My desktop is a mess. Help!
June 7, 2008 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Help me stop cluttering up my (OS X) desktop.

My busy job(s) lead me to create and download many files every day. I have a bad habit of saving everything to my desktop. After a while, it gets insane. I then have to spend a long time sorting and filing everything. I know I should just put things in their proper places to begin with, but does anyone know a good way to manage the clutter?

What I'd really like is some app that would let me select a bunch of files on my desktop and quickly shuttle them to a folder. I'd love to be able to do this with a keyboard shortcut. E.g., I'd like to select a group of files and press Command+Shift+D (or whatever) to send them to the documents folder. And I'd like to be able to add in the alt key if I wanted to file them in a subfolder. In my imagination, alt would bring up a text field. I'd then type the name of the subfolder. If it already exists, the files would go in there. If not, a sub-folder would be created and the files would go inside it.

If that app doesn't exist, maybe you could help me out with some good filing habits.
posted by grumblebee to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Tips that may help:
  • In Finder, to go to View -> Show View Options... -> "Arrange by..." and choose something, that will hugely clean things up and keep them clean.
  • In Finder, you can go to your home folder then into the Desktop folder. That holds all the files you actually see on the desktop, and since they are in a Finder view you can do view them differently (list, then sort by type, etc).
  • Command (apple) - clicking lets you select multiple disparate items. Sort of like shift-clicking but it won't select all the objects in between. Give it a try
I'd recommend by starting by taking everything on your desktop and dropping it in a new folder called "To Be Sorted" and then go from there.
posted by patr1ck at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2008

It's super-simple, but I set my Downloads folder to ~/Downloads rather than my desktop. I keep it sorted by date, so I can easily grab the things I've downloaded recently. And that makes it easier to scroll to the bottom and delete anything I'm done with.

That way, my Desktop can keep the things I'm actively working on and my Downloads folder is a quick place to go if I need to free up some space.
posted by (parenthetic me) at 8:58 AM on June 7, 2008

Two programs that might be of help: Chaos Antidote and Hazel. (Full disclosure: CA is my own creation.)

These don't quite do what you want though (though they do many other extra things), but what would probably do the trick is an Automator action: Combine "Get Selected Finder Items" with "Move Finder Items".

Actually, writing this, I've just implemented it in Automator. I've uploaded the script here. If you save that as an Application and then use a keyboard shortcut program like DragThing to launch the app, you've got precisely what you wanted.
posted by Zarkonnen at 8:58 AM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

QuickAccessCM sounds like it'd be useful, though it's not exactly what you asked for.

I've never understood how people's desktops get so full. What's so hard about putting things away when you're done with them? Is it possible that you need to sit down and figure yourself about a nice filing system that makes sense to you so when you get new files you'll know where they go? It's just sounds like you want a band-aid instead of a solution is all.
posted by Plug Dub In at 9:00 AM on June 7, 2008

I've got my Downloads folder stuck in the Dock. I clean it out at the end of the day. This keeps the downloaded files within easy access, keeps them off my desktop, and forces me to keep them organized at least once a day.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2008

Response by poster: I've never understood how people's desktops get so full. What's so hard about putting things away when you're done with them?

I never understood it either, until I started working a 9-5 job, running a theatre company, writing a magazine column and writing a book.

Granted, a lot of it is laziness, but I find that as I'm working, it generally is easier to just have my current files on the desktop (which is why, I guess, it's called the desktop). I generally work -- without a break -- from 6am until 11pm (we can talk about the wisdom of this lifestyle later), and by the end of the day, I'm too tired to clean up the 100 or so files that have gathered on my desktop.

I might get inspired to do so if I had some easy system.
posted by grumblebee at 9:17 AM on June 7, 2008

I was going to suggest some combination of AppleScript and Folder Actions, but when I was looking for a good link, I found this one which has a customizable Automator (that's supposed to be used with Folder Actions). It'll take some customization, and it doesn't have hot-keys, but it looks like it might work for you.

One other suggestion is to use an "unsorted" directory, that way it's not your actual desktop that gets cluttered with downloads.
posted by philomathoholic at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2008

Here's what I did back in the day on my work machine. Create a folder called "to file" but it in your /Documents/ and then stick everything in that folder. You'll have a clean desktop. On a rainy day you can file all that stuff away. You could create a shortcut and put that on the Dock or desktop to reach that folder faster. Or do like I do, and just let that folder get explosively big (I moved mine to a server). If you have Leopard you can use the search folders in finder to find all of the files you used today/yesterday/etc. Or use Spotlight. The computer indexes all the files so you the computer can find them faster than you can click into folders and subfolders, etc.

