A step by step guide that can save you 5 hours a week
I've set up at least fourteen Macs over the past 25 years, and each time feels as magical as the first. I still feel a sense of wonder, of quiet anticipation, and of being part of something truly remarkable. There's nothing like opening a new computer and feeling it hum to life for the very first time!
The things I put in place when setting up a new Mac have a significant impact on my productivity. I estimate these options, apps, and practices save me close to an hour a day, or five hours a week. That’s five more hours to create, write, play, or sleep.
For perspective, I'm a solopreneur in my own educational publishing company. I'm a graphic designer who's responsible for editing, customer service, marketing, and maintaining a website. I also teach online part-time. Minimalism calls my name, but I love variety, so I’m still wrestling the whole app-clutter concept.
- 27 inch iMac (rarely used these days)
- 15 inch MacBook Pro 2019 (the workhorse)
- iPhone X (upgraded every 3 years, give or take)
- iPad Pro 9.7 inch with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil 1st gen (I love this size for travelling)
- iPad Pro 12.9 inch 4th Gen with Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2nd gen (a pleasure to use, but not a laptop replacement)
- AirPods Pro
These are the steps I take when setting up a new Mac:
- Install privacy browser
- Install password manager
- Install bookmark manager
- Set up Cloud backup software and Time Machine drive
- Install browser extensions, utilities, and desktop apps
- Tweak System Preferences
- Set up an organised file structure, and Smart Folders
- Use a logical file naming system
Now for the details, with bonus productivity tips at the end.
1. Install a Privacy Browser
Productivity benefits: Ad blockers prevent shiny object distraction; online privacy helps you feel safe and relaxed—leading to better work.
This might not seem directly tied to being productive, but it’s always step one because I do a lot of work in browsers. It’s never fun being spied on or leveraged for sneaky marketing tactics. The browser I choose is the foundation my online productivity is built upon.
I didn't choose Brave for the crypto perks—they don't have a squeaky clean record there. Brave is the bomb because it's like Chrome minus the privacy issues, so all my Chrome extensions work. If you're happy using Safari, Firefox, or Chrome, I recommend changing the default search engine to DuckDuckGo. Safari: Preferences > General > Search
2. Install a Password Manager
Productivity benefits: Time saved keeping track of passwords and other sensitive information.
I recommend getting an app to take care of your passwords, but don’t get complacent about protecting your data. My digital productivity begins and ends with my password manager. I've used 1Password since 2013—it integrates with all my devices and is well worth the small subscription fee. 1Password is the first Chrome extension I install into Brave. I recommend changing your password regularly, and coming up with a great mnemonic to remember it. If you feel confident doing so, give your password manager password to someone you trust, in case the worst should happen. I’m in my fifties and no longer invincible, so I regularly drill my adult children on my 1Password password (Is it secret? Is it safe?).
3. Install a Bookmark Manager
Productivity benefits: Time saved looking for sites you visit on a regular basis.
There's a ton of bookmark managers out there, so choose your favourite and go with that. I use Qlearly—it's looked like a gimmick until I actually tried it and saw how useful it was.
I store all my regularly used bookmarks in the cloud, and view them on one screen in columns, according to type. Having everything in one place saves me time, and saves my mental energy for important stuff, rather than trying to remember how to find the obscure website I only need to use every two months.
I've set Qlearly and my web-based email (Fastmail) as saved pages, so they appear whenever I fire up my browser, no matter what machine I'm on. As a serial app and SaaS tinkerer, using a bookmark manager does two very helpful things:
- It acts as a basic Standard Operating Procedure list. You can set up a board in Qlearly that's dedicated to a topic, and list all the required sites under appropriate headings. Qlearly also lets you add tasks with check boxes, making it a great choice for web-based SOPs.
- It reminds me about sites and services that I need to use but keep forgetting about (ie. Hemingway app), and it shows me all the things I've collected that aren't as useful as I thought they'd be. I have trouble throwing things out, so I take rarely used items and put them in another column that doesn't take up prime screen real estate.
Whichever bookmark manager you go with, the important thing is to have the sites you use the most well organised and easy to access.
4. Set Up Your Backups
Productivity benefits: If the worst should happen, all your hard work can be retrieved. Don’t tempt fate.
I love the way signing into iCloud restores my data every time I set up a new Mac! One of the many reasons I love playing and building cool things in the Apple garden. Dropbox is the main cloud backup for my business, so I pay for the 1TB plan. You may prefer a different cloud service, but in my experience you shouldn't be without one. Hard backups aren't reliable, and having no backup at all puts you on a fast path to regret.
Where Dropbox and iCloud sync my daily files, Carbon Copy Cloner takes care of backing up my entire Mac. It detects changes on my hard drive and updates at specified times. Should my machine die without warning, I could boot up any other Mac with my CCC backup and continue working immediately—exactly where I left off.
