Organize your Mac: 5 great tips

When I first got my shiny new iMac everything was neatly organized: I had a nice clean Desktop and Home folder, my Dock was minimal, and my hard disk wasn’t full of crud. A mere week later the Mac was chaos – files everywhere, cluttered Desktop and Dock, and I couldn’t find anything!

I quickly learned that, in order to be productive on my Mac, I was going to have to get organized. Here are some simple techniques that I’ve found helpful for keeping my Mac data ship-shape.

1. Organize your files and folders

I do struggle at times to keep my legions of files and folders organized (in fact only the other day it took me over an hour to find an old document I created 3 years ago!). Here are some tricks that I’ve found helpful:

  • Keep your Desktop and Home folders clean. Avoid putting any files or folders on your Desktop – not only is it visual clutter, but it results in a disorganized mess! Similarly, don’t dump files directly in your Home folder. Instead, create subfolders in your Documents folder (or wherever is convenient) and put files in there.
  • Tell Firefox to use your Downloads folder. While Safari plays by the Downloads folder rule, Firefox dumps downloaded files on your Desktop by default. Not good. Go to Firefox > Preferences > Main > Save Files To, click Choose, then pick the Downloads folder in your Home folder.
  • Organize your Finder sidebar. The left-hand sidebar in each Finder window gives you instant access to files and folders with a single click. Make the most of it by adding the files and folders you use most often. To do this, just drag a file or folder from the main Finder window to the sidebar. While you’re there, remove unwanted files and folders by dragging them away from the sidebar.
  • Make important folders stand out. You can assign a colour to a folder by hitting Command-I then clicking a colour in the Label section of the Info dialog. Alternatively, give a folder a custom icon. Find the image you want to use – whether on your Mac or on the Web – and copy it. Now select the folder, hit Command-I, click the folder icon at the top-left of the Info dialog, and hit Command-V to paste your image. (You can also grab ready-made icons off various sites.)
  • Use Smart Folders. These work much like Smart Mailboxes in Mail. Smart Folders don’t actually contain any files, but they let you group files and folders together based on specified rules. This is handy if you want to access all documents on a given project in one place, for example. Find out how to create Smart Folders in Leopard.
  • Use Spotlight comments. Spotlight does a pretty good job of finding files, but you can make its life easier by tagging files and folders. Select a file, hit Command-I, then add your tags in the Spotlight Comments field at the top of the Info dialog. The file will now come up in Spotlight searches for those tags. Good for grouping files by topic or project.

2. Get organized with Mail

Dealing with thousands of email messages – and finding them easily when you need them – can be a real challenge. Fortunately the Mac’s built-in Mail app is pretty good at searching for messages, and it also has a couple of powerful features to help you organize your emails effectively:

  • Smart Mailboxes: These let you quickly access messages based on specific criteria. Create a new Smart Mailbox by clicking the + icon at the bottom of the folder list and choosing New Smart Mailbox. You can then create rules to determine what messages are viewable in the Smart Mailbox. For example, you can specify  all emails from a certain person or group, or all emails that haven’t been replied to yet. Messages aren’t actually stored in Smart Mailboxes; instead you can think of them more as predefined searches. They’re also more powerful than the standard Mail search, since you can specify multiple criteria at once.
  • Rules: Mail’s Rules (Mail > Preferences > Rules) automatically perform actions on incoming messages. As with Smart Mailboxes you can choose from a wide range of criteria to identify the message. Available actions include moving or copying the message to a mailbox; playing a sound; bouncing the Dock icon, or even replying to the message or running an AppleScript. Great for automatically filing emails or alerting you to important emails. (Find out more about using rules.)

3. Spring-clean your hard drive

There’s nothing like reducing clutter to help you get more organized. Clear out unwanted files and folders from your hard drive regularly; not only will you feel good but you’ll get some disk space back too!

To find files you haven’t used in ages, switch to List View in Finder (Command-2) and click the Date Modified column header twice to list the oldest files at the top.

A great way to find those space-hogging files is to use a tool such as the free GrandPerspective. Delete stuff that you’re unlikely to use again, and archive the rest onto DVD.

4. Declutter your Dock

Remove apps you don’t use every day from the Dock – simply drag the app icon away from the Dock. This reduces visual clutter and makes it quicker to find your frequent apps.

You might also find it helpful to drag your most frequently-used apps over to the left side of the Dock (assuming you scan your Dock left to right).

Another nice trick is to group shortcuts to your commonly-used apps into folders that you then add to the Dock. This article explains how to do it.

5. Organize applications using Spaces

The Mac’s Spaces (virtual desktops) feature is a handy way to organize your open apps. You can place each app (or group of apps) into its own space – for example, you can have Mail in one space, Safari/Firefox in another, Pages/Word in a third, and Photoshop in a fourth. You can then use shortcut keys (Control-arrow keys by default) to flip between each space. This gives you quick access to all your open apps while avoiding screen clutter.

Here’s a great article that shows how to set up Spaces, and also how to use your Login Items to restore your open apps after a restart.

Those are my tips for organizing stuff on your Mac. I hope you liked them! If you have a tip then please post it in the comments below – thanks!

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2 Responses to “Organize your Mac: 5 great tips”

  1. Neil Anderson Says:

    Just removed some unused apps from my Dock. Thanks!

  2. Matt Says:

    Glad the tip helped Neil. I like your photos – some amazing views there!