The Best Mac Apps For A Minimalist MacBook Setup


Before discussing the best Mac apps for a minimalist MacBook setup let’s look at why radically simplifying your software environment could seriously improve your personal productivity and your sense of well-being.

It might also save you a lot of money.


If you want to jump straight to my recommendations for the best Mac apps for a minimalist mac setup, you can use the navigation table below.

The Problem With Choice 

I recently replaced my MacBook and as I unpacked it, I was considering whether I’d set it up from a back-up or as a new machine. I opted to start afresh, and I’m so glad I did because doing so allowed me to step back from the bloated application library on my previous machine.

When I looked at the apps I’d purchased, it was quite frankly embarrassing. According to AppShopper, there are 1,615,252 apps in the App Store.

 Of these 28,995 are Mac apps and looking at my library, and my App Store purchased items, it seemed like I’d tried them almost of all of them at one time or another.

This prompted a bit of introspection and reflection. I was curious to understand the implications of my behaviour and why despite the huge choice on offer, I continued to search for ‘better’ solutions. The New York Times, referring to The Paradox of Choice (affiliate link) by Barry Schwartz wrote:

There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better. In a review of the literature on choice Scheibehenne, argues

"Wide proliferation of choice has also been discussed as a possible source of declines in personal well-being in market democracies…"

This theme was also addressed by the Guardian newspaper:

"Increased choice, then, can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs". 

The downside of too many choices is that you may regret your decision or feel guilty or both. It gets worse however as the cumulative effect can make you less happy. There’s something else too. The Journal of Economics published a study which concluded:

"A person might forego completing an attractive option because she plans to complete a more attractive but never-to-be-completed option".

In other words, too many choices can lead to procrastination. How often have you delayed making a decision because you have the feeling that something better might be around the corner?

So the problem isn’t just the consequences that too many choices bring — but that unnecessary options can also slow you down. In a final blow to my by now teetering self-esteem, James Clear recently wrote this:

Reflecting on my decisions, I could see that Monsieur Diderot could have been describing me. 

I learnt that one of the drivers for this kind of behaviour is what Psychology Today refers to as the ‘Curse of Perfectionism’. 

The search for perfection is ‘distinguishable in terms of compulsion, obligation, and choice’. Seltzer argues that of these three categories only the first has negative connotations.

For example, a brain surgeon is obliged to strive for perfection, while alternatively, you might choose to do the best job possible in other situations, just for the intrinsic pleasure you derive from the effort. 

It’s only when you’re trying to meet standards, which are unrealistic, irrational or unnecessary that a search for perfection turns into a curse.

Looking at my app purchasing decisions over the years, I was forced to conclude that many of my purchases were arguably irrational and often unnecessary.

The time had come to decide which apps I was going to use as the cornerstone of my minimalist MacBook setup, and having made my picks, I resolved to stick to my decisions.

I can report that, so far, it's working really well.

Summary: The Dark Side Of Too Much Choice

  • More options may make you less satisfied with the choices you make.
  • More choice, in general, is associated with a decline in overall well-being.
  • Choice availability may lead you to procrastinate.
  • Choosing something new can have a multiplying effect — triggering off a chain reaction of consumption and as a by-product the other unwanted consequences (see above) only this time additionally amplified.
  • A search for perfection can be a fool's errand.

Recommendations For The Best Mac Apps For A Minimalist MacBook Setup

Here are my personal suggestions for the best Mac apps for a minimalist MacBook setup.

1. Storage

The choice for me was between Dropbox and iCloud. As I’m entirely into the Apple eco-system, choosing iCloud is the straightforward choice. I can easily sync my other Apple apps using this system, and there’s nothing I can’t handle in iCloud for which I need Dropbox. Now I don't have to try and remember where various documents are — I know they're only in one place.

Storage: iCloud

2. Filing

For day to day filing, I use the Finder app. I’ve experimented with PathFinder, but in practice, I’ve found that I don’t need that level of functionality. For web articles, PDFs and all my other non-document items I use DevonThink Pro Office. This is a fantastic app which I have grown to love. It’s powerful and includes note-taking options, which means that I can use it for much more than just filing.

Filing/Documents: Finder
Filing/Everything else: DevonThink Pro Office

3. Calendar

There are lots of possibilities here, but the short-list comes down to BusyCal or Fantastical. I’ve chosen Fantastical for two reasons. First, it has a great natural language interface, which means you can type ‘meet David tom at 2’ and it will know what you mean. Secondly, it has an excellent iOS app which allows me to keep everything synced nicely.