5. Install Utilities, Extensions, and Apps
Productivity benefits: Look for apps that enhance the way you already work. Only use a utility if it simplifies actions that make a measurable difference to your workflow. There’s no point buying a high-powered chainsaw if you don’t have any trees to chop.
Keyboard Maestro – text expansion, macros, keyboard shortcuts, hot keys for opening websites. If you like to drive your Mac with the keyboard, Keyboard Maestro is worth the learning curve. I've created simple scripts that automate things I do multiple times a day. There's a great community of users ready to answer questions and share their workflows.
If Keyboard Maestro feels like overkill, get yourself a text expanding utility instead. TextExpander is the best around and I'm tempted to subscribe for the multi-platform compatibility.
Bartender – clears the top menu bar of icons I don't need to see all the time. Once again, this is to reduce distractions. I use a keyboard shortcut to show the icons when I need them.
CleanMyMac X – keeps my Mac running in top form. It uninstalls apps properly, clears old system junk, and lets me know when big files that I'm no longer using are clogging my machine.
Hazel – watches my Download folder and sorts files into categories. Hazel also moves my completed plain text tasks into a dated archive folder. David Sparks has some great tutorials for this utility which I'd like to study in more detail, because I know I haven't even scratched the surface with what Hazel can do.
iMazing – backs up my iOS devices to my Mac. Gives access to messages, attachments, music, and photos, right on the Mac.
I know some people prefer Alfred with a fervour that verges on religious, but I've never given it a fair go and can't see any reason to at this point. It appears to me that Keyboard Maestro makes it redundant. If you're itching to comment and say that I need to use Alfred because it's going to change my life, please give me details about what it can do that Keyboard Maestro can't.
BetterTouchTool - allows me to activate tap-to-click on my Magic Mouse.
RightFont – font manager that makes it easy to choose fonts for my graphics projects.
Droplr – when I drag files to the Droplr icon in my menu bar, a shortened URL is put onto the clipboard. Very useful for sharing screenshots of projects and ideas with clients.
SimpleFloatingClock – I like keeping a large print digital clock in the upper right hand corner of my Mac. It's opaque, and clicks pass through it.
ToothFairy – a simple utility that controls the bluetooth devices connected to my Mac. I can connect my AirPods with a simple click in the menu bar.
Notejoy webclipper – As mentioned above, Notejoy is my favourite Evernote alternative.
ProWritingAid – Grammarly alternative.
History Search – Allows me to search my history across devices and browsers, and group sites into collections
Dark Mode - turn Chrome/Brave into dark mode with the flick of a switch
TrackMySubs – helps me to remember when trials are nearly up and subscriptions are due. This service has saved me hundreds of dollars in the past year. What's the point of being productive if money is leaking out the seams?
Quotebacks – generates a neat HTML or Markdown quote box, linked to its source, ready to paste into my research or a blog post.
Affinity Designer/Publisher/Photo – I ditched Adobe a few years ago and haven't looked back. These apps replace InDesign, Illustrator, and PhotoShop in my workflow.
The Archive – My favourite Markdown app, but it's much more than that. This is the only plain text app I've seen that allows you to create saved searches—this lets me use The Archive as a task management app as well as my Zettelkasten. I have a series of actions set up in Drafts on my iPhone that let me add notes, standalone or prepended, directly into the folder The Archive syncs with. I'm typing this into The Archive right now, in full screen mode, with no side bar. Oh the bliss of distraction free writing! I know Ulysses is beloved by many, but I’m not convinced that the difference it’d make for me would be worth the subscription.
Fantastical – It looks great, and the natural language input makes it quick and easy to enter appointments and events.
Notejoy – this is my Evernote replacement. It's a very well thought out notes app with a web clipper, tags, nested notebooks, and great collaboration features.
GoodNotes, Keynote, Zoom – I use these daily when teaching online. I have a Keynote template for the basic structure of my presentations which I export to PDF and import into GoodNotes. Sharing my iPad screen with GoodNotes is great over Zoom, as I can write on the slides the same way I'd write on the whiteboard in a physical classroom.
Productivity Apps Next on My List to Try
Alfred – one day I'll discover what all the hype is about
Deckset – this appeals to me as someone who teaches using Keynote slides, and who loves distraction free productivity and Markdown.
Are there any you think I’ve missed? Please leave a link in the comments.
6. Tweak System Preferences
Productivity benefits: Everything in this list either saves me time, or minimises distractions.
These are the changes I make to the default System Preferences:
Trackpad: Activate Tap to Click
A hard press every time causes undue hand strain when you do fifty billion clicks a day. Tap to click should be on by default .
System Preferences > Trackpad > Tap to click
Change the Desktop to a Plain Colour
Call me boring if you like—I’ll take it as a compliment—because at the moment I have the colour Stone on my desktop. Coloured or patterned backgrounds might work for you, but for me they're one more distraction.
