The freelancer’s guide to ultimate productivity with Mac OS

Published on: 30 November 2016 Last updated: 11 September 2020

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question I kind of dread. Not because I’m unemployed, far from it. More because the answer is complicated enough to be awkward. I’m a writer, project manager, business representative, historian, podcaster, voice actor, and probably some other things I can’t remember right now.

That means two things. First, I need a really good resume (view here) so potential employers can wrap their head around what on earth I really do. Second, I really need a great system to stay productive and organized. This is how I do the latter.

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The Basics

To start, I do all of this with a Macbook Pro. Still, I have to point out that all of this is more or less possible with a Windows or Linux machine if you customize it enough. That said, the foundation of my organizational system is multiple desktops.

Multiple Desktops

So I generally have 8 desktops open at any time. I don’t use them all, but I always have at least one with nothing in it in case I need a quick place to put some new work. Each desktop is set for a specific task. In this case:

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Desktop 1: The Personal Stuff

My first desktop is the only real constant in this picture. It’s for personal things, fun things. It contains my personal email, facebook, and whatever I’m reading. I generally keep it on the left side of my desktops because it’s always relevant and it helps to have it in the same place at all times. I always know if I want my personal stuff I just swipe left a few times and I’m there.

Desktop 2: This Article

So after the personal desktop, each one is set to one task. This article for example. Desktop 2 has a slack channel, some articles I’m using for reference, and a Google Doc. That makes for three windows, each with one or two tabs open (that’s important for later).

What this all means is that everything in this desktop is connected to writing this article and if I swipe up with four fingers I immediately see everything I have on this desktop. That translates into clarity and visibility.

Desktop 3: Project Management

I also help manage a project creating an online education platform about entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa. Here I’ve got three windows, one for the various Trello boards associated with this project, another with a few articles I need to read on that subject, and a final one with updates from the company.

So this desktop is for managing the project, but if I need to write a lesson, I’ll use another desktop to keep my total number of windows and tabs down. Plus, if I’m writing a lesson I don’t need to have easy access to these project management tools.

Desktop 4: Lesson Writing

Here I’m writing a lesson for the project mentioned in Desktop 3. I’ve got an excel document open with all the transcribed interviews I’m basing the lesson on in addition to a Google Doc and a page containing the outline and request for the lesson. Once again, I’ve got only three windows each with no more than three tabs.

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Desktops 5-7: Free Space

I always try to make sure I have at least one blank desktop. That means if anything new comes up which isn’t connected to an additional task, I have a place to put it. It also means I always have at least one empty desktop to use as a buffer between my active and inactive tasks. Active tasks go on the left of the empty desktop(s) while inactive ones are on the right. This way I can keep track of how many things I’m actively working on at all times.

Desktop 8: Inactive Tasks

Anything I’m not working on now but want to leave open goes here. In this case, it’s some project management windows for my work as a content creator. At the moment, I’ve completed all of my tasks there, so that desktop gets moved off to the right until it becomes active again.

Organizing Within Desktops

To be honest, every time I see someone with 20-30 tabs open in a single window I’m a bit horrified. Not because they’re doing too many things at once (I’m certainly as guilty as they come there) but because they have essentially no organization to it. Truth is, it’s not that hard to avoid this problem.

If you read the section above, the answer should be fairly obvious. If you maintain separate desktops for your various tasks, then each time you need to open something new, this should be done within that desktop. So you shouldn’t end up with a single window in a single desktop with open web pages pertaining to 4 different projects.

Then, whenever you end up with more than 4 or 5 tabs in a single window, ask yourself if you can either close some of them or create a new window for them organized around a single purpose. Whenever you get a tab pileup, this tells you that some action needs to be taken to avoid a pileup.

Moving Between Desktops

I changed from using Windows to using Mac OS back in 2007. If you asked me why I’ve stuck with that change for all these years it wouldn’t be for the hardware, for the stability, for the aesthetic, or any of the other reasons Mac users usually give. For me, it’s all about gestures.

Four fingers to the right, four fingers up, three fingers to the left, two fingers to scroll, these action are at the absolute core of how I interact with my laptop and how my organizational system works. I can have so many windows on so many desktops because I’ve set up my trackpad so I can easily move between them and see everything I have open with just a few gestures.

Chances are, if this system sounds awful to you, it’s because you haven’t set up the gestures or keyboard shortcuts necessary to make it work. That’s the real key, you have to be able to easily move between all of these desktops and windows. Take that ability away and this entire system falls apart.

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Please, let’s all do what we can to prevent 30 tab windows from haunting our nightmares. Stopping that particular scourge is in our hands.

But I’m also curious to hear how you all organize your work? Let me know more about your system in the comments.

Eric D. Halsey

A writer with a passionate belief in the power of peer to peer learning and storytelling to change lives. Wants nothing more than to spend a day cooking, reading books, playing board games, and discussing history and politics with friends. Also always up for an adventure!

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