6 Tips for Getting to Desktop Zero


Many readers are likely familiar with the Getting Things Done craze of the past few years. This task oriented methodology has spawned a system for managing the chore that is email, with battle-cries of “Inbox Zero!” resounding around the Internet.

While I’m not exactly an “inbox zero” kind of guy (close enough I suppose), I have found that the concept of “desktop zero” rings quite true with me. If you’ve ever seen a computer desktop covered in icons, we’re talking about the antithesis here. Read on to find out some compelling reasons to strive for desktop zero, and some tool tips on how you can easily achieve desktop zen.

When I was young I bought a coin dish from a garage sale that read, “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.” (I added it to my already over-cluttered desktop in my room.) While I still find humor in that memory, the computer nerd in me is pretty particular about my digital workspace being neat and tidy. Just as inbox zero brings clarity, closure, and a sense of accomplishment to each day, so can keeping your computer’s desktop free of clutter and unnecessary files or folders.

A Clean Starting Place

I find it quite satisfying to boot up my machine, and have nothing but a hard drive “cluttering” my desktop. It feels like turning to a clean page in a Moleskin, or using a full-screen text application — there are just no (or very few) distractions to getting started with your work. Not to mention that if you need to drop a file there temporarily for quick use before deleting, it will be easy to find when not amongst dozens of other items.

A Sense of Organization

I’m quite particular about a sound data hierarchy to file things under, yet another place where my physical and digital lives are at odds with one another. If my desktop is littered with random files (email attachments, web downloads, the latest file lazily saved to the desktop to file later) and folders, it just means they aren’t in the place that I should be looking for them in the long term. Though on occasion I’ll relent and (temporarily) drop an alias (‘shortcut’ for those of you new to Mac) of a folder on the desktop if it’s for a project I’m working in the majority of the time. At least that way, stuff it still in its proper place when I’m through.

Revel in Your Wallpaper

Here, we move from the arguably practical reasons to the more fun, and subjective. I love a great wallpaper image on my desktop. Sometimes it’s a great repeating vintage wallpaper pattern, or a too-cute-for-words picture of my kids, or a photo that I took and really liked. Every now and then it’ll do wonders to just zone out for a few while looking at a great image on a clean desktop.

HUD Style Interfaces via Geektool

If you’ve tooled around Flickr (with Mac on your mind) or followed the Featured Desktops on Lifehacker, you’ve seen them. A killer mash-up of geek chic, stunning design, and useful information result in some of the coolest desktop Head’s Up Displays you’ve seen. Some are as simple as using Geektool to push logs to the desktop, while others style the fonts, work along with the wallpaper, and sometimes even a custom theme to all of OS X. The results are generally nothing short of spectacular — and you’re not going to get there with a multitude of files strewn about.

Sound interesting? Well it’s not hard to do. More than anything it’s a mindset. But having a process — and better yet, good tools — will help you clear that desktop in no time at all. Luckily there are many utilities and applications available to drill directly down to just what you want, wherever it may reside on your hard drive. But we’ll start simply first.

A Temp Folder

The things that tend to trip me up most, are those temporary files that I need for a short period of time and then forget about. If I’m just emailing a file or printing something, I drop it on my desktop, perform whatever action I need, and then usually delete it. However, sometimes it’s a bit of information that you may need for more than just a few days. At this point I’ll drop it into a folder named ‘tmp’ which resides in the root of my Home Folder. (example: ~/Nick/tmp) It’s as easy as that. Oh, and as an extra tip, add that tmp folder to your Dock as a Stack view for quick access!

Fresh and Hazel

If you don’t mind spending a few dollars, there are a couple of applications/utilities that I swear by for this kind of organization. (It’s worth mentioning that there are many applications that can fulfill these actions, but these are ones that have proven themselves to me.) Fresh ($9) hangs just off-screen as a transparent tab, where it gives quick access to recent files, as well as a ‘Cooler’, which functions very similar to my tmp folder idea above. Hazel ($21.95) can monitor files and folders and perform actions on them based on user defined rules. So perhaps you’ve got a temporary file on your desktop for 3 days, Hazel will see it’s been 3 days (based on a rule) and move it to your tmp folder where you can access it later on. Hazel’s terrifically powerful, and we’ve written about it before if you want to learn more.

We all approach our workspaces differently, and get different uses out of different methodologies. It’s entirely possible that Desktop Zero is not for everyone. For me, it was an easy and rewarding change to make, but as with all things, your mileage may vary. If you’ve got an alternative method for keeping your desktop (or any portion of your computer) clean and tidy, we’d love to hear your secrets too.


Philip Lock

I came across an old (2006) blog of yours – “Metadata as a filing system”
This “6 Tips for Getting to Desktop Zero” blog appears to suggest you have abandoned using metadata as a way of organising docs.
I quite liked the idea myself, although I do wonder about what you suggested for the time when you might want to clean old docs from your computer by burning them to disk and then trashing the originals.

Nick Santilli

Scott – the notebook icon came from the iconfactory’s Indiana Jones collection (I believe it was from the Raiders of the Lost Ark, specifically). find them here http://bit.ly/4Y7W6Y
The wallpaper is my own, but I’d be happy to send it to you. DM me on twitter @nucof

Scott Allen

Just curious, where can we find that cool notebook icon and background image?

Nick Santilli

Tim – yes, Geektool was used for the date (and weather, which is smaller). I’m actually working on a Geektool post, so look for that soon.

Tim Windsor

What I would like is something like Panic’s Stattoo that has actually been updated more recently than 2006. Geektool seems unwieldy for that, at least at first glance. Is that what you use to get the date on the desktop in the screenshot?


@elmak. I for one would really profit fro man in depth article with examples on using Automator as you describe.

Nick Santilli

Valid point Elmak, thanks for sharing. I listed Hazel in lieu of Folder Actions as the necessary understanding of AppleScripting is much less. Automator however, is a solid middle ground for that. Maybe in a future post we can focus on those things, though I believe we’ve touched on some in the past to some extent.


It’s specifically the advent of Snow Leopard. In Leopard using Automator + Folder Actions was cludgy at best, the Automator action would launch in the Dock and bounce around for a while. Just one more refinement to chalk up to the list.


My suggestion, for those on the lighter end of Hazel without the money: In Snow Leopard Automator actions attached to folders got a HUGE power boost. It’s worth writing about in its own right.

I have an automator action attached to my Downloads folder that handles a few file-sorting tasks. Anywhere from opening up DMG’s then trashing them and unarchiving zip’s, to moving files with specific extensions to other folders.

I used to use Hazel a lot, now I use Automator for most of it.

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