Three tips for new Mac Users

I got a call last week from a neighbor.  “Stop by when you get a chance,” he said.  “I have something to show you.”

Turns out that he’s just switched.  Has a shiny new iMac on his desk, with a not-so-old PC off to the side. Congratulations!

I had this funny feeling that I should have an opinion for him about what he should do next. He was fairly prepared – he’s a smart guy. I kept thinking I should say, “okay, 1-2-3, you should consider doing these things,” but I didn’t have a list at hand. That I didn’t started gnawing at me.

So, I put this together.  Not a top 50 list, or top 25 list, or even the top 10… how about just three things to start with, because they might be the most useful for anyone who wants to actually start to understand their Mac.

Set up a username and password for your Mac.  It’s a very good idea to keep your Mac locked – to configure it so that when it boots up or you wake it up it prompts for your username and password.  I hear you saying  your computer is unlikely to be stolen, and that makes sense but I have another point: not having your computer totally open is a good habit.  When you log in to your computer, you’re reminding yourself that the information you store is valuable.  You do need to provide this information anyway when you install and/or upgrade software; if you use it every day it’s easier to remember.

But more practical reasons are that when you log in to your Mac, you’re not only starting your “session” but you’re unlocking the Mac Keychain.  The Keychain can store passwords for you (explicitly – using Safari, for example) and also stores other security-related data, such as WiFi passwords and security certificates.  When you log in every day with your username and password, you can take advantage of the Keychain without any further effort.  And, by making a strong password for your login, you enable the Keychain to store data securely.  In fact, if you want to remember only one strong password, use it to login (and for your keychain); that’s the “key” to unlock any others.

Eliminate Distractions: Organize your Dock. A new Mac comes with a shiny array of attractive icons in your Dock when you log in.  I suggest you get rid of those you won’t be using often enough to have them sitting there waving at you, and then make it easy to find any of your other applications:

You can eliminate icons in your dock by dragging them to your desktop – there’s a puff-of-smoke effect, and a “woosh” sound that accompanies this.  That’s how to subtract, and that’s half the job.  The other half is having a quick way to get to the apps you don’t use as often by leaving the “Launchpad” icon in your dock or dragging your Application folder to the dock.  What you’ve just done is divided your apps into two tiers – those you use every day (or often enough to justify “one click” access), and the rest that you want to be able to find relatively easily.

Set Activity Monitor to run at startup.  There’s a good way to keep an eye on what your Mac is doing.  It’s called Activity Monitor, find it in the Utilities folder (which is itself in your Applications folder).  It gives you a list of all of the applications running on your Mac (choose the “All Processes” choice in the pick tab next to “Filter”, then click on the “% CPU” column to sort by the most active process).  The bottom half of that window shows you counters and a graphic of your usage of disks, memory, and network utilization.  Consider having this app start when you log in: right-click (or control-click) the icon in the dock, and from Options choose “Open at login”.  That way, it’s always hanging out so that you can switch to it and answer questions like “why is everything so slow” or “is that thing actually doing anything”.  This can be very useful.

Do you see the underlying idea to all of these tips?  If you implement all of these, you learn a bit about how Mac security works, how to navigate around, and what your Mac is actually “working on”.  In other words, if you set a password, configure your dock, and habitually have activity monitor running, you’ll get a bit more visibility into your new computer.  Just having yourself set up this way will help you see a bit better how the gears go around, and might help you get a conceptual step forward towards figuring out how to do more – and have more fun.

Bonus Round:

Check out MacWorld’s How To’s and Videos.

And consider learning more by using these apps:
Broaden your browser use: try Google Chrome.  More functional, updated frequently (so, arguably more secure), and I personally find the bookmarks easier to use.
Get good secure storage for your passwords: try Password Wallet .  It’s a tool to remember passwords for you.  Doesn’t actually “integrate” with your browser like most tools, which makes it a bit more secure.
Store those little pieces of information so you can find them easily wherever you are: try Evernote . File things like images, web pages, and screen shots, other notes. You can search for them, and it runs on a website, or apps for almost every current device.
File your mail messages really quickly and efficiently: try MsgFiler .  Two to six (in my case) keystrokes to file mail messages into the folder of your choice. Makes it just as easy to save for archive as to delete your mail.

