Using tags to find things in the macOS Finder

The rundown

If you use a modern Mac, then custom-tagging your files and folders is a great way to find what you need in a hurry. These days, macOS tags are more than color-coding. You can also use “smart folders” to find what you want with a click, no matter where they are in your hard drive.

As a practical example, here’s how I organize my macOS files and folders today.

OS organization

The task was simple: Find every image photo in a website suitable for a certain design. But the design called for hero images that were 1100 pixels wide — and I had several hundred files to scan.

Also, my team lead wanted a list before our client meeting the next morning.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then deadline must be the father. My need to get critical information — fast — drove me to seek new file organization techniques.

If you’ve ever used a Mac, then you’ve used the Finder. Finder is an app used to organize files and folders, manage the desktop, and do anything with those file icons not in another app. It’s the desktop, the folder hierarchy, and the default app when you’re not doing anything else.

Windows and files in the macOS Finder
Screenshot of files and the desktop, both of which are windows of the Finder.

Apple introduced a color label feature for files and folders in the 1990s. The labels were limited to seven colors whose names were unchangeable. Not very practical. But these days, the label system — now called tags — is more usable. You can:

  • Create as many tags as you want.
  • Name them anything.
  • Delete tags, including the default set.
  • Reorder tags.
  • Search for items by tag.
  • Create smart folders that reliably list all files with a given tag — or combinations of tags, dates, names, and file types.

These features, plus smart folders give you tremendous power to organize your work beyond a simple hierarchy.

Tags evolve to fit current needs

There’s no single way to tag things. And if you find a winning solution, chances are your needs — and thus, your strategy — will change over time. Case in point, I’ve been adjusting my tags to fit my evolving work style for years.

Color-coded Mac OS tags
My colorful OS tags.

Sometimes I’ve created tags with good intentions … but don’t find useful in the long run. If I could tag tags, these would earn “consider for retirement.”

  • Code snippet: A bit of handy HTML, CSS, PHP, regex, etc. This made more sense when I wrote code for a living. And thinking about it, when is a reusable “code snippet” not also a “template”?
  • To do: If an item needs doing, then I add it to a to-do app.
  • Important: I replaced this with the “active” tag last year because most things are important. But only a few are important today.
  • Install: Used for temporary backups of things like my htaccess file when I was upgrading to Sierra.
  • Warning! I used this while checking for suspicious code bugs in 2012–14, but haven’t touched it in a while.
  • Tagged: Yes, I had a tag named “tagged.” I don’t know when I made it or why.
  • Red, yellow, blue, etc: I don’t find these default tags useful, so I deleted them with no ill effects.

So what’s left? The tags I use most (today) are:

  • Active: Files I am currently working on, and need to open daily, are “active.” I limit this tag to 20 items at any given time.
  • Reference: Files that are mostly lists I often refer to, but not often edit. Project requirements, client contact information, or other semi-permanent lists.
  • Use this: This tag is a temporary label for things I’m working with short-term, like the next hour. If something is tagged “use this” for more than a day, I tend to remove the tag.

Other tags relate to a file’s or folder’s status.

  • Done: Files and folders that have reached a final state. I find myself tagging items “done” after I send them to someone else or make them public, like published articles or Excel files for review and comments.
  • Pending: This started as stuff waiting for someone else, as a reminder to me to say, “whatever happened to this?” Later it became more of an “in progress” tag for anything that will eventually reach “done”.
  • Z-archived: Files I keep for posterity, but only in completed (or disbanded) projects. The “z” prefix comes in handy when sorting tags alphabetically.

The third tag family describes intent or use case.

  • Template: Files I use as a basis for other files, like frequently-used pie charts in Numbers, Excel files with preset columns, and ready-to-go HTML files. I don’t find myself using this very often — but often enough to keep it around.
  • Process: A recent creation, I tag things as “process” if they refer to step-by-step instructions for someone else (or my future self). I use this when helping team members invent … well, processes. We’ll see how long this tag lasts.
  • Backup: Since I have no way to keep work files off of my work Mac’s hard drive (for “security reasons”), I use this tag to mark older versions of important, frequently-used files that evolve over time. I also tend to add dates to their file/folder names to handle multiple versions.

Filter tags fast with smart folders

The beauty of using tags in macOS is the ability to find anything with a given tag regardless of its containing folder. If I want to find every “active” file across all of my projects, for example, all I need is a system-wide filter. In macOS talk, these are called smart folders.

Smart folders list items that meet certain criteria like size, creation date, file type — and, of course, tags. I generally have a smart folder for each major tag type (active, reference, and template) plus active files per project.

Smart folders in Mac OS
Smart folder for every template that I haven’t archived.

By default, adding conditions to a smart folder is an “and” boolean, which means an item must meet every condition. For example, when finding everything tagged “backup” and whose filename ends with “zip”.

But smart folders have a hidden trick. Option-clicking the plus icon lets you add a set of “or” conditions.

Smart folder with a conditional statement
Smart folder for every template I’ve used or modified in the past few weeks.

This example finds files that 1) are tagged “template”, and 2) are not tagged “archive”. Of those files, it will only show the ones modified or opened within the 30 days. The “BT” prefix is for personal work, as opposed to professional work.

Beating back tag cruft

Listing these makes me wonder about maintaining my file/folder tags. How often should I review them? How should I decide to eliminate, rename, or repurpose them?

To my knowledge, there’s no way to tell how many items in macOS use a tag like you can in Evernote or, to an extent, in WordPress.

The obvious approach is to spend time filtering by each tag — or at least the ones I don’t recall using lately. A smart folder would do this, but it’s a shame the OS can’t do it automatically.

Going forward

Tags help my oh-my-God-find-it-now system, but the real trick is setting a habit of applying them as I work. That’s a story for another time. Gotta get to work. My team lead needs a file. Like, right now.

Bonus: The hunt for 1100 pixels

The task was simple: Find every image photo in a website suitable for a certain design. But the design called for hero images that were 1100 pixels wide — and I had several hundred files to scan.

Also, my team lead wanted a list before our client meeting the next morning.

Luckily, my research into macOS tags revealed that But smart folders can find more than name, tag, kind, or date. When choosing criteria, check out “Other…” and you’ll find an extensive list of criteria. I mean, really.

Other search critera in macOS
That’s a whole lot of options.

These are practical in surprising ways. Once, a client of mine was moving their site to a new widescreen layout. To make that work, I needed to find every image that was larger than 1100 pixels wide. These images would serve the site’s new, larger design. Smart folders to the rescue: I created a smart folder for images whose pixel widths were 1100 or greater.

Smart search example
Finding every image wider than 1100 pixels.

Then I applied my “use these” tag, copied their file names into a presentation, and prepared to tell the client their site only had about five suitable images. But that’s another story.