Tag Archives: Productivity

7 Free Mac Apps to Make Your Life Easier

I have a bad habit.

Whenever I hear about some cool Mac-friendly program, I immediately download it, then never use it again. The result? When I look in my Applications folder, I find all kinds of random iCrap with completely useless names like Switch, Tofu, and iSquint. That said, there are a few apps whose names (and functionality) I do remember, because I use them almost every day.

Here are 7 Mac apps that I’ve found useful over the last 4 years:

7) Cloud – This app is just a cloud-shaped icon that sits in your toolbar (up by the system clock and volume control) and lets you easily share folders, files, and links. You just drag whatever you want to share onto the icon (or press a hotkey or simply take a screenshot with Cmd-Shift-3), and the app puts a shortened URL to the content on your clipboard, ready to paste.

6) coconutBattery – Very, VERY simple app that shows you the health and number of charge cycles of your laptop battery.

Yep, that's it.

5) Papers (I cheated, this one’s not free: ~$50 for students) – Tried and true app for reading and organizing research papers. It lets you search a bunch of databases, syncs with all Apple iDevices, and imports just about any file format. The new version seems to have a kickass citation manager and other cool features too.

4) Caffeine – Another toolbar icon, just a coffee cup. You can click on it and watch it magically fill up. Click again and it empties. That’s it. Oh yeah, it also keeps your Mac awake (no screen dimming or screensaver) when it’s full, which makes it extremely useful for presentations or movies or long SSH sessions, you know, the ones where you really, really have to go to the bathroom but don’t want your Macbook to go idle and drop your connection and destroy your last 5 hours of work, so you end up wetting your pants. You know, those times. Never again. 🙂

3) TwoUp – Lets you move and resize any window into exactly one half of the screen (any half: top, bottom, left, right) with a simple hotkey. This is really helpful when you need to see an email to add an event into your iCal, or when you have two versions of a file open and need to see both at once. This useful feature is built into Windows 7, and it surprises me that Apple hasn’t yet implemented it in OS X (if anyone knows how to do this, please let me know).

2) xPad – This is my go-to app for inputting text. Nearly everything I type into my computer goes into xPad first, including research data, to do lists, grocery lists, blog posts, assignments, everything. It’s basically TextEdit with tabs and autosave, which means (1) you don’t have to worry about choosing a filename and save location each time you want to create a new document, and therefore (2) organization ensues. xPad backs up all your documents/tabs every few minutes and before it quits, and you can export any or all of them to .rtf whenever you want. Super useful app.

1) Alfred – The best app launcher out there, much better than the popular Quicksilver. Press a hotkey and enter the name of an app/document/video/whatever and it will launch immediately. But Alfred does much more than just launching apps: Type “google/wiki/gmail/docs/bing/youtube/facebook/twitter/wolfram ____” and it will search any of those sites for ____. Type in a math problem and it will solve it. The only thing it won’t do is justify dropping $2000 on a Mac, but you’ve already done that yourself, so you might as well download Alfred and make Apple’s UI even easier to use.

Leave a comment below with your top app picks!


0) Angry Birds – Just kidding. It is stupidly addicting, though.

Likability of Angry Birds, from TheOatmeal.com

My current wallpaper.

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An Accidental Nuclear War

Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is? 

You should. Back in the 80s, when the U.S. and Russia were being all ridiculous and arms-race-y, Col. Petrov managed to save the world while hunkered down in a bunker near Moscow. Check out this article I wrote about Petrov and why the future of the world rested on his shoulders on one September day in 1983.

Time to get back to writing my final paper as a Stanford student…


So true.

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Why TV Shows Aren’t A Complete Waste of Your Time

I used to think that watching TV shows was a complete waste of time. But I just changed my mind.

Exhibit 1: Hilarious TV show.

What changed?

I realized that watching a good TV show clears my mind.

These days, I always have at least 10 things circling like vultures around my mind at once: research ideas, problem sets, upcoming meetings, graduation, grad school, summer jobs, summer housing… It’s way too easy to get distracted by an “urgent” email while I’m working on a research problem—Mac Mail’s red email indicator kills productivity without fail—and the closer I get to graduation, the more thoughts of post-Stanford life start to pop up at inopportune times (i.e., all the time). It gets harder and harder to clear my mind and focus.

Enter the TV show.

When I’m watching a good show online—i.e., on my own schedule, with no commercials—I get lost in the characters’ world, a sense of flow not unlike what I feel when I’m reading a good book. The characters are crucial: I empathize with some, laugh at others, and the effortless endeavor to psychoanalyze—to make sense of the ridiculous antics, jokes, and drama—washes away all the other thoughts floating around in my head. And once the episode ends, I can jump right back into my work, thinking of nothing but the show. Turns out it’s a lot easier to forget a silly TV show than 10 stressful thoughts about my future, and when that’s gone, my mind is clear.

There are many other ways of achieving the same effect of flow, of total engagement, mind and body. Read a book. Meditate. Play a sport. I’ve tried them all, and they all seem to work. But few diversions have been as widely maligned as watching TV, and it’s comforting to me and surely some others to know that TV shows, correctly wielded, have a place in even the busiest of lives. Watching a good show with friends is like meditating, but more social and more hilarious.

The show that made me rethink TV was Community, a parody of student life at a community college. It fits the “good TV show” mold beautifully—clever, light-hearted, attractive—and it’s got me hooked. In a good way. I think.


P.S. For those friends who don’t check Facebook, I’ll be starting a PhD in EE at MIT this fall! Just got my new email address (jjean@mit.edu), and the parka is on its way…

MIT in micro-bubbles (Courtesy of Manu Prakash)

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Are You A Procrastinator?

Stanford philosophy professor (and 1980s Soto RF) John Perry has discovered “an amazing strategy… that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

He calls his theory “Structured Procrastination.

How does it work?

Picture the To Do list you keep on your Windows 7/Mac OS X desktop, on your iCal/iGoogle, on an explosion of Post-Its all over your workspace, wherever. Now imagine doing everything EXCEPT the 2 or 3 most important tasks on that list. How much have you actually accomplished?

Not much, you might say, considering that you didn’t do what you most needed to get done. But if your To Do list was organized correctly––i.e.,  in line with the tenets of Structured Procrastination––you’ve probably never had a more productive day.

The key to Perry’s theory lies in the structure of the To Do list. Most people organize their list in order of importance, with the most important tasks (“Sign up for classes”) on top, moderately important tasks (“Brush my teeth”) in the middle, and trivial tasks (“Brush my dog’s teeth”) on the bottom. Note that a To Do item doesn’t have to be on top of the list to be well worth doing; working on these “less important” tasks becomes a way to put off working on the first few items on the list. And by putting tasks that only SEEM important and urgent (e.g., “Write a blog entry”, “Check my PO Box”) on top of the list, you can make progress on the tasks that really matter.

I don’t know if this game plan works for everyone, but I know I’ve been using a similar strategy for a long time. I’ll work on my research to avoid writing a paper, or make a flyer for ASES to skirt a trip to the post office, or plan out my classes for next quarter to escape packing. Try it out. Sometimes self-deception can be a very powerful tool.


P.S. A word of warning from Perry…

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

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