alfred and Command + Tab solves that problem. The desktop is a legacy metaphor.
I use an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Apple Watch. Yes, I live in the Apple-verse. I firmly believe Apple offers the best hardware and software ecosystems on which I can build my self-automation stack.
Desktop Game Changers
Alfred (Mac only; LifeHacker suggests Launchy for Windows though I can’t verify it myself) — the mouse is an incredibly inefficient tool. Moving the cursor, clicking on the right button, processing visual changes on the screen, and moving back and forth between the keyboard and mouse are slow processes. The keyboard is by far the most efficient human-computer-interaction tool invented, even if you aren’t a fast typer. Alfred empowers you to more-or-less navigate the entire OS with the keyboard. I wrote a 2,000 word blog post about it a few years ago. I use Alfred at least 50 times during a standard work day. It has changed my life. I am biased because I can type > 100 WPM, but I unilaterally recommend Alfred to everyone. It’s that good.
Keyboard shortcuts — building on the narrative of Alfred, learn keyboard shortcuts! They will change your life. Here are some of the common shortcuts I use on Mac. Most of these translate to Windows if you substitute “Command” for “Control” or “Alt”. Here's a great app that can help you learn keyboard shortcuts.
Command+Space — launch Alfred. By default, this launches Spotlight. Disable Spotlight and set Alfred to CMD+Space.
Command + Tab — switch apps
Shift + Arrow keys — highlight text
Command + direction — move the cursor all the way up/down/left/right within the current block of text
Command + Shift + Arrow — highlight all text between current spot and end of current direction
Command + k — hyperlink text
Command + o — open file/app in Finder
Command + Delete — delete app in Finder
Command + Delete — forwards-facing delete, instead of backwards
Command + C — copy
Command + V — paste
Command + a — highlight all of the current item
Gmail and Inbox (type “?” while in Gmail to see all Gmail shortcuts):
c — compose new message
Command+Enter — send
j and k or left arrow and right arrow — navigate forward and backwards in the email queue
e or y — archive
r — reply
a — reply all
/ — search
i — back to inbox
s — snooze message
z — undo last action
Command + L — put cursor in URL bar
Control + tab — move right one tab
Control + Shift + tab — move left one tab
Command + r — refresh
Command + left arrow — back
Command + right — forwards
Reeder (Mac, iOS, no Android) and RSS — RSS stands for really simple syndication. It’s a technology protocol that virtually blogging service offers. RSS lets users subscribe to multiple syndications. Rather than going to multiple apps or websites, users can read the content from each news source in a single place, and scroll through articles seamlessly regardless of publication. People have been saying RSS is dead for years. RSS is definitely not a smart technology. RSS is explicitly linear. RSS doesn’t incorporate any notions of quality. It’s just a raw feed. But I curate my content sources. So the vast majority of content that’s delivered to me via RSS is good. I’ve posted the content I read. Feel free to subscribe to whatever you’d like from that list. Reeder is just a front-end to RSS. I believe Reeder is the best RSS app, although there are many others. Feedly is a good, free alternative.
Inbox (Desktop Web, iOS, Android) — I’ve tried about a dozen native email apps. Airmail is pretty good. But I need my email app to integrate with other services like MixMax, Yesware, etc. None of the native mail apps will ever offer integrations with these services, so web Inbox is the way to go, even if it’s inferior to some of the native alternatives. Not to say that web Inbox is bad. It’s great. Email snoozing is a game changer.
Clear (Mac, iOS, no Android) — my to-do list manager. I live on Clear. I write down everything that I need to do in Clear. I only use a handful of lists as I don’t like too much structure. I find that most to-do list apps offer too many features. Clear is minimalist, and fast. I mean really really really fast. Speed is one of the most underrated features of all apps. Clear is super fast.
BetterTouchTool — what Alfred is to the keyboard, BetterTouchTool is to the trackpad. It’s the best tool to maximize the efficiency of the trackpad. The reason this isn’t listed right after Alfred is that Alfred is just so good that it obviates the need to use the trackpad much. The best gestures to setup in BTT are three-finger swipe left/right in Chrome to go to left/right in tab navigation. Game changer. This works very well in conjunction with two-finger swipe left/right to go back/forwards in a single tab.
