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  1. Computer Skills
  2. Desktop Platform
Computers

How to Declutter the Mac Desktop, Part 1

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:

The Desktop metaphor has been in existence for decades and is often correlated with the user desk at home or office. Often, a physical desk becomes piled-up with notebooks, pen, paper, files and more. The same picture is common in the desktop environment. Files and folders accumulate on the desktop, too.

Many of us use the desktop as a temporary storage location for quick access to files and folders, as a repository for various files needed during a computer session and as a reminder spot just for ease of remembrance. If you're like me, you probably don’t bother putting anything away until the desktop becomes too cluttered.

Clutter can also result from opening multiple application windows. Each window takes valuable workspace, puts a cognitive load on the brain and can ultimately break concentration.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to:

  • Clean desktop clutter with features included in macOS and third-party apps
  • Develop good habits by making proper use of the workspace

Remove Devices From the Desktop

macOS displays icons of hard drive or external hard drive on the desktop when you connect them to the computer. These icons represent desktop clutter. There is no need to display external devices on the desktop, as they’re available in the Devices list in the Finder Sidebar.

To disable the display of external devices on the desktop, open Finder > Preferences or press Command-Comma

Untick the tickbox next to Hard disks, External disks, CD's, DVD's and Connected servers. Changes take effect immediately and any device icons on the desktop disappear.

uncheck devices from the Finder preferences
Uncheck devices from the Finder preferences

Automatically Move Screenshots to the Target Folder

The default target folder for screenshots is the desktop. It’s acceptable if you occasionally take one or two screenshots, but if you take lots of screenshots, the desktop quickly gets littered with images. 

Change the default location by using a terminal command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location /Path/To/Folder

Assuming that the Screenshots folder is in the Pictures folder

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location ~/Pictures/Screenshots

If you aren’t sure about the folder path, then drag the item to the Terminal. It’ll automatically convert the file into the actual path name.

terminal command to change the screenshot folder
Terminal command to change the screenshot folder

Sometimes you might want to save the screenshot to a different folder for each task. You can use Folder Actions in Automator to move screenshots. 

Under Move Finder Items section choose a different folder for each task.

folder action workflow in automator to move screenshots
Folder action workflow in Automator to move screenshots

Automatically Remove Application Installers

When you download an app from the web it comes in a disk image, or .dmg, file format. It takes a few clicks to install the app. You have to mount, drag the app onto the Application folder and eject the disk image either from the desktop or the Finder sidebar.

This icon on the desktop is a clutter. You can automate the app installation and develop a good habit to prevent the clutter.

desktop icons represent clutter
Desktop icons represent clutter 1. Clutter on the desktop 2. Clutter on the Finder sidebar

Dropzone is an app that lets you move, copy, upload files and execute various tasks via drag-and-drop. Once installed, Dropzone adds a small icon to the menu bar. You then drag files and apps onto the Dropzone icon or click to access a drop-down menu with pre-installed apps and actions.

dropzone app accessed through a menu bar
Dropzone app accessed through a menu bar

Go to the Dropzone Actions page and install the Install Application action. Drag-and-drop the disk image onto this action and it’ll take care of all the installation steps. 

The disk image ejects from the desktop and, if you tick the Move source to trash after install, it’ll delete the disk image file.

dropzone install application action
Dropzone install application action

You can altogether skip manual installation and use Homebrew Cask for app installation. Homebrew is a popular package manager for macOS. Homebrew Cask extends Homebrew support for quickly installing macOS apps like VLC, Firefox, Alfred and more.

If you’re not aware of Homebrew, then read this tutorial on Homebrew and come back again. Type this terminal command to install Cask.

brew tap caskroom/cask

To see all the commands Cask supports type

brew cask

brew cask command in the iTerm window
Brew cask command in the iTerm window

The key commands to remember are: cleanup, doctor, install, outdated, search, uninstall and upgrade

The search command lets you search for an app that Cask knows how to install. Since the name that Cask uses isn’t always the program true name, you have to search for the app. For example,

Type:

brew cask search firefox

Under Exact Match section you’ll see firefox, that’s the name you’ve to type to install Firefox browser. If you want to install other Firefox version see the section under Remote Matches.

brew cask search command in iTerm
Brew cask search command in iTerm

To install Firefox browser by Cask type

brew cask install firefox

In the same way, to install Vivaldi browser, type:

brew cask search vivaldi

Under Exact Match section, you’ll see Vivaldi, that’s the name you’ve to type to install Vivaldi browser. Type:

brew cask install vivaldi

brew cask install command in iTerm
Brew cask install command in iTerm

Check the Homebrew Cask Github Documentation to see the list of all the commands it supports and ways to use them. Once you're familiar with the Cask, then you don’t have to bother with the manual app installation.

