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A cluttered desktop gets cleanI’ve always been known as the messy kid, so it’s no surprise that zillions of random files and folders often litter my desktop. Every time I clear my desktop, it gets congested again a few days later, each icon reminding me how much I suck at organizing. What I lack is a system.

After reading David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, I’ve finally found a system for organization that’s both logical and fun. The book doesn’t give detailed information on how to organize files on the computer, but I’ve adapted his ideas into a system that’s kept my computer desktop pristine. Here’s how I did it:

Setup: Five folders for everything

Five folders to organize all your filesThese folders will contain all of your documents. Once you’ve implemented the system, nothing should touch your desktop again. Create them in your “Documents” folder on the Mac, or your “My Documents” folder on a PC. They’re numbered so that when you arrange the folders by name, they remain in order:

  • “0. Inbox”
    Put unprocessed items that don’t have a place yet in here. This may be items like software installers you’ve downloaded, files sent to you from colleagues, and random text clippings. I numbered this “0” to reinforce the idea of it being a temporary folder. This folder must be emptied everyday, at the end of the day.

  • “1. Actions”
    Put items requiring an action that takes more than 2 minutes in here. This may be items such as forms to fill out, large applications to install and setup, and files to upload.

  • “2. Incubate”
    Put items you aren’t yet ready to do or complete in here. These may be articles you’re thinking of reading, sketches for potential projects, and information about classes you’re thinking about taking.

  • “3. Current Projects”
    Put files related to active projects in here. This folder contains files you’re currently working on as well as reference files for a project. Each project gets it’s own unique folder. For client projects, I organized each project folder with subfolders that map to phases shown on the project schedule. Once the entire project is complete, move it into “4. Archive”

  • “4. Archive”
    Put completed projects, general reference items, and anything else you might want to look at again in here. I have aliases of Mac OS X’s “Music”, “Pictures”, and “Movies” folders in here. I also have an “Archived Projects” folder in here to hold completed projects.

After you’ve created the five folders above, make aliases or shortcuts to them on your desktop. On my Mac, I’ve applied a green Finder label to each folder so they stand out from mounted volumes such as DVDs and hard drives.

Usage: Process, Organize, Review

You’re now all set and ready to clean your desktop. The steps below are adapted from David Allen’s GTD system:

  1. Process
    Put all files and folders (except the five you’ve just created) on your desktop into the “0. Inbox” folder. Other scattered items may be floating around in your “Documents” folder and on your hard drive in random places. Find these, and put these in the “0. Inbox” folder also. Now open up this folder and process them one at a time. Start by asking yoursefl: can I act on this file? If yes:

    • Do it.
      If it takes less than two minutes, just do it.
    • Delegate it.
      If you’re not the right person to do it, then send it to someone who can.
    • Defer it. If it takes more than two minutes to do, but it in “2. Actions.” Or if it’s project-related, put it in “3. Current Projects.”
  2. Organize
    If the file has no immediate action for you to do, you can:

    • Trash it, if you don’t need it
    • Put it in “2. Incubate,” if you’re not ready to deal with it
    • Put it in “4. Archive,” as a reference for later
  3. Review
    The most important part of the system is setting up reviews for you to process your inbox and organize your files:

    • Daily
      Process your “0. Inbox” as often as you like throughout the day, but do it at least twice a day: once around noon and again at day’s end. You must empty it at the end of the day, so that your inbox is nice and fresh in the morning.

    • Weekly
      At the end of the week, move completed projects in “3. Current Projects” into “4. Archive.” Go through your “2. Incubate” folder and decide if you’re ready to act on any of the files, following the steps you would to process your “0. Inbox.” This is the time to delete or archive anything you thought you might do, but for some reason decided not to do. If you’re still waiting for information from someone to act on a file, remind the person.

    • Monthly
      At the end of the month, go through your “5. Archive” folder and prune any files you don’t think you’ll ever need again. Backup your archive to DVD or external hard drive. I’ve had computers and hard drives die on me several times, so I recommend you backup to DVDs and store them in non-scratchable place.

Your desktop should now be clutter-free, saving you from the visual onslaught of icons and preserving your sanity. Because each icon on the desktop takes up some bit of RAM, you might also notice your computer running faster.

Additional Tips

  • Accessing the inbox via QuicksilverQuickSilver
    If you have Quicksilver (which you should) you can quickly access your five folders by bringing up the Quicksilver window, and typing the numbers “0” to “5.”

