Chances are your computer's desktop and other folders aren't cluttered because you like it that way, but because you don't want to spend time organising every file that hits your hard drive. Automate your file organisation and stay clutter-free without the effort.
(Awesome Belvedere logo by our good friends at What Cheer).
Few people are disorganised because it's their preference. But organisation takes time, and however little time it may be, it's generally easier to do nothing than to take a few seconds to file something away in the appropriate folder. Easier, that is, until your desktop ends up looking like this:
(Photo by awjmfotos).
Sure, you could work harder to improve your digital organisation skills, but if that hasn't worked so far, let's take a closer look at how you can automatically clean and organise your desktop.
Automatically Clean Up Your Hard Drive with Belvedere and Hazel
To aid you in your automated, self-cleaning PC, may we suggest you check out one of two applications: Belvedere for Windows users and Hazel if you're on a Mac. Belvedere is completely free and open source (and was, in fact, developed in house at Lifehacker). At $US22, Hazel costs a pretty penny, but it works like a charm and offers a 14-day free trial if you need some convincing.
Apart from the Windows/Mac divide, Belvedere and Hazel are very similar apps. Belvedere was, in fact, inspired by Hazel, so anything you can do on Belvedere, you should also be able to do in Hazel. (Hazel is easily the more fully featured application.)
With that in mind, I'll focus on Belvedere for the rest of this post, but remember that if you're a Mac user, most of the same ideas should still apply with Hazel. In fact, a few years back we even detailed how to set up a self-cleaning Mac with Hazel, so you can also jump over there for some ideas.
These applications work on a pretty basic principle: Once installed, launch the utility (Belvedere sits in your Windows system tray; Hazel installs as a preference pane in your System Preferences), then get the ball rolling by adding a new folder you'd like to monitor, clean and organise. (Click the '+' button like in the screenshot above.) Common choices include your desktop, Downloads and Documents folders.
Then create new rules for how you want to organise files in each folder. (Select the folder you just added in the left sidebar, then click the '+' button under the Rules section.) You'll be met with the Create a Rule window, where your options for setting up rules are pretty extensive; you can match files based on file name, extension, size, modified date, last opened date and date created, and you can create any combination of these criteria to get laser-precise with matching rules. When files match rules you've set up, you can choose to move, rename, delete, copy, open or send the file to your Recycle Bin.
It's all the ingredients of better hard drive organisation, but it's also a little confusing, so lets take a look at a few example uses.
Move Common File Types to Appropriate Folders
If you download a lot of content from the web, chances are your Downloads folder is overflowing with images, video, installers, documents, ZIP files and tons more — leaving you with an absolutely unwieldy and completely disorganised folder. If that sounds familiar — whether your Downloads folder, Documents folder, or desktop is the offending repository — try setting up rules to automatically file away common files to pre-defined folders.
The above rule will automatically file images with PNG, JPG, GIF, JPEG, RAW and BMP file types to a dedicated Images folder. (Note: When you're using Belvedere's "one of" rules, separate various options with a comma and no space.) If you take a lot of screenshots, you could set up something similar for filing old screenshots to an Archived Screenshots folder.
To take it further, you could set up similar rules for moving common video file types to your video folder, Word documents to your Documents folder, and so on.
Get Rid of Unnecessary Desktop Shortcuts
Despite keeping a keen eye on the requisite checkboxes, it seems like every time you install a new application, the installer places another link you don't want on your desktop. That's clutter you just don't need. Try setting up a rule that sends .lnk shortcut files to your Recycle Bin so that even when the occasional link slips by, you don't have to worry about it cluttering up your desktop.
Regularly Clean Out Old, Unused Files
Most of the stuff we download — or the stuff that ends up cluttering our desktops — is probably important when we first put it there, but what about after three weeks? A month? A year?
Consider setting up a rule to monitor your common folders for those old, unused files, and send them to your Recycle Bin (e.g. files you haven't opened in over three months):
Moving files around is one thing, but If you're worried that a rule you've set up might accidentally end up deleting a file you need, you can vet your rules before you set them loose in a couple of ways.
First, before you set a new rule into motion, be sure to click the Test button to see what files match your rule. If something matches your rule that shouldn't your rule may need a few more tweaks.
Second, if you don't like the idea of Belvedere moving around, copying and deleting files, just tick the Confirm Action checkbox in the Rule Options. Before Belvedere takes any action on matching items, it'll prompt you to green light any action.
Finally, if you're a serious digital pack rat, you can always create a catchall Archive folder somewhere on your hard drive to file away the stuff that doesn't really have a place but is taking up valuable place on your desktop.
Empty Your Recycle Bin on a Schedule
If you're obsessive about keeping your Recycle Bin clean (at the very least Lifehacker writer Whitson Gordon is seriously concerned with keeping his Bin clean), click the Recycle Bin tab in Belvedere's main window, tick the Allow Belvedere to manage my Recycle Bin checkbox, then choose an interval for emptying it out. (I like to take out the trash once a week.)
Add Downloaded Music to iTunes
If you're an iTunes user, I recently detailed how to use Belvedere to automatically add any song you download to your iTunes library, so for more details, check out that post. In a nutshell, you're going to monitor your Downloads folder, BitTorrent downloads and other common spots for new MP3s and other common music file types, then you'll move those files to the folder that iTunes watches for new music. That rule will look something like:
This guide really just scratches the surfaces of ways you can use apps like Belvedere and Hazel to keep your desktop and folders squeaky clean — we didn't even get into more advanced multi-part rules (you can get very specific, like deleting PDFs you haven't opened in two weeks that also contain "Draft" somewhere in the filename) — so if you've used one of the apps in the past or just have a few ideas of your own for how you might put them to use, please share in the comments.