2 Useful Tips For Organizing Electronic Files [Mac Only]

Jeffry Thurana 20-09-2009

2 Useful Tips For Organizing Electronic Files [Mac Only] 00 Folders And FilesFor some people, file management can be a very horrendous task. I’m still amazed at how messy the files and folders can be. Let them loose for a while and you would find documents, archives, songs, movies and images scattered all over the place.


We have discussed the usage of tags in file management Simple Ways To Organize Your Files In Mac Read More , but it would be nicer if all of those files are automatically sorted and placed in a specific folder pre-configured for them. MP3s will go into music folder, images into pictures folders, PDFs into document folders, and so on.

I figured that there should be a few apps that I could offer as tips for organizing electronic files. After a quick search, I found three alternatives: Hazel (powerful, but not free: US$21.95 with 14-day trial), File Actions (not as powerful as Hazel, but free) and Apple’s Automator (powerful and free). Since MakeUseOf prioritizes on free applications, let’s dig a little deeper into File Actions and Automator.

Monitor and Move
The basic function of File Actions is simply to monitor certain folders and automatically move files based on a set of rules.

The first time you open this application, you’ll have a blank window. What you have to do now is set the time intervals between checks. After that click on the plus (+) button to add new rules.

tips for organizing electronic files

There are three factors that will determine the rules:

  • The locations to be monitored –> there are several location that you can choose by ticking the box next to it, such as: desktop, documents, downloads, and other. Ticking ‘other’ will make this app check all other locations on the hard drive. You can choose multiple locations to be monitored.
    tips for organizing files
  • The destination – where the files should be moved –> just like the first item, you have several options to choose. But here, you can only choose one location as the destination.
    tips for organizing electronic files
  • And of course, the rule itself –> you set some rules by deciding what string should be matched to activate the process. There are four options: file extensions should match the strings (File Suffix is equal), file extensions should not match the strings (File Suffix is not equal), name should match the strings (File Prefix is equal) and name should not match the strings (File Prefix is not equal). Then you can write the strings. Use comma to separate multiple strings.
    organizing computer files

For example, if you want to move all of your downloaded MP3s to the music folder, you can choose the Downloads folder to be monitored, choose the music folder as the destination, choose “File Suffix is equal” and add MP3 as the string. Click OK to save and you can rename the rule from the main window by clicking it.

Automate with Automator
But File Actions is an old application dated back to 2007. Even though I can use it just fine in Snow Leopard, I found some glitches like the inability to choose a specific folder to be used as “Other” in the destination. So let’s try the second option: Automator.

For the purpose of moving files automatically to their destined location, you’ll need a very simple workflow. Open Automator (Applications –> Automator) and choose Folder Action. This is an action which will be activated everytime there’s a new activity happened to a specific folder.

organizing computer files


Suppose we want to achieve the same thing as before: automatically move all the downloaded MP3s to the music folder, the first thing to do is to choose which folder to monitor. We’ll just set this to Downloads folder.

organizing computer files

Then we’ll choose “Actions” tab, and “Files and Folders” from the library and we can start building our own Automator Workflow.

organizing folders and files


We can build the workflow by dragging and arranging the actions into the main window. We only need two action items here: “Filter Finder Items” and “Move Finder Items”.

organizing folders and files

Set the file extension to be filtered to MP3 on the first action, and Music folder as the location to move Finder items.

organizing folders and files


Then we save the file and let Automator takes care everything else. organizing files

Repeat the process for other folders and other types of files.

The example I provided here for organizing electronic files is just a very simple one. But we can create far more sophisticated automations using Automator by tinkering with all the filters and rules. The limit is your imagination. What have you used Automator for?

File Actions

Related topics: Computer Automation, File Management.

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  1. Aaron Frey
    September 25, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I followed the instructions to move a file called, "Pastors, Active.pdf" from my desktop (where all my downloaded items go) to a subfolder of one of the folders that sits on my desktop. I replaced all the criteria to match this file and the folder that it goes into, and it tells me that the Filter Finder Items action was completed without an issue, but then the results of the Move Finder Items action is an error (The action "Move Finder Items" was not supplied with the required data) and a warning (No item references were passed to the Move Finder Items action. (-50)). Any idea what the problem is?

    • Jeffry
      September 25, 2009 at 6:54 pm

      The system is working fine for me, so I don't know why it isn't working for you. But I guess you tried to 'test' the Folder Action inside Automator. You can't. You'll have to save it first and let it run independently.

      • Aaron Frey
        September 26, 2009 at 6:09 pm

        I have tried testing it inside Automator, but that was only after it didn't work the first time. Anyway, I got the message that you can't run it in Automator, so I don't. I take it, then, that those messages don't mean anything to you (or that, understandably, you don't want to get involved with offering support for this)?

        • Jeffry Thurana
          September 27, 2009 at 4:41 pm

          After browsing the library, I found another alternative actions that you might want to try. Instead using "Filter Finder Items" you could use "Find Fider Items" or "Spotlight" as a mean of filtering the files that you want to move. That might do the trick.

        • Aaron Frey
          September 28, 2009 at 12:48 pm

          That absolutely did it! I used the "Find Finder Items" actions, and it worked like a charm. I'll be using this a lot in the future. Thanks!

        • Aaron Frey
          September 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm

          Believe it or not, I take that back. I just discovered that the workflow now takes every new pdf and sticks it into the folder I intended for the "Pastors, Active.pdf" file. I've tried a few variations, and I'm not getting any results. I guess I'll have to try your mp3 example and see what happens, but I may not have the time to play around quite that much. Not everything is as easy as it seems on the Mac.

  2. WebDesignExpert.Me
    September 22, 2009 at 9:22 am

    This is a Mac app that tags files for file organization:

    I dont know of any equivalent for Windows.

    In my brain, I figure out that adding tags makes you less worryful about where you place files, because files can be found simply via a search as long as you remember the correct tag - even files kept in different folders would match as long as the tag search query matches.

    I think 'setting up rules' to move files automatically into designated folders makes more of work. Computers are supposed to ease our work, not create additional work. In this case, additional work is required to set up rules for moving files, and you need to *think what rules you want to set up. It is that thinking (time & energy) we are trying to skip.

    • Alex
      September 22, 2009 at 6:54 pm

      The whole point is to set it up ONCE and then forget about it and let the computer do it for you from then on instead of having to do it manually forever. So it does quickly save time and energy ;)

  3. webby
    September 22, 2009 at 7:01 am

    Awesome! Thanks

  4. Ricardo Yasuda
    September 21, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Is this specific to Automator from Snow Leopard? I can't seem to select folder action from the Automator initial screen on Leopard.

    • Alex
      September 21, 2009 at 8:55 pm

      It is specific to Snow Leopard... using it and loving it! Specially the "services"!

  5. Gabriel Rodriguez
    September 20, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Anything for Windows users?

    • Jeffry Thurana
      September 21, 2009 at 5:35 am

      Maybe something like macro automation could help. I'll look more to this topic. Meanwhile, anybody else could help?

  6. Harry
    September 20, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Where, i.e. in what folder do you save the folder action?

    • Jeffry Thurana
      September 21, 2009 at 4:15 am

      Folder Action can be accessed by right clicking at the folder that you put the action on and choose "Folder Action Setup" from the pop-up menu.