In this episode, you’ll discover why and how automation can help you prevent and reduce file clutter on your Mac.
And, I’ll share with you a simple Automator workflow so that you can start decluttering your Mac today!
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This episode discusses the strategy of automation for managing file clutter on a Mac.
The analogy of dirty dishes piling up on a kitchen counter is used to explain the concept.
The episode introduces the tool Automator, which is a drag and drop application developed by Apple for automating repetitive tasks on a Mac.
The main feature discussed is Folder Action, which allows for the automatic execution of actions when files are moved to a designated folder.
The process of creating a folder action using Automator is explained, along with a practical example of renaming and moving purchase orders.
The advantages and limitations of Automator are also discussed.
- File clutter is inevitable, but automation can help manage it.
- Automator is a built-in tool on macOS for automating tasks on a Mac.
- Folder Action is a feature of Automator that allows for automatic execution of actions when files are moved to a designated folder.
- Automator’s interface is intuitive and actions can be easily dragged and dropped to create workflows.
- Automator can be used for more than just file management, such as creating applications and quick actions.
- Folder actions can be created by selecting the desired folder in Automator and choosing the actions to be performed.
- Automator’s limitations include limited filtering options, difficulty in testing and updating folder actions, and lack of synchronization between multiple computers.
- While Automator is useful for certain tasks, for more advanced file management, tools like Hazel may be preferred.
In today’s episode, we’ll explore how automation can help us prevent and reduce file clutter on our Mac.
Then, I’ll cover Automator, a tool that ships with your Mac and that can help you automate file management.
I’ll unpack all of this after the intro.
If this is the first episode that you’re listening to, welcome to the Macpreneur tribe.
And if you’re a longtime Macpreneur listener, thank you for tuning back in.
As a fellow solopreneur, I appreciate that you dedicate these 15-ish minutes with me every week.
Before diving into today’s topic, I want to quickly mention that this episode is part of a not-so-short series now focusing on the three killers of Mac productivity, namely unnecessary clicks, repetitive typing, and file clutter.
I introduced the three killers in episode 58, then provided built-in and third-party solutions to reduce unnecessary clicks in episodes 59 and 60 respectively.
Episodes 61 through 63 cover repetitive typing, and since episode 64, I’ve been diving into the topic of file clutter.
In the previous episode, I explained why file clutter is inevitable and that the only two ways to deal with it are prevention and reduction.
I used the analogy of piles of dirty dishes slowly accumulating on the kitchen counter.
We can prevent this from happening by immediately putting dirty dishes into the dishwasher, but for things that are either too fragile or too dirty, we’ll need to take care of that manually, in other words, actively reducing the pile.
I also covered quick and easy strategies to deal with the two most cluttered folders on our Mac, the Desktop and Downloads folders.
So if you haven’t listened to that episode yet, make sure to put it in your feed for later.
Now, even with those solutions in place, you will still be faced with file clutter.
Automating file management
And today’s episode is dedicated to introducing another strategy, automation.
And so coming back to the dirty dishes analogy, it would be like having a robot filling up, starting, and emptying the dishwasher, and then washing up whatever can’t go into the dishwasher so that we wouldn’t even have to take care of anything.
Now, assuming such a robot would exist, it’s highly likely that we would need to train it a little bit so that it can correctly operate our dishwasher and that it would know where to find the washing liquids or the tablets and where to put back the clean dishes, for instance.
We’d also need to tell it which dishes cannot go into the dishwasher and where to find the sponge and other utensils.
Now, over time, adjustments will probably need to be made, right? If we replace the dishwasher, for instance, or if we buy new cutlery.
Well, automating file management on our Mac is exactly the same.
It requires some upfront work and occasional maintenance, but then we can reap the benefits of not having to constantly manage files and clean up folders.
Now, the cherry on the cake is that it can even tackle unnecessary clicks and repetitive typing along the way.
Now don’t get me wrong, even with automation in place, it’s impossible to eliminate file clutter entirely simply because, well, if you remember, file clutter is inevitable.
So the best that we can do is to find a sweet spot between no automation at all and too much automation, which can become quickly unmanageable if we don’t pay attention to it.
Tools to automate file management
And so, the first question that you might have now is, okay, what tool can I use to automate file management?
There are actually two main tools for that on the Mac.
The first option is called Automator.
And the second one is called Hazel.
Now, to keep this episode short and sweet, I will cover Hazel next time and focus on Automator for today.
