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Cut the Clutter: Mac File Organization and Management for Beginners

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Read Time: 10 min


Boot up a brand new Mac for the first time and you find yourself with a clean slate. However, with daily use, our computers can quickly become as cluttered as anything else in our lives. OS X, Fortunately, has plenty of options for helping to organize our ever-expanding inventory of files.

Whether you have a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or you just want to be able to quickly find the files you need, you'll appreciate the benefits of a tidy Mac. This tutorial will cover some tips on organizing two main areas of your system that are most susceptible to clutter: Finder and Desktop.

Finder Basics

With the ongoing merging of ideas in OS X and iOS, many tech pundits have predicted that Apple is planning to eliminate the traditional hierarchical file system that we have used for decades. Apple may, eventually, decide to store all your files within a given application. That would mean, for instance, that all of your Pages documents would live inside the Pages application.

For now, files are accessible system-wide and Finder helps us organize them. We are going to look at a few Finder features to help us control the clutter.

Home Folder

Let's start at the very root of file organization in Finder: Your home folder. A home folder is created automatically for every user, and it constitutes the base level of your file structure. To open it, launch Finder and look for it in the window's sidebar. The folder is named after your account login, so as my login name is Jonathan Garro, my home folder is jonathangarro.

Tip: If the Home folder is not visible in your Finder sidebar, press and hold Command + Shift + H and a new window will pop up with the folder, ensuring that the Finder application is in focus, first.

By default, you're given a few folders that are meant to store certain types of files, including Music, Movies, Documents, etc. It's a good idea to try and keep your files organized by type, so those home movies you upload should go into your Movies folder.

Remember that your Home folder is the foundation of file organization.
Remember that your Home folder is the foundation of file organization.

Don't be afraid to create new folders either directly inside your Home folder, or inside existing folders. For example, within Documents I have a folder for my finances, and within that I have a folder of scanned receipts for important purchases like computers and cell phones.

Smart Folders

Smart folders are a great way to automate part of your organization process and spare yourself the tedium of constantly moving files around to their proper place. If you have ever made a Smart playlist in iTunes, the process may look familiar to you. By setting certain rules, Smart folders will automatically fill themselves with files that match your search criteria.

To demonstrate how Smart folders work, I'm going to walk you through the process of creating one that I use.

Step 1

To begin, select Finder and open your Documents Folder.

Step 2

From the menubar, select File > New Smart Folder. You'll be greeted by a Finder window that looks like any other, but with a grey bar across the top of the main window area which says Search and has Documents selected. You'll notice you can also search your whole computer, but in this case, we will limit our search to the Documents folder.

Smart folders are based on the rules you set.Smart folders are based on the rules you set.Smart folders are based on the rules you set.
Smart folders are based on the rules you set.

Step 3

Click the + symbol at the far right to add a rule.

Use the + symbol to add rules.Use the + symbol to add rules.Use the + symbol to add rules.
Use the + symbol to add rules.

Step 4

In this case, I want to create a folder that shows PDFs. I can find PDFs by having the Smart folder look for files that end in that extension. Click on the dropdown menu input and select Other. You'll see dozens of options which you can play with. Right now we need the File Extension option. Select that, and then type pdf in the next box.

Select the "File Extension" option.Select the "File Extension" option.Select the "File Extension" option.
Select the "File Extension" option.

Step 5

Now that we have a Smart folder with all my PDFs, let's refine the results to show only PDFs that I've created in the last week. Click the + symbol again, and this time select Created date from the dropdown. The next dropdown to the right sets the timeframe for our search. Leave it as Within. Lastly, type 7 for days. Now our Smart folder shows the PDFs that I have created in the last week.

The Smart folder updates to show files meeting our search rules.The Smart folder updates to show files meeting our search rules.The Smart folder updates to show files meeting our search rules.
The Smart folder updates to show files meeting our search rules.

Step 6

We can save our Smart folder so that it is constantly updated. In this case, this folder will always show me the PDFs that are less than a week old. To save it, click on Save at the top right corner of the Finder window. Name it, and choose where you want to save it.

Select the "Save to sidebar" option for easy access.Select the "Save to sidebar" option for easy access.Select the "Save to sidebar" option for easy access.
Select the "Save to sidebar" option for easy access.

The options on Smart folders are practically endless. You can play around with the rules, and create a Smart folder for whatever you want. If you don't want to take the time to place each file into its proper folder, you might just want to sweep everything under the rug by dumping stuff into a Documents folder and then use Smart folders to help yourself find files later.


Labels are another great way to organize your files in OS X, as they offer a quick way to visualize what category a file falls into in a particular folder. You can define your label categories in Finder and then add those labels to files.

