Getting things done with the Finder

by Giles Turnbull

Some people like to organize their work using outliners or note-takers. Some like to put everything in one huge text file (an approach I tried - and abandoned - earlier this year). And some people just like to keep things simple.

That was my aim when I left behind my huge text file and switched to a dead-simple system of Finder directories that I could put to use as a 'visual outliner'. Despite its many faults, the Finder remains at the heart of every Macintosh and appeals to my wish to make the process of organizing my work as simple as possible.

Thanks to the various views available within the Finder (Column, Icon, and List), it's possible to use it as a hierarchical outliner, with headings (directories), sub-headings (sub-directories) and notes (files, of whatever kind you might need to use). But the modern Finder annoys a lot of people, thanks to inconsistencies, bugs and UI annoyances.

Despite these shortcomings, I'm quite enjoying my use of the Finder as a visual, not hierarchical, outliner. I have set up three directories in which I manage all my current work. My needs are pretty simple: I need a folder to keep ideas for articles, another for work in progress, and a third for ideas that have been sent to editors and may (or may not) get commissioned.

My Finder workspace

If a file is in the large window on the left, it's a new idea that I need to develop. At this point, it might only consist of a line of text, or perhaps a URL.

If it's in the window on the upper right, it's a file that's currently being worked on. An article, weblog post or some other document that needs to be dealt with soon. (I don't bother putting due dates on the files here - due dates go where all other dates, on the calendar in the kitchen.)

If it's in the smaller window on the lower right, it's an idea that's been more fully developed and submitted to an editor - I'm awaiting their response to tell me if they think it's worth paying me for. A simple prefix on each file name tells me which publication I've sent the idea to, and therefore acts as a reminder of whose name to look out for in my inbox.

This visual approach is much quicker than ferreting around in a huge text file, and makes it hard for me to lose track of ideas. I always know what a file's status is, simply by looking at where it's located in my set of directories.

So far, so good.

The only slight disadvantage is that in order to view the whole thing - all three windows - I have to open each of them individually. Sure, with Quicksilver this requires just a few seconds and a dozen or so keypresses, but might there be a quicker way of doing it? Could I not, in fact, set up a means of opening specific groups of Finder windows, each group used in different situations?

I started to think of these three windows as my 'workspace'. How can open all of them - view the workspace in its entirety - quickly?

Automator provides a quick and simple solution. A workflow comprising just two actions is sufficient: (1) Get Specific Finder Items (add the folders I use to the list), and (2) Open Finder Items. Save as an application, and it can be invoked with Quicksilver - or set as a login item - to make things even more convenient.

Of course, the Finder was always supposed to be a visual means of finding and storing files. The whole point was that windows could be arranged in a manner that made sense to the user, and that they would stay arranged the way you left them. In OS X this has been more tricky to accomplish, because of the way the OS prefers to show full brushed metal windows with all the trimmings, and its tendency to not remember placement and display settings for individual windows.

Like I said: my simple needs require one simple workspace. The Finder copes with this fine. But other people might need to have several different workspaces, each with a different set of windows displayed in different ways; each used for a different project or task.

There's several ways to do this. You could use some kind of virtual desktop system, and keep each view open in a virtual space of its own. You could replicate the Automator workflow above and save suitably customized copies of it, each with a different name and a different custom icon. Subsequent Quicksilver triggers or other custom keyboard combos could be used to bring each Finder view into action whenever you need it. Using Option+Command+W is a convenient way of closing all currently open Finder windows, giving you a means of dismissing one workspace before opening another.

Or, you could just use the new Tabs feature in PathFinder 4, which should be released any day now, and which I really hope includes a way to save a group of directories in a browser-style tab group, and open them all with one click.

Do you get things done with the Finder?


2005-12-19 11:48:39
Save tabs feature in Path Finder 4
Path Finder 4 won't be able to do this, but it's a killer idea. I'll make sure that the developer has this on his to-do list for a future release.
2005-12-19 15:33:24
Save tabs feature in Path Finder 4
Heh, that's good to hear
2005-12-19 19:10:05
Get it done with this instead...
Forget the finder:
2005-12-20 11:56:34
Get it done with this instead...
Rixstep's software might be good but they seem pretty arrogant to me. Backstabbing other developers to promote your own software ain't cool.
2005-12-20 18:07:13
Get it done with this instead...
Yes, I can understand how some people might see them as being arrogant. As far as "backstabbing", I haven't seen that, but I guess it's all in your point of view. At any rate, I wasn't making a social statement, just pointing out what I thought was the best tool for the job.
2005-12-21 13:37:33
Get it done with this instead...
I've never used Xfile but it looks like the type of somewhat "geeky" file browser I'd like, although nowadays I'm more interested in tools/interfaces that minimize the tedium of file management as much as possible. There's some related discussion of that here:

The story of the lost Finder

I'm not sure they'll be any more followups since most weblog discussion here tends to be short-lived, which is unfortunate for anyone late to the party who'd like to participate. I wish O'Reilly had resources to facilitate more ongoing discussions of certain topics (personally, I find many to be quite interesting) and create a sense of community that seems missing here. But enough about that ... now back to GTD. :-)