Create Alias for Work Folders

An alias is a small file that represents another object in a local, remote, or removable file system. It provides a dynamic link to the target and is akin to shortcut under Windows.

Aliases are useful for organising frequently used files and folders in different locations or on the desktop. When you start using an alias, you develop a good habit and save both time and clutter.

To create an alias, right-click the folder and click Make Alias. Or, select the folder and press Command-L. An alias is always indicated by a little black arrow badge on the folder.

create an alias of a folder
Create an alias of a folder

Sometimes you might want to find the original item for an alias. To do that, select the alias and choose File > Show Original or press Command-R.

find the original item of an alias
Find the original item of an alias

You can also edit an alias to point to a different file. Select the alias, press Command-I, and from the Info window click the Select New Original button. Note that the name of the alias won’t change to match the new file, but its icon preview will change if the alias points to a different kind of file.

edit alias through the info window
Edit alias through the info window

Aliases are smart. If you drop anything onto the alias it gets added to the original folder, and if you delete anything from the alias it gets deleted from the original folder. 

Even if you rename the alias or original file, move the alias or original file, double-clicking the alias still opens the original file.

Keep Desktop Free of Clutter

Everyone uses their Mac differently. Some people like to store their files on the desktop. Having these files instantly available on the desktop reduce the need for search and increase productivity. Over time, these files start piling up on the desktop, making it untidy and messy.

Unclutter is a handy menu bar multi-purpose utility app that lets you store files, notes and the clipboard history on the desktop. To use this app, move your cursor to the top of the screen and swipe down with two fingers or scroll down.

The app will display three different cards:

  • Clipboard manager card which keeps track of everything you copy into clipboard. You can browse the list of recent clips and recall any of them
  • File storage card is a go-to place for casual storage of frequently used files or a drop-zone for dragging files between apps
  • Notes card is much like writing a sticky note. You can jot down an idea, address, to-do list and more
unclutter app user interface
Unclutter app 1. Clipboard card 2. Files card 3. Notes card

Yoink is another handy app based on the principle of drag-and-drop. It gives you a drop-zone to let you temporarily store text, files, images and more. You can drag-and-drop single or multiple items between different apps. 

Yoink is also available on iOS and iCloud integration to sync files between macOS and iOS is coming soon.

Hazel is an automation tool for macOS that monitors changes to folders and perform a particular action based on the rules. You can move files based on name, date, type, and much more. 

It keeps the desktop free of clutter and allows you to organise the files the way you want. To get started, we’ve covered an entire tutorial series on Hazel.

hazel rules for documents
Sample hazel rules for the documents

Use Launcher Apps to Search Files and Folders

Many keep everything on the desktop for quick access. You can avoid desktop clutter and develop a good habit by making use of search. The Spotlight is the default launcher baked into macOS. Press Command-S and search for a particular file or folder.

Alfred is a powerful launcher for macOS. It allows you to search apps, files, folders and an automation playground to play with various scripts and plugins to accomplish various tasks with a couple of keystrokes.

When a file is located deep in Finder, you can use Alfred to create a dynamic file search workflow to access that file quickly. 

Open Alfred Preferences > Workflow, click the [+] button at the bottom to add a new workflow and select Examples > Dynamic File Search.

alfred dynamic file search workflow
Alfred app dynamic file search workflow

Type ff in Alfred to first select a search scope. When you find a folder, press Enter to begin the search.

alfred app search scope
Alfred app search scope

Then type the name of the file you’re searching for within that folder.

search for file in alfred app
Search for file in Alfred app

Tagging files and folders makes them easier to find. Alfred can turn these tags to access collections of files, wherever they may be on the Mac. They also include a keyword to search for files by tag.

tag feature in alfred app
Tag feature in Alfred app

Create a hotkey with the argument set to Text with the content tag name. Pressing the hotkey will bring up Alfred’s search box with the relevant results for that tag without having to type anything. Check out the Alfred tutorial on the Hotkey Triggers.

Alfred app hotkey trigger
Alfred app hotkey trigger

Conclusion

Desktop clutter is a common problem among people using computers regularly. Die-hard clutters toss stuff on the desktop out of habit killing both time and productivity.

In this tutorial, I’ve shown you various methods by which you can eliminate and avoid desktop clutter. Consider it as a guide and perform steps one at a time.

In the next part of the tutorial, we’ll deal with the desktop clutter caused due to multiple windows and how to handle them effectively.


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