The first step in reducing clutter is to devise a system for managing the files you create and download. How extensive this system needs to be will depend on your organizational strategy. Some people prefer to set aside specific places for everything in an elaborate system of nested folders, while others create broader filing systems and rely instead on search tools to locate what they want. Whichever approach you take, consider the following tips.
The organizer’s strategy
Go Deep, Use Shortcuts If you’re the type of person who likes to have an assigned place for everything, you’ve probably already developed a system for filing your documents and media files. (If you’re in search of an organization system, see
“The Secret to Getting Things Done” for an alternative to traditional filing systems.) With a well-conceived filing system in place, you won’t have to spend time searching for the files you need; you’ll be able to jump right to the correct folder.
No matter how you set up your system, don’t let any folder get too crowded. Just as with physical file folders, the more items one contains, the harder it is to find something inside. Instead, create a system of subfolders to keep things manageable. If you find that you’re spending too much time clicking through multiple levels to get to the folders you work with regularly, there are a few ways to bring your folders within easier reach.
Take a Shortcut Drag folders for active projects to the left sidebar of any Finder window (if you don’t see the sidebar, drag the left edge of the Finder window to the right). This adds folder aliases to the sidebar. You’ll then be able to access these folders not only from any Finder window, but also from Open and Save dialog boxes. When you wrap up a project, simply remove the folder’s alias by dragging it out of the sidebar.
If you need quick access to more items than comfortably fit in the sidebar (or if you prefer to keep the sidebar hidden), you can place aliases of active folders on your desktop instead. Of course, for this system to work, you’ll need to keep your desktop relatively tidy (for help clearing away desktop clutter, see “Rediscover Your Desktop”).
Use Color In OS X 10.4, another easy way to keep track of current projects without having to constantly drill through your folder system is to use color labels in conjunction with smart folders. As documents come in, you can categorize them with appropriate label colors (for instance, files that need your revisions could get one color while files that just need your approval get another). Just select an item and choose File: Color Label. (To give each label color a descrip-tive name, choose Finder: Preferences and then click on the Labels tab.)
Now you can create a smart folder that dynamically collects any files marked with a certain color, regardless of where they live in your folder hierarchy. To set up the smart folder, go to the Finder and choose File: New Smart Folder. Set the first pull-down menu to Color Label and select the label color. Click on the Save button and give your smart folder a name. Be sure the Add To Sidebar option is selected so you can easily access your smart folder from any Finder window, and then click on Save. When a file is completed or when its status changes, change the file’s label color (or remove it completely), and the file will disappear from that smart folder. (
Click here for more advice on creating smart folders.)
Keep It Current Once a year—or more often if you work with a lot of files—move older files from each of your top-level folders into an archive folder, so you can more easily see recent documents.
To quickly locate older files, switch the Finder window to List view (Command-2), click on the Date Modified column to sort by date, and then move all the files from the past month or year into a new folder.
The searcher’s strategy
Use Fewer Folders, Smarter Searches If you prefer a less-structured approach to managing your files, or if you find that you’re having trouble locating the files you need within your current file structure, you may get better results by channeling your energy into developing smart search strategies than by setting up an elaborate folder structure.
When Apple introduced Spotlight, OS X 10.4’s built-in search feature, it seemed that filing might become a thing of the past. But the program still has some kinks—most notably, slow performance and a lack of advanced features, such as convenient Boolean searches. Until these shortcomings are fixed (OS X 10.5 should be released this spring, and Apple has promised several Spotlight improvements), you’ll need to either take some additional steps to improve your search results or rely on a third-party search program.
Use Keywords in File Names When you save a file, take a moment to think about what words you might use to search for that file later, and then be sure to use those keywords in the file’s name. For example, a file named Steve Jobs Interview will be easier to track down than a file named Interview2. This rule also applies to creating folder names; use a different set of keywords that add context to the files within. This will help you distinguish between similarly named files on your Mac when you search.
Add Metadata to Your Files Another way to help Spotlight track down a file is to add keywords directly to the file’s metadata, using the Spotlight Comments pane. To access this pane, click on the file in the Finder and press Command-I to bring up its Info window. Click on the small triangle next to the Spotlight Comments header to open the pane (if it isn’t already visible), and then enter keywords related to the file. For example, if you have a lot of recipes, you might add keywords such as spicy, appetizer, and favorite. Later, you can use these terms in a Spotlight search to find spicy appetizers that you liked. (For instructions on how to use Automator to add the same comment to a large number of files at once, see the March edition of
Mac OS X Hints.)
Likewise, if most of your documents originate in Microsoft Word, you can set the program to prompt you for keywords every time you save a new file. These keywords won’t appear in the Spotlight Comments pane; however, Spotlight will find them when performing a search.
To set up this feature, choose Word: Preferences and select Save from the left column. Select the Prompt For Document Properties option, and click on OK. Now when you save a document for the first time or select the Save As command, the Properties dialog box will appear and give you the option of entering keywords. To revise these keywords later, or to add new keywords, open the Word document and choose File: Properties.
Improve Spotlight When searching, Spotlight tends to be a little overeager; it starts hunting before you’ve even finished typing. If this annoys you, you may prefer Houdah Software’s
HoudahSpot ($15), which offers an alternative interface for Spotlight queries (see “ H Marks the Spot”). HoudahSpot also offers quick access to powerful search features, such as complex, nested Boolean searches, and it has a convenient interface for previewing found files and examining additional file details. And unlike the systemwide Spotlight menu, it doesn’t start searching until you tell it to.
