Personalizing and Streamlining Your Mac for Better Productivity

You probably have personalized your Macintosh setup to your taste. You have desktop wallpaper featuring your favorite band, your kids, or a picture from your last vacation. Maybe you’ve customized application and folder icons to your liking. Not only can you personalize your Mac to your own individual taste, you can personalize it to help you be more productive. Here are some ways to tweak your Finder, some add-on applications for manipulating files and actions, and ways to organize (and name) your files.

Before I get into this, I have to say that much of this is borrowed from an article I read in Macworld a while back. The online version of the story is here. Also, this covers Mac OS X v. 10.4, as I haven’t really used 10.5 with the exception of the times I’ve played with the new Macs at the Apple Store. The Finder Sidebar is a little different, but the same principles apply.

Set Up Your Finder Sidebar to Work for You

Image: My Finder sidebar, which contains frequently used folders, files, and applications You can change the icons visible in your Finder sidebar for quick access for a variety of items. Drag and drop icons to create aliases (shortcuts) to things you use often, placing them in the sidebar visible in each Finder window. Here’s what I suggest placing there:

  • Commonly Used Applications I keep Entourage, my e-mail program, in the Finder sidebar. This makes it easy to quickly e-mail PDF proofs from the Finder: all I have to do is drag the PDF icon onto the purple Entourage “e” and it instantly creates a new e-mail with that file attached.
  • Frequently Used Servers I keep shortcuts to our Projects server here, too, so I can get to it quickly.
  • Hot Folders Call me self-centered, but I have a folder containing aliases to my own projects on the shared server, since I don’t really care too much to navigate everybody else’s projects when I’m looking for a particular job. You can also use this to have easy access to other folders or even individual documents. It just saves you the trouble of drilling down through a bunch of folders to get to something.

Color-coding Your Files

Image: Color codes that indicate whether or not it's time to archive this folder's contents to disc When you right-click (or Ctrl-click if you’re still using the one-button mouse) on a file or folder in the Finder, you can choose from a number of colors to tag your files with. Create a system where each color means something special to you. I use green on images that I have downloaded to add to my “inspiration” folder. You can also use color-coding to remind yourself when finished project folders are ready to be burned to disc for permanent offline storage. Folders that are over 3.5 GB are labeled with red, so I’ll know to burn them to DVD.

Add Keywords to Your Files For Use with Spotlight

While you’re in the Get Info window, you can tag your files by adding keywords to the Spotlight Comments box. This way, when you run a Spotlight search, you can search for a specific word that you’ve tagged your files with. This will work in conjunction with a “keep everything in one big folder” method.

Take Advantage of Folder Views

Image: Finder's View Buttons Using the buttons at the top of the Finder window will allow you to view a folder’s contents a number of ways: icon view, list view, column view, and with Leopard, the new Quick Look view that lets you preview documents without opening them. Personally, I find list view and column view most useful. The former since it lets me see color-coding at a glance, and the latter since it makes it easier to go up or down in the folder hierarchy. You can read a lot more about it here on Apple’s site.

Use a Launcher

Third-party application launchers do exactly what the name implies: launch programs via keyboard shortcuts. Perhaps the most popular one for the Mac is Quicksilver, which does a lot more than just open files and run programs. (I use it in conjunction with a MoodBlast AppleScript to update Twitter and Facebook.) Lifehacker recently ran a feature that polled readers for their fave app launcher. The jury seems to be out on using Spotlight as a launcher, though.

Some Things to Remember

One thing to keep in mind is to remember to name your files well so that you know what they are, even without special tags or color codes. This really should be a no-brainer, yet it happens all the time. You don’t want to end up with five different files named “Business Card.” Give it a name like “JohnSmith_bc” or something else descriptive that you’ll be able to identify immediately when you’ve got the flu and you’re loopy from cough syrup. You may be the only person who will ever look at your files, but you need to make it clear enough to other people what they are, in case you are unable to work with them at a future point. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of writing your tasks as if you are delegating them to someone you actually know.