Keeping your computer desktop tidy

When I think of avoiding clutter, I often think of my physical surroundings: the car, the office, my kitchen and my kids’ playroom. However, my computer’s screen — or desktop — also gets pretty messy on a regular basis. What’s more, that clutter can be just as distracting as a physical mess, and hinder my willingness to sit down and work. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. Here’s how I manage digital clutter on my virtual desktop.

Make a Mess As You Work

Much like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy while I work. The time you spend meeting obligations, making ends meet, and fulfilling the 9-to–5 is not the time to get fastidious about the location of every file and folder. Do your job, fling clay, and get stuff done.

At the end of my work day, I’ve typically got screenshots and other images, snippets of text, installers and more all over the desktop. This is perfectly acceptable. Leaving them there for all eternity — or worse, treating the desktop as a filing cabinet — is not.

Process As An Inbox

Most of us have several inboxes in our lives. There’s the physical in tray on your desk, but also email, voice mail, notes from school, and so on. When I sit down to go through those things, I follow the same process each time. Specifically, I ask myself what is this item, what needs to be done about it (if anything) and am I the person to do it? Sorting through the files and folders on my computer desktop requires the same process. Some stuff can be thrown away, others spawn ideas or join existing projects, while others go into long-term storage as reference material. Here’s how I separate the three types:


  1. Screenshots. At work I write, edit and take a lot of screenshots. All of these can go into the trash.
  2. Text snippets. I also paste bits of text into Apple’s Text Edit as a temporary placeholder. These also get trashed.
  3. Installers. Occasionally, I install new software, often for testing purposes. Those installers are unnecessary after a piece of software has been properly installed, and they love to pile up. Off to the trash they go.

In Progress
Occasionally I’ll come across a website that I want to return to, an article I’d like to read during down time, an idea that could spawn or improve a new project or something I’d like to share.

There are many great ways to capture web site addresses for future reference. Pinterest is a popular service, but my favorite is Pinboard. It’s definitely no-frills, and that’s what I like about it. Pinboard costs about $10 to sign up for the service, and offers a place to store your bookmarks that is aways accessible. Multiple computers, smartphones and tablets can all log into your Pinboard account and have access to your saved sites. You can organize your collection with tags, and optionally share select finds with others. Again, I use Pinboard for sites I’ll refer to often.

That collection is different than articles I’d like to read in my free time. There are several great services that offer a super “read-it-later” experience, and my favorites are Instapaper and Pocket. Both store your saved articles for later viewing on a computer, smartphone or tablet. They also strip out the images, ads and so on so that all you get is the article you’re after. Honestly, I like them both and believe you’d be happy with either.

The next category is new ideas and/or information that pertains to a project in progress. This is also where the article takes a geeky turn, though I’ll ease into it slowly.

I like to store ideas, thoughts worth follow-up, etc. in a file format called plain text. Why? My Internet buddy David Sparks explains it beautifully at his site, Mac Sparky:

Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.

Moreover, text is internet friendly. The files are small and can jump among connected devices with poor connections like hopped up Disney faeries. It is really easy to work with your text files on any device from anywhere.

Your computer can read and create plain text files right out of the box. There’s nothing to fiddle with or buy. It just works. Plain text files also act as a nice half-way point before going into your formal project manager. So a folder full of plain text files does it for me.

That’s the non-geek version.

Ideas that require developement go into a piece of Mac software that I love called nvALT. I love nvALT because it’s insanely fast, supports keyboard shortcuts so I don’t have to move my hand to the mouse very often, saving time, and has powerful search capabilities. It syncs to my iPhone and iPad almost instantly, thanks to Dropbox and another app called Simplenote.


Finally, when it comes to long-term storage of reference material, I’m a loyalist to one product. This is information that does not require an action but might be useful in the future (a local theatre’s summer schedule, for example). This goes into Evernote.


First, don’t get distracted by trying to stay neat while you work. That’s counterproductive and will leave you frustrated. At the end of the day, process the stuff that has accumulated on your computer’s screen as you would any other inbox. Decided what a file is, what must be done with it (incubate, throw away, delegate or save for later), and then act accordingly by moving that item to the proper location. You’ll be glad you did.

15 Comments for “Keeping your computer desktop tidy”

  1. posted by Rashelle on

    Great post Dave. I love the analogy you made between working on one’s computer and making pottery. I took a course in pottery once and the number one rule in class was clean everything up…after you finish working! We had to clean our utensils, wheels, catch basins and of course put away the clay.

