1. Computer Skills

Organization and How to Keep a Clean Desktop on a Mac

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The Desktop

I'm often asked to help my friends or family with various computer problems. One of the biggest problems I come across, when working on their Macs, is a cluttered messy Desktop.

Many people tell me they put files on their Desktop so they'll be easier to find later. The flaw in their logic is that as they continue to store files there, the Desktop becomes a hot mess. A better way is to simply refuse to save anything to the Desktop.

In this tutorial I’ll show you how to keep the Desktop immaculate. Along the way you will learn how to embrace the built-in file system, and keep better track of the files you create.

I will show you how to:

  • Organize files into the built-in folder system on the Mac
  • Create new sub-folders for optimal organization
  • Find any file in seconds
  • Get screenshots to save somewhere other than the Desktop

Embrace the File System

OS X comes with a built-in set of folders to encourage a basic level of organization. These folders are located directly under the User folder. They’re already created to cover the basics, like DocumentsMoviesMusic, or Pictures. You may also see folders for Applications or cloud services, such as Google Drive.

Embrace and use the existing folders in OSX

Open the Desktop folder, then start looking through the files currently sitting there. For each file, determine if it is a Document, Movie, Picture, or Music file. Then simply move it to the appropriate folder in the side bar. If you aren't sure where a particular file should go, put it in Documents. That should be the default/catch-all folder.  Not the Desktop.

Moving files off your Desktop

Creating Sub-Folders

Now you are left with a clean Desktop, but a cluttered Documents folder. To organize the Documents folder, you may need to create some custom sub-folders. You can create sub-folders anywhere in the file system by either:

  • Right-clicking anywhere in the window and choosing New Folder 
  • By moving your cursor to the top of the window and clicking on the gear icon, then choosing New Folder
Creating a new folder from the Finder Toolbar
Creating a New Folder via right-clicking

After you create a new folder, you will need to give it an appropriate name. As an example, if you have many work related documents and many personal documents, you may create a sub-folder called Work and a sub-folder called Personal. After you have created the folders, move the corresponding files in to them.

Find Any File in Seconds

With all of these folders within folders, you may be worried about how you will ever find a specific file quickly. Apple’s OS X ships with a very powerful indexing and search feature called Spotlight.

To find any file using Spotlight, press Command-Space. A search bar will appear on the top right corner of the screen. Start typing the name of the file you are looking for.  Before you’ve even finished typing, Spotlight will probably be showing you a list of possible matches.  

Finding a file using Spotlight

To open a file, use the arrow keys to select the correct match, then press return.

Saving Screenshots Elsewhere

Saving screenshots in OS X is fun and easy. A quick Command-Shift-3 will take screen grab of the entire screen or a quick Command-Shift-4 will bring some some cross-hairs for a specific selection to grab. The only problem is that by default OS X saves the screenshots to the Desktop. If you take a lot of screenshots, that can get pretty messy pretty quick.

Fortunately, there is a command that can be run to change the default save location for screenshots.

Open Terminal and run the following commands:

defaults write location ~/Pictures

killall SystemUIServer

Setting your screen capture location in Terminal

The first command sets all of the screenshots to go into the Pictures folder. Storing screenshots in the Pictures folder just makes more sense. They are pictures after all. The second command just resets the UI Server so the changes will take effect without having to reboot the machine.


It may feel a bit awkward at first, but forcing all of the files and folders off the Desktop and into a proper home will keep you more organised. 

That level of organization will help you get to your files faster and increase your overall efficiency. It will also help you achieve a higher level of computing Zen, and impress those of us that have to work on your machines from time to time. Enjoy!

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