My real-life meatspace desktop is a mess. My desktops at home and work computers are empty.
posted by birdherder at 9:34 AM on June 7, 2008

I hate cluttered desktops, and I don't know how some of my friends and coworkers can function with dozens of icons on their desk! How can you see your cool desktop photo?

I try to save things into the right place as I'm working/downloading, etc. Then, like birdherder, I make a folder called "To Sort" and when I've got an annoying amount of icons on my desktop, I dump them in there. (An annoying amount to me is about 5 - 10.) Once in a while I open the folder, sort by date, then usually dump old stuff in the trash and sort the rest. It helps to already have a good system in place on the hard drive, so I have folders for photos, downloads, fonts, projects (current and completed). So the actual sorting is not a big deal.

But one thing that helps me put things away as I'm working (and not save to the desktop) is to have my most-used folders over in that area to the right of windows and dialog boxes, whatever that's called; that way I can just click one time to get to, say, "Projects in progress" and drop my file there.

My real-life desktop is also a mess. But I do have a basket next to my desk that I've mentally labeled "to sort" and now and then, I put everything on my desktop there...
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2008

While you could build an auto filing automator script (which would cause you to learn automator, which you might like..)

What you want is Hazel. It can, based on rules tidy up folder(s) for you. Put your PDF in a specific folder. Based on name, etc.
posted by filmgeek at 10:39 AM on June 7, 2008

Hazel is actually pretty awesome for eliminating the need to manually organize/delete/move files to begin with. If you use Safari (or any application that supports Spotlight metadata when downloading files), you can set Hazel to automatically organize files based on any number of criteria.

In my case, I have a Hazel ruleset that automatically moves images I download from to my ~/Pictures/lolcats folder. I don't have to think about what folder I initially download the file to. I just let it download to my default Downloads folder, and Hazel will watch that folder and will run any of your defined rulesets against files that appear there.

This is a great file-management adaptation of Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero philosophy for email. Hazel takes care of the "up front" thinking that's required when normally managing your files, thereby minimizing the cluttered desktop syndrome.

There's a great video screencast demonstrating Hazel over at ScreencastsOnline.
posted by melorama at 10:42 AM on June 7, 2008

You might try Bento, a personal organization system from the FileMaker, or Yojimbo, a similar application from BareBones. I’ve never used them myself, but they have gotten generally positive reviews.
posted by ijoshua at 10:46 AM on June 7, 2008

Bento and Yojimbo are personal database/notebook apps. They have absolutely nothing to do with what the original poster is looking for.
posted by melorama at 10:48 AM on June 7, 2008

Quicksilver! Bit of a learning curve, definitely, but really, really useful. You can create custom keyboard triggers and custom actions and scripts to perform on multiple files, etc. First thing I thought of reading your post.

Throw in Hazel and you'll be organized in no time.
posted by mjessen at 11:12 AM on June 7, 2008

Maybe I missed it above, but didn't seem this advice, which takes 10 seconds or so- just go hardcore and make your desktop read-only therefore forcing you to put files elsewhere. (this is on 10.4 and below, don't know if 10.5 does this, most likely it does)
  • Get all files and folders off of your Desktop to a new location.
  • select the Desktop folder in the Finder, choose "Get Info" and change your "Ownership and Permissions" to read only.
Trying to save to save to the Desktop will result in an authenticate message, adding a serious obstacle. Combine this with redirecting your downloads as someone mentioned above.
posted by jeremias at 11:18 AM on June 7, 2008

" . . .didn't 'see' this advice . . "
posted by jeremias at 11:18 AM on June 7, 2008

Response by poster: Lots of good suggestions here (I'm at a loss as to what to mark as best answer). Please keep them coming.