    I do have one thing to add to the post, not to forget emptying out the trash on your computer desktop on a regular basis. It’s amazing how much stuff can accumulate in that virtual trashcan.

  2. posted by Bren on

    I disagree with saving files to the desktop in the first place. Set up your browser to download to your ‘Documents’ directory by default. Then disable icons on the desktop. In Windows, to do this, just right-click on the desktop, and it should be something like ‘view’ and uncheck ‘show icons’. That’s complete instant and permanent visual clutter elimination! All you need to do now is weed out your ‘Documents’ folder from time to time (I like to do this at the end of the day).

    Rashelle, I hear you about the trash! I just delete files using shift delete. That bypasses the trash so I never have to empty it!

  3. posted by Tiffani on

    Wow, what a great article and analogy. I cant wait to get home and
    clean my desk.

  4. posted by eccoyle on

    I often have to resave a file as a different format solely for the purpose of emailing to someone else so I save these to a “Temp” folder on my desktop. It makes clean-up easier for me because I can just delete everything in the folder at once.

  5. posted by jim on

    i use this program at work and find it very helpful for sorting out various projects etc

    plus the double click to hide all icons is great when sharing my screen on a presentation or what not.

  6. posted by Steve Koterski on

    Good article. Since you use a Mac, I suggest you look at the app Hazel. This app is to files what Mail rules are to emails. You can set Hazel up to move the files from your desktop to either the trash or to a folder. You can also check to see whether a file is at least a day old before doing so.

    One rule I set up for my downloads folder is to assign a color label to files that are less than a week old. Files more than one week old and less than a month, and the label is removed. More than a month old and the file is moved to the trash.

    Hazel is also good for cleaning up excess backup files automatically created by some apps. For one app I use, each backup file was 5MB — and I had around 40 of them accumulated. Now Hazel keeps that under control.

  7. posted by Sabrina on

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. My husband told me about this product and have used it for a few months now and love it especially to assign places for my current activities for clients. =)

    After the current activity is over, I move the file to a more permanent place on my server. The desktop should be used for current projects.

  8. posted by Rob Wilcox on

    Great article and definitely a breath-of-fresh-air-in-the-right-direction. I’ll certainly be taking heed of the ideas given in the article.

  9. posted by Laura on

    Love your desktop icons. I use them too. My genealogy is a four-leaf clover (because I’m part Irish); my personal file is represented by a black sheep, because it’s cute; my household stuff is a castle and my daughter’s stuff is represented by Perry the Platypus (from Phineas & Ferb). My cookbook is a basket of apples.

    I change them around often, just for fun.

  10. posted by purpleBee on

    Very useful for home computers. But not so useful for workplaces with strict data storage rules.

  11. posted by Roberta on

    How do you make/get desktop icons like those and the ones Laura speaks of? Would love to make my desktop more “me.” I use Camouflage on my Mac. It doesn’t help me clean my desktop – it just hides everything so when I’m working on something new , there’s nothing in the background. Thanks for this post – will follow up on many of your suggestions.

  12. posted by [email protected] on

    I love these posts, thank you so much. I mean it! I love instapaper but I have yet to do half of the stuff you mentioned here. SO excited to get started!

  13. posted by Hallie on

    How do you specify where to save screenshots (so they’re not automatically saved to the desktop?) In my case, I have a Mac. Thanks in advance.

  14. posted by Laura on

    @Roberta: Just google “Mac Icons”. Some of the best are at,, etc. Just download the icon to a folder on your desktop. When you want to change the icon, click on the folder you want to change, then go to “File” and scroll down and click “get info”. Now go to your “Mac Icons” folder and choose an icon. Click on that icon, then under “file” click “copy.” Go back to the “get info” area and click on the small icon on the upper left side. The area around it should be outlined in blue. Then go to “file” and click “paste” and your new icon should take the place of the simple file folder that was there. If you have any trouble you can look it up on the internet, which is how I learned. Good luck and have fun!!!

  15. posted by Laura on

    @Hallie ~ I save screenshots all the time. I use the “grab” application, which can be found in the “Utilities” folder in a Mac. I use it so much it is permanently on my dock. I click on “capture” at the top of the screen and then click “selection”, which lets me outline exactly what I want to save. You just move your cursor over the information/photo you want until everything is encased in the “box”. Then, when you save the file, you can specify where you want that particular shot saved. I have several, including Genealogy, Home Decor, Work Ideas, etc that live on my desktop under the umbrella “Laura”.

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