So let’s talk about Automator.
It’s a drag and drop application developed by Apple whose main purpose is to automate repetitive tasks on your Mac.
It ships with macOS and was released back in April 2005, so it’s more than 18 years ago.
And it sits happily in the Applications folder on your Mac, waiting for you to start using it.
It can do much more than help with file management, though.
You can create your very own applications and quick actions like what we have seen in previous episodes with shortcuts.
You can also create your own plugins for editing a PDF version of what you print, for instance, and for post-processing images and videos that you import via image capture.
Automator Folder Action
But the feature that can help us prevent and reduce file clutter is called Folder Action.
It allows automatically launching a series of actions when files are moved to a folder of our choice.
In other words, anytime one or more files are moved into a folder that has folder actions attached to it, whatever workflow we have defined will be run automatically, and a folder can have multiple folder actions attached to it.
Now creating a new folder action is very simple, you just launch Automator, you can use Spotlight for that or you go to the Applications folder, and then you will see a window and you will click on New Document.
You then select Folder Action, and then you click on the Choose button.
At the top, you will select the folder that you want Automator to continuously monitor.
And even though the most likely candidates are the Downloads and the Desktop folders, if you’re just starting out with Automator, I recommend creating a dedicated subfolder first.
Simply because this will be a safe place where you will be able to experiment, and if your workflow doesn’t work as you expected, the damage that it will cause will be very limited and will not apply to the entire Desktop or the entire Downloads folder.
So on that application window, on the left, you will see a library of actions.
And those actions are grouped by category.
The one that interests us the most is called Files and Folders, and it is represented by the Finder icon.
There, we can find actions like Filter Finder Items, Rename Finder Items, Duplicate Finder Items, Move Finder Items, and even New Folder.
And like shortcuts, you just drag and drop actions on top of each other, like you would do with Lego bricks.
The basic structure of a folder action for file management has at least two components.
The first one is one or more filter actions, and so for instance, you could choose to filter by the type of file that you want to process.
For instance, if you just want to process PDFs or images or videos, but you can also filter files based on their name, based on their size, on the date they were created, and you can even filter them by searching for text within the document.
So it’s very useful for invoices or documents which usually have random names when you download them from the internet, but they always contain the same information.
So it could be a client number or an account number, and so you could search for that and only do the next steps when it finds this information.
And so the second typical step would be then a move step, where you want to clean up the folder after you have processed the files that were moved in it.
Now, sometimes you may want to rename the files that you have filtered, and so you would then put a rename step between the filter step and the move step.
Folder Action example
And so let’s illustrate this with a practical example.
So let’s say that one of your clients sends you a purchase order every time that they hire you for a new gig.
And let’s assume that the purchase order always comes as a PDF and that its name starts with easytech.ap followed by a purchase order number.
So, one possible automation to prevent file clutter could be to rename that file by prepending today’s date, as I like it to do, and then move it to a specific subfolder, for instance, a purchase order subfolder in the main client folder.
If we wanted to build this automation with Automator, the first step would be to use a filter finder items, and we would use two criteria.
Kind is PDF, and name begins with EasyTECH AP.
Then, step two would be a rename finder items, and the type would be add date or time, and we would, we could use, for instance, a current date to prepend.
And we can say where we want that date to be put before or after, so we put before the name, we can specify the separator between the date and the filename, could be a space, could be an underscore, and then we have the date format and the separator between the year, the month, and the date.
There is also an option called Use Leading Zeros.
So that whenever we have a month, which is with a single digit, for instance, January would be one. Well, if we tick use leading zero, it would always write zero one instead of just one.
And then once it’s renamed with the date, the last step will be then a Move Finder Items.
The first thing to configure is the destination, so we will use Finder to choose the destination folder.
But then it’s very important to tick the box that says replacing existing files because it will prevent getting duplicate files in case you download the same PO multiple times, or you download it once, it gets processed, and then you realize there is a mistake in it, so you ask for a new PO, you download the corrected PO, and by overwriting the old one, you’re sure that you always have the latest one that is in your folder.
And once the folder action is built, we give that folder action a name by saving it. So you do Command S to save it. It will ask you for a name.
In this case, we could call it Rename and Move Purchase Orders. And we could even be more specific, we could say For Client X.
And that’s it.
After saving a purchase order in that folder, it will automatically get renamed and moved to the right location.
Important limitation of Folder Actions
There is an important thing to know about folder actions.
