25 Finder tips & tactics to speed up your workflow

A treasure trove of solid strategies and hidden gems to wrangle those windows and fly through folders

7 minute read

Intro

The Mac Finder is strangely named, as to actually find things Apple invented Spotlight, perhaps acknowledging that as a piece of software, it has its shortcomings (ironically, as too does Spotlight!).

However, there are some hidden gems which make it bearable, so read on and I’ll share this buried treasure with you.

Tactics

Coming from Windows with its File Explorer, to Mac with its Finder, was especially galling; it took me years to accept Apple’s way of doing things and develop strategies to make managing files on the Mac not a bit of a shit show.

Here’s what works for me:

  • Keep a Finder window open

    If you’re using the Finder all day, keep a window open and don’t close it (use Cmd + Tab to return to it quickly).

  • Add folders to the sidebar

    You can add your must-access folders to the sidebar, by simply dragging them in. Note that if you rename the original folder, or the item in the sidebar, its counterpart will be renamed too.

  • Make use of tabs

    Without Window’s excellent window management, Mac OS’s tabs are the next best thing. Hit Cmd + T to open a new tab, and use one per project / task / domain rather than going forward and back within the same tab. See the tips below on managing windows if you end up with too many tabs in multiple windows!

  • Set List view as the default

    The Finder’s “List” view is the closest thing the Mac has to Windows Explorer, so it’s easiest to set it as the default view. To do this:

    • Go View > List (or Cmd + 2)
    • Go View > Show View Options (or Cmd + J)
    • Click Use as Defaults
  • Split Finder left / Terminal right

    As a developer, the Terminal is the yang to the Finder’s yin. I like to have both open side by side (on a separate desktop) so I can grab paths from the Finder and use them in Terminal (see below for specific Developer tips).

  • Use window management software

    Although Mac OS has gained some tiling tools of late, it uses the somewhat clumsy full screen mode. Instead, use an app like Spectacle (opens new window) or Moom (opens new window) so you can put those windows in their place.

Tips

A couple of the items below you will find by trawling the Finder menus, but most you will not. I discovered most through trial and error, or from watching seasoned Mac users over the years. You may know some, but I’m guessing there’s at least a few you won’t!

  • Use the keyboard

    Note: these tips also work in Open / Save dialogs!

    In List view:

    • Up/Down to move through the visible folders
    • Left/Right to open closed / close open folders

    In all views:

    • Cmd + Up / Down to move up / down a folder level
    • Cmd + Down on a file to choose / open it
  • View / navigate to ancestor folders

    Right Click the title of the folder in the toolbar to reveal parent folders, then Click any folder to navigate to it.

  • View / navigate to previous folders

    Two ways to do this:

    • Cmd + [ / ] to go back / forward in history
    • Long press the “Back” or “Forward” buttons to reveal the history of folders, then Click any folder to navigate to it
  • Use spring-loaded folders

    You can Drag files or folders onto other folders (or tabs!) and pause for a split second to reveal their content, then:

    • Drop the item to move (hold Opt to copy)
    • Drag the folder outside of the Finder window to return to the original folder
    • Repeat the process for nested folders
    • Hit Esc to cancel

Files

  • Move (vs copy) files

    Use the normal Cmd + C to copy, then either Opt + Cmd + V to move. Alternatively, use the Right Click menu, hold Opt and choose “Move Item Here”.

  • View additional menu options

    Wherever a file or context menu is shown, hold Opt and optionally Shift to display additional / alternate options.

  • Batch rename files

    You can batch rename files by replacing text, adding text, or using a custom format:

    • Select multiple files
    • Right Click and choose "Rename…"
    • In the popup that appears, choose your options then click "Rename"

Windows

These commands should work in most applications:

  • Cycle through windows

    Cmd + ` / Cmd + Shift + ` to cycle to the next / previous application window.

  • Merge all windows

    From the Window menu choose “Merge All Windows” to replace all open windows with a single window of tabs.

  • Show all tabs

    Right Click any tab and choose “Show All Tabs” to preview all tabs as windows. Click a thumbnail to choose it.

Dialogs

  • Change the dialog’s location

    With a dialog open, drag a folder or file from the Finder and drop it on the dialog window. The dialog will update its location to that of the dropped item, selecting the item (and taking its name if saving).

  • Reveal the dialog’s location

    With a dialog open, hit Cmd + R to “reveal” the containing folder in a new Finder window.

  • Interact with files

    Mac dialogs don’t let you interact with the files directly… but you can Right Click to rename, duplicate, delete or show in Finder.

Developer tips

  • Toggle hidden files

    Cmd + Shift + . to toggle display of hidden files (works in windows and dialogs).

  • Grab the path of any folder

    There are two ways to do this:

    • Use Cmd + C to copy a file or folder, then Cmd + V to paste the path into a text-based app
    • Or, Right Click any file or folder, hold Opt and choose "Copy [name of the file] as Pathname"
  • Grab the path of the current window / tab

    If you hover over the title of the folder in the Finder window’s toolbar, it will reveal an icon. Click and Drag the icon wherever you need it (for example a terminal window) to drop the full path.

Bonus tips!

You may already know some of these:

  • Resize a column automatically

    Double Click a column border to automatically resize it to fit the content.

  • Resize a window from the center

    Alt + Drag a window edge to resize it from the center.

  • Preview file content

    • Hit Space to pop up a window with the file’s content
    • Hit Opt + Space to start a slideshow
    • Use Left / Right to cycle through files
  • Use the Inspector as live "Get info"

    Right Click any item, hold Opt and choose “Show Inspector” to get live info on files, selections, folder sizes, etc.

  • Paste files to other applications

    Depending on the target application, copying and pasting a file to another application can do different things:

    • in text editors, it will paste the path
    • in Keynote or Word, it will paste the file’s content directly into the document
    • in Photoshop, it will paste a high resolution image of the icon
    • in WebStorm:
      • in the project tree, it will copy the file
      • in a Markdown document, it will copy a PNG file of the icon and insert the path

    In other apps, who knows!? It’s not as consistent as Windows, so experiment to find out.

So...