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Keep a Mac Clutter Free With Hazel 3 and an Inbox Folder


The Desktop and Downloads folder in OS X have an unfortunate tendency to get cluttered. In this tutorial I'll show you how to deal with that using a dedicated inbox folder and Hazel 3. Once set up the process is totally automatic.


Hazel is a great app for automating file management in OS X. You can assign certain folders for Hazel to watch and then perform specific actions if the files within meet set criteria. Hazel can automatically put videos in the Movies folder and audio tracks in the Music folder. 

It can also, as you’ll see, do a whole lot more.

In this tutorial I’ll demonstrate how to create the ultimate workflow for keeping a Mac clutter free—or at the very least, keeping the clutter organised—using Hazel and a dedicated Inbox.

The Problem

It’s really easy to gather digital clutter on a Mac. Time Machine makes it possible to keep files for years even as you chance computers and install new versions of OS X. There are two folders particularly prone to getting cluttered with digital data: the Downloads folder and the Desktop.

Unless you make an effort to delete every .dmg you download, things rapidly start to overflow. Similarly, Jacob’s written about why you shouldn’t store files on the Desktop despite how convenient it is. In this tutorial I’m going to show you how to deal with both these issues.

How It Works

The key to this workflow is a new Inbox folder you’ll be creating. Any file on the Desktop or in Downloads will be moved to a subfolder in the Inbox by Hazel. This straight away starts to keep things organised.

clean desktop and downloads
My Mac's Desktop and Downloads folders.

Once a file is in the Inbox folder, it will stay there for a week or two; if everything stayed in the Inbox forever, you’d be back to a cluttered Mac after a couple of months. 

Instead, Hazel moves any files that have been in the Inbox too long to somewhere more relevant: videos go to the Movies folder and old .zip files go to Trash.

With these rules in place, it’s almost impossible for the Desktop, Downloads or Inbox folders to get cluttered.


My colleague Paula has written a great article that covers the basics of using Hazel. She goes into a lot of detail on setting up rules. Some of the examples she uses will even be part of this workflow. If you’re not already familiar with Hazel you should read her article before continuing.

You also need an up-to-date copy of Hazel 3; you can download one from the developers website. There’s a free 14-day trial and after that it costs $29. Hazel works as promised so if this workflow is something you’re interested in I recommend just buying it upfront. It will take an hour or two to set up and tweak; if you just want to try Hazel there are far easier ways to do it.

You can download a copy of my Hazel rules and import them. If you want to follow my exact setup you can use them as is, or, if your needs are different, tweak them to suit. 

The Inbox

The core of this workflow is a new Inbox folder with a number of subfolders. You could use an already existing folder like Documents but I prefer to start from scratch.

Create a new folder called Inbox in the User directory—it’s the one that contains Documents, Movies, Music and Downloads. There’s no reason it needs to be placed here but seeing as the Inbox is at least as important as Pictures, it makes sense to have it in a high level location.

my inbox
My Inbox folder.

Next, think about the files you regularly handle. I’m a writer and photographer so I deal with a lot of apps, screenshots, archive files, videos and images. To handle these I set up 10 subfolders.

  • @Apps for applications
  • @Audio for any audio or music files
  • @Documents for any text, PDF, presentations or spreadsheets
  • @Folders for any folders; they generally come from Downloads
  • @Images for any non-screenshot pictures
  • @Misc for anything not caught by another folder
  • @Movies for any video files
  • @Screens for any screenshots
  • @Working for any file I’m working on and want to stay in the Inbox
  • @Zips for archives

I rarely deal with documents, presentations or spreadsheets so I can safely lump them in one group. If you regularly receive loads of Word and Powerpoint documents, you should have two separate folders for them. 

Similarly, if you aren’t taking 30 or 40 screenshots a day for the articles you’re working on, you probably don’t need a dedicated folder.

Tip: If you want any files or folders to stay at the top in Finder, start their name with a symbol like @. That’s what I’m doing here.

With all the subfolders in place, it’s time to start on the rules that will populate them.

Clearing the Desktop and Downloads

The rules that deal with files on the Desktop or in Downloads are identical. You only need to create them for one folder and then you can copy them to the second. You need a rule that identifies and sorts things for every folder except @Working which is files are added to manually.

Hazel applies rules in the order they’re listed. The catchall rule that moves files to @Misc thus needs to be the final one. The rule that tidies screenshots also needs to come before the one that tidies every other image.

document sort rule
The rule that sorts documents.

All the rules follow the same basic structure. They mainly use Hazel’s Kind rule to sort the different files. 

For example, to create my Documents rule, I set Hazel to move the file to @Documents and apply a blue colour label if it matched any of Kind is Document, Kind is Text, Kind is Presentation or Kind is PDF. For my Movies rule, the file was moved to @Movies if it was of the type Movie.

screenshot sort rule
The rule that sorts screenshots.

For screenshots the rule is a little different. It checks to see if the files Name contains “Screen Shot” and if it does, applies a red colour label and moves it to @Screens.

The catchall rule moves any file that the Date Created is Today or Date Last Modified is Today.

Once you’ve got all the rules set up for one folder, copy them to the other by selecting them all and dragging them across. I also copied them all to the Inbox so any files dumped in will get sorted as well. 

To stop the other subfolders being sorted into @Folders, I gave them purple colour labels in Finder and modified the Inbox’s Folders rule to only move folders that didn’t have one.

Clearing the Inbox

Now everything on the Desktop or in the Downloads folder gets sorted and moved to the Inbox. While it’s a good start, all we’ve done so far is move the clutter around and tidy it a little bit. Now it’s time to sort it for good.

If you are a strict follower of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you’ll know that any inbox should be cleared daily. I’m not quite that rigid about it. I like to let things stay around for a week or two before they’re automatically dealt with. Each subfolder’s contents are handled in a slightly different way.

clear apps
Apps are moved after a week.
  • Files in @Apps get moved to the Applications folder after a week. If I’m trying out an app or utility for an article I often don’t want it installed fully on my system. If I haven’t deleted it after a week, I probably do
  • Tracks in @Audio get moved to Music after two weeks
  • Files in @Documents get moved to Documents and sorted into a year-month subfolder after two weeks
  • Anything in @Folders gets the same treatment as @Documents
  • I use my Pictures folder so files in @Images get moved to a Pic Archive subfolder and sorted into a year-month sub-subfolder
  • I handle files in @Misc manually. They tend to be a random mix of super important and completely unimportant. If I was brave, I’d move them to Trash after two weeks
  • Videos in @Movies get moved to the Movies folder after two weeks
  • Screenshots in @Screens get deleted after two weeks
  • Files in @Working are, like @Misc, handled manually
  • Files in @Zips are deleted after a week

When files are sent to the Inbox a colour label is added so I can quickly identify the new files. All the labels stay in place for 24 hours and then they’re removed. A rule in each folder goes through and sets the colour back to blank.

all rules setup
A small selection of all the rules that make this work.

You’ll need to decide how you want each subfolder’s contents handled. If you’re brave and on top of things, having everything moved to Trash after a week is guaranteed to keep things totally free of clutter. 

I prefer a slightly more nuanced approach that still keeps the important folders on my Mac clutter free and sorts most things that sticks around into dated archives.


In this tutorial I’ve shown how to keep OS X clutter free with Hazel and an Inbox folder. Trust me, it works. My setup is tailored for the kind of work I do. You’ll probably need to modify a couple of things to make it fit your workflow perfectly. Once you do that though, it will keep running in the background indefinitely.

If you’ve any great Hazel setups, or any questions about this tutorial, please let me know in the comments.

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