How to clean up your computer’s embarrassingly messy desktop

Give your machine a digital declutter.

All too often, our computer desktops serve as a dumping ground for all kinds of random bits and pieces. Anything that doesn’t have an obvious and permanent home elsewhere on the system—downloads, pictures, shortcuts, notes, installers, and other digital detritus—acts as a distraction on your Windows or macOS machine.

This mass of icons isn’t conducive to a smooth computing experience. So we collected some tricks and tools to clean it up. You should be able to whip your computer’s front page into shape—making it look much cleaner and more professional—in no time.

Create desktop folders

The desktop acts much like your computer’s other storage locations, which means you can organize it with folders and subfolders. So take a look at the types of items you drop on your desktop and see if they fall into categories like internet downloads, documents from colleagues, application shortcuts, and so on. Then set up folders for the most common ones. This should significantly cut down the number of icons on your desktop.

To create a new folder on Windows, right-click on a blank part of the the desktop and select New > Folder; on macOS, Ctrl+click and choose New Folder.

Once you’ve sorted items into folders, you can organize their icons in moments. On Windows, sort your files by name or date by right-clicking on a blank area of the desktop and choosing Sort by. You can also right-click and choose View > Auto arrange icons to snap the on-screen icons into a grid formation. On macOS, open Finder and click View > Clean Up By to organize files by date or type. This option also arranges them in a neat grid at the same time.

Another way to reduce clutter is to create a dedicated “temporary” folder for stuff you won’t need for long, such as program installers or images you plan to attach to an email. This keeps the unnecessary items from filling up your desktop space. Every so often, open the temporary folder and delete its contents to get rid of outdated files—this takes much less time than sorting through desktop icons, and you don’t need to worry about accidentally deleting something important.

For macOS only: Try Stacks

The most recent version of macOS, Mojave, includes a useful desktop-tidying function called Stacks. Stacks essentially “stacks” (get it?) items by file type, creating little virtual piles of pictures, documents, and other files. This results in a much cleaner desktop.

Mojave rolls out in September, so even if you’re not running the public beta yet, the update should arrive on your Mac very soon. When it does, you’ll need to enable Stacks: Click on a blank area of the desktop to bring up the Finder menu and then choose View > Use Stacks. If you want to collate icons by a criteria other than file type—say tags or the date they were last modified—select View > Group Stacks By.

Once you start using Stacks, files and folders will instantly sort themselves into neat piles, which sit in rows and columns starting in the top-right corner of the screen. To expand a Stack, click on it, and the files it contains will temporarily spill back into view, allowing you to access or modify individual items. To run an operation on all the files in a Stack—like moving them, for example—Ctrl+click on the Stack icon and choose an option from the menu that pops up.

Install a third-party utility

If you don’t have Mojave, or you prefer another mode of tidying your desktop, you can enlist the services of a third-party app. These tend to work on one specific operating system, so we collected a couple options for Windows and another two for macOS.

If you own a Windows machine, we like Fences ($10, free trial available), which lets you group your shortcuts and files into buckets, much like you arrange app shortcuts on a phone. Then it hides or shows those buckets as needed, which results in a much cleaner desktop appearance. Nimi Places (free) works similarly: It splits the desktop into customizable containers, but this time, the containers point to subfolders on your system (such as the Documents folder or any other folder you’ve created). This allows you to shift files and shortcuts off your desktop, but keep them within easy reach.

For macOS, one very impressive option is Spotless ($25, free trial available), which analyzes all the files on your desktop (as well as other storage locations) and automatically moves them into designated folders based on your rules. For example, you can have the app drop photos into a pictures folder, Microsoft Word files into a documents folder, and so on. Spotless runs quietly in the background, kicking in to tidy up on a set schedule. Declutter (free) works much like Spotless, but it’s a bit more basic and streamlined. When you drop a file on your desktop, the app automatically whisks that item into a specific folder based on the rules you set up in advance. This can happen instantly, daily, or on a custom schedule.

Adjust your download settings

You don’t want to declutter your screen only to watch icons pile back up as soon as you finish. To help keep things tidy, you can save fewer files to your desktop in the first place.

It doesn’t take an app to do this: When you’re downloading a file or transferring an image to another location, just think about whether it really needs to go on the desktop at all. After all, you’ll only need seconds to find a different folder on your system. You can even adjust where files end up once you download them—it just takes a tweak to your browser settings.

In Chrome, open the program menu by clicking the three dots in the top-right corner, choose Settings > Advanced, scroll down to Downloads, and click Change next to Location. In Microsoft Edge, open the app menu by clicking the three dots in the top-right corner, select Settings, and change the default folder location under the Downloads heading. In Safari, head to Safari > Preferences > General and make your choice from the File download location menu. Finally, in Firefox, open the program menu by clicking the three lines on the top right, head to Preferences > General, and change the default location setting under Downloads.

Even with these new settings, it can’t hurt to run a weekly or monthly desktop cleanup. Put in five or so minutes of tidying time, and you’ll get through more deleting and organizing than you think. If you prefer to work with the desktop open as a normal folder, rather than a full-screen wallpaper-backed display, you can do this in File Explorer (for Windows) or Finder (for macOS).

David Nield

David Nieldis a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.