TIPS FROM A PRO

How MacSparky Stays Focused

Productivity maven David Sparks shares his secrets.

David Sparks is busy. He’s a technology writer, podcaster, online-course instructor, YouTube host, and parent. Did we mention that he’s also a full-time lawyer?

Needless to say, Sparks needs to be efficient. Which is why thousands of harried fans turn to the blog posts he writes (under the moniker MacSparky) for expert advice on how to be more productive—though he prefers the term “focused.”

His secret? Asking this: “Can you pick the right things to work on, and can you get them done?”

Here Sparks shares his essential productivity tips—and the apps he uses to stay on track.

Plan ahead, but in chunks

The technique: Pulling off a big project takes planning. Sparks’ advice for planning effectively: Start early and do a little bit every day rather than trying to come up with a complete plan all at once. This breaks up the process so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. And putting a bit of time between sessions gives your brain time to process.

The app: Sparks uses the mind-mapping tool MindNode to flesh out initial ideas: You start with the core concept and then add nodes (or subtopics) that connect to it. By breaking ideas down into their components, you can create actionable tasks that will help you accomplish your main goal. “Over time, mind mapping gives you a great overview of all the pieces that you need to work on,” says Sparks.

    MindNode – Mind Map

    Mindmapping & Brainstorm Ideas

    VIEW

Keep a record

The technique: As he’s making appointments and completing action items, Sparks takes notes on all of the processes, so he always has the context for how (or why) he got there.

The app: His favorite tool for this is Day One. Although it started as a diary app, Sparks finds it to be a powerful productivity journal. “It has really powerful tagging support, so I can use tags and separate journal entries to look up things that I thought were important a year ago.”

    Day One

    Your journal for life

    VIEW

Let your computer remember your tasks

The technique: Human brains aren’t wired to remember everything that needs to be done. A good task manager frees up your mental space to focus on taking action.

The app: The trick to picking a task manager is to get one as complicated as you need but no more, says Sparks. You should be the boss of your task manager, not the other way around.

OmniFocus can handle everything from simple lists to complex projects.

Sparks’ pick: OmniFocus. As a task manager (rather than a to-do list), OmniFocus offers a wealth of ways to view and organize your tasks. For instance, Sparks uses OmniFocus’ tag system to call up “low energy” tasks, like phone calls, that don’t require a lot of verve. Just because you don’t feel like running around doesn’t mean you can’t be productive.

    OmniFocus 3

    Accomplish More Every Day

    VIEW

Set aside “you time”

The technique: People often avoid checking their calendar app because it’s full of appointments that stand in the way of getting stuff done. Sparks flips this concept on its head by scheduling time to get his most important tasks done (or to restrict time sucks).

Haven’t made enough progress on an important project? Block off two hours a day for the next two weeks. Email taking all your time? Limit it to 30 minutes a day.

The app: “The reason I miss an appointment is because I’m too lazy to immediately add it to my calendar,” says Sparks. “When you remove the friction of creating events, you use your calendar more.”

Fantastical offers both a convenient menu bar calendar and a traditional full-window view.

Fantastical is his fave, largely because of how quickly it lets you create an appointment. A keyboard shortcut brings up the app’s menu bar calendar. Then type an appointment as you’d speak it: “Lunch next Wednesday at noon with Jim at Sparks Restaurant.”

    Fantastical - Calendar & Tasks

    Plan your day perfectly

    VIEW

Focus while writing

The technique: Writing is hard. Why make it even harder by using a word processor loaded with distracting bells and whistles? Sparks advocates doing your challenging writing in a simple text editor so you can concentrate on the words instead of the formatting.

The app: When he gets around to enjoying some (scheduled!) writing time, Sparks turns to Ulysses. This writing app keeps you focused on your words, limiting you to basic formatting and offering a distraction-free writing mode. It also helps Sparks stay organized by keeping all of his documents in one place and letting him sort them into groups and subgroups with keywords.

    Ulysses

    The ultimate writing app

    VIEW