By Jason Snell
March 27, 2020 11:52 AM PT
How I vanquished my messy Desktop
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
During WWDC in San Francisco some year, John Siracusa walked into my office at Macworld and needed to look at something on my computer. I remember him being appalled by how messy my Mac’s desktop was. There were dozens of files scattered all over the desktop.
I remember telling him that, like many Mac users, my Desktop was also my inbox, littered with stuff I was working on or needed to deal with in the near future. And that was true. But when I was reminded of this exchange a few weeks ago, I realized that I’ve changed my tune completely in the last year. As I write this, there are three items on my desktop.
Here’s what I did to go from Desktop Oscar to Desktop Felix1.
Embrace cloud syncing. When I started using cloud services to make my files available across devices, that drove a lot of files off of my Desktop. I made this move before Apple so generously added Desktop and Documents folder syncing to iCloud, which would probably have kept me cluttering my Desktop. But Dropbox only works in its own special folder, so I started saving the stories I was working on in Dropbox rather than on my desktop.
When I started to get frustrated with how messy my Dropbox folder was, I created a special folder within Dropbox called Stories, to contain all the stories I was working on. And I used Default Folder X to make it the default folder for opening or saving files when I’m using BBEdit. When I got frustrated by the number of files in that folder, I used Hazel to create a rule that moves stories into an “archive” folder after a few weeks.
I will also admit that when I see a random file floating on my Desktop that I don’t need, I tend to just chuck it into Dropbox, getting it out of my face while making it accessible anywhere should I need it. Yes, this is the digital equivalent of cleaning your room by pushing all the junk under your bed, but what can I say? Nobody looks under the bed.
I also used to save all my screenshots—and I take a lot of them in my line of work—to my Desktop. I know! Now I save them to a Dropbox folder called Screenshots, giving me access to them across all my devices and getting them out of my way. (I’ve also got a Hazel action that deletes them after a few months of inactivity.)
Get a file server. I’ve been using a Mac mini as a server for years, but it’s only in the last ten years that I’ve really embraced it as a file repository. If I’ve got a podcast project that doesn’t need my immediate attention, it gets copied to my server, into a “Works in Progress” folder, where it sits until I need to retrieve it—getting it off my Desktop.
Use the Sidebar and the Dock. When I created my Stories folder, I added it to the Sidebar in Finder windows for quick access. (Somewhere, John Siracusa is probably angry at me again for using the Sidebar, but I do.) I’ve also got numerous other folders in my Sidebar that I would otherwise have as aliases on my Desktop or, in the old days, in a DragThing dock.
I also have a few other items that I’ve dragged into my Dock: An alias to my server for instant screen sharing, my Downloads folder and my Dropbox folder.
Keep my Desktop organized. A big change for me that finally put me on the path of good Desktop organization was turning on sorting on the Desktop. My Desktop is sorted by name, meaning that items appear one at a time, starting in the upper right corner of my screen and moving down from there. This means that items can’t overlap, and eliminates another set of clutter.
I’m not using the Desktop Stacks feature Apple introduced in macOS Mojave. That’s partly because Apple’s organizational principles for those Stacks just don’t work right with the kinds of files that I tend to have on my Desktop, and partly because it’s really an attempt to make a Desktop with dozens of files look cleaner—and I no longer have dozens of files on my Desktop.
Get templates off my Desktop. One of the reasons I created my Template Gun AppleScript was because I kept all the Zip archives I use as templates for my various podcast projects on my Desktop. Instead, I moved them to a Podcast Templates folder in Dropbox and wrote a script that automatically unzips a copy of one and places it on the Desktop.
Because, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I still leave active project files on my Desktop. There are sometimes 10 or 15 files on my Desktop. But they’re always sorted into an orderly list, and they don’t stay out there very long.
It may not be perfect, but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.
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