The popular opinion of the moment is that technology limits our ability to be productive. The reality, of course, is more complicated than that. And when it comes to Apple’s ecosystem, certain developers have gone above and beyond in creating apps that truly do enable us to be more productive than ever before. I’m excited to share with you a few the tools that I consider to be the best productivity apps for Mac.
Productivity is an efficiency metric. It measures the total output per unit of input. Labor productivity, for example, is the ratio of a country’s total GDP (output) to the number of workers (inputs). This metric tells you very roughly how much output is generated by each individual worker in that country.
Similarly, an individual’s productivity is a given person’s total output (sales closed, lines of code written, etc.) divided by that person’s total input (that person’s time).
If you’re reading this, you probably spend a lot of time working at your computer. And if you’re like me, you’d like to make the most out of that time.
The global quarantines and work from home orders have people spending more time on their laptops than ever before. Unfortunately for most of us, too much of that working time is spent fighting the software rather than actually making progress.
What is GTD?
GTD (short for Getting Things Done) is a personal productivity methodology originally introduced by David Allen in his 2001 book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
The GTD approach is based around the idea that we’re most effective when we’re only focused on one thing at a time. Our brains are amazing things, but they’re just not very good at keeping capturing, storing, and recalling lots of disparate pieces of information at exactly the right time.
The GTD workflow is structured around five essential stages: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. This isn’t a guide on GTD, but if you’re new to the topic, the stages are described in more detail here and Allen’s excellent book can be found here. There’s also this outstanding 15-minute primer on GTD that I’d encourage every beginner (and even veterans) to check out.
While GTD is our productivity method of choice, we deal in all manner of methodologies here at The Zen Workflow. The apps we recommend below are suited for anyone trying to be more productive, not just those subscribing to the GTD methodology. In the end, the common factor connecting all of these apps is their ease and simplicity. The best productivity apps are the ones that get out of your way and allow you to be more productive. Each of these apps are powerful and configurable, but they’re also extremely simple and delightful to use. The more enjoyable something is to use, the more likely you are to use it.
Without further ado, here is our 2020 list of the best productivity apps for Mac:
The Best Productivity Apps for Mac
Tasks: Things 3
Things is a powerful task manager with an extremely robust set of features. But at first glance, you might think of it as nothing more than a simple to do list. That’s because the software engineering wizards at Cultured Code have designed these features such that they only show themselves when they are needed and relevant.
Things won’t show you fields for things like tags and due dates unless you need them. And when you don’t, lists are organized neatly and cleanly with an emphasis on the task, rather than the settings around the task. Simplicity truly is the ultimate sophistication. While most task managers are bursting at the seams with buttons and toggles, Things feels like a breath of fresh air.
Things is also notoriously opinionated about how it wants to be used. Despite immense pressure from its most loyal fans, Cultured Code has consistently refused to add features that some consider “table stakes” when it comes to a task manager (e.g. attachments, saved searches, shared lists, etc.). Instead, Things executes on a relatively small number of features in an extremely
I should start by saying that you don’t need a dedicated app for reminders. Things (and every other task manager on the market, for that matter) provide at least some basic ability to send reminders or notifications. That said, these features all suffer from the same problem even dedicated reminders apps have: They don’t make sure you remember!
I regularly audit my push notifications permissions on all of my devices, and still, I find myself at times when an important notification buzzes my Apple Watch and I flick it away without giving it another thought. We are so constantly bombarded with information, alerts, and notifications, that it’s far too easy to dismiss with the intent of doing something just before your attention is taken away by the next thing that pops up on your phone screen or watch face.
Due solves this problem by sending you incessant reminders (as incessant as once per minute) about a task until that task is done. Due is perfect for tasks that you must (or would like to) remember to do at a specific time of day. Things like “Switch the laundry to the dryer” or “Pick up Emma from school.”
It’s also extremely good at handling recurring tasks. I use it to remind myself to take out the trash in the evening and to feed my dog his daily joint supplement in the morning. I also use it for things like remembering to change the oil in my car every six months and vacuuming the house every three weeks. Due really shines when it comes to keeping little things like this top of mind.
Especially when it comes to non-daily tasks, be forgotten when things get busy and your mind is preoccupied. Due cuts through the mental clutter and continually puts your attention back on the thing you’d promised yourself you were going to do.
Just think about those times when the thought to do something briefly pops into your head, only to disappear as quickly as it had arrived, lured away by some more immediate demand upon your attention. Moments like these are frustrating, inefficient, and (thankfully) almost completely eliminated by Due.
A solid reference system is essential to GTD (and really any productivity methodology, for that matter).
Your reference system is your second brain. It’s where you store all the information that you want to hang onto for later reference, but don’t need to be bothered with right now. Think of things like:
- Book recommendations
- Serial numbers
- Furniture dimensions
- Packing lists
Bear stands out far ahead of the competition in delivering a seamless note-taking experience, with a powerful system of tagging and cross-linking to make it easier to find things.
In stark contrast to the silent and secretive developers of Things 3, Bear’s development team, Shiny Frog, is extremely active. They are constantly shipping new features and participate actively in Bear’s reddit community.
They’ve even pre-released the alpha version of a grounds-up rewrite of the editor, which enables many long-requested features like tables, markdown hiding, and more.
Spark is the first email client I’ve found that actually transforms the infuriating task of processing and keeping up with my email into a joyful and (dare I say) pleasant experience.
Spark smartly separates email that was sent to you by a real person, from automated email newsletters and transactional notifications. Then it lets you easily take bulk actions like
mark as read with a simple swipe of the finger.
It’s also extremely fast, something that’s table stakes for email, but that so many email clients aren’t able to achieve.
The integrations are where Spark really shines. It has direct integrations with Things 3, Bear, and other apps, enabling you to quickly move emails into your GTD productivity system for later cleanup and action.
Best of all? It’s 100% free.
Maybe you’re creating a productivity workflow for the first time and aren’t sure where to begin. Maybe you’ve been relying on a system like GTD to get things done for years, but you’ve never quite found yourself able to sustain it.
No matter your situation, these apps provide an extremely powerful foundation of simplicity, flexibility, and power, so that you can get more done and get on with your day.