Mac Productivity

5 Ways to Locate Recently Used Files on Your Mac

Akshata Shanbhag Updated 02-01-2019

If you have your Finder content all tagged, sorted, and organized, it’s easy to find the right data at the right time. But even if you’re not so organized, that’s all right. You just need to know the best search tricks and locations to narrow down what you need.


On that note, here are five handy ways to locate specific Finder content you’ve accessed recently. They’re perfect for occasions when you can’t recall file names, but can remember attributes like the approximate file size or modification date.

1. Check the Recent Items List and Recents Folder


Your first two stops to locate a recently used file or folder should be:

  1. The Recent Items list: You’ll find this under the Apple menu, which lives behind the Apple logo at the far left of the menu bar. The list displays 10 items of three types: applications, documents, and servers.
  2. The Recent Folders list: For the most recently used folders, look under Go > Recent Folders. There’s a 10-item limit for this menu also.

If you’re lucky, your search will end in one of these two places.

Can’t see the Recent Items menu option? Or does the Recent Folders menu item appear grayed out? You might have disabled them both in the past.


To re-enable them, go to System Preferences > General and select any option except None from the Recent items dropdown menu. As you’ll see from the menu options available, this is where you can configure the Recent Items list to display more or fewer than 10 items.

After this tweak, open a couple of files and folders, then visit the Recent Items and Recent Folders lists. You’ll see that both are once again active and populated.

2. Check the Recents Lists in Apps


Often, document viewers, music players, office apps, note-taking apps, and similar have their own recents list. So when you’re looking for a recently accessed file of a specific type, it might be easier to locate it via the associated app.


For example, to find a PDF, open the Preview app and look under File > Open Recent. (This submenu is a standard location for the recents list in many apps.)

In Safari, you can get a list of your most recent searches in the address bar by hitting Space. There’s also a Clear Recent Searches option at the end of the list.

3. Scan the Recents View


If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the above locations, try Finder’s Recents feature next. It’s the default collection that appears when you open a new Finder window, and arranges items in the Icon view.


In this view, it’s easy enough to spot photos and files/folders with distinctive cover pages or icons, thanks to the thumbnail display.

For other kinds of data, the Icon view may not be ideal. Instead, you can switch to one of these views:

  • List view: To scan details like data type, size, and date modified.
  • Gallery view: To scrub through a zoomed-in version of each item and view its metadata.

In the List view, you can further sort items, such as in alphabetical or chronological order. All you have to do is click on the relevant attribute name at the top of the list. For example, to sort in alphabetical ascending order, click on Name. To reverse the order, click on the attribute again.

Read our summary of Finder’s view options 7 Nifty Tips for Getting the Most Out of Finder's View Options on Mac If you've never changed from the default view in macOS Finder, you're missing out. Check out these other handy Finder views. Read More to choose the right view for each search.


If you don’t like seeing the Recents view when you open Finder—it does look messy—switch to a different default view. To do so, visit Finder > Preferences > General and pick a new folder from the New Finder windows show dropdown menu.

You can still keep the Recents view handy in the sidebar as long as you enable its checkbox in the Sidebar tab of Finder’s settings. You can also have this view in the Dock for quick access by dragging the Recents sidebar item to the left of the Trash.

A Spotlight search for is another quick way to bring up the Recents view.

4. Group Items by Specific Attributes


Sometimes, none of the view options help. That’s when you can rely on Finder groups for more efficient sorting.

Since our focus here is searching recently accessed content, we’ll restrict our grouping to the Recents view. But you can use the same method to sort data in other Finder locations.

To sort data into groups, first open the Recents section. Next, Control-click anywhere in the Finder’s main pane and select the Use Groups context menu option. You’ll then see the Sort By menu item morph into Group By.

Under this new menu item, select Size. The Finder content then rearranges itself to display data in a 100 bytes to 1KB group, 100KB to 1MB group, and so on. (You’ll see a separator between each group.) If you know the approximate size of the file you’re looking for, this grouping will make it easier to find the file.

Likewise, you can group items by other memory-triggering attributes such as Date Created or Date Last Opened.

5. Create Smart “Recents” Folders

Do you find yourself often searching for specific types of files that you have recently accessed or edited? It’s time you sped up your search with a smart folder.

A smart folder is a special view that aggregates data based on conditions you set Get Started With Mac Smart Groups Using These 9 Filters The smart filters on a Mac let you sift through mountains of email, contacts, and photos effortlessly. Here are some awesome filters you need to try. Read More . Smart groupings aren’t limited to Finder; they also work in other native macOS apps such as Photos and Mail.

To create a smart folder for a specific set or type of recently used Finder items, first click on File > New Smart Folder. Next, click on the tiny Plus button to the far right of the search section. This is where you start specifying the attributes by which you want to filter recent files.

The first attribute, for example, could be JPEG as the file type. Next you can specify that it begins with a certain keyword, like screenshot. Follow it up with a condition that you’ve opened the file in the last seven days. Finally, click on the Save button to save the search as a smart folder with a name and location of your choice.


The smart folder then appears in the sidebar by default. Clicking on it displays all JPEG files with the prefix screenshot that you opened in the last seven days.

Your Most Recent Files Are a Few Clicks Away

As you go about using your Mac, you leave a trail of files, folders, links, and other content behind you. Digging through it to find something specific shouldn’t be too difficult if you know a few search tricks. Of course, it helps if you use Finder features like tags to organize and find data faster. It’s also a good idea to use FileVault on macOS to protect your data with encryption.

Trying to locate something on your Mac that actually disappeared Something Disappeared From Your Mac? How to Restore 7 Common Items Can't find the Dock, or discovered a missing menu on your Mac? Here's how to restore hidden elements in macOS. Read More ? Here’s how to restore some common items.

Related topics: File Explorer, File Management, Mac Tips, OS X Finder, Search Tricks.

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  1. 123
    March 17, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Recent items folder is the best tip I've read all month. Thanks. It works great.

  2. macwitty
    March 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Sorry no other tips as I think you got the best one here. I wish some of this could be used to search mail or do you have some tips for better search there?

    • Bakari Chavanu
      March 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

      Macwitty, I would suggest using smart mailboxes, if you're not already doing so. Here's an article I wrote on the subject, and another article that covers some of the newer Mail features. Personally, I think Apple could do a lot better with its Mail program.