Power tips for managing files in Apple’s Finder

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While some of OS X’s applications have their own data structures—like Mail and Photos—Finder is likely where you will be doing most of your file organization. After you have created or collected hundreds (if not thousands) of files on your Mac, you might often find yourself needing to move these items around, print them, open them, and delete them so frequently that the basic uses of the mouse become somewhat limiting.

That’s where hidden options, like special hotkeys and modifiers, come in— you can use these to enhance your file management. With practice, you’ll eventually be able to quickly access what you need and organize it accordingly. Here is a handful of our favorite Finder tips and tricks.

Use Spotlight to reveal files 

Spotlight can be used to quickly find most items on your Mac, either by name or by content, and while the default “click” action is to open that file in its default application, you can hold the Command key when opening search results to reveal them in Finder. This option allows you to quickly access any file you know of, especially if you use hotkeys for accessing Spotlight. Simply press Command-Space to activate Spotlight, enter your search terms, and when you find what you’re looking for, use arrows to highlight it. Then, then press Command-Enter to reveal it in the Finder. You can now use other hotkeys (mentioned below) to manage this file.

Finder 1

Use hotkeys for file selection

In addition to using Spotlight for finding and selecting individual files in the Finder, you can use a number of hotkeys to manage the files in any active Finder window. The first is Command-A, which selects all files in that window. You can also manage selections by holding the Command or Shift keys and then clicking files to add or remove them from the current selection—Command will add and remove one file at a time, whereas Shift will add all files between the current selection and the new file.

Manage your files with hotkeys, too

Once you have one or more files added to a selection, you can manage them using various hotkeys. For example, press Command-Delete to move files to the trash, and then hit Shift-Command-Delete to empty the trash. When coupled with Spotlight, these hotkeys offer a quick way to locate and remove files from your system, without having to touch your mouse or trackpad.

In addition to deleting files, you can use the classic Copy and Paste hotkeys to move and copy files to new locations. To start, select your files and press Command-C to copy a file reference to your clipboard. From here, you can then go to a destination folder, and press Command-V to paste and copy the files to this location, or you can press Option-Command-V to paste and permanently move the files to this location. This will work across file systems, so if you’re copying files to a thumb drive you, you can use this hotkey to quickly move them there instead of dragging and dropping to copy—when you drag and drop, you have to move the originals to the trash to avoid keeping duplicates.

Replace mouse actions with—you guessed it—hotkeys

Besides managing file selections, you can use modifier keys to change how the mouse acts on various files. For instance, if you click and drag a file from one folder to another the system will move it, but if you hold the Option key while doing this, then the system will copy the file to the new location. In addition, if you hold the Option and Command keys together, then an alias to the original file will appear in the destination folder. This might be a more convenient way to create aliases, instead of pressing Command-L and then dragging the alias to its new preferred location. 

Drag and Drop options

Drag and Drop can be used for so much more than just moving files around. To start, you can drag any file to an application that can handle it, and OS X will attempt to open the file in that application. You can use this technique for applications in your Dock, your Applications folder, or to an alias of an application. 

Perhaps one of the handiest—yet hidden—uses for Drag and Drop is that you can specify folders and file names to use when opening and saving files. When you are saving a new document, a Save dialogue box will pop up along with a new Finder window. In here, you can drag a file from the Finder, which will not only point the dialogue box to the enclosing folder for that file, but will also change the saved name from the default "Untitled" to the name of the dragged file. With this technique, you can easily specify a file to replace, or use a current file to specify a starting name for the document you are about to save. You can also click specific files you see in the Save dialogue box and get the same result. 

This method also works in Open dialogue boxes, where you can drag a file to the box to open it.

Other useful options

Of course, your Mac offers many more options for file management, starting with different ways to archive your files. You can right-click a selection of files and choose the Archive option from the contextual menu to create a zip file of the items, which not only contains them, but also compresses them. While you might not regularly archive files, it can be a useful approach for reducing the size of an e-mail attachment or message to a colleague or friend. 

Beyond archiving, another useful feature of the Finder is using it to create a new folder containing a batch of files. Again, right-click on a selection you’ve highlighted, pull up Finder’s dropdown contextual menu, and select “New folder with selection.” This is a useful tool for organizing large collections of miscellaneous files, like those that have accumulated in your Downloads folder, or on your desktop.

Finder 2

Finally, Finder has a shortcut for converting files into PDFs. You can always open a file and use the active application’s print functions to save it as a PDF, but it’s quicker to simply select the item in Finder and hit Command-P. This will open the document and immediately invoke the print dialogue box—after you print, save to PDF, or cancel the print job, then the program will quit automatically. 

These are just a few of Finder’s many tricks. Have any favorite hidden Finder features that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below.

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