Replace Spotlight If you’d like to avoid using Spotlight completely—or if you’re using an earlier version of OS X that does not include Spotlight—try CTM Development’s
Foxtrot Personal Search ($35). Like Spotlight, Foxtrot indexes files’ contents and metadata; however, it does so with greater speed and flexibility than Spotlight can provide. Foxtrot produces not only a list of files that contain your search terms, but also live previews showing the locations of your search terms within the files. You can also narrow searches by date, file type, location, and relevance simultaneously. For example, if a search for files containing Macworld produces a list of 1,000 matches, I can narrow that search to just PDF files modified within the last month—in exactly two clicks of the mouse.
If you usually know the name (or even just a part of the name) of the file you want, you don’t really need a powerful search tool—just a speedy one. For tasks such as this, you’ll get better results from a launcher utility. These programs let you jump right to the file or application you want with just a few keystrokes. With a launcher, such as Blacktree’s free
Quicksilver ( ), Peter Maurer’s free
Butler ( ), or Objective Development’s $20
LaunchBar ( ), you can stash random files—PDF receipts of online purchases, text files, and so on—wherever you like. When you need to find one of those files, simply press a keyboard shortcut to bring up the launcher, and type in the first few letters of the file’s name. Best of all, a good launcher will do more than just open a file. It will also let you copy it, move it, put it in the Trash, or reveal it in the Finder (
click here for more on how a launcher can make you much more productive).
H Marks the Spot: With HoudahSpot, you can perform complex nested Boolean searches. This example shows a search for any file that either has Macworld in its name but lacks the word spam in its content, or has the word article in its Spotlight comments field.
Rediscover your desktop
Far too often, the OS X desktop becomes an all-purpose dumping ground for random downloads, files, and anything else we don’t know what to do with. But when you have dozens or even hundreds of icons there, locating just what you’re looking for becomes a challenge. To make matters worse, OS X allocates memory for each desktop icon as though it were a window, so having a lot of stuff on your desktop increases your Mac’s RAM usage.
If you keep your desktop relatively free of clutter, you can use it to keep track of files that need to be dealt with or to hold shortcuts to important files or folders. (If you seldom actually see your desktop behind all your open documents and other windows, take advantage of Exposé: pressing the F11 key moves all open windows out of the way and reveals the desktop.)
Use these strategies to combat the common causes of desktop clutter:
Create a folder for downloads
If your Web browser downloads files directly to your desktop, change your default download destination to a folder. First create a new folder named Downloads on your desktop. If you use Safari, choose Safari: Preferences, click on General, and choose Other from the Save Downloaded Files To pop-up menu; then select your new Downloads folder and click on Select. If you use Firefox 2, choose Firefox: Preferences and click on Main; then click on the Choose button next to the Save Files To heading, and select your Downloads folder.
Designate a place for junk
The desktop can also end up as the storage place for files we don’t know what to do with. Instead of storing these miscellaneous files on the desktop itself, create a special folder for these items and put that folder (or an alias to the folder) on the desktop. Once a week, move unclassifiable stuff off the desktop and into this folder. Your files will still be handy, but you’ll have less visual clutter.
To keep track of files that have been hanging around for a while, consider keeping files on your desktop arranged by date. Click on the desktop, and then choose View: Show View Options. Select the Keep Arranged By option, and choose Date Modified from the pop-up menu.
Wipe it clean
You can also turn off the display of icons for your hard disks, iDisk, and network volumes by opening your Finder’s General preference pane and deselecting the first three items. Don’t worry—you can still access these items from the sidebar of any Finder window or through the Finder’s Go menu.
Tip: Tame your Trash
Tame Your Trash One of the best ways to reduce clutter is to drag unneeded files to the Trash. However, once you empty the Trash, you won’t be able to recover those files if you later discover that you need them (at least not without considerable effort). For this reason, some Mac experts recommend emptying your Trash only when you’re running low on disk space. But if the sight of an overflowing Trash makes you cringe, try this compromise: create a Pre-Trash folder in which you can store files that you think (but are not completely sure) you no longer need. This helps protect you from imprudent erasures, so you can drag files off your desktop more freely. Every so often, sort the files by date and dump older items into the Trash.
Secret to getting things done
For a different way of thinking about organization, try the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, developed by David Allen. GTD advocates collecting all the stuff that’s demanding your time, energy, and attention—e-mail messages, requests from bosses and coworkers, random things that pop into your head, and so on—and strictly organizing them into separate categories: things that you can act on right away and things that you can deal with later.
For things that you can’t accomplish in just a couple of minutes, GTD recommends creating different to-do lists. But while many of us sort our to-do lists by priority or project, GTD says you should organize them by context: maintain one list for things that you need to do when you’re online, another for phone calls, another for items that involve driving somewhere, and so on. The idea is that if you feel confident that your tasks will come to your attention when and where you can take care of them, you’ll spend less mental energy keeping track of everything and more on getting it done.
You can learn more about GTD at the
GTD Web site. To interact with other GTD fans or to learn how others are trying to put the GTD philosophy to work, check out the
Lifehack blog, or
43 Folders, a blog and community forum devoted to GTD tips.
[ Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]