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Guidelines for organizing files and folders

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11 min read

Deadlines are fun! They keep us on our toes. But what happens when you can’t find a piece of work you did a few years ago, that would save you a whole load of time — but you just can’t find it, buried amongst old folders and files in your Mac?! Instead of working to hit your deadline, you’re stuck looking for a file. Isn’t that ridiculous? The following tips are meant to help you build a smart file organization routine, so you never run into the problem again.  

Best practices for organizing files on your Mac

We so often throw everything into separate locations and pray we can find it when needed, taking a hit-and-hope approach. That method has never worked for the New York Yankees, so it’s likely to leave you striking out too. If only there were a way to arrange folders and find files faster. An efficient, proven system to avoid all the wasted time, stress and extra effort.  

Thankfully, Setapp has a solution or two. We have an array of ready-to-install organizational apps to make life that little bit easier. 

Let’s start with some simple rules for managing your files and folders:

  1. Clutter control: don’t put files on the desktop. Your desktop is supposed to be clean and display that amazing HD wallpaper you’ve got going on. 
  2. Find files faster: name your files and folders strategically. Also, use smart search utilities.
  3. Keep shortcuts to your project resources in one place to access them quickly. It solves the annoying part of switching between projects.
  4. Remove duplicate files. You only need one copy of each file on your Mac. This way, they are easier to find! 
  5. Tagging. Instead of—or in addition to—folder structures, try tagging files. The benefit of tagging is the ability to add multiple tags to a file. Without a strong folder structure, tags are all that’s keeping your files from getting lost in chaos.
  6. Use Smart Folders. Group files by certain attributes, completely automatically. 
  7. Merge similar folders to reduce the amount of clutter on your Mac.  

Let’s discuss each of the file organization strategies in detail.

Сlean up desktop

Gather all the files and folders you want to keep on the desktop and put them in a folder or two for temporary storage if you’re referring to it regularly. If you want to make sure to keep your desktop clear, check out our Spotless tutorial. There is a rule to automatically clean off your desktop. 

With smart algorithms such as the Autotidy feature, users can input 'tasks’ which specify where particular files belong with an easy-to-use drag and drop system. The app will store your instructions and automate the process by scheduling folders to be organized at regular intervals. 

clean up desktop

There’s no limit to the number of automated tasks you can create, making for a spotless Mac. You can teach the app to organize images, desktop, or individual documents, using a range of different parameters, e.g. filename, extension, file size, modified date, etc. This gives you full scope to organize and locate files efficiently, without having to do the dirty work.

 Putting your important documents and folders in the hands of an AI robot may be daunting, but Spotless is heavily regulated to minimize possible risks. Before submitting a new task, you’ll receive a full preview of changes to consolidate understanding and ensure no errors are made, as well as having comprehensive and configurable conflict resolution rules to safeguard your files. With a fully editable dashboard, you can search engagement history to track what actions Spotless has undertaken and have the power to restore files or undo any unwanted changes.

Spotless is reminiscent of the swan analogy – your Mac is the swan, gliding smoothly on top of the water with ease. Spotless is the legs, powering away beneath the surface, laying the foundations for your relaxed drift up-stream. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Find files faster

The general rule of thumb is “name your files properly so you can easily find them through Spotlight, Apple’s native search utility.” Yes, that’s smart. And you can even make this pretty easy with a bulk renaming app such as Renamer. But there’s a better method that works even if you don’t remember the name of the file. 

HoudahSpot is an advanced search app for Mac, letting you combine tons of different search criteria to spot files on your drive, Mail, or any other location on Mac. Don’t remember the name of the file, but remember it’s a PDF? That’s something. Maybe you remember specific words that the file contains — HoudahSpot can trace that too. 

combine tons of different search criteria to spot files on your drive

Tip: If you think about it, we’re always searching for the same stuff — the photos someone sent us on Slack or a PDF report we’ve read a while ago. HoudahSpot allows you to save templates for those searches and trigger them with one click. Go to Templates > Manage templates.

Finally, you can set up favorite locations where you keep different types of files, and keep them at hand. iBoysoft MagicMenu will help you here. This tool expands the macOS right-click menu with quick-access folders. You can also use the menu to quickly move a given file to any location on Mac, or create a new file in a select app — even an empty one!

magic menu

Project shortcuts

The next step is to use workspaces to have quick access to a set of files and resources.

The nature of the macOS system doesn’t particularly lend itself to multitasking. Having to jump between the countless browser tabs open alongside your documents and any impending emails isn’t ideal, especially when you have a long to-do list. The fact that Workspaces allows users to add any resource to the workspace, along with handy widgets like a bookmark bar, makes it easy to work on web-focused projects and to handle online information simultaneously. With a fully customizable platform, Workspaces is built to evolve along with your tasks. If projects are surplus to requirements, the archiving feature stores all your old workspaces into one easily-accessible document, which can be made visible again at any time.

Furthermore, adding new resources couldn’t be easier, with a one-click system.  

workspaces macos

Workspaces is a simple Mac organizer, facilitating and simplifying the art of multitasking. Through a designated 'workspace’, you can access all relevant resources needed for the task in hand – web pages, emails, documents, and more. By saving all the relevant documents to your workspace, you’ll eradicate all that wasted time hunting for files and, with the inbuilt task list, you’ll be able to switch exercises with ease.

Organize your images

We can all appreciate the perils involved in keeping your images organized. From those videos of unforgettable nights out to the endless array of selfies, the camera roll can be a mighty mess. For so many of us, photo hoarders who love collecting and storing photos, keeping them arranged is a near enough impossible task. Or was.

