Your computer desktop is one of the first spaces you interact with when your work begins and one of the last things you see when you wrap up the work day.
Keeping this virtual surface organized, neat, and functional can be a meaningful step toward improving both your productivity and well-being.
That said, setting out to organize your computer desktop without a system in place can be intimidating and time consuming. If the task feels too daunting, you’re short on time, or you don’t know where to begin, here are some tips for straightening up your digital workspace.
Do a quick and regular sweep of your computer desktop
With every download, your desktop can increasingly become a jumbled maze of photos, documents, and folders. A quick and relatively painless way to start getting it organized is by automatically sorting files alphabetically or by date. (Right-click on your desktop and select “sort by” on a Mac or click “view” in the top bar menu and select “sort by” on a PC.)
From there, try setting aside 10–15 minutes each day or even week for a quick sweep: delete any old files you have stored elsewhere and group a few files into a project folder. You don’t have to get it all done in one sitting; just try to set the habit of cleaning up after yourself on a routine basis.
Create a consistent file structure
If you are only relying on cleaning up after yourself, it can be an uphill battle to keep your desktop neat among all the other things you have to do in a day. Set yourself up for ongoing success by building a storage infrastructure that works for you.
Create a folder system based on project name or file type, whichever is more appropriate for your work or research. Whatever approach you take, make sure you select a standard naming convention that makes it easy for you to quickly navigate your stored documents. Keep in mind that system should also make sense to you several years (and many projects and even computers) from now. These folders can live on your hard drive, a file share tool like Dropbox or Google Drive, or even on your desktop if you remember to consistently back them up.
With your file structure in place, you could bypass your desktop altogether; simply download any new documents to their designated folder, rather than automatically onto your desktop.
Use your desktop to help your workflow
While you want to keep your desktop as neat and orderly as possible, it’s possible to organize your computer desktop to be a useful tool for your workflow. With most of your project files stored in folders, a drive, or the cloud, your desktop can serve as the space where the resources for a few key open or ongoing projects can be easily accessed.
If you’re able to combine this approach with a regular practice of sorting and storing your files at the end of the day or week, you can ensure your desktop is a neat and strategic space.
Use your taskbar
Most of our desktop clutter tends to be file downloads but program icons can also take up a lot of space. Keeping your most-used icons stored in your taskbar keeps them literally at your fingertips, without you having to search for them every time you need to access a particular program.
To pin an icon to your taskbar on a PC, right-click on it and select “pin to taskbar.” On a Mac, simply drag and drop the icon onto your dock.
Make your computer desktop pretty (whatever that means to you)
Take a lesson from your IRL desktop and recognize that aesthetics can make a difference! It might seem obvious, but if you pick a beautiful or meaningful image for your background, one that you’ll actually want to look at on a regular basis, it can serve as a small motivation to keep your desktop tidy.
To take this one step further, you could try setting a lined or gridded image as your background to help corral the files that do land there.
Fence it in
Digital fences group your files together in certain areas of your desktop in a way that’s more visually accessible than burying everything in folders and more seamless than simply using a gridded background.
The Stacks feature, available for free on Macs running Mojave, automatically groups your content by type but you also can use it to organize your files by other categories or custom tags. Fences is a similar tool for PCs that lets you label and move your fences around your desktop as you wish. It is not free, however.
Let your trash sit for a bit
Sometimes, we avoid the task of clearing off our computer desktop because we’re nervous about misplacing something important or accidentally getting rid of something we may end up needing. If this “wait and see” approach has factored into your messy desktop, try to develop a more organized holding pattern. This could mean creating a “to be archived” or “miscellaneous” folder for those files you aren’t quite sure about. But if you do this, commit to checking—and purging—it on a regular basis.
Having and keeping your desktop in working order means making it work for you. It doesn’t have to be an overwhelming addition to your long to-do list or an extra burden on your day. It should be (or become) a seamless part of your regular routine, so you can focus on your life and not your mess. And be kind to yourself above all; if your desktop needs to stay cluttered for a bit as you focus on other priorities, let it (and yourself) be.