Cutting desktop clutter, synchronising desktops on all your Macs
Desktop clutter is the bane of everyone’s life. All those little files and pictures just seem to multiply over time and it’s often impossible to find anything. I’ve learned my lessons over many years and I now seek to keep my desktop pristine and minimalistic. It’s also more efficient. When you think about it, an overflowing computer desktop is just like an untidy desk with loads of papers and files strewn around. Some people think it makes them look busy but, in reality, it makes them less efficient.
Over the years I’ve evolved a personal solution to keeping things tidy. There are other ways to do it, but mine works well and has been tested over time. I now have peace of mind and am sure in the knowledge that my the desktop of my on-the-road MacBook is identical to that on the powerhouse iMac back in the office.
My first requirement for desktop nirvana is Dropbox. In theory you can use any cloud service; it’s just that I am most familiar with Dropbox and it does the job reliably and without fuss.
I’ve written about Dropbox many times but I remain convinced that it provides the best synchronisation system you can get. Some systems major on backup but fall down on simple file synchronisation over multiple machines. Dropbox does everything well and it is an essential part of my desktop solution.
I store all my data in Dropbox, other than the main photo database and data handled by proprietary cloud services such as Apple’s iCloud and OmniGroup’s OmniPresence. These are specialist services but all day-to-day filing goes through Dropbox. All I have to do is ensure that I have a suitable storage plan.
Quite apart from the advantages of Dropbox in the specific area of desktop de-cluttering, the principle of keeping all current data in the cloud is important to anyone running more than one computer. In the old days stuff was all over the place and much preparation had to go into copying stuff for use on the road. Now all this is in the past.
I pay Dropbox for 200GB of storage and it is worth every penny. I seldom use more than 60 percent of this ceiling, but it is always useful to have a margin to play with. For documents, spreadsheets, selected photographs, application data files and suchlike, Dropbox is supreme. Not only is synchronisation flawless, allowing you to view the same data over several computers, it is intuitive and safe. If you suffer a computer or disk loss, Dropbox always rides to the rescue.
As a result of this reliability, Dropbox is the best helpmate in reducing desktop clutter.
The first principle is to use folders on the desktop, rather than a myriad of individual files. Files do pop up on the desktop, from downloads and other sources, but it is a good discipline to move them to folders as soon as possible.
Yet all those data folders on my desktop are not what they seem. They are in fact alias folders (which you can identify by the black arrow in the bottom left corner).
It is vital to use alias folders rather than actual folders because storing large amounts of data on the desktop is definitely not recommended. It can slow down your computer dramatically. To keep things simple and ensure your computer runs as fast as possible, populate your desktop entirely with "empty" alias folders.
To create alias folders do this:
Go to the Dropbox folder, choose a specific folder, right click and choose “make alias”. A second icon, suffixed with “alias”, will appear next to the original folder in Dropbox. Then simply drag this alias folder to your desktop. It can be renamed on the desktop, without breaking the link. At the very least I remove the superfluous “alias” suffix.
I even create an alias for the entire Dropbox folder so I have instant access from the desktop. As for renaming, just be careful you don't forget the name of the original Dropbox folder. If you do, right click on the alias icon and select Get Info which will tell you the source folder.
All this means that on the desktop I have what appear to be folders full of data that can be accessed directly. Only this data isn’t there; the folders are simply empty links towards the real data in Dropbox. My example desktop, with all those folders apparently brimming with data, takes up little more than 9MB of storage. Check the size of your desktop by going to Finder and right-click/Get Info on the Desktop folder. I guarantee you will have a shock. If it’s more than 20Mb you need to do something about it.
The beauty of this arrangement is that whatever you place in one of these spoof folders is synchronised via Dropbox with your other computers. I am currently on the road but I know that everything I add to any of my MacBook desktop folders will appear within minutes on the desktop of my main machine back in the UK. Any individual files left on the desktop will not be synchronised, of course, so this is a good incentive to file away as soon as possible.
Once you’ve grasped the logic and supreme simplicity of this arrangement it is a small step to reproducing those alias folders on your second Mac. The result is that you enjoy the same desktop layout and, crucially, exactly the same content on both machines.
