How To Set Up Your Mac For Focused Work
Note: This guide is for Mac users, but most optimizations work on Windows too.
We’re 4 days into the week and my RescueTime dashboard shows 39 hours and 46 minutes of logged time. Without knowing anything about what I did, one thing is clear:
I spend A LOT of time staring at my laptop.
More than most people sleep. Chances are, you do too. What if you saved 10% of that time?
Over half of all jobs require using a computer already and that number will go to 77% by 2020. Near vision is considered either very important or extremely important for 100% of all jobs. Given we spend so much time interacting with computers, how we behave during those interactions matters a great deal.
Your computer screen is an environment you choose to enter, consciously or unconsciously.
When you go to a coffeeshop and inside Starbucks it’s too loud, you can leave and find a quieter coffeeshop. The part we often forget is that we not only control which environments we enter, but also much about what those environments look like. Even if you stay at Starbucks, you can move around chairs and tables, sit in a different corner, bring headphones or turn up the heat.
Since 2013, my chosen environment has been a 15" Macbook Pro and thus, the Mac operating system. Over those four years, I learned a lot about how I can optimize said environment for better productivity and focus.
Today, I want to share the most important of those optimizations with you. We’ll talk about 3 aspects:
- Your desktop.
- Your browser.
- The way you navigate around your operating system.
1. Your Desktop
Every time you boot your laptop, the first thing you see is your desktop. It’s your gateway into this environment and sadly, most people derail on impact. Use the following steps to improve your landing so you enter a world of focus instead of distraction.
Wipe your desktop clean
We use the word desktop so naturally in the context of computers, but have you ever thought about it like a physical desk? Each icon represents an item — a pen, a document, a device — and thus a potential distraction. Most peoples’ desktop looks like this:
Wouldn’t you feel a lot better seeing this?
If you can afford to spend 10–15 minutes, click on each file on your desktop and ask: “Where does this belong?” File accordingly. If you can’t or are too lazy, here’s the Pareto version:
- Press Cmd+N on your desktop to create a new folder and name it ‘Placeholder.’ Hit enter.
- Press Cmd+A to mark every item on your desktop.
- Hold Cmd down and click on the folder with your mouse to de-select it.
- Click on one of the marked files, hold and drag it into the folder along with the rest.
In less than 10 seconds you’ll have gone from a cluttered desk to a clean one. One icon is much better than 53. Plus, your precious mess is just one more click away.
Remove apps from your dock
When the human brain is presented with one option, it considers whether taking this option is a good idea. When the human brain is confronted with more than one option, it considers which option to choose — but not whether a choice has to be made at all.
Bearing that in mind, how many apps are in your dock? When I glance around the library, most look like this:
Mine looks like this:
Finder, Stickies notes, Chrome and Skitch, a screenshot tool + 2 minimized tabs. The only tools in the dock are those I need to write this post.
Going back to word origin, a dock serves to load, unload and repair ships. Ships in the dock are there for a reason, they don’t just idle and wait for their next voyage. Here’s how you can remove apps from your dock so they only show up when in use:
- Right-click on an app in the dock. On a Macbook you can do this by tapping the trackpad with two fingers.
- Select options, then uncheck the “Keep in dock” option.
- Poof, and it’s gone. Repeat for all apps except finder and the trash can, for which this doesn’t work.
Hide your dock
It’s easy to miss, but if you scroll back to the screenshot of my desktop, you’ll see there’s actually no dock. That’s because even after minimizing the number of distractions in it, I choose to hide it until I need to see it. Here’s how to do that:
- Right-click in the blank space in your dock.
- Click ‘Turn Hiding On.’
Now your dock will automatically slide out of view when you move your cursor out of it. If you move it to the center, bottom edge of your screen, it pops back up — but on your terms.
Multiple desktops = different tasks
If you slide up with four fingers at once on your trackpad, you trigger what’s called ‘Mission Control,’ where you can see all open windows on your desktop. You’ll also see a small bar across the top saying ‘Dashboard,’ ‘Desktop 1,’ ‘Desktop 2,’ etc. If you move the cursor up there, another bar will pop out, showing you multiple desktops.
You can use the plus symbol on the right to generate new desktops. This is the level on which you want to multitask on a Mac. Imagine you had different desks for different parts of your job. Every time you make a switch, you have to get up and relocate. It’s a conscious act, not a mindless bodily reflex.
