Clean Up Your Desktop

I want to ask you a personal question. How many iconsnot counting hard disks, network volumes, and removable mediaare sitting on your Desktop right now? (My answer: 11, though I usually try to keep it closer to 6. Ask me again tomorrow, after I've performed my weekly housekeeping.) I know lots of people who regularly have dozens or even hundreds of icons on their Desktops, who use it as a catchall for downloaded files, work in progress, email enclosures, and everything else that needs a temporary home. This is a bad idea! Here's why:

  • Mac OS X considers every icon on your Desktop a window, and because every open window uses up a certain amount of RAM, more Desktop icons means greater RAM usage.

  • Exposé shortcuts notwithstanding, putting files and folders on your Desktop makes them harder to find, because they're so easily hidden behind windows. (You can, of course, access the contents of your Desktop folder in a regular Finder window, but some people put items on the Desktop specifically to avoid working with Finder windows.)

  • Your Desktop displays files and folders in icon view, unlike the more efficient list and column views available in other windows. (Yes, I know, you can view the contents of your Desktop folder in a window too, but work with me here...)

  • Tossing lots of files into a single big storage area (wherever it may be) creates more work later on when you try to locate specific files.

  • If you use your Desktop to hold important items that you want to keep "in your face" at all times, you'll lose that effect when the files become too numerous.

A cluttered Desktop slows you down, so take a few minutes once a week to organize most (if not all) the items on your Desktop into other folders.

I know of numerous organizational philosophies, but I have no wish to impose a rigid system on you. Instead, simply consider these suggestions for keeping files off your Desktop:

  • If your chief concern is keeping track of a few important files, use the Finder's label feature (select a file and choose a color label from the bottom of the Edit menu) to mark all high-priority files in a given color. Then, use a smart folder to display all files on your disk labeled with that color. Choose File > New Smart Folder, choose Color Label from the first pop-up menu, and click the color you used to label the files. Then click Save and give your smart folder a name. The folder automatically updates itself to display all the files labeled with the selected color, wherever they may be stored on your disk.


    For details on using smart folders, you can read an article I wrote for Macworld magazine titled "Cut through the Clutter" (

  • If you store downloaded files on your Desktop, instead make a new folder named Downloads, put that on your Desktop (or somewhere else convenient, such as in your Documents folder), and keep the downloaded files inside it.


    To change the location to which Safari downloads files, choose Safari > Preferences, click the General button, and choose a location from the Save Downloaded Files To pop-up menu (choose Other to select any folder on your disk).

  • Check your Desktop for files you no longer need, such as software you've already installed, PDFs you downloaded and printed, or outdated text clippings, and delete them.

  • Several Mac OS X applications function as excellent snippet keepers, giving you a much better place to store things that might otherwise go on your Desktop (URLs, saved Web pages, text clippings, PDF and text files, and so on). Examples include:

    • DEVONthink (; Personal edition, $40, or Professional edition, $75)

    • NoteBook (; $50)

    • SOHO Notes, shown in Figure 5 (; $70)

      Figure 5. SOHO Notes is a competent all-purpose snippet keeper.

    • Yojimbo (; $40)

One way or another, try to get your total number of Desktop icons below a dozen or so. You'll be surprised how much this simple step improves your efficiency.


If you keep files and folders on your Desktop because you find it difficult to work with Finder windows, you may be able to improve your experience considerably by customizing the default Finder window. You can learn about Finder customization in Matt Neuburg's Take Control of Customizing Tiger (

Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups. Industrial-Strength Techniques
Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups. Industrial-Strength Techniques
Year: 2004
Pages: 144 © 2008-2017.
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