My most essential tools

A much needed refresh

Recently, I found myself in a good position to do a clean install of my computer. Doing so lead me to reflect on what tools I use most. This is a quick peek into how I work and what's important to me to feel like I can get the most done.


Spacemacs became my main text editor in early 2016 and I use it for everything, from coding, to copying files, to keeping track of to-do lists (special shout out to org-mode). Because of that it was one of the first things I had to get working on my machine.

I've written another post about why I like Spacemacs so much.

Karabiner (Karabiner-Elements)

A lot of people complained when Apple dropped the esc key in favor of the touch bar. That's because the haven't learned about using caps lock with Karabiner. This is a life changer, it has became such a strong part of my muscle memory that I get confused when I use machines that don't have it installed.

Karabiner is a tool that allows you to customize what any key press does within your operating system. I only use one, but I do it so much that I paid to support its development.

I never use caps lock. I don't know why it exists, let alone why it gets such important real estate on the keyboard. I added a modification that makes it so if I press caps lock (alone), it acts as esc. It's great, no need to reach all the way up when I want to leave Vim's insert mode or when I want to quit a text field on a web form. Even better is that if I press it in combination with another key, it acts as ctrl plus that key. So to do all sorts of ctrl shortcuts (which Tmux uses a lot), I don't have to move my hands much.


There are some tools that influence what you do profoundly without you realizing you are using them. Zsh is like that. It is a shell that is very similar to Bash and compatible with almost all Bash code, but it's much nicer.

I use it in combination with oh-my-zsh and the combination gives me fantastic tab completion and spelling correction that makes navigating the command line so much easier. It also makes it easier to interact with files by allowing you to use globbing syntax (for example $ cp *.js ../backup).

By far the best thing about this set up is that it allows you to customize your prompt easily. I have a pretty minimal prompt, it looks like this:

Picture of prompt


A huge amount of my day is spent in my terminal. I have a lot of things going on there. For each repo that I work on, I have at least one running process (a server or watch), a constantly executing test suite, and a blank prompt so I can explore files, run npm tasks, etc.

Flexibility in how I navigate all these using my keyboard is really important. At first I used my terminal's built-in split windows and tabs, but I didn't find the navigation very ergonomic. I also found that layouts had a ton of resting inertia, that is, once I had a layout, I was reluctant to move things around or open new panes or windows.

Tmux is a shell tool that gives the ability to have multiple windows in any terminal and to split screen in any way you want. Together with gpakosz's configuration, it's really easy to move around, break a pane into its own window, open new windows, name them. It helps me feel like everything in my terminal is in a place I can easily find it, even though I rearrange things all the time.


This is another application that I use for only a single feature, but that feature is so important that I paid to use it.

With BetterTouchTool you can program a custom mouse/trackpad/keyboard gesture to map to almost any action. I set it so that a four finger tap on my trackpad maps to middle click on a mouse. Clicking a link this way opens it in a new tab. Click on a tab to closes it. This makes it so I can keep old tabs open as I navigate (which you can do with option + click), but keep my tabs under control so I don't have a ton of them open (which you can't do with option + click).


This Chrome extension is unreal.

Vimium adds some keyboard shortcuts to chrome so that you can scroll around a page without needing to take your hands off the keyboard. That's awesome.

But wait, it gets better. If you press the f key, every link on the page shows a combination of letters next to it. If you press those keys, Vimium clicks on the link. This really makes it so that you can navigate with just the keyboard, it is amazing!


Some people like Spotlight. I do not like Spotlight. It feels slow and I can never find the things I'm searching for.

Alfred is a replacement that does so much more. I turned off Spotlight and use the same key binding for Alfred. My use is pretty simple, I use it to find files and open applications (which it does incredibly well), but there's a wealth of custom workflows you can set up to do almost anything with a few keystrokes.


I don't like UI clutter. A lot of Mac applications like to install an icon in the top bar, but most of the time I don't really care about them and they obscure the ones that I do care about. With Bartender, I hide all the icons that I don't really care about to keep my top bar really clean and full of only important information, without needing to close those other apps.

Copy'em Paste

If you don't have a clipboard history manager, stop reading this and go get one right now. It is one of the biggest productivity improvements I know.

I'm not particularly attached to Copy'em Paste, but it's the one I first tried and it does the job nicely, so I've kept using it.

Whenever I copy something, it gets saved to my history. If I press ctrl + cmd + v, a modal shows up with everything in my history so I can choose what I want to paste. I can copy multiple things from one page and then go to another page and paste them one by one, instead of having to flip back and forth. You can also save copied items for later, so I have a few code block saved that I use over and over again.


Listening to music while working is essential. I really like listening to one song on repeat for the entire day. My favorites are by a band called the Gregory Brothers.

Thanks for reading!

Those are all my most important tools. If anything new makes it into my essentials kit, I'll update this post with it. I hope you have a chance to try some of them and that they solve some pain points for you!