Author: Amanda Aizuss

Free Mac Apps to Improve Productivity: nvALT

Everyone should have a digital place to dump/store information and capture thoughts. For me, that place is nvALT. It’s a fork of Notational Velocity, a minimal, efficient, fast note taking app. Yes, I just listed 3 adjectives to describe a note taking app and I could go on. nvALT’s strength is its simplicity.  It lets you write text, it automatically saves that text, and it lets you search for the text. Here’s a screenshot of the app:


It consists of a search bar, a list of notes, and a place to type. You can actually navigate anywhere in the app without touching the mouse; for example, hit cmd + L to navigate to the search bar. In nvALT, everything works from the search bar. Type a title or a word in the bar, and it automatically searches all text as you type. You can hit enter to create a new note with that title.  You can use nvALT for a variety of purposes:

I do a lot of writing in the app; in fact, I’m using it to write this post. It tends to be the first place I go to write because I feel less pressure writing in nvALT than in a word processor; I wrote the first draft of my TEC application in nvALT.  Last year, I kept a note with a list of significant quotations and page numbers from books I was reading, which helped when I was writing papers. When I have an idea for a YouTube video, I make a new note and brainstorm. I have a note called “ideas” so I can quickly record any type of idea. Ultimately, nvALT is the most convenient tool for storing text, especially spontaneous information. It’s faster than a pen and paper and definitely more efficient than keeping many short text files in a folder.

I also use it to keep lists. I have lists of inspiring women in tech, links to programming resources and brief descriptions of them/why they are useful, books to read, tv shows and movies to watch, and more. If you’re a TEC Fellow, I recommend using nvALT to:

  1. Keep track of places to visit in San Francisco. Come up with a naming convention, like SF: to-eat for restaurants. Alternatively, you can make a note called SF places and categorize them within the note. Include restaurants to visit, neighborhoods you want to explore, museums to visit, hikes, etc.
  2. Keep a list of people: We have weekly discussions with entrepreneurs, and in addition to any handwritten notes you might take, it’s useful to keep a digital record containing the speaker, their contact info, and what you learned or appreciated about their talk. Sometimes, speakers recommend books or resources; you can add these to lists in nvALT as well.

If you’re using the built in Notes app on your Mac and iOS devices, I urge you to download nvALT (and Simplenote, which it syncs with). Like Alfred, it’s one of the first apps I install on a Mac, and I feel less productive without it.

Free Mac Apps to Improve Productivity: Alfred

I’m obsessed with software, and I’m especially fond of simple Mac apps that make my life easier. Three of my most used Mac apps are Alfred, nvALT, and ClipMenu. They are all free to download, and using a Mac without these tools has become frustrating for me. In my next few posts, I’ll discuss how I use these apps and why they are essential to my workflow.

Alfred is an app launcher and more – it’s the easiest way to search for anything on your Mac and the web, and if you do buy the power pack extension, you gain more powerful features such as workflows, which let you execute almost any action from the keyboard. I use the free version of Alfred to:

  1. Launch Apps
    Alfred learns which apps you launch often and prioritizes them in the search results. For example, typing t results in a list where FaceTime, which doesn’t even start with T, precedes TextEdit.
    App Search Results
  2. Search for Files
    When I know the name of a file, I rarely open Finder to navigate to it. Instead, I type the space bar in the Alfred window, which signals that I’m searching for a file or folder. (You can also change the settings so that it searches for files to open without typing the spacebar or ‘open’ keyword). Typing ‘find’ in Alfred will open a finder window to reveal where the file or folder is located.
    Find feature
  3. Web Search
    Alfred comes loaded with web search options; for example, you can search Google, Twitter, Amazon, Youtube, or Wikipedia. I love being able to search Wolfram Alpha from my desktop. Don’t limit yourself to these websites; you can add custom searches to search or open any website. For example, I can search Netflix by typing ‘netflix’ into alfred. If you’re a developer, you might want to add custom searches to search documentation or APIs.Adding a custom search is simple. Visit the website you want to search and type a sample query. Copy the resulting URL and paste it into Alfred, replacing whatever query you used with {query}. Then decide what keyword you want to use when you use Alfred to perform the search.Netflix Search
    You can also use custom searches to open a particular website or page. For example, I’ve set up Alfred so typing xkcd opens a random xkcd comic.

    Custom Web Search

  4. Dictionary
    Typing “define [word]” opens the dictionary app. It’s the fastest way to look up definitions and synonyms.
  5. System Commands
    I don’t actually take advantage of this feature, but there are keywords for system commands such as emptying the trash, force quitting applications, and restarting your computer.

These are only the basic features that Alfred offers. Sure, Apple has improved Spotlight so it offers most of the basic features that Alfred offers, but it’s not nearly as customizable. Alfred is the first app I download on a new mac, and you should try it.

Essential Apps for SF Interns

Now that I’ve been living in San Francisco for two weeks, I’ve settled into a routine. My iPhone is never more than a few feet away from me, and the following apps have increased my productivity, entertained me, and kept me informed.

Google Maps: for directions using public transportation or walking. During my first weekend in the city, I wandered around on foot for 10 miles and used Google Maps to figure out where pedestrian freeway overpasses. I mostly use it to figure out which bus to catch, though.

Foursquare: One of the TEC fellows *cough* Nitish *cough* makes fun of me for using it, but it’s my favorite way to find restaurants and places to visit, and I trust it more than Yelp. Their recommendation engine sets it apart from competitors.

Product Hunt: Stay updated on the latest product releases ranging from mobile apps to websites to developer tools. I love Product Hunt because of the comments (who ever thought someone would say that about a website?!). The people who contribute to development of the product are called “Makers” and participate in discussion with a select group of people. The discussion section is a wonderful way to learn about what motivated the makers, their ideas about the future of the product, and how they respond to constructive criticism.

Venmo: You will definitely owe someone money at some point.

Pocket: You probably won’t have time to read every interesting article you come across, so use Pocket to save things for later.

Lyft: Sometimes, public transportation is too inconvenient. Lyft Line is a relatively inexpensive way to get around the city.

Day One: The best journaling app. I’d certainly recommend jotting down thoughts throughout the day, taking a picture to save in the app, or taking a few minutes before going to sleep to write about the day.

Clear: A beautiful, minimal, gesture based list making app. I keep lists of things I need to buy for my apartment, recommended books, and various other things.

Circa News: This is one of my favorite News apps because it delivers comprehensive yet easy to digest coverage optimized for mobile devices. Perfect for reading on your way to work! As of today, 6/24/15, Circa News is on indefinite hiatus and I’m still in denial so I refuse to remove it from this list. Yahoo News Digest is a decent alternative, even though it offers less content.

I might add apps to this list throughout the summer.