Smoothing my Workflow

A few months back Matt Gemmell wrote a post titled “Small Screen Productivity” and it’s one of my favorite posts. What I love is that it’s not some exhaustive listing of the apps he uses, or the tricks, but rather a good look at how he is productive on a smaller screen. This one bit…

A few months back Matt Gemmell wrote a post titled “Small Screen Productivity” and it’s one of my favorite posts. What I love is that it’s not some exhaustive listing of the apps he uses, or the tricks, but rather a good look at how he is productive on a smaller screen. This one bit from Gemmell in particular is something I love:

I think that small screens are only claustrophobic if you feel you have to physically interact with the space. If you’re mousing around, you can feel the dimensions. The pointer can bounce off the screen edges, and you have a visceral sense of the area available.

That’s something I have personally found true, and even though my screen is 15”, there is still a lot of little things I do to maximize flow beyond just learning to leave the mouse be.

To me, what feels most constraining about any tool, or environment, are the things that inhibit your workflow.

I cannot focus when my kids are yelling at me, or when I am sitting in a coffee shop and I hear the conversations of others. I cannot bear down when I am uncomfortable, my arms contorted in an airplane seat. I need to be in the right environment, just as I need my tools to be setup in a way that works for me.

With that in mind here are some of the things which can make OS X feel all the more powerful, and custom tailored, to you, but a word of warning: you must use them correctly. Use them incorrectly, and confusion is all you will gain.


I recommend using a trackpad with your Mac because the addition of a trackpad makes for using the built in Spaces a lot better. On a small screen in particular it can make you feel like you have multiple displays.

I personally use a ton of spaces, but typically I have at least three going at any given time. Like Gemmell I like to define my spaces for what I do in each space, typically:

  • Communication: Mail, Twitter, Slack, etc.
  • Safari: Just a space for Safari.
  • Writing: OmniOutliner, Ulysses, MarsEdit, etc.
  • Other: Pages, Excel, VMWare, etc.

Another key is to let Apple arrange the spaces for you. In the Mission Control preference I allow the spaces to be rearrange based on recent use. This is great when you go to swipe from Space to Space as you can keep the spaces you are actively working on grouped closely together.

It can be a bit overwhelming to use Spaces at first, but once you get going it negates the need to minimize and hide apps. Which is really killer. It also allows you to achieve better focus on a per app basis — much like the focus you gain when using iOS — without having to force the app into fullscreen mode.

Fullscreen Apps

Speaking of which, in the same vein as Spaces is fullscreen mode for apps. I’ll caution you a bit about fullscreen mode, because fullscreen mode is not equally great. While I typically always have Ulysses in fullscreen mode, I never have OmniOutliner in fullscreen mode because the latter just seems more cumbersome to use in fullscreen mode.

There’s two types of fullscreen mode, as far as I can tell:

  1. Shitty fullscreen mode, which is simply taking the app and making it bigger. This is usually something I avoid, but can work well in a handful of apps. This is the primary reason to be careful with fullscreen mode. Safari is a great example here, as when fullscreen mode was originally introduced you could narrow the width of the Safari content while maintaining fullscreen mode. Thus you could get the width of text lines under control. Unfortunately Apple killed that ability, and since then I really cannot recommend that you work in fullscreen mode in Safari. Many apps do this same routing: blow the app up, nothing else.
  2. Thought out fullscreen mode, is just that: an app that has a different UI for just fullscreen mode. Here I like to cite Ulysses as the app not only changes the entire UI, but also can change the color theme you use to reflect the fullscreen nature of the app.

It’s my sincere hope that more Mac developers start paying better attention to fullscreen mode — as there is a lot to be improved here.

Of the apps I use regularly, here are the ones that typically live in fullscreen mode:

  • Ulysses
  • Readkit
  • Messages
  • Simplenote
  • OmniFocus
  • Calendar

Of those Ulysses is the only app with an excellent fullscreen mode — the rest are just easier to keep in fullscreen mode rather than seeing their window in a Space. and fullscreen mode is useable for those apps.

I find fullscreen mode good for apps that: are writing oriented; or you need to be able to bear down and focus on; or are just apps that you want to always keep open, but don’t always want to see.

Color Schemes

Justin Blanton on the iA Writer look:

In fact, I’ve become so enamored with its aesthetic that I’ve spent a ton of time trying to replicate it across a few of my most-used apps–including the Readable bookmarklet I use for reading (long) web articles in a browser–and, I think it’s safe to say, I’ve succeeded.

iA Writer was a revelation for me too, and like Blanton I have taken a lot of time since then to customize the look and feel of the apps which allow it. For me that means using a standard set of colors and fonts where possible:

  • Fonts:
    • Nitti Light for writing
    • Ideal Sans for reading
  • Color Schemes:

Any app that allows me to tweak the colors of it, that’s what I set the theme to look like.

But why is that important for making your Mac workflow better? For me, as everything starts to feel more consistent on my Mac things feel more comfortable.

Changing fonts and color schemes isn’t about being custom, it’s about being comfortable. Find something you love and plaster it everywhere so that every app feels like home. Just as the right decor in your office is important, so too is the right font, in the right colors.

Power Tools

I am a huge power tools user, as in powerful apps that extend and automate functionality on your Mac. This isn’t the time or place for exhaustive reasoning on these apps, instead I recommend that you get at least one power tool app and learn how to use the piss out of it.

Doesn’t really matter which one, they are all very good helpers. There’s five that I would choose between if I were to start out again: Alfred, LaunchBar, Keyboard Maestro, and TextExpander.

Again it doesn’t matter which one you pick, just pick one and stick with it until you are finding yourself unable to use a computer that doesn’t have it installed. Then you can move on to another power tool app.

Here’s the power tool apps I use, and how I use them (in brief):

  • LaunchBar: launching apps, sending a bunch of files to a particular app or task, and clipboard history.
  • Keyboard Maestro: automates just about every repetitive task that I can on my Mac. Amazing tool.
  • TextExpander: makes typing faster and easier — especially with words that I commonly misspell or my email addresses.

Whichever app you pick, the app won’t make you instantly better — you have to learn to use these tools by integrating them into your daily workflow. But once you get the hang of them you will be saving a lot of time each time you use your Mac. If I use a Mac missing anyone of those tools, I feel like I might as well be on Linux. ((Next year is the year of Linux right?))


Not to be overlooked is a built-in power tool in Automator. It’s not as powerful as the others listed above, but it does have one huge advantage: it can integrate with services in Finder. Which means you can use a fairly easy to understand graphical interface to build actions for files.

I have a few that resize images, and I can do that just by right clicking a file and navigating to services. All-in-all this is very handy, and if you want to get started on the cheap — don’t pass this up. It is also very easy to learn, so you won’t need to do anything but play around with it.

Sand it Down

I’ve relentlessly pursued streamlining my workflow over the years, and the one thing that I have found to be true is that you must do it one bit at a time. Creating twenty new workflows may be faster, but you won’t remember how they work, or when and how to use those workflows.

And thus you’ve wasted your time.

Instead, I’ve found that I tweak and work on one workflow change until it is second nature and working perfectly. Then I move on to the next. Like sanding a piece of wood, you have to go little by little until you have a smooth board.

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