The first icon on any Mac desktop under my control is the Macintosh HD. Call me old fashioned; this is no longer a default setting on OS X but I still prefer quick access to the full disk contents without having to open Finder first. This is always one of the first mods I make when I get a new computer. To do this, go to finder, then Finder Menu/Preferences and select the disc icons you wish to appear on the desktop. I know I can access the computer disc simply by pressing shift-command-C but I’m just used to seeing it there on the desktop. It is somehow comforting.
The other icons are all aliases of similarly named folders within Dropbox. Note that for the purposes of illustration I have enlarged the icons so you can easily identify them. Normally I shrink the folders into one column. (To do this, right click anywhere on the desktop and choose View Options, icon size).
What folders you choose and how you name them is highly individual and the examples below are simply what I find works for me. I am listing them merely as an example of what is possible. Your choice will be different but the principles remain.
- BloxPix: This is a folder for storing all the past pictures I have used in MacFilos. I can scroll through and find old content easily. When preparing a blog post I invariably end up with several picture files sitting on the desktop. After uploading them I drag the files to the BlogPix folder alias where they are uploaded to Dropbox.
- Deskref: This holds all those files that one usually feels obliged to leave on the desktop in case of future need. Its a sort of etcetera folder. In this folder they are out of sight, thus reducing clutter, but more importantly are also on your other Mac(s) in case of need. True, they are also out of mind, so it's a good idea to do some periodic housekeeping. Every week or so I trawl through this folder and trash stuff I will never need again. If you wish, you can use Hazel to sweep this folder periodically and delete files that have not been accessed for a specified time. Hazel can also run other housekeeping tasks on your Dropbox folders. But best to run these Hazel tasks on just one machine, preferably your main computer.
- Dropbox: An alias to the full Dropbox folder. Do not make the mistake of locating the Dropbox folder itself on the Desktop because it will disastrously slow down the computer.
- Export: All photos exported from Lightroom go into this folder initially. I export into a named project sub-folder which I specify in the Lightroom export dialog box. After use I drag the folders to the Photos alias folder. Again, the content is available on all my Macs.
- Inbox: This is the temporary holding place for all data sent from the estimable Fujitsu Scansnap scanner. Every bit of paper that crosses my desk is scanned and ends up in the Inbox folder. I try to operate a paperless office and the only bottleneck is at the shredder, something I hate using. Every week I open my archive system of choice, DevonThink Pro, and import the entire contents of the Inbox, leaving it empty. DevonThink Pro performs OCR which means I can then easily search for material, whether bank statements, bills, reservations or general correspondence.
- Photos: It’s impractical to store a whole photo database such as mine, which runs to several terabytes, on a cloud server such as Dropbox. Not only would this involve an unacceptable amount of traffic (especially on a portable computer when away from home), it can be costly. There are cheaper backup cloud solutions for large photo databases (in addition to local and off-site backup, of course). My Photos folder in Dropbox contains project files full of edited and rated shots which I have used for various purposes, including this blog. They are thus easily accessible for future use without the need to search Lightroom.
- Travel: Here I keep all my flight, train and hotel bookings and anything related to travel. Within the folder is a “completed” subfolder to record past trips. I like to keep this folder handy in case I have to delve into it at an airport checkin desk or other inconvenient location.
By adhering to the principle of desktop folders rather than files, I immediately cut down the clutter to the bare minimum. Yet I can still find stuff more easily and quickly than I could if I had to trawl through hundreds of files on the desktop. I also have the advantage that the desktop on my office iMac and my portable MacBook look identical and contain exactly the same information. Any housekeeping performed on the folders of one desktop is immediately reflected on the desktop of the other machine.
I have seen some cluttered desktops in my time. Sometimes no housekeeping has taken place for years and almost the entire screen is taken up with icons. Not only is it distracting and confusing, it also slows down the computer more than you would think possible. My system is not new, certainly not unique, but it is something I have evolved over years. It means that I am in full control, whether sitting in the office or perched in an hotel in Timbuktu with my MacBook.