It only works when moving files from within the main internal disk. It’s usually called Macintosh HD.
In other words, if you copy a file, for instance with Command C, then Command V, the action will not trigger.
And even if you move a file, but it’s coming from an external disk, the action won’t trigger either.
Now to alleviate this constraint, you would need to use the tool that I will be covering in the next episode, it’s called Hazel.
But before that, let’s quickly go over the pros and cons of Automator.
Pros of Automator Folder Actions
The biggest advantage of Automator is that it’s built into macOS. You don’t need to install anything, and it’s totally free.
The second advantage is that the interface is fairly intuitive, right?
You drag and drop actions from the library on the left to the workflow builder area on the right.
And then you tweak a few parameters for the actions that you want to use.
And even though shortcuts. macOS is clearly the future of Mac automation, I don’t see Apple removing Automator from our Macs anytime soon.
And besides, it’s already possible today to import and convert Automator workflows into shortcuts.
So if for any reason in a few years’ time, Apple would actually stop providing Automator, there would be a way to import that into shortcuts.
Cons of Automator Folder Actions
Now there are a few things where Automator falls quite short.
First off, if you want to test a folder action, well, you need to temporarily add an action called Get Specified Finder Items, then you have to choose the file manually, and then you have a run button in the top right corner of the window. You need to click on run, see that it works, and then you would have to remove that action called Get Specified Finder Item.
So you see it’s not that easy for testing.
Second, on the maintenance side, right, it’s not obvious either to update a folder action that is not in the most recent list anymore.
For that, you need to visit the folder that has the action attached to it. You have to right-click on it. You have to go to Services, and then you have to click on Folder Action Setup.
And it’s the same procedure if you want to temporarily pause a folder action.
And if you have multiple folder actions attached to a given folder, you need to manually pause them all, one by one.
The third negative, I would say, is the way that we can filter files is quite limited.
So yes, we can have multiple criteria, but we can only specify that either all are true or none are true, or any is true, but we cannot mix and match and, and, or statements.
That doesn’t work.
And fourth reason, right, if you want to reuse information that you would extract from within a document, this is quite cumbersome to do, so for the purchase order example, so we assume that the current date is the date that the PO was released, but it could be that the PO was created two or three days ago and then you downloaded the file.
If we wanted to extract the date from inside the PDF and then reuse it for the renaming process, we would need to extract the entire text, find a way to search within the text, then format that date properly, then save it into a variable that we could use afterward. So you see it’s a very cumbersome process for something, to me, it’s a very important feature of automating the file management process.
And even though Apple has not abandoned Automator, it has stopped actively developing Automator, which means that we can’t really expect any improvements anymore.
All the effort now internally is focused on Shortcuts.
Unfortunately, Shortcuts can’t do folder actions yet, but in the future, I hope it will be possible to do.
And then lastly, you can’t easily synchronize folder action rules between multiple computers.
Those rules, they exist somewhere on the internal drive.
So it’s possible to copy those rules from one Mac to another Mac, and then manually assign the rule to a folder on the other Mac.
So that’s possible.
But any changes that you make on one computer, you have to remake the change or recopy the file to the other computer.
Now, if you are a Mac terminal nerd, you might be able to pull it off by using what we call symbolic links, right? But it’s way too complicated for most people.
And also, there is no guarantee that this would survive an operating system update or an operating system upgrade.
And all those reasons are why, in the end, I use Automator, but for quick actions or for little utilities like converting images, reducing the size of images, or reducing the width in pixels of images and stuff like that.
Stuff that I can’t do or that I didn’t want to redo in shortcuts.
And for file management, I’m using exclusively Hazel, which I will cover then in the next episode.
So that’s it for today.
I hope this episode has convinced you that file automation is quite easy to pick up.
And that it inspired you to try Automator for yourself.
I would love to know what automation you have put in place to save you time managing your files.
Next and outro
In the next episode, episode 67, I will dive deep on Hazel, the file automation tool that I’ve been now using since March 2013, so, uh, almost 10 years, more than 10 years, and that allows me to put a lot of the file management on my Mac on autopilot.
I will explain what Hazel offers that Automator can’t do, and I will provide a bunch of real life examples of how I use Hazel.
In the meantime, if you’d like to receive personalized tips that will help you be more efficient and productive on your Mac, head on to macpreneur.com/score.
It’s macpreneur.com/score, S C O R E.
And until next time, I’m Damien Schreurs, wishing you a great day.