Productivity Customizations for Mac OSX (Lion)

Total Finder and GeekTool running on my desktop

Ever since I first started using a computer, I have been notorious amongst friends and family for keeping a huge number of windows/applications open. Desktop backgrounds have never been very relevant to me simply because I never see them. Even amongst my fellow nerds I seem to always be doing too much.


Recently, when I was forced to reinstall OSX, I took the opportunity to set up my computer to maximize productivity. There are a number of ways to measure/improve productivity, but I feel that the best is to minimize the number of distractions and maximize the ease of doing what needs to be done. Some of the following tweaks, apps, and tools I have known about for a long time, while others are new to me. To this end, I sought to improve the following:


  • Get rid of (or hide) as many items from the screen as possible (minimize distractions)
  • Use the keyboard where possible (keystrokes are almost always faster than a mouse/trackpad)






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TotalFinder (free to try; $18)



This is my #1 absolute must-have and cannot-live-without OSX application. For me, my main gripe with OSX was how I always seemed to have a half dozen finder windows open to manage my different projects.


TotalFinder fixes this by allowing you to have a tabbed finder window. In addition, it has a “visor” feature that keeps the window in the background, but then “slides” it atop all other windows when you press a hotkey. The result that I have a single, always-accessible window for all of my file management needs. In addition, it adds some much needed customization and tweaks to the OSX finder, improving the cut/paste features and much more.


TotalFinder homepage.




TotalTerminal (free)



Made by the same programmer as TotalFinder, TotalTerminal improves the terminal application in comparable ways. It adds tabbed browsing to the terminal as well as the visor feature. This one is a must-have for geeks who use the terminal a lot.


It is also worth mentioning that the programmer of these 2 apps is a great guy who has been very responsive to my requests in the past.


TotalTerminal Homepage.




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QuickSilver (free)



QuickSilver is a keyboard interface for your entire computer; think of it as the “Spotlight” feature on steroids (though it can also do much more). As I said in the introduction, for efficiency nuts a keyboard is much faster to use than a mouse.


I primarily use it to open/close applications (by pressing the hotkey and typing the first few letters of the application’s name). I also have it configured to perform certain commands on hotkeys.


QuickSilver homepage.




Nocturne (free)


I’m a big fan of using dark color schemes. They reduce eye strain and (some claim) power consumption. All of my code windows use a black background with light colored text. Nocturne lets you invert the color scheme on your Mac, which would be much more handy if it did not distort websites and images as well.


I primarily use Nocturne because it lets you hide the status bar at the top of the screen, so that it only appears when you move the mouse over it. This means that there is less information being displayed, and therefore fewer distractions. For those looking to turn their windows black, I have had limited success with CrystalBlack. It does a good job of allowing you to apply a dark color scheme to OSX, but the author has not (and probably will not) update official support for OSX 10.7 Lion (it only “officially” supports 10.6 Snow Leopard, meaning it does not work 100% perfectly).


Nocturne homepage (by the way, it is made by the same developer as QuickSilver)




Parallels ($79.99)


This one warrants mention, even though most OSX users probably know about it. Parallels lets you run Microsoft Windows “inside of” OSX as a virtual machine. This means you can boot up Windows while running OSX and do what you need to do with Windows apps. According to the benchmarks I have read, Parallels is about 15% faster than competing products. There’s also an iOS app for controlling your Windows apps from afar, though I question its usefulness.


Parallels homepage.




GeekTool (free)


As the name implies, this one is handy for geeks who are interested in statistics and monitoring their computer. It lets you apply almost any stat readout to the desktop, so you can monitor things like your RAM usage or running processes. Its strengths lie in the fact that it is extremely customizable, but that is also its weakness – it requires some knowledge of the shell/terminal to use to its full potential. Luckily, LifeHacker has a good tutorial on how to use it. In the screenshot at the top of this post you can see my desktop running GeekTool to monitor a few things.


GeekTool in the AppStore.




Fluid (free; $4.99 for pro features)


Fluid running GetSatisfaction

I saved this one for last because it was a long time before I figured out how to make proper use of it, but now that I have, it has increased my productivity significantly. In a nutshell, Fluid lets you turn websites into applications. Instead of opening a web browser and typing in a URL, it encapsulates the entire website into an app in your /Applications folder.


At first this seemed cool, but a minor thing to me. Then I discovered the new “Pin to Status Bar” feature. This feature lets you put an icon for the app in the status bar at the top of OSX, as well as add a hotkey. The result is that when I need to access my gmail, instead of keeping a tab open in a web-browser I simply press a hotkey and it appears “floating” atop all the rest of my apps. The same applies to GetSatisfaction, GrooveShark, Facebook, and a few other sites I commonly use. As a result, I no longer have to keep an internet browser open at all – I open one only as needed.


The true benefit here is that I have a sort of “sandboxed” environment that is instantly accessible. When I need to view my inbox or check my company’s support site, I’m there with the touch of a button (no matter what OSX “space” I am in). More importantly, there are no other tabs or distractions awaiting me. I’m looking at the site I requested without waiting (because it was already loaded in the background) and there are no other sites open to catch my attention.


Fluid homepage.




Final Thoughts


With these tools, I’ve managed to reduce distractions and minimize the amount of time it takes me to access anything on my computer. I couldn’t think of any way to graph a before-and-after “efficiency” chart (in my typical “experiment-driven” fashion), but I think it is safe to say that they have made a significant improvement.


Would you add anything to this list? Let me know below!

  • Anonymous

    I like to use a monitoring tool called MenuMeters.

    There’s no need to install an app (TotalTerminal?) to add tabbed browsing to the terminal; it’s already built-in. command+shift+t to show the tab bar, command+t to create a new tab, command+shift+[ or ] to switch tabs.

    I haven’t found much use for QuickSilver yet because OS X’s built-in Spotlight works well as an app launcher for me. (And as a basic calculator.)

    • Zane the Experimenter

      Thanks for the tip. MenuMeters reminds me of iStatMenus, which is also a nice tool.

      True about the tabs, but the main benefit for me is the visor overlay.

      The built in Spotlight feature is good, but QuickSilver is Spotlight on steroids ;)

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