Over the Christmas break, I went on a bit of a tidying and organising mission, clearing up my desk space at home, and clearing up my hard drive.

As anyone knows, the difficult bit isn't tidying up – its maintaining tidiness as you go along. And I thought thats something that I could really do with some help with.

The first thing is setting up some sort of 'system' – ie. what goes where, what do you keep, what do you throw away, what do you archive etc. (My own policy is that I usually don't throw away anything unless I am absolutely certain that it will have no value at any point in the future. This isn't always a good policy — especially when it comes to real world things — but in a digital world where I have a few terabytes worth of drives, backups and external storage, I think it makes sense.)

I tend to find myself with a few folders that gradually become general purpose dumping grounds – which is what I need help with.

Downloads (a massive collection of files that either stay around long after they are useful, while more useful/interesting things get easily lost in the clutter.) Desktop – where I put things while I'm working with but move out again much less frequently.
And Dropbox – a repository of things that I want to be able to access from work, home and mobile devices, but again – the system of putting things in doesn't have much of a 'companion' system for getting them out again.

So, in imposing some sort of order on them, I find myself building 'rules' – I want to keep software I've downloaded, data tables and MS Office files are usually related to work.

Which is what led me to the Hazel app for the Mac. $28 (£17), with a free trial (14 days with full functionality – which should be enough time to figure out if you are going to get any use out of it.)

Basically, its an automated organisation system for the Mac. The interface is simple - in System Preferences, a Hazel pane appears;

Screenshot 2014-01-11 14.52.44.png

Here, I've got 7 folders that Hazel is watching, with 3 rules for my Dropbox folder.

The first rule is called 'Tag recent files' – named, because thats exactly what it does; anything in my Dropbox folder that has been recently modified gets a "Recently Modified" tag. I've also got this set up in Finder as a 'favourite' tag, so at a glance, I can see anything in there that has been recently modified.

Screenshot 2014-01-11 14.55.34.png

It has a companion Rule, which will remove the tag from anything last modified more than a week ago;

Screenshot 2014-01-11 14.57.15.png

So, where before I tried to maintain an "Active" folder of things that I was currently working with (which just ended up turning into yet another general purpose dumping ground), I now click on the Tag in Finder, and I'll see everything that I've been working on in the last week. (I could probably do something with Spotlight instead, but I'm playing with tags for now…)

The downside here is that the tags are Mac OSX only - so none of this organisation is much help on my work PC or iPhone/iPad, but I can live with that for now.

Another rule will pop up a notification to let me know if any large files are taking up space in my Dropbox folder, to help me keep the size down.

Screenshot 2014-01-11 14.57.52.png

Right now, most of my rules are either moving files into some soft of folder organisation, or just throwing tags at files – one of the Mavericks features that I've only just started exploring (again, as a part of my Christmas tidying/organising drive) – I haven't quite figured out whats useful (ie. lets me do something faster, more easily) and whats just interesting (for example, I didn't realise that the download source domain gets saved as part of the file metadata – so, adding those as 'source:url' tags lets me then use that to file – like stuff from certain analysts gets automatically filed away into an 'analysis' folder.)

As far as official documentation goes, Hazel does seem to be a little thin on the ground. However, that said, the interface is simple enough – what is probably more useful is inspiration than direction – there is so much that can be done with Hazel, its more a case of figuring out what would be useful for the way you work (ie. taking care of things you do manually so that you don't have to) than trying to figure out how to go about doing whatever you want to do. Chances are, if Hazel can't do it on its own, then combining Hazel actions with Applescript/shell scripts will get you where you want to be.

A good starter for ideas on the official forums