Ask LH: How Can I Get My Messy Desktop Under Control?

Ask LH: How Can I Get My Messy Desktop Under Control?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a messy desktop. It has become so bad that there are now files on top of files. I periodically throw various documents into folders to try to clean it up, but then I just have disorganised folders and the mess comes back. How can I get my desktop under control?

Sincerely, Desktop Disaster

Dear DD,

It looks like you have a few problems contributing to the mess. Disorganisation problems generally occur because you’ve found a single repository for several items. At one point you realised this space was a convenient location for your documents, photos, screenshots and so on. If you were just dumping text files onto your desktop, you might not have such a problem. Before we get into how to solve this issue, let’s outline the various problems:

  • Text Documents: When you create a text document, your first inclination is to save it on the desktop.
  • Screenshots: Your screenshots are automatically saved to the desktop if you use a Mac, so they can easily become part of the clutter by default.
  • Web Links: You save web link files to the desktop, which creates a series of very unnecessary files and actually takes longer than many alternatives. We’ll talk about some of these a bit later, but don’t forget you can just use the bookmarking tool built into your web browser.
  • Photos, Videos and Other Media: You drag media you want to save onto your desktop, but there are much better places to save these files that will make them easier to find and view.
  • Random Folders: You keep regular folders on the desktop that have no specific purpose.
  • Folders for Organisation : Your folders, which you’re trying to use for organisational purposes, are not specific.

Step 1: Declare Desktop Bankruptcy

The first step is the easiest and will give you immediate relief. Create a new folder, called “Old Desktop”, and put everything on your desktop into it. Leave it in there so that it is the only item visible (outside of your hard drive or anything else that shows up automatically). Now you have a clean desktop. Without more work, it isn’t going to stay that way, but it helps to have the overwhelming mess out of sight while you work to make your desktop more than a glorified rubbish bin.

Step 2: Create a Desktop Organisation Plan That Actually Works


To keep yourself organised, you need a little structure to guide you. I use two systems: one for Dropbox, and one for my desktop. You need to come up with a specific system that meets your needs and can evolve over time. Let’s start by looking at the core items you should have for a well-organised desktop.

Start by creating the following folders:

  • The Dump: Anything you’re currently working on goes in this folder.
  • The Landfill: Anything you’ve finished working on and want to archive goes here. Archiving can involve copying them to an external hard drive that isn’t a part of your computer. (Many web hosts offer unlimited storage for a low monthly fee, and you can just upload the contents of your landfill to a private directory on their server. This gives you online access to all the files whenever you need them, and you don’t have to keep them on your machine.)
  • Incoming Media: Photos, music and videos that you need to sort go here.

Get in the habit of saving your work to The Dump rather than the desktop. At the end of each day (or periodically during it) you should decide what should stay, and what can be archived or sorted. To help you get into the habit of saving to The Dump instead of your desktop, it helps to set it as the default folder for new windows and save/open dialogs. To do this on a Mac, go to the Finder and choose Preferences (or press Command+,). In the General tab, find the drop down menu under “New Finder windows show” and use it to select The Dump. Windows users can right-click on the Windows Explorer icon in the taskbar, then right-click on the Windows Explorer icon in the jump list, click on Properties and head to the Shortcut tab. From there, just fill in the “Start in” field so it contains the path to The Dump.

Once you’ve got this all set up, you have a basic sorting method on your desktop. Now you need to set up some other helpful apps to help you avoid sorting so many things in the first place.

Step 3: Use Apps and Services to Put Desktop Clutter Elsewhere


There are many apps out there that can keep track of the things you create and find on the web. They can help you keep clutter off your desktop, sort the information you give them and search for anything you can’t find outright. You should make as much use of these tools as possible.

  • Evernote: Evernote is an everything bucket, which is generally not the sort of thing we like. But if you use Evernote for specific purposes, it can be extremely helpful for organising. If you want to save photos, text or anything else on the web, you can use Evernote’s web clipping browser extension to send content directly to any of your Evernote notebooks.
  • Skitch: Windows users don’t have the problem of screenshots getting saved to their desktop by default, so this section is only really applicable to Mac users. Skitch is our favourite screenshot tool and it integrates right into Evernote. This means you can send your screenshots to Evernote rather than to the desktop, and you have more control over what you capture on your screen. If you just want to change where your screenshots are saved, open up Terminal (in Your Hard Drive — > Applications — > Utilities) and enter this bit of code:

    defaults write location ~/Desktop/Screenshots

    This will save all your screenshots to a “Screenshots” folder on your desktop. If you want to save them to a different location, just change the path (~/Desktop/Screenshots) to the location of the folder you want to use. If you’re not sure of that path, drag a folder onto the Terminal window and it’ll tell you exactly what it is.

  • Simplenote: It’s a great, free, plain text note-syncing web app that has great desktop apps for all platforms. It’s the best place to store your plain text notes and retrieve them easily. I highly recommend using this for to-do lists, text snippets, links, thoughts or any other piece of text you want to remember. There is very little organisation required as you can search for the contents of any note you create and have it in front of you in seconds.
  • Instapaper, Pocket, or Kippt: Instapaper and Pocket are great for saving web articles you want to read later. They’re also great at putting them in a more readable format. Kippt is a service that helps you save more than just articles for viewing later. If you want to share those things with friends, you may prefer Kippt. (Most of these services have mobile apps as well.)
  • Belvedere and Hazel: Belvedere (Windows) and Hazel (Mac) are apps that can help you automate the cleaning of your desktop. You can follow these instructions, and they’ll help you clean up any remaining clutter on your desktop. This isn’t going to be as exact and perfect as sorting everything yourself, but it can help while you’re working to change your messy habits.

Software isn’t going to automatically make you neater, but it can give you more suitable locations for your stuff than your desktop. It’ll take practice and time, but stick with it. These apps and services can make organisation much easier.

Step 4: Start Sortin’


We’ve finished all the fun steps, so now it’s time to tackle that folder you dumped all your files into at the start. This will not be fun, but now that you have a bunch of sorting folders on your desktop, you’ll know where to put your stuff. Presumably, you also have other folders on your hard drive for specific types of files, such as the defaults in your home directory that contain photos, music, video and other items. Also, you may find that the new apps and services you set up in the last section are great places to store some items.

You can speed up the sorting with shortcuts. If you’re on Windows, use AutoHotkey to move files with a keyboard shortcut (here’s an example). If you’re on a Mac, you can do the same thing with Quicksilver. (Read our guide to Quicksilver Triggers to learn how to do this.)

Once you’re done sorting, you’re well on your way to a more organised desktop. You’ll need to keep working at being tidy for it to become a habit, but keep evolving your methods of organisation so they work better for you then you should get there in no time.

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


  • i made a folder called desktop, jammed all my shit in there and delete it every couple of months. of course i don’t actually keep important files on there just temporary stuff

  • Create New Folder. Select all other folders. Move to New Folder. Done!

    It’s the desktop equivalent of shoving everything in the wardrobe then putting an elastic band on it so it doesn’t all spill out 😉

  • I have two folders on my desktop, Inbox And Outbox. All downloads and new files for work go in there, end of the day sort it out, transfer stuff i have done into the Outbox, which also contains my Drive folder, all media gets picked up by my external Hard Drive and gets transfered. I then put the rest in Trash or Drive. Problem Solved.

  • I love changing wallpaper so I hate having a messy desktop. So I found something called ObjectDock, it’s similar to apple’s icon display, which means the icons are all at the bottom and they dissapear when you don’t need them. I find putting all the every day icons on the dock then saving all files elsewhere or deleting them a good thing.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!