Dashlane — this one actually slows me down on a daily basis, but it’s a must-have for security. It’s the best password manager I’ve used. I strongly strongly strongly recommend this or 1Password to everyone.
Chrome (Desktop, iOS, Android) — secure; fast; integration with Google services; the best extension support. Some of the extensions I use: WikiBuy, Pocket, Coupons at Checkout, uBlock Origin, Dashlane.
Google Drive (Mac, iOS, Android) — I use Google Drive for file syncing and management. Dropbox has a marginally better UI, but I’m already paying Google for a Google Apps account anyways that offers 30GB of storage. No need to pay Dropbox for the same service.
Desktop, Nice to Have
aText — a text expander. I use this dozens of times daily for things like email and physical addresses, FaceBook/Twitter/LinkedIn profiles, and more
Sunrise (Mac, iOS, Android) — Sunrise is my calendar app. Given the UI constraints associated with Command+Tab for application switching, I prefer always-open apps to exist as their own apps rather than as a tab in Chrome. Sunrise offers this, and a great calendar UI. It hooks up to just about every service you can ask for — FaceBook, Google, Exchange, etc. Note, if you’re using any email-calendar-CRM syncing services for work like Yesware, Cirrus Insight, or ToutApp, Sunrise probably won’t work for you. In that case, I would use Google Calendar because of those key integrations.
Divvy — a really cool window management tool. I keep Clear not only open at all times, but actively visible as the right 1/6th of my screen. Why? Because it helps me remember what I need to do at all times. As the old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” So I keep Clear on the right hand side of my screen at all times. The only problem with doing this is that window management becomes a real problem. OS X doesn’t easily allow you to set windows at the right size to make this work. But Divvy does. Magic.
Apple Notes — Evernote is a popular alternative. I used to use Simplenote. But when Apple added the ability to draw napkin-like drawings in Notes for iOS, I switched back to Apple Notes. It’s a great feature. Search works fine. And the tagging system is sophisticated enough for my uses. It’s also lightning fast and offers the right balance of font tools (Simplenote doesn’t offer enough, and Evernote too many).
Caffeine — simple app that lives in the menu bar that won’t allow your computer to go to sleep. Very useful.
iStat Menus — this one is for the nerds. It shows CPU, storage, RAM, and network utilization in real time in the menu bar. I use it primarily to tell 1) is my Internet connection really functioning correctly (when it says connected to WiFi but nothing works) and 2) to tell how hard my CPU is working. I have enough RAM not to care about RAM utilization anymore.
Writing — I used to write in a dedicated writing app. I tried iA Writer and Draft. Now I use Google Drive/Docs. The sharing/commenting functions are superb in Google Docs. I haven’t found an alternative writing app that’s materially better. Given that most of the people I share writing with before publishing don’t know how to use the other tools, I’ve found Google Docs to be the easiest for them, and for me. Plus, integration with my existing file storage in the Google cloud is great.
PopClip — bring the iOS copy/paste UI to the mac. Genius.
BitTorrent — great torrent utility. I hear others like uTorrent are great too, though I don’t have any experience with it.
Kod — great light weight text editor. I use this mostly to strip formatting out of text.
SquareSpace — fantastic light-weight CMS that powers this blog. Light-weight, easy-to-use, fantastic customer support, and inexpensive. What more could I ask for?
Apple Preview — the best PDF reader ever. Ever. Adobe Acrobat is garbage relatively speaking.
Mobile, Game Changers
Mobile, Nice To Have
Today Weather — (iOS, no Android) — the best visualization for weather I’ve come across yet.
Airline apps — all the major airlines now integrate with Passbook. The UX for Passbook at airports is perfect.
Apple Pay — the UX is flawless, and the integration for push notifications with the apps from the credit card companies is great.
Apple Watch — in addition to telling the time, the Apple Watch does two things well: 1) notifications. Notifications for select apps are awesome, and 2) Glance-able information on the home screen. Seeing the weather, date, temperature, my next calendar appointment, and daily fitness progress in one second is awesome.