I actually thought about Quicksilver. I ran it for a year (without trying to use it to solve this particular problem), generally loved it, but found that it harmed my system's performance. So recently I uninstalled it and switched to launchBar instead. It doesn't have QS's feature set, but it seems just as good for launching apps.
posted by grumblebee at 11:34 AM on June 7, 2008

You can set where files are downloaded in FireFox and then select "Do this for everything like it". I use a folder on my desktop called Media that contains an alias to my Pictures, Documents, Downloads and Music. Everything goes in there and then I sort by type and drop things into the right buckets.
posted by fenriq at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2008

Best answer: Here's how I did it (before I installed Leopard):

On my desktop, I had the following folders:


I set my View options on the desktop so that it would show me beside the file name how many items were in each folder. I even color-coded them so I could easily tell them apart. Now, when files end up on my desktop, they go into one of those three folders, or they get filed in my Documents folder, which is set up like this:

I have folders that are named after the extension of different kind of files. Names include:

Pages Word (for everything ending in .doc)
Numbers Excel (for spread sheets)
PDF (for PDFs, obviously)
Keynote PPT (for presentations)
Installers (for programs I have installed or will install)
TXT (for text files)
Downloads (for stuff downloaded from my browser (I tell my browser to send the downloads there).
Projects (this is where files and sub-folders go for stuff you are working that includes files you don't want to separate. So if you have a Widgets Project folder that includes a presentation, spreadsheet, PDF, and Word document, it makes more sense to just place that folder in your Projects folder than to put each file separately in one of the folders above).

Now, if you have Leopard, here is where it gets kind of cool:

Put all of the desktop folders in your Documents folder, but change their names to:


That way, they will be all grouped together at the top of the list of your folders in your Documents folder.

Now, drag each of those folders to your dock. By simply clicking on them, you will see everything in each of these three folders spring up into a grid or a stack. They will even be in order, bottom to top, that you placed them in the folder. Plus now, nothing is on your desktop except for your Macintosh HD icon.

To make this work Tiger or Leopard), you need to do a couple of things:

1. Every six months, take stuff you don't need in your Documents folder and archive it to an external drive. I have to do this because my Macbook hard drive is only 80GB. Plus, it makes you more efficient in #2, which is:

2. Use Spotlight to do the heavy lifting for you. Don't feel like you have to keep opening sub-folders to see the stuff in your Documents folder. Spotlight will find them when you need them rather quickly.

3. At the beginning and end of each day, look at the contents of your Do, Read, and Hold folders, just so you know what's there. If you need a reminder until this becomes automatic, put a sticky note on your monitor that says DO - READ- HOLD to remind you.

4. At the end of each week, look at your Do, Read, and Hold folders and see what can be filed away in one of your Documents sub-folders.

5. It always helps to keep a to do list as well.

This works well for me. It may sound complicated, but I find it helpful and efficient.
posted by 4ster at 2:35 PM on June 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I use Hazel - I got it free in the Mac Update Promo bundle not long ago. I'm not sure how much it is separately, though. It's basically very similar to Folder Actions, so you could easily use those instead.

I have a folder called Organisatron on my desktop - yes, I am a complete dork.* I set Hazel rules on this folder, and then whenever I want to clear the desktop off, I can drag and drop stuff from the desktop into this folder and Hazel sends it whizzing off to where it needs to go. For instance, I have it set so that any music files get send to Music, images to Pictures, and documents to... surprisingly enough... Documents.

I'm sure you could get a lot more specific than this if you wanted to. For instance, on looking through the Hazel prefs, I see you can create rules based on Source URL. I assume this means that you could set it so that documents downloaded from Site X would be sent to a particular folder in your Documents, and documents from Site Y to another. Since you said you download a lot of files, that could come in handy.

Good luck, and may you live out our days in organisational bliss...

*And yes, it has a special geeky icon, too.
posted by badmoonrising at 2:50 PM on June 7, 2008

If you don't already have Leopard, I recommend the upgrade so that you can use "Stacks" which are set up by default in the Dock. This can greatly improve your ability to organize and keep track of the order in which you have downloaded files. Of course you'll have to point your browser to your ~/Downloads folder in order to use it. Leopard has many other wonderful enhancements and it runs smoothly on my Dual G4 1 GHz.

Stacks in Action.

As you can see in the video, the stack pops out of the dock and is arranged by the order in which the files were downloaded.
posted by hellslinger at 7:59 PM on June 7, 2008

I drop everything into a folder called "Clutter." It's the same idea as others already suggested, but with the upfront admission that I'm never going to sort it.
posted by cairnish at 3:59 PM on June 9, 2008

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