Get Your Messy Computer Desktop Organized Once and for All

Get Your Messy Computer Desktop Organized Once and for All

We all spend a lot of time looking at our computer desktop, in between opening up programs and switching between browser windows, and it can often become a dumping ground for all sorts of miscellany: shortcuts, downloads, screenshots, documents, archives, and much more.

As it’s so easy to access, everything from meme templates to financial reports can find their way on to the desktop—but as time goes on you might find yourself struggling to find (or even losing) the files you need that are stored there. What’s more, the desktop can become rather unsightly, with your wallpaper of choice covered up by icons.

If you feel your desktop has become too much of a mess to be useful, here are some ideas for cleaning it up. Just like a tidy office or home, a tidy desktop can boost your mood as well as your productivity.

General desktop tips

One approach to tidying up your desktop is to simply jump in and start deleting everything you don’t need any more—which might be more than you think. Remember that the recycle bin on Windows or the trash can on macOS are there as safety nets, if you erase something that you later realize you actually needed.

If you’re sure you need the files, folders, and shortcuts you’ve accumulated on the desktop, you can move them elsewhere by dragging and dropping them into other folders (or using the Ctrl+X/Cmd+X and Ctrl+V/Cmd+V cut and paste keyboard shortcuts). Organizing files isn’t exactly the most fun you can have on your desktop or laptop, but it can save you a significant amount of time and stress.

A temporary desktop folder can help.

Something that can be helpful in terms of keeping the desktop tidy is to create a single folder on it for temporary files: It’s still easily accessible from the desktop, but it means the screen isn’t covered with thumbnail icons. Only save something there if you know you only need it for a short amount of time—a setup program downloaded from the internet, for example, or an image you’ll edit then upload.

Then, on a semi-regular basis, delete everything in the folder—you don’t need to go through the files one by one, because you know you wouldn’t have saved anything in there if it was really important. For files that are important, make sure you take an extra second or two to save them in another location, rather than the desktop.

The Windows desktop

You do get a few tools built into Windows for keeping the desktop organized (and for organizing the windows above it, with snap layouts). Right-click on a blank area of the desktop, choose View, and you can have the desktop icons aligned to a grid (with some manual control), automatically arranged in a grid (with no manual control), or hidden altogether (which is burying rather than solving the problem of a messy desktop, really).

That should get you some way to a tidier desktop, especially if you combine it with spending a few minutes deleting and moving files. Of course, you can move files lying on the desktop to one of the folders on the desktop, simply by dragging and dropping them on top of the folder thumbnail.

Right-click to find sorting and viewing options.

Right-click on a blank area of the desktop, choose Sort by, and you’re able to change the order of the files on your desktop: They can be sorted by Name, Size, Item type, or Date modified. If you’re looking to delete files from your desktop, and want to know which are the biggest or the oldest, then this can help.

As you would expect with Windows, there are plenty of third-party tools around to help you spruce up the look of your desktop. One of the tools that’s definitely worth a look is Portals. It’s free to use, though some features require a license key: The developer only asks for a voluntary donation for the license key, but do pay a reasonable amount if you can afford it and find the program useful.

Portals helps you keep the desktop tidy.

Portals places windows to other folders on your desktop, so you can easily drag files you want to keep to particular folders, while deleting the rest. These windows can be customized in terms of their style and position, and even adding just a couple of them can make a big difference to how well your desktop is organized.

Then there’s Fences from Stardock, which will set you back $US9.99 a year, but comes with a free trial. With Fences, everything stays on your desktop, but all your icons get sorted into more manageable floating windows—not unlike the folders you can create on smartphone home screens.

The macOS desktop

Right-click on a blank part of the macOS desktop to bring up a list of options for getting the icons on the desktop better arranged: Clean Up will organize everything into a clean grid, and Clean Up By lets you set some kind of order for the grid (icons can be sorted by date or name, for instance).

Those are one-off sorting options that still give you some flexibility, but the Sort By menu gives you a more rigid structure for your desktop going forward. Files can be organized using a variety of criteria, from the file type to the file size, and you can enable the Snap to Grid option if you want to keep everything locked in rows and columns.

Stacks keeps your files in … stacks.

Pick Use Stacks from the right-click menu, and macOS will group files on the desktop in virtual piles (or stacks): All the images on top of each other, all the PDFs on top of each other, and so on. It’s a quick and easy way of keeping everything on your desktop organized, though it makes it a bit harder to see what files you’ve got.

Click on a stack to expand it and manage the files individually. If you choose Show View Options from the right-click menu, you can switch to stacks based on the dates or the tags attached to files, and configure a number of other useful settings for organizing the desktop—including text size, icon size, and grid spacing.

Right-click to bring up view options.

Your macOS desktop should now be looking a lot neater, but you can also get some help from a third-party utility or two if you need it. Spotless is one of the better programs out there in this field: It’s able to organize files all across macOS, not just the desktop, and it uses rules and automations to keep everything tidy on your behalf.

So, for example, you might have music files automatically dropped into one desktop folder, and document files dropped into another. Actions taken by Spotless can be previewed and approved, or you can leave the program to get on with it behind the scenes. Spotless will set you back $US24.99, although you can test it for free for a week.

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