Spotlight and Minimalist Organization

I’ve been experimenting over the last few months with an extremely scaled back way of organizing my files and I’ve found that, strictly speaking, all I need to manage them is “Spotlight,” an app included by Apple for free on every Mac. This post is a further refinement of my minimalist approach that I have written about elsewhere.

A “Completist’s” Dilemma

My problem is that I’m a digital hoarder. This morning I counted all of the files that I own, and it looks like I have accumulated 3,246,446 items, which add up to 2.66 terabytes of data. I expect that number will be bigger by the end of the day, because I’ll generate thousands of new files out of emails, scanned papers, downloads, and so forth.

“Big Data” could easily handle the amounts of data I have with its “data lake architecture.” However, my “data pond” is way too much for any one person to manually clean up, sort, and file away.

You might be reading this and thinking I’ve got more of a data swamp than a data pond on my hands. True that. Yet, despite my lack of effort at organizing, I feel organized enough to get things done, because I’m usually able to locate anything I need in a few seconds. I doubt the hands-off approach I describe here will appeal to everyone, but I hope it gives you some ideas about how to better manage your stuff.

One potential solution to the problem would be to reduce the rate at which I acquire stuff. For example, instead of scanning each and every scrap of paper that comes my way as a “completist,” in the words of Jamie Rubin, I could only scan what I really need.

Jamie marked himself as “Me!” on the right of the graph that he created to illustrate his approach. This is probably a “healthy” place to be, but I exist somewhere closer to the top left, and nearly the entire graph would be blue. Unfortunately, making decisions requires some mental effort. I have discovered that I tend to put off this onerous task, the paper piles up, and the whole “paperless” thing becomes unattainable. More importantly, from the perspective of a completist (really, just another word for a hoarder), I don’t trust my ability to judge what might or might not be important in the future. If I scan it all, I don’t have to worry, because everything is there somewhere.


My system, if you can call it that, boils down to one feature: Spotlight. Spotlight indexes all of your data (on your local drive AND external drives) and enables you to search for items. In the words of tech writer David Pogue: “Spotlight is so fast, it eliminates a lot of the folders-in-folders business that’s a side effect of modern computing. Why burrow around in folders when you can open any file or program with a couple of keystrokes?” Indeed. I barely use folders at all these days. I can sort through all 2.66 terabytes to find every instance of the word “Spotlight” (424 files) in a matter of seconds, no matter where the information is located. When you create complex searches to pinpoint specific files, this speed is amazing.

Apple provides an uninspiring basic introduction to Spotlight on its website. For a better explanation of all its capabilities, I recommend taking a look at David Pogue’s missing manual (see Chapter 3). Yes, it is a book, and you will have to spend time reading about your computer while you could be working on it, but it is packed with important information you really need to get the most out of your Mac. This list of advanced commands from his 2007 book ought to whet your appetite.

Smart Folders

Smart folders update themselves according to the search criteria you apply. Again, Apple has a basic introduction on its website, but you’ll learn a lot more by taking a look at Pogue’s book (see the Smart Folders section in Chapter 3). I create smart folders for regularly occurring topics, and use Spotlight when I need to do a one-time search.

Here is an example. I work at a university in Japan named Kōgakkan 皇學館, so I have created a smart folder to find everything related to my work.

Unfortunately, in an apparent effort to simplify things, Apple has made it almost impossible for anyone without detailed knowledge of the operating system to create a folder like this. I’ll go through the steps I used to create it, but your folder will look a little different, and that’s why you’ll want to be sure and take a look at David Pogue’s book.

  1. Select the location you want to search. In my case, I store almost everything in my SpiderOak folder, so I have selected it.
  2. Put something into the search field. Otherwise, you won’t see any options for the search.
  3. Select the name of the location you want to search. It will probably be the second one listed.
  4. Press the plus button on the right next to the “Save” button. Now, don’t worry about this search field — you can delete it later if you want. The important thing now is to press the plus button on the right again while holding down the option key. This will bring up a much more detailed list of search options that would otherwise remain hidden.
  5. When you are done, save the search.

The cool thing about smart folders is that once you run a search and save it, you can go back to it again and again, and it will always have the most up-to-date data. It’s the automation that helps when you are dealing with terabytes of data, and as I have come to rely on these smart folders, I’ve decreased my usage of regular folders.

Apple’s Other Organizational Tools

There are plenty of other organizational tools that come with your Mac besides Spotlight, and I am not recommending that you stop using them entirely. Regular folders and tags are wonderful, but only if you can automate them. That takes third-party tools (like Hazel), which I will talk about in another post. No matter what you do, the key, in my opinion, is to organize when you need to on the back-end when everything is in your data pond rather than trying to categorize everything on the front-end before it enters the pond.

Remember Jamie Rubin’s graph that I introduced earlier? In his case, most things will never get organized, because they don’t get saved, and that is why there is a lot of white space on the graph. In my case, all of it gets saved, but I guess I only “organize” (if smart folders can be called “organizing”) about the same percentage of stuff that he does. Both approaches, in my opinion, work fine. For me, I feel more comfortable having it all saved somewhere, and I’m OK with leaving everything disorganized, because it would be unnecessary labor.

Third-Party Apps

In this post I’ve talked about how to manage your files with just the tools provided by Apple, but you might be thinking that Google Drive, Evernote, or DEVONthink can handle organization pretty well, so there’s no point in bothering with Spotlight.

That’s true for a lot of use cases, and I often recommend these apps to others. You’ll want to consider, though, security / privacy issues and usage limits with the cloud services. And, as incredible as some of the software is these days, with the exception of Spotlight, I haven’t found a single app that can scale up to handle the data that I have — it would take about five decades (seriously) of uploading and hundreds of user accounts to fit all of my data into Evernote. DEVONthink is probably the best at handling large amounts of data, because it is a powerful organizational app that resides on your computer (rather than in the cloud) along with Spotlight, but even a relatively small volume (a few gigabytes) in a single database will cause it to crawl to a stop.

I suspect more and more people are finding themselves in a similar situation where they have a lot of data but no apps that can easily handle it. There certainly is a place for Google Drive, Evernote, or DEVONthink in my workflow, but as part of a larger organizational strategy, and I no longer expect them to literally be “everything” buckets. I’d say they are more like “lots of stuff” buckets right now — Spotlight is the core of my file management and these provide help with targeted tasks. For example, I primarily use Google Drive when I want to collaborate with people on projects, Evernote for web clippings, and DEVONthink to keep confidential files and current research projects in sync between my iPad and my Mac.

Fortunately, everything in them can be searched and accessed by Spotlight. If you WANT to organize your stuff using folders, sub-folders, tags, or a bunch of third-party apps, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You may not NEED any of them, though, because you can trust Spotlight to track it all down for you.

A Warning about Security / Privacy

I’m running a beta version of Apple’s next operating system and, as of this moment, Spotlight sends all of your search queries (not the results) to Apple by default. This may or may not make it into the final public release. For those of you running the beta, make sure to follow the instructions below if you are concerned about your security / privacy.