Setting up MacOS for Focused Work

Focus and intention are important, if you want to get good work done. Without focus and intention you’ll end up with mediocre work. Work you won’t be proud of.

Writing few people will read.

Code that might be functional, but took way to long to write and is held together with duct tape.

Design that’s pretty, but not as functional as it could be.

Much of the problem we encounter today is that focus is hard. We have so many distractions ready to steal our time. Name the social network, and it’s goal is to take more of your time. It’s not there to make sure you focus on your work and get it done well.

Add text messages to that list or kids or sometimes friends or email. All of these things are set to pull our attention away from the big tasks we need today.

The next three articles will cover:

  1. How to set your Mac up for focus
  2. How to set iOS up for focus
  3. Setting up a focused workspace

Today, we’ll look at what you should be doing with your Mac to make sure you stay focused.

No iMessage or other messaging

The first thing to kill on your Mac is, iMessage. Yes it was amazing to me when I could text from my Mac. It meant I didn’t have to go find my phone to reply to things.

Then as I started to focus more on work and make sure that my environment was not filled with distractions, iMessage could find me wherever I was.

Not a good thing.

So turn off iMessage.

  1. Open Messages on MacOS.
  2. Press Command + Comma for preferences
  3. Choose the accounts tab
  4. Turn off or remove the iMessage account

Second, turn off any other messaging application. Go through any Slack channels you’re a part of and make sure that they can’t notify you. Once you’ve lived with zero notifications from any messaging platform for a few weeks, take stock of the ones that really might need to notify you.

You’re only allowed to turn those ones back on.

No social media

As I said at the top, the goal of social media is attention. Actually, it’s stealing attention.

Almost no one at Twitter or Facebook is worrying about how to make sure they don’t interrupt you. They’re all trying to make sure that they surface content you’ll find compelling, so you stay inside the application.

The few that are trying to make sure that you stay focused are mavericks.

If you want to dip into social media at times in the day, then schedule them and limit your activity to the times you have allowed.

If you’re finding yourself opening a Twitter client at random times because you’re just a bit bored, delete the application from your machine.

Start tracking time

While I don’t advise that anyone bill based on their time, you should be tracking it. You should be reviewing your time log at the end of the week to see where you’re really spending your time.

A great tool for this is RescueTime. It will run in the background on your computer and tell you when you were not doing what you thought you were doing.

Where a tool like Toggl may fail you is in the 15 minutes you spent surfing YouTube randomly in the middle of your ‘writing’ time.

If you can be very focused most of the time, then just use something like Toggl to track how much focused time you get in a day. Somewhere between 5 and 6 hours is really good.

I go for 5.5 hours of focused time in 6 hours. I can usually get this at least four days a week. Most people get four hours of work done in an eight hour day, so even at six hours of office time I’m usually getting at least an hour more focused work time in.

Keep a Clean Desktop

We’ll discus this in our workspaces post coming up, but distraction is a killer. That doesn’t just go for your physical environment. That goes for your digital environment.

That desktop filled with a bunch of crap you figure you need to put there so you don’t ‘lose’ it, yup it’s sapping your focus and thus your productivity.

Same with that downloads folder that’s full of random crap you downloaded and then never dealt with. They’re both inboxes1 and the more inboxes you have to deal with, the less likely you are to deal with them.

If you’re a SetApp subscriber, I highly recommend you start using Declutter. Declutter lets you set rules for your desktop and then it will sort the files you put there according to those rules.

Even better, is to cut either your downloads folder or your Desktop as an inbox. I cut my desktop as an inbox and put everything in my downloads folder.

From there, deal with everything. If I download a file for a client project, I file it right away with their project folder. It doesn’t sit there for two weeks to accumulate, I deal with it right away.

The thing about clutter is, that the bigger the mess is the less likely you are to clean it up. It continues to become more overwhelming.

Forget about the Dock

The first step you need to take with your Dock is to hide it.

To hide your Dock, right click on the Dock Separator and select “Turn Hiding On”.

Now, go back to that Dock and cut out all the applications from it. Literally nothing should be in it unless the application is open because you’re using it.

For some of you, the Dock has been the main way you open applications. Start using Spotlight search which is usually setup for Command + Space.

Better yet, get some more power with Alfred. Not only does Alfred allow you to open applications, it can do stuff like grab the currently selected file and then send it to the system archiving tool so that you get a .zip file.

No mouse action required.

Cut the tabs

Browser detritus is another place where distraction creeps in. If you’re Chrome user, start the rule that if your tabs need to start ‘shrinking’ you’re not focused enough.

On Safari, I usually aim for 10 tabs or less open. I’m only allowed 10 if I’m researching something. If I’m putting up blog posts, then I can have my site open and Flickr so I can find my photos.

If you’ve done some research and need to keep the tabs around for future reference, file them. On Chrome and Safari there are extensions that let you save groups of tabs. Save your research and title it properly.

Along with your new rules on tabs, add the rule that your browser isn’t allowed to open the last opened tabs. Start from scratch every time.

Better than simply a blank tab, use the Momentum Extension for Chrome. Unfortunately for Safari users, they don’t have a currently supported version. Momentum will prompt you to put in exactly what you should be focusing on. This prompt will help you stay focused because you have no think about it.

Distraction blockers

Let’s face it, it’s hard to learn to cut distractions. We’ve trained ourselves to look at distractions by pulling our phones out in the grocery line or by checking Twitter quickly while we wait for something to load on our computers.

It’s going to take time to stop those habits.

To give you a leg up, install something like SelfControl. This will let you block websites for a set period of time. I used it heavily when I was first training myself to stay away from distractions.

I’d start it first thing in the morning and set it to block Twitter and Facebook for a few hours while I should be doing focused work. Then I’d have a small window to check the and start SelfControl again to finish out the day.

I rarely use it now, but I also rarely jump into Facebook or Twitter in times when they’re not scheduled.

Setup The Apps You need

Yes I’m about to recommend another SetApp tool called Switchem. For any given task2 you have a set of applications that you need and likely a bunch that are open and you don’t need.

When I’m writing I don’t need Dash open to search code documentation. When I’m coding, I don’t need Ulysses open to write.

To make the transition between workspaces faster use Switchem. Switchem will allow you to setup workspaces and the apps that are needed inside those workspaces. Then trigger Switchem and you can transition to the new workspace with out sorting through all the applications.

Reducing friction will make moving into focused work much easier.

Focus on the one thing you need

My final recommendation is to focus ONLY on what you have at hand. Especially when I’m done research and sitting down to fully write something on my Mac I use Hazeover.

Hazeover does what the name implies. It creates a haze over all the other apps you’re not currently using. That means on my Mac I have two of my three monitors blacked out and not distracting me.

I also use this when I’m reading a PDF on my Mac, because I find it very easy to get distracted from the PDF I should be reading.

The overall principle

The overall principle is that you need to cut even the possibility of any distraction. By cutting out that possibility, you’re not forcing yourself to make a minute by minute decision about where you’re going to put your attention.

It’s these minute by minute decisions that wear on us, and lead to distraction. Especially later in the day, we’re suffering from Decision Fatigue and are much more likely loose the battle with discretion.

Is there anything you’re doing to cut the distractions that I missed?

photo credit: wwarby cc


  1. To use Getting Things Done terminology. 
  2. Like during our writing time or your coding time. 

To get a head start, join thousands of other men and Stop The Struggle.

Get my free eBook to help you stop working all the hours without traction.

You’ll also get a weekly email with good resources to help you do family with the same intention you do your work. Both need to run well if you want to win.

%d bloggers like this: