Mac Tips: Get Organized, You Slob

Face it, your Mac is a mess and so your life is too. Your Mac is littered with hundreds of documents, folders and applications. You have no idea where most of your files are, nor how they got there. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this... if only you had a second chance! Your life might be beyond repair but your Mac isn't, as long as you segregate your applications and documents.

First, let's clear up some quick definitions: "application," "document," "folder" and our bestest little buddy, the "alias."

An "application" (shorthand: "app") is a program that you run such as Word, Photoshop, Explorer, Netscape or iTunes. Applications are commercial (you bought it), shareware (tried it before buying it), freeware (free) or bootlegged (no tech support when it crashes).

A "document" is a file that is created by an application, such as a letter you've written in Word, a picture created with Photoshop, or an Acrobat .pdf owner's manual. When you double-click on a document, the Mac OS knows to open it with the appropriate app.

A major point of confusion is the difference between applications and documents, because they both appear as files with icons that can be moved and copied. But they are completely different beasts and MUST be treated as such.

A "folder" is a place to store multiple files. Also known on Windows PCs as a directory.

Now for the kicker. An "alias" is just a pointer to anything that's anywhere on your Mac. PC users call theirs a "shortcut." This is the secret weapon in the war against clutter, because it gives you direct access to any app, document or folder.

To make an alias, select anything in the Finder. Then hit command-M (OS 9) or command-L (OS X). You can also "command-option-drag" a file to create an alias in another location. If you later move the "original," the alias keeps track of where it is! You can distinguish an alias from a real file by the little tiny arrow in the bottom left of the icon. To "reveal" the original file, select the alias and hit command-R. Schwing!

If you double-click an alias to a document, it will open the original document. Drop something onto an alias to a folder, and it will be put in the original folder. Drag a document over an alias to an application, and it will open that document in that application. You can have as many aliases to one file as you'd like. This gives you access to one file from multiple locations.

The coolest place for aliases is in this folder: [for OS 9] System Folder-->Apple Menu Items [and for OS X] (your hard drive)-->Users-->(your user name aka Home)-->Library-->Favorites. Aliases in this folder give you instant access to any folder or document on your Mac from the Apple Menu/Dock.

So, armed with that info, the two simple rules to organize your Mac are:

1. Applications go in the "Applications" folder; documents go in the "Documents" folder. If you only remember one tip from this article, it's: "DOCUMENTS" and "APPLICATIONS." When asked where to install a new application or save a document, now you know. Never save a document in the folder of the application that created it. Now you can backup all of your documents by copying one folder, and backup the bulkier Applications folder less frequently.
2. OS X users: The documents folder is here: (your hard drive)-->Users-->(your user name aka Home)-->Documents.
Macs with both OS 9 and OS X on one drive have another folder at the root level of your hard drive (also called "Documents"), that's a leftover from OS 9. Don't use that one. Similarly, these Macs have two application folders, "Applications (OS 9)" and "Applications" (the latter is for apps which will only run on OS X).
3. Put nothing on the desktop except aliases. Put apps, docs and folders away, and make aliases to them.

A side note: Starting with OS 9.1, the "Apple Extras" and "Utilities" app folders moved inside the Applications Folder.

With this new plan you'll find that you work faster and lose track of files less often. And now there's NO excuse to skip regular backups of your Documents folder, so check out this article on the easiest and cheapest way to backup.