System Preferences > Desktop and Screen Saver > Desktop > Colours > Custom Colour
Dock: Activate Auto Show/Hide
I almost never use the Dock, so I like it to disappear unless I actively go looking for it. Screen real estate is too valuable to keep it showing, and again, it's another distraction pulling my attention away from the work at hand. Even though my dock was hidden, I found it popping up too many times when I didn't want it to. It's not possible to completely deactivate the Dock without crippling other functions but I have discovered a way to keep it out the way—thanks to David Blanche at Quora.
Copy and paste into Terminal:
defaults write com.apple.Dock autohide-delay -float 5 && killall Dock
This inserts a five second delay before the dock pops up. You can change the 5 to the number of seconds you'd prefer it to be.
To restore it to the default:
defaults delete com.apple.Dock autohide-delay
I admit to indulging in some schadenfreude when watching people try to find things on my laptop! They feel blind and disoriented, surrounded by nothing but empty, exquisitely peaceful monochromatic space. I use LaunchBar and Keyboard Maestro to activate apps much faster than I could have found them on the Dock.
Change the Touch Bar
Skip this step if you're a fan of the dynamic Touch Bar.
It's cute, it looks like it should be useful, but I'm not a fan. In fact, I found it worse than useless when I first used it because of the extra steps it took to find keys that used to just be there. You know, in the same place, all the time.
If you're like me and the Touch Bar is threatening to drive you insane, take heart because this is how to make it look like a normal keyboard:
Settings > Keyboard > Touch Bar shows > Expanded Control Strip
Now you can choose which items to include, and the order you’d like them in.
7. Set Up a File Structure in Your Cloud Backup Service(s)
Productivity benefits: You’ll do better, faster work when you know where to put things and where to find them.
This is a vital step—don't skip it. I'll tell you how mine is set up, but you'll have to adapt the principles to work for you. The default Documents folder doesn't figure in my workflow at all.
- Identify your main areas of responsibility as broadly as possible and set up your Core Folders. Everything I do goes into one of four parent folders. Any overlapping items stay in their main folder, and get assigned tags as needed.
- Create identically named Core Folders in every cloud service you use. I have WORK-DROPBOX and WORK-ICLOUD to make it obvious at a glance where things are going. And yes, I always name folders in caps to make them visually stand out from the files they contain.
- Set up Smart Folders. I mark all the files and folders pertinent to what I'm working on right now with a “Current Projects” tag, then set up a Smart Folder to show them all in one place. This folder lives in the side bar of my Finder windows. Think of Smart Folders as saved searches and create more to reflect what you regularly look for on your Mac.
8. Use a Logical File Naming System
Productivity benefits: You’ll be less likely to lose important documents, and you’ll save time when searching for them.
Done right, this practice will save you a lot of time and frustration. I use a keyboard shortcut (made in Keyboard Maestro) to automatically enter today’s date. Hazel can be set to do a lot file naming without you lifting a finger. David Sparks wrote about this topic in 2012, and his advice still holds up today.
Why Set Up a New Mac From Scratch? What About Time Machine?
Time Machine is great as a working backup, but I recommend setting up a new Mac from scratch every time anyway. It's a bit like moving house. You get to decide whether those boxes of potentially useful things you didn't unpack after your last move really deserve a space in the new one.
Setting things up one at a time forces you to be intentional about what you're using and to be realistic about what you'll probably never use. It also avoids the risk of transferring corrupted system junk onto a new system. Moving to a new computer gives you the opportunity to set up with brand new furniture that's identical to the old ones, minus the dust and scratches.
Bonus Productivity Tips
1. Learn to Touch Type!
Seriously. This skill alone will put you way ahead in—
- Getting your ideas typed out before they disappear
- The time taken to type what you need to type
- Eye health: staring at a screen all day isn't good for you.
- Driving your Mac like a finely tuned race car: you'll be able to open apps, files, and execute keyboard shortcuts without your fingers leaving the keys
2. Colour Code Your Cables
My new MacBook Pro only has USB C ports, but my iPhone X uses a Lightning connector. I've used washi tape coated in PVC glue to help me see at a glance which cord is for what. This simple trick saves me time and frustration every single day.
3. Buy a Spare Charger
Expensive, but well worth it for the way I work.
4. Buy a Great Laptop Bag
I love my Thule Laptop Bag. Compact, sturdy, not too heavy, 25 year warranty. It holds all my chargers, papers and more, and makes it easier to work anywhere.
Setting up a Mac for maximum productivity is an investment of time, there's no denying it. Only you can decide if it's worth the effort.
If I could only leave you with 5 Mac productivity tips, it would be these:
- Use a password manager.
- Use a launcher or a text expansion app.
- Set up an organised folder system for all your stuff.
- Learn to touch type.
- Be intentional about everything: the apps you use and the way you use them.