Quick – what’s your most-used program?
We all know the tools of the trade: Google Analytics, Open Site Explorer, Majestic – the list goes on and on. But for an industry obsessed with tech and apps, I see few posts about the more personal and necessary tools SEO and content professionals use every day. I’m talking about the less exciting ones that we use constantly, like Excel. Who among us doesn’t spend hours up to our elbows in Excel every week?
But, well, that doesn’t sound like a very fun blog post. (Even if I did find this tutorial on making pivot tables in Excel to be pretty exciting.) I get that, which is why I led off by asking what your most-used program is, which is not necessarily the most important or powerful. Mine? It’s this little application called Alfred.
(A quick note: this post is going to be extremely Mac OS X-centric. As in, completely. Sorry, Windows users!)
If you’re a sorta old school Mac nerd, you’re probably familiar with Quicksilver, the famously persnickety app launcher. Quicksilver would run in the background, waiting for you to press a keyboard key to call it to action. At that point, you could start typing the name of an application you wanted to launch. Depending on the extensions you had installed, you could also type a contact’s name to send her an email, enter a query for a Google search, open your garage door, or order takeout. At least, it seemed that way. But Quicksilver was old, and has been under sporadic development (it’s free, so you get what you pay for). Oh yeah, and it crashed all the time.
Alfred is the brand new, shiny update of Quicksilver’s old, rusted out app launcher. Like Quicksilver, Alfred does just about everything. Whenever I press ⌘+space (Re-mapping the Spotlight shortcut is just about the first thing I do on a new computer), the Alfred window comes up. Most of the time, I use it to launch an app, like Excel. Why, you may ask, is that such a big deal? Well, if you’re already typing or have your hands on the keyboard, it’s a small but persistent waste of time to reach over to the mouse, go down to the Dock or Applications folder, scroll down to Excel, and launch it. You save a few seconds here, a few seconds there.
Even better are the different extensions Alfred offers to make itself more useful. Launch a Google, Wikipedia, or IMDB search without tabbing over to Safari or Firefox and clicking up to the search bar. Open up a blank email to a contact. Paste something from your clipboard history. I could write a whole blog post about the different ways I use Alfred (and I probably will), but suffice it to say that once you try it, you’ll quickly find yourself hooked.
Skitch is a little easier sell to the non-super-geeky. It is, in a few words, the best way to take screenshots, mark up screenshots, and use those marked up screenshots. Skitch was (in)famously used by Olivia Munn to send racy, annotated pictures to her paramour. And then, Skitch was purchased by Evernote and rendered basically useless.
But recently, something amazing happened. The big brains at Evernote listened to their disgruntled users and actually made Skitch useful again. In fact, it’s more useful than ever. Once you get used to the slightly different control scheme, you can take screenshots and mark them up with even more gusto than before.
You can draw arrows and shapes on pictures in any color now (not just the six or so in the original version of Skitch). It’s easy to crop images. And there’s a cool pixelate function that lets you blur out parts of an image you don’t want to share.
I use Skitch constantly to make notes about websites, to build up certain parts of client reports, and even do simple image editing when I don’t want to launch Photoshop.
I’m actually writing this blog post, right now, in iA Writer, though I wouldn’t have been a few months ago. I tend to go through text editors like other people go through Facebook profile pics or something. Until recently, I used Byword, and I’d recommend it heartily. I just love how iA Writer subtly formats text for you when you’re using Markdown, a very simple markup language. Basically, you probably understand that if you surround a word with “” and ““, it will be italicized using an HTML formatter like a WordPress text box or a webpage you’re creating. Markdown does many things HTML lets you do, but within a text editor. So instead of using those emphasis tags, you can just surround a word with an asterisk (*) to italicize it, two asterisks to bold it, and three to bold and italicize it. There’s also a super easy way to make hyperlinks, tables, lists, header text – basically any way you could format and style text using HTML.
Using iA Writer, you can easily export your Markdown text file as HTML code, or see a style preview and just copy that.
I even use iA Writer for non-Markdown applications, too. It’s a nice, minimal text editor that’s easy to focus on. But if you click on the window, you get metrics like how many words, characters, and even the reading time of your work. As a writer and content specialist, I live in text editors all day. It just sort of hurts my eyes (and my heart) to stare at all the visual cruft hanging out on Word, and even Pages is overkill for most of the work I do.
(When I’m editing code, I’m still firmly in the TextEdit camp.)
There are still tons of cool little apps I use all the time, but for my last pick (for now!) I thought I’d go with Fantastical. Site-Seeker uses company calendars to organize everything. Now, again, Apple’s built-in Calendar app (or iCal, if you’re using a pre-Lion OS) is fine. But you have to launch it, and then figure out what day you’re looking for, or find a little “+” to add an event. It’s not hard to use, but it’s not dead simple either.
Fantastical is dead simple to use.
Fantastical lives in the menu bar. You set it up just like you’d set up Calendar. Right now, I have my personal Google Calendar, my company Google Calendar, and my iCloud calendar synced. To see your calendar, just click the menu bar icon. It shows you what you’ve got going on today, plus upcoming events if there’s room. If that were the only thing Fantastical did
show you your calendar in an easy-to-reach, logical way then it would be a good app.
But it’s killer feature is how you add events to the calendar. Simply start typing a normal sentence in the text field. If you have a meeting with Bob next Friday at two pm at the Hotel Utica, just type in “meeting with Bob next Friday two pm at Hotel Utica.”
I use Fantastical as a to-do/task management app. I use it to remind me to pick up a package or buy paper towels at the store. I use it to schedule meetings. And every time I do, the simple magic of “just works” makes the task a little more pleasant.
Those are just a few apps that I use all the time. The fun ones (if you don’t find Excel to be fun). I have a bunch of other apps to share, so if this post does well I’ll write a follow-up.
Hopefully you’ve discerned a sort of common theme to my picks. They all make working easier. At this point, you can find an app to do anything. I mean, heck, the OS X Finder does everything Alfred does, Photoshop demolishes Skitch on features alone, Word allows you to make real, stand-alone documents
unlike iA Writer and the online Google Calendar interface or Apple’s Calendar are way more powerful than Fantastical. But these apps do what I need them to do, and they do them easier, more pleasingly, faster, and cheaper than their more fully-featured alternatives.
If you have any oft-used apps or programs, feel free to share them in the comments, along with any other productivity tips or questions.