Productivity and the clean broom

One for the Mac users who like to have things kept neat and tidy, so they can focus on being productive.

TL;DR version: If you are the type of person who is consistent with file naming, you can use an OSX app called Hazel to run rules on files and apply Mavericks tags making it easier to apply them to files currently in use, and legacy archive data.

The arrival of tags

Like many I upgraded my laptop to the newest version of OSX (Mavericks) when it was released a couple of months ago. There are a few nice features that made it worthwhile and, hey, it was free so what’s the harm?

One new feature that Apple seem quite proud of is the tagging system. In principle it sounds great but so far it’s taken me a while to get into using it and even then it’s still not quite part of my ‘muscle memory’. Why? Well, do you have time to go through all your legacy files and tag them? Or even just the important or ‘in use’ files that might benefit from being tagged?

And why the hell do I want to tag my files anyway? This is not a new technology so why is it suddenly all over my operating system?

My take on this new functionality matches my, long ago, move away from worrying about detail in my operating system. Spotlight performs well enough for me to be able to find what I need to find, and I’m consistent enough in my file-naming at the time of creation, that I don’t need to be too worried about exactly where on my hard drive a file exists. However I do understand the need to have some level of order and ‘filing’ to keep things organised.

I’m sure there are things I’m, unknowingly, compromising on but as yet (and I’ve been completely Mac now for some years) nothing has reared up to bite me so if I am compromising or missing something then it’s not anything essential.

Removing the noise

Looking back, the turning point for my approach was actually when I first installed iTunes on my old Windows box. As iTunes abstracts the location of the actual files, this removed the need to spend time and effort organising files and folders and I, almost instantly, saved a large chunk of my time that I’d previously lost in a complex process of naming and filing my MP3s (alas the tagging of info was still an issue but that has improved more recently).

All I do now is drag music files into iTunes (or these days just buy them there) and they get stored away automagically. I know where the top level folder is but I don’t search for MP3s any more. I look in iTunes for a song, artist or album name, and hit play. Much simpler.

Caveat: I’m more likely to fire up Spotify these days but that’s a whole other blog post.

This abstraction, and my first real exposure to it, was the beginning of the realisation that I’d gotten away from why I have a computer in the first place. It remains, among other things, important to me as an aid to my productivity and help with my needs and tasks, and yet I had been dragged into a level of minutiae of administration that was taking more and more of my time with little to show for it. The effort was not equal to the reward, so what was the point of having a computer?

Simplicity for Productivity

Fast forward to my usage today and I would rather put my efforts into working on something than have to expend energy making sure the files were precisely named and filed away. Since moving to OSX, search has become such a big part of my everyday computer usage that my need for folders is almost redundant and now, with an operating wide tagging system, may soon be obsolete.

And so, after a somewhat long-winded introduction (written as much for myself as anyone else) I’ll suggest that if your computer usage is in anyway similar to mine, that you invest in a small but very powerful application called Hazel.

Hazel is, at heart, a rules engine. Point it at a folder, set up a rule and it’ll handle things from there. It can watch a folder for filenames (partial or complete), types of file, or other metadata and then move them, rename them, update the metadata and more. It’s also extendable, very extendable.

I am still exploring the depths of this application but already it’s making the job of managing my files much easier allowing my productivity to rise. It’s not all down to Hazel of course, a large part of the solution depends upon the built-in tagging system in the Mavericks version of OSX but by automating so many trivial tasks, delegating them to the computer, I’ve no doubt that I’m getting more done in my day-to-day usage both at work and at home.

What does Hazel do?

So, how do I use it? Well, as an example, as long as I add the project name to a file whilst saving it to the desktop, I know that after the end of my working day, Hazel will have moved it to the correct project folder and applied the project tag. To find it again, I just view the (smart search) for that project tag and there it is. I don’t actually care about the folder at all, so I have a very flat structure, rarely more than one folder deep.

To do the above is simple. In Hazel you add the Desktop folder to the list to be monitored, then create the rule which checks any new files with the instructions that if the filename includes [project name] and hasn’t been modified for 6 hours, tag it with the project name and move it to the project folder. Easy.

Equally you can run Hazel across legacy files and both tag and move them in one go. You don’t need to search for them and do all that manually, just let Hazel do the hard work. It can flag duplicates and more, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

With OSX tagging and Smart Folders, plus automated rules for managing metadata it’s very easy to have, for example, a smart folder (essentially search results) that only shows the spreadsheets for a specific project. The combinations are endless and made easier to meet because Hazel is doing a lot of the metadata creation for you.

As part of my drive to make things simpler it’s another step forward. Once I’ve got a rule setup I can let it run away in the background and do all the hard work for me, allowing me to focus more on my work and less on the administration of that work. That means both that the quality of my work increases and the quantity of output as well so, all in all my productivity is on the rise.

And ultimately, isn’t that what personal computers are supposed to help with?


  1. Thanks for the post. Had a couple of rules in Hazel but didn’t make enough use of it…until this gave me the kick I needed. I now have lots of my usual admin type tasks automated.

    So….when does the boost in productivity kick in?

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