Getting back to the two minimized tabs from before, those are tied to different tasks. When you alternate between to-dos, collect all windows, apps, browser tabs and information on one desktop. Before you leave, minimize those (Cmd+M) on said desktop. Your other desktops will remain clean and once you make the conscious decision to switch, you can open everything again with a few clicks. Your Mac will automatically jump to the right desktop from the dock.
2. Your Browser
Besides a few apps running in the background, I’m astounded by the number of web apps doing just fine running in my browser. All social media, music, email, why would I get dozens of different apps if I can access them in just one?
Google Chrome is a powerhouse, but also a Pandora’s box of distractions. Here are two ways I make sure I stay focused while in Chrome.
Have a ‘single tab policy’
I started this session with a single tab. By now, it looks like this:
The point is not to stick to one tab, but to consciously start from zero. I used to have Chrome set to ‘continue where I left off,’ which’d open a plethora of distracting tabs every time I started the app. After losing 20 minutes just browsing what I’d done before, I would think: “What did I really come here to do?” Then, I’d actually start. Just 20 minutes late.
I’m not foolish enough to think I can do all my work in a single tab, but I find if I at least start with just one, I get a more focused entry. Here’s how to set up a single tab policy in Chrome:
- Go to settings, for example by pressing Cmd+, (comma).
- Scroll all the way down.
- Click on ‘Manage on startup pages.’
- Select ‘Open the New Tab page.’
Now, every time you re-open Chrome, you get a fresh start. You see in my case it says ‘Momentum is controlling this setting.’ Let’s talk about that.
Drive focus with the Momentum extension
With the Momentum extension, you get a dashboard in your new tab, which gives you time and prompts you to think about your main focus for the day.
This is great for two reasons:
- It brings your awareness back to the present moment (oh, it’s 6 PM already?).
- You think about what to do next.
This makes it a lot clearer what your current browser session is about. I usually close all tabs once I’m done with a task and start a new one for whatever comes next — potentially on a different desktop, as mentioned before.
A word on distraction blockers: I've tried a lot of them and I find the distracted mind gets what the distracted mind wants. This is one of the rare cases where I found I learned more from becoming aware of chasing distractions and consciously closing them, rather than trying to block access too much. If you still want to try restricting access to certain sites, here are some I've used:
- Newsfeed Eradicator (Facebook)
- K9 Web Protection
3. Your Navigation Process
When you’re not in a certain application on your computer, you’re navigating to find one. It’s binary. Work in application. Look for application. Sure, you might want a specific document or file, but that too gets opened in a specific app, like Pages or Keynote.
Working in an application is, ideally, productive. Looking for the right file never is. It’s a cost driver. Therefore, the less time you spend searching, the better. Here’s how to reduce your navigation time to almost zero:
- Install Alfred. It’s free.
- Set a keyboard shortcut to trigger Alfred. I use Space+Control.
- Whenever you need to go somewhere, trigger Alfred and type in your destination.
Alfred is like Spotlight search on steroids. Apple has improved it, but I find Alfred still has a slight edge.
To find and open apps, just type the app name into the search bar.
To find specific files, add a single apostrophe (‘) before your search phrase.
To do math, just type in your calculation.
When you hit Enter the result is copied to your clipboard, ready to be pasted elsewhere.
To get a preview of your highlighted selection, press shift.
To look up a word, type ‘define’ and then the word you want to check.
There are a ton more features and a premium version, but these are the ones I use the most. As a result, I rarely use the Finder to find stuff and I get much less distracted on my path from A to B — because it’s instantaneous.
Alfred is like a Hyperloop for your Mac. You don’t wonder which train to take, because there are only a few connections and your train of thought doesn’t pause at every stop along the way.
I thought long and hard about all measures I’ve taken to be more focused on my Mac. I was surprised out of the countless tactics I’ve tried, so few remain, but it makes sense.
Finding focus on your computer screen isn’t complex. It’s about finding the few core pillars of this environment that need adjusting and pushing them into place.
You might not spend 10 hours a day engulfed in pixels, but even if it’s 8, or 6, or 4, wouldn’t your 2020 self thank you if they held? I know mine would.
Now let me get out of this Starbucks. It’s way too loud in here.