(These are all unsolicited recommendations … this is just my opinion, I’m not being compensated for mentioning these.)

Hope these all help!  Have fun!

Getting Things Done: OmniFocus

I like tools. As a technologist, you might say tools are what I do.  Not all that I do – but it’s an important part.  In the hope that some of the great tools I’ve found might be of interest, this is my first post about some of the most important tools in my bag.

In 1986, working as a consultant, I purchased a seemingly overpriced small notebook that promised to help me manage my time and become more efficient.  This system, called “Time/Design” occupied the same market as the “Filofax” and “Franklin-Covey” planners; T/D was from Europe and was being heavily marketed by one of those companies that I think of as “Sharper Image” wannabes.

It was rather expensive, as I recall, and of course once one purchased the “system”, well, it wasn’t going to update itself for the next calendar year.  But the people in the pictures looked “productive”, and I needed something, so I bought in.

Somehow, a few months later, I learned of a seminar on the system.  There was a workshop being given in Newton (Mass.), right down the road.  It also wasn’t cheap, but it seemed like it would be worthwhile and so I signed up.

That was my introduction to David Allen, who has gone on to write a number of books, starting with Getting Things Done and a practice called GTD; over the years he has refined the thinking and processes and spawned significant interest in implementing these techniques in software.

Initially, much of the work was to answer questions like “how do I use Microsoft Outlook/Lotus Notes to help me” in the context of GTD workflows.  However, several years ago, standalone applications started to arrive to serve as the framework for what you could casually call your “To do lists”.

The first one that I worked with extensively is one that I adopted, called OmniFocus, developed by The Omni Group.  The core of the product was initially developed as a set of scripts and templates for Omni’s OmniOutliner, itself a pretty neat tool for creating documents that are best expressed in an “outline” with a hierarchical structure.  As of today, OmniFocus is available for the Mac and iOS platforms, there’s robust sync technology across devices that I’ve come to rely on.

Why OmniFocus?  I’ve become enthusiastic about several OmniGroup’s products.  The principal reasons have to do with design, both the thought and care that have gone into workflow (especially for OmniFocus), but also because the same level of effort brought to the visual design of the applications.  I’ve learned that I’m a visually-oriented person; this characteristic seems to be echoed in Omni’s products.

What I think of as the core tenets of GTD are:

  • A focus on determining the next action (physical) to move a project or task towards it’s goal.
  • “Capturing” those tasks, the projects or goals they represent, and the commitments that underly them – out of your head and into an external, trusted device/place/list/system.
  • Acknowledgement that we’re really not that good at multitasking; we’re best off concentrating on one thing at one time by delegating all of that “on our mind” to whatever system we have.
  • A practice of periodically reviewing our goals, projects, and what we have completed.  Re-figure that next action for each of our goals and projects, and add it to the system.  Experience that little flash of satisfaction of checking off that “done” box.  Allow some creativity to creep in envisioning project outcomes.
  • Understanding that there are contexts for taking those next actions: either location, the availability of certain tools (like Internet connectivity, or a phone), people, etc., and being able to figure out what can be done in the current context (I’m in the North End, what can I get at the store here?).

OmniFocus supports this process.  It makes it pretty easy to capture stray thoughts, roughly order things, assign contexts to tasks, review, and maintain a level of comfort that it’s all in there, safely.

I’ve found that there are a lot of people who will read a description of something like this, and think that it’s either unnatural, too much work, too contrived, or inessential.  I certainly respect those opinions; you might even make the analogy that there’s a certain level of faith in this approach and if you’re not feeling it – then none of this will be of any help.

However, for me and many others, this process has been useful.  Set aside, if you wish, the technology; the implementation is an individual project.  And GTD is not perfect, I have my own difficulties with it and keenly experience some of its shortcomings – but if this catches your attention, you might find it – and apps like OmniFocus – well worth your time to research.


  1. David Allen, DavidCo website.
  2. Getting Things Done, Amazon/Paper, Amazon/Kindle
  3. OmniFocus from The OmniGroup.
  4. Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders site.
  5. GTD Times site (“The hub for all things GTD”, from David Allen).