  • Downloads
    Set your web browsers, FTP, and other sharing applications to download files to “0. Inbox” instead of the desktop.

  • Mac OS X Finder window sidebar
    For quick access, make shortcuts of the five folders by dragging them into the sidebar.


Have a better way to keep a desktop clean? Please share in the comments!


  • Joe

    gravatarMay 10, 2008
    12:29 pm

    Anyone know a way to display the count of items in a folder on the folder icon in XP. I like this idea, but unfortunatley not using a mac.

  • D. Rich

    gravatarMay 15, 2008
    3:26 pm

    Some more ideas are at http://www.organizeyourfiles.com

  • Malte

    gravatarJun 8, 2008
    11:33 pm

    Use Catagories instead, makes it much easier to find files. Also use software to automate the cleaning and organizing. There is Hazel for the Mac and Clutterkiller for Windows.

    Much easier when the software does it for you. Just cleaned and organized my desktop, this very minute ;-)

  • Upper

    gravatarAug 25, 2008
    7:50 pm

    Does anyone know about going to Finder and View but Clean Up is grayed out — unusable/not responsive. What can I do? Or is situation hopeless except to apply massive suggestion above? I am looking for a quick short term solution to start with. My screen looks exactly like the messy illustration, only wi lots more files loaded one on top of the other in the upper right position…. Thanks. humaniores@gmail.com

  • Omar

    gravatarNov 4, 2008
    11:48 am

    It must be just me but I cant get the script that displays the item count in the folder name to work. I’m kind of new to this. i copied and pasted the script, gave it a name, saved it in the script editor.

    Right clicked the folder. Enabled Folder actions. Then right clicked again and configured folder actions. I then attached the script by browsing to it. http://screencast.com/t/Uh16ZDCzHs2

  • Mobile Browser

    gravatarDec 23, 2008
    11:36 pm

    Fantastic way of organising it once and for all.. but we still need to follow a system for reviewing everything that goes in and out. It’s always not following the system that makes everything into a mess again!

  • Desktop

    gravatarMar 25, 2009
    11:14 am

    That looks like a pretty slick, foolproof technique to keeping a desktop uncluttered. I too find myself in a flood of documents and it makes it very hard to think. This will work good for me, thanks!

  • Ian Godfrey

    gravatarApr 7, 2009
    7:21 am

    Thanks you, it took me many hours to sort my documents, which date back 7 or 8 years to 2001/2 at the earliest.. it was worth it, and now I think it’ll be easier to keep them in order!

  • nothu

    gravatarSep 3, 2009
    3:46 pm

    This is stupid idea, all you have to do is drag your items from the desktop to the sidebar, apps, docs, music, movies, etc, no need for anything else.

  • Mark Teeth

    gravatarSep 27, 2009
    5:42 am

    I will implement this technique immediately. My desktop is so full of trash that it is really time to take action. Thank you for this great tips.

  • Vik

    gravatarDec 22, 2009
    10:05 pm

    This article is great. Ive been struggling with folder structure in general, for both design, development, and personal data. I did this in three or four (painstaking but well worth it) hours.

    Looks like a few of us have found it more than three years after the fact. This one’s even more rlevant now IMO, and a good candidate for a repost.

  • Babs

    gravatarDec 31, 2009
    3:01 pm

    For someone like me who is not computer savvy at all, these instructions aren’t detailed enough (yeah, I know, but there are still people like me who don’t know a thing) i.e. pull files into folders, or makes shortcuts. Don’t know what that means.

  • Alex

    gravatarJan 8, 2010
    12:07 pm

    I agree, repost it for the sake of ‘them’. I just found this article and finally, I have come to a solution to my file organizational woes!! Thank you.

  • Dave

    gravatarFeb 11, 2010
    8:07 pm

    I rarely comment online, but for this I just had to.

    THANK YOU for posting this.

    What can I say…this helped me finally go through all that crud that’s piled up on my computer, sorting it into a system that works for me. (I’m familiar with the David Allen book and system, my real life wouldn’t be manageable without it, but I haven’t had the balls to attempt the same for my digital life.

    Thank you!!!

    Repost this baby…the most useful article I’ve read this week!!!


  • DAL

    gravatarAug 25, 2010
    12:21 pm

    Note to Barb, you can save alot of paper by using a utility like CutePDF or PDFCreator to print your emails and other items. It sits in your printer list just like a physical printer but redirects the output to a PDF file. Back them up on a USB stick and you can take ever message with you in an instant.