OS X gets you started with 7 labels, each one a different color. As an example, I will show you one possible way you might choose to use labels.

Step 1

Select Finder, then from the menubar, select File > Preferences. Click on Labels at the top of the Finder Preferences window.

Step 2

You'll see that by default the labels are simply named after their color. In this example, I am going to create a Work label and a Personal label to organize files in a particular folder. I will use the red label for Work and the green label for Personal.

Name your labels as needed.
Name your labels as needed.

Step 3

Now, we can use these labels. Open a folder you would like to organize. Right click on a file that is to be labeled Work. At the bottom of the popup menu, you'll see several colorful boxes. Select the red box for Work.

The right click menu gives you access to your labels.The right click menu gives you access to your labels.The right click menu gives you access to your labels.
The right click menu gives you access to your labels.

Sorting Files

When you are looking for a file in Finder, it can be frustrating if there is no discernible order that the files are listed in. Finder allows you to sort files in a folder based on a number of criteria.

Choose which categories you want Finder to display.Choose which categories you want Finder to display.Choose which categories you want Finder to display.
Choose which categories you want Finder to display.

At the top of any Finder window are column headers for various categories. At minimum, you'll see a "Name" column, but you can also add other categories. To do so, right click on the top bar and select others. Clicking on these will either sort in ascending / descending (or alphabetical / reverse-alphabetical) order.

I use these sorting capabilities to find old files that I can clean up. If, for instance, I implement the Date Modified category, and sort oldest to newest, I can get a sense of what files I haven't used in a long time (sometimes in years). Then I can either delete or move these old files to an external drive.

Cleaning the Desktop

A cluttered workstation can have adverse effects on your concentration and efficiency. The same is true when it comes to your Mac's desktop. I find its best to treat a computer's desktop the same way you use your actual desktop; stick files there that you are currently working on, then clean it up when you're done. Don't let stuff live there permanently!

Use a Working Folder

To ensure I don't let my desktop get cluttered with my active projects, I use a Working folder. Any projects that I am currently working on get saved in that folder, for which I keep a shortcut in the dock. That folder is synced by Dropbox, so that any projects that I am actively working on are available on any of my computers at home and at work.

A "working" folder is a great way to keep loose items off of your desktop.A "working" folder is a great way to keep loose items off of your desktop.A "working" folder is a great way to keep loose items off of your desktop.
A "working" folder is a great way to keep loose items off of your desktop.

I make sure that anything I save in an app goes to the working folder instead of the desktop or to iCloud. By default, many apps in Mountain Lion try to save your files to iCloud. I personally don't like to use iCloud, and find it annoying that you have to change the save location every time I create a new file.

To change the default save location to your Mac, type the following into Terminal and hit return:

If you'd like to change it back, type the same command in and change "false" to "true."

Moving Files From The Desktop

While you can easily click and drag files from one location to another in OS X, it isn't always convenient to do so. I personally use a large Finder window and lots of Spaces, so dragging files around can be a hassle.

Surprisingly, Apple doesn't offer a Cut and Paste option for moving files in Finder (although you can Copy and Paste). To make moving files easier, I use a great utility called Yoink, which offers a tray at the side of your screen to stick files and folders in while you navigate to wherever you want to place them.

Tip: If you have a bunch of files sitting on the desktop that all belong in the same folder, you can highlight them all, then right click on them and select New Folder with Selection to place them all in a new folder.

Change the Default Location for Saved Screenshots

By default, screenshots taken on your Mac using the Shift + Command + 3 (or Shift + Command + 4 for cropped screenshots) are saved to your desktop. If you take a lot of screenshots, your desktop can quickly get littered with files that are a pain to move. You can avoid the annoyance of moving them off the desktop by changing the save location using a simple Terminal command:

You'll need to log out and back in before the changes take effect.

If you aren't sure what the file path to your folder is, open it and go to File > Get Info. You'll see the file path under the "Where" section of the window that pops up.

Use Hazel to Keep Your Desktop Clean

While Smart folders use rules to present you with files matching your defined criteria, popular productivity app Hazel can be configured to actually move files to and from any folders you choose. Check out Paula DuPont's excellent tutorial on using Hazel to stay productive. Using Hazel, you can set up rules to automatically organize anything saved to the desktop based on whatever rules you choose.


While keeping your Mac organized can feel as tedious and daunting as keeping your physical workspace organized, it is equally as important. Neglecting to clean up and organize your files can lead to an seemingly irreparable mess. This tutorial showed you some basic tips on navigating your Home folder, creating new folders, and using Finder to move items around. It also offered some tips on how to avoid letting the desktop become a permanent resting place for your files.

What strategies do you use to keep your Mac organized and avoid clutter build-up?

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