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Downloads: A Digital Wasteland

Downloads on Dock
When was the last time you looked in your Downloads folder? In the last six months, I’ve met with many clients whose Downloads folders were chock full of files that had accumulated over several years. Sometimes this resulted in system slowdowns and always frustration about not having enough space.

Short on storage, Julie called me for help. I suggested she buy a Transcend JetDrive Lite with the intention to move her large photo and/or music libraries off her internal drive. JetDrive Lite is an SD card designed to sit semi-permanently in a MacBook’s card slot as a means to free internal space without having to carry a separate external drive.

The following week, Julie came to visit. I briefly explored why she was running out of space. Then I opened her Downloads folder. There were hundreds of files going back up to five years! Some had even migrated from her previous Mac. Trashing this archive of past downloads recovered tens of gigabytes of free space and left Julie with no need for any more. She was grateful to be able to return the JetDrive.

I had a similar remote session with Deborah, whose MacBook Air had started to slow down due to her storage issues. She decided that she would hold onto downloads from 2015 and 2016 and delete the rest. All of a sudden, Deborah’s Mac was more responsive and started loading webpages faster, too.

Initially, Deborah called me because she was experiencing slow Internet browsing and thought she needed to change her home wireless network. This largely became a nonissue as a result of our cleanup.

For many of the clients whom I have helped resolve this clutter in Downloads, I’ve found one of the biggest culprits is duplicates, sometimes even four or more copies of the same files. You may ask, “Why do so many duplicates accumulate in a downloads folder?”

The answer: Webmail.


Gmail IconMost of the people I work with use web browser-based email systems like Gmail and Yahoo. As a result, when they open an attachment, it normally saves to — you guessed it! — their Downloads folder. A select few individuals file that attachment for safe keeping, just as they might if they had received a paper in a physical inbox and organized it in a physical file cabinet. Most, however, leave it alone, name unchanged, and quickly forget that they saved it in the first place.

The next time they want to find the file, they return to their email, find the message and desired attachment, and download it all over again. The download gets a number suffixed to its name because a folder cannot have two files with the exact same name. And so repeats this pattern.

This is not exclusive to word processing, spreadsheet, and PDF files, which may be the most common email attachments. People also download photos and videos repetitively, resulting in the kinds of wasted space Julie and Deborah experienced.

As I indicated, webmail systems are largely to blame. In a recent PCMag article, How Google Can Fix Gmail, tech critic John C. Dvorak shares how Gmail’s interface has become so convoluted that it makes users struggle to accomplish seven most common email functions: compose, send, read, reply, reply all, forward, and delete. In Gmail, writes Dvorak, only compose is obvious while the rest are “either buried or shown as vague, often indecipherable icons representing a function in a cutesy way.”

I agree and find Gmail’s web interface convoluted, nondescript, and tough to configure and use. Additionally, I have five different email accounts I manage and I don’t have the time or patience to deal with each of three different interfaces, not to mention Google’s quirks with navigating among multiple separate Gmail accounts. I much prefer Mail, the app on my Mac represented by a postage stamp.


Mail IconMail is a single application that comes with every Mac in which one can manage any number of email accounts containing tens or hundreds of thousands of messages. (Currently, I have about 75,000.) For starters, Mail handles the seven most common email functions with buttons that are easy to find and interpret by word and/or icon; menu commands that are located in intuitive places; and keyboard shortcuts that make sense and are thus easy to remember and use.

Search is lightning fast and I can easily search in just one account or among all, and in specific mailboxes or across all of them. Rules (filters) are pretty sophisticated and I primarily use them to set colors and sound effects that differentiate emails arriving through each account. Plus, I don’t need to be online to read and draft messages because everything is cached on my Mac.

So, what about attachments? Attached files appear either at the bottom of a message or inline, depending on the sender’s email app and/or their placement of each file. First, I can click an individual attachment and tap the spacebar to preview it with Quick Look, just like in the Finder. (Tap space again to dismiss the preview.)

As expected, double-clicking an attachment opens it in its default app, while right-clicking provides contextual choices for opening, downloading, etc. There’s also a menu at the top of the message where I can see how many attachments there are, preview them, and download them individually or all at once.

All attachments in Mail are stored in folders that are hidden from the user and indexed so the app can easily manage them. When saving attachments elsewhere, I can easily choose where I want them to go, either with drag-and-drop or navigating in a standard save dialog. I never end up with email attachments in my Downloads folder, unless I explicitly choose to.

Now, suppose I’ve filed an attachment on my Mac, organized to my heart’s content, but I want to keep the original email message content. Holding onto the attachment seems duplicative, especially if it’s large. Mail gives me one additional choice in this context: Remove Attachments. This command in the Message menu strips the attachments from the message while preserving the body of the original message, preventing a bit of clutter.

Labels & Tags

MailTags IconIf you’re a big Gmail user, you might