Apple does a pretty good job helping us keep photos organized with Photos and Preview apps. Photos, in particular, has Memories — curated collections of images and videos pulled from your library. You can upload photos one by one or in batch, organize them by folders or albums, and search by places or even faces — Photos recognizes people in your photos. 

One thing that macOS native photo apps miss is a flexible editing tool. Let’s say you want to rename all photos in the collection, resize, fix contrast, etc. With Photos, you’d have to do that in another app and then import into Photos. To avoid the fuss, organize all your media files with Capto

Capto's smart collections

Capto is essentially a video editing app, but it also has a clever organization system and solid editing tools for photos. Once you upload your photos, Capto will automatically put them into smart collections like web snaps, imports, or screencasts, based on the type of file. You can also create your own collections, search by keywords or date, add metadata and comments, and more.

Find and remove duplicate files

You know what’s another way to keep files neatly organized? Delete them! Don’t worry, we don’t offer you to sacrifice some of the important memories (such as your thesis from ten years ago or a pack of ancient photos), we just offer to stop duplicating them. Indeed, if you neve use a duplicate remover, there are tons of file copies on your Mac. 

Duplicates don’t just sit there eating up space, they also make the process of finding the right file really confusing because file copies may be scattered all around your Mac, across different locations, so you never know where to find a specific file. 

Gemini is an effortless duplicate remover that scans your Mac for identical files, and offers to clean them up. Even more, you can find and remove similar files. Think about all the nearly identical nature photos you keep on your device, it’s smart to get rid of some of them.  

remove duplicates gemini

How to use tags to organize files in macOS

Alongside the apps to keep your things organized and easy to find, Mac has its own tagging feature that lets you color code files and folders. You can use this to group your items so that you’re not scrolling through endless lists.

use tags to organize files

Tags work for files and folders stored on your Mac or iCloud account and are easy to add.

How to tag files and folders in macOS

To tag an open file, hold the pointer to the right of the title and click on the arrow, followed by the Tags field. Choose a tag from the list, or enter a new tag.

To tag a file in the Finder or on your Mac desktop, select the item that you want to tag, right-click, and choose a color. If you want to choose a different tag or enter a new tag, click on Tags for additional options.

To tag a newly created file as you save it, click on File > Save and select the Tags field in the Save dialog. Enter a new tag or select one from the list. Items can also be tagged from a Finder window by selecting a file or folder and clicking on the Tags button.

tag files and folders

Tip: It might be difficult to keep in mind what every tag color means. A simple solution is to add your custom tags with names — such as “work,” “personal,” etc. When trying to assign tags, don’t click the color, click Tags and select Create new tag. Type the name of the tag and it will be added to the list.

How to find tagged items in macOS?

Once you’ve tagged your items you can easily find them by opening up a Finder window.

From the finder window, enter the tag name or color in the search field and locate your file from the list. Alternatively, you can ask Siri to find the file for you by asking it to, “Find files with a blue tag” or something similar.

To see every file with a particular tag, you can click on the tag color in the Finder sidebar. You can also choose which tags you want to see located in the sidebar by going to Finder > Preferences and choosing the appropriate tags.

Drag your favourite tags to the area below to make them available for quick use in Finder menus

To sort items by their tag, go to View > Show View Options > Sort by Tags. The files will be arranged for simple viewing by tags. 

How to edit tags in macOS?

To edit a tag that you’ve already created, go to Finder > Preferences > Tags.

From here you’ll be able to change the color by clicking on the color button and selecting a new option and change the name by clicking on the tag’s name.

To add a new tag, click the + button.

How to remove a tag in macOS?

If you want to remove a tag from an item, all you need to do is Control-click the item, click Tags, select the tags that you want to remove, and hit Delete.

Removing a tag from your Mac is equally straightforward. Go to Finder > Preferences > Tags, select the tags that you want to remove and click the button. 

Use Smart Folders

If you want to group files by certain characteristics — file type, date, or name — you can do it with Smart Folders, the macOS native file organization feature. 

Here’s how to create a Smart Folder: 

  1. In Finder, go to File > New Smart Folder
  2. In the Smart Folder, type a certain attribute in the search field (for example, “gif”) 
  3. Choose if you want to group together the files formatted as GIF, or all files that contain the word “gif” in their name
  4. Click the plus button below to add more rules, if needed
  5. Click 'Save’ and name your Smart Folder
  6. Choose the location of the Smart Folder (you can keep it in Finder’s sidebar). 

Smart Folder

After you save a Smart Folder, all the files that meet the rules you’ve set for that folder will be automatically saved to it. 

Merge similar folders

We’ve mentioned you should get rid of identical and similar files. Well, same works for folders! If you have folders with identical names located in different locations, you can merge them to avoid duplicating files across them: 

  1. Press and hold Option while moving one folder to the location that contains a folder with the same name 
  2. In the dialog that appears on the screen, click 'Merge’

merge similar folders

If you want to merge any folders, not just the ones that share the same name, you can merge them using ChronoSync Express

  1. Open the app and add a new synchronization task
  2. Add the two folders you want to sync — one on the left, one on the right
  3. Under 'Operation’ choose 'Synchronize bidirectional’ 
  4. Click 'Synchronize’ in the top toolbar. 

Once they are synced, you can go ahead and delete one of the folders. 

sync folders mac

Keep files and folders in the right places with Setapp

The tips we provide in this article are in fact multiple pieces of one puzzle. In order to have your files well-organized, you need to build a workflow that covers several steps: name your files strategically, create project shortcuts and quick-access locations, remove redundant files regularly, and more. It’s best to tackle the tasks with Setapp, a productivity service that has a tool for each of these tasks — Spotless, Gemini, Workspaces, HoudahSpot, iBoysoft MagicMenu, and more. All of them are free for 7 days with Setapp, so you can give them a test drive without making any committments. 

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