spring cleaning the documents folder

March 28, 2008 | Leave a comment

This is part of an ongoing series called Blinders where I explore some of the ways I streamline my computer workflows to minimize distractions.

Spring seems to be reluctant to make it’s way to the Pacific Northwest this year. I decided to coax it along with a good spring cleaning in my documents folder.

Documents folders can get messy. Fast. I have over 2000 files nested within my documents folder. That’s after a recent purging — it only includes files that have been accessed in some way in the last six months.

A few years ago, I decided to get serious about organizing my documents. A handful of broad general folders contained layers of nested folders getting more specific at each level. It was working. I could find most any file, assuming I was patient enough to navigate through subfolder after subfolder to find it. The problem is, it was cumbersome. Sometimes the logic I used to save the file wasn’t the same I was using to retrieve it — I would have to rifle through a few folders to find a needed document. Thank goodness for spotlight.

With tags providing such a handy way to organize ideas in Yojimbo, I decided it was time to find a way to do the same thing with my documents folder. I’ve developed a system this is working well using Leap and Hazel. Here’s a rundown of what I did:

  • Archiving – First off, I made a new folder called “Archives” in my home folder. Any folders for projects that I’m no longer working on got dragged into archives so I don’t have to see them in Documents. Then, I set up a Hazel rule to move any files that haven’t been accessed in the last six months to be moved into archives. This made it a whole lot easier to focus only on the files that matter to me now.
  • Tagging – Considering it is a version 1 release, I’m happy with the interface Leap offers for tagging and sorting files. (Watch their guided tour to see how it works.) I haven’t completely abandoned folders, because Leap allows me to see all files in subfolders. I was quickly able to tag all files within subfolders. Getting many files tagged quickly was a good start. Then, I sorted by tag (see the image below) to see which files still needed tags. Within half an hour, everything was at least broadly tagged, and life was good. I can quickly sort through tags and find a needed file within a few seconds. Now, it is just a matter of setting aside a few moments every few days to tag any untagged files in Leap. Here’s my motto about tagging: “If you tag, tag like crazy.” The more tags you use just make it all the easier to narrow down what you might be looking for.
  • Sorting – The shortcoming of this system is that I’m still not able to use Leap to replace the Finder dialogue in programs. For instance, if I’m trying to place an image in Illustrator, I still need to be able to navigate to that image. This is why folders still matter — having hundreds or thousands of files in my base documents folder would be overwhelming. Hello Hazel! Hazel can automatically look at file properties and sort files into folders based on those properties. Leap places its tag in the spotlight comments field, which Hazel is able to use as a sorting criteria. Hazel looks at tags for files and moves them into appropriate subfolders to help keep things sorted.
  • Smart foldering – A key benefit of using tags is that I can find a group of files that might be sorted across multiple folders. For example, any projects that I am currently at work on get a current tag. I have a smart folder called “Current Documents” which helps me see the handful of files that are in process — right now, it has two files in it, so I can quickly get to something I need to get to work on with minimal distraction.

This system might not be best for you, but I hope it gives you some ideas on how you can do some spring cleaning of your own. Feel free to share some of your own ideas for creating a manageable documents folder in the comments.

And for the record, I’m a paid and happy customer of both Leap and Hazel. I haven’t been compensated to promote either. I did get both of them heavily discounted through the likes of MacZot and MUPromo, so keep your eyes open there. The makers of Leap have stated that Leap will be discounted at MacZot by the end of this month.