Calendar: Fantastical

4. Writing

My writing workflow has evolved. Today I start everything in Ulysses. This is a beautiful writing app which allows me to strip everything back to just the words. I use Ulysses as my input editor — my tool for capturing words. The text I write can be directly exported to where it is needed for output. If it is a single document — like a paper or proposal — then I use Pages. If it is a compound document like a book with chapters I will use Scrivener.

Writing/Input: Ulysses
Writing:/Output/Single Document: Pages
Writing:/Output/Compound Document: Scrivener

​​​5. Presentation

I use Keynote. I’ve tried the alternatives, including OmniGraffle, PowerPoint and Smart Draw but I keep coming back to simplifying my environment. Using apps designed to work with hardware the same company makes for a simple setup. Keynote does everything I need from a presentation app.

Presentation: Keynote

6. Mind-Mapping

My choice is MindNode. It’s intuitive and beautiful to use and has some powerful export functions which add to its functionality.

Mind-Mapping: MindNode

​​​​7. Personal Planner/To-Do

I really have tried all of the main apps in this category. I like Trello because it uses Kanban boards and is very visual. Todoist and Things are both very good, but I have settled on OmniFocus as my app of choice. It syncs smoothly across to its iOS companion, has all the power I need and besides is beautifully designed.

Personal Planner/To-Do: OmniFocus

8. Journaling

There has only ever been one choice for me, and that’s Day One.

Journaling: Day One

9. Email Client

This is one category where I’ve definitely felt the urge to keep looking for the app that will do it all. When I stepped back and thought about this, the truth is that what I needed wasn’t an app, it was a workflow. I’ve now designed a workflow that works for me, and as a result, I’m entirely comfortable with Apple’s Mail app which I use on all platforms. One of the reasons I’m so satisfied with it is the integration it offers with DevonThink. You can read more about my setup here.

Email: Mail

10. Browser

I’ve recently switched from Chrome to Safari. There’s not much to choose between them other than a narrower range of add-ons in Safari. I have slimmed down my use of these to the following:

I’m nervous about Google, because of the way they ruthlessly mine my data and I no longer use their search engine. I use DuckDuckGo which doesn’t track everything I do. Switching across to Safari fits with this change which is why my choice of browser is now Safari.

Browser: Safari

You'll notice that there are quite a few Apple apps contained within my minimalist MacBook setup. This is intentional — a way to simplify my workflows by taking advantage of the deep integration possible by using apps from the same stable. I also like using Siri on my laptop and all of Apple's software, of course, is fully compatible.

11. Other Apps In My Minimalist MacBook Setup

There are just a few other apps I’ve installed in my minimalist MacBook setup which include:

1 Password — the best password manager.
TextExpander — an invaluable time-saver as it spits out text snippets and longer entries which are triggered by abbreviations.
Clean My Mac — to keep on top of my laptop’s house-keeping, including safe uninstalls, speeding things up and weeding out unnecessary files to minimise my storage needs.
Alfred — a keyboard launcher which speeds up a host of tasks from searching to launching applications.

In Summary — The Best Mac Apps For A Minimalist MacBook Setup

A more straightforward, or minimalist MacBook setup on your laptop helps you avoid these problems.

  • Choice Penalties — There are penalties which come with an increased choice. If you load up your machine with additional software options, you’re going to open the door to dissatisfaction.
  • The Curse of Perfectionism — The relevant question is when is good, good enough? If the app you use to write long-form text works, why look for a replacement?
  • Procrastination Implications — Should you store your documents in iCloud or Dropbox? Are you going to use Curio, Evernote or DevonThink to manage your files? If you use more than one, how will you decide which to use? All of these questions are creating drag in your effort to become more productive. They do not make the boat go faster.
  • The Diderot Effect — As you select one new app after another, you’ll discover that some of the integrations between apps that you’ve enjoyed no longer work and you’ll have to find new options. You may also decide that belonging to a family of apps might feel like a more elegant solution. Buying OmniFocus leads to OmniGraffle for example, when Keynote is probably adequate for most of your needs.

My simple advice if you want the best Mac apps for a minimalist MacBook setup is to choose one app for each main category. This will cost you less money, simplify your workflows, increase your productivity and make fewer demands on the technology.

Here are my recommendations for the best time management software/apps.


What apps would you choose for a minimalist MacBook setup?

  • Marty says:

    I don’t use Apple products, but I read your material anyway – appears to be a very sound approach. It will prod me to find a simialr useful set of apps from the gazillions in the non-Apple domain.

    Congrats on your effort.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks Marty. Let me know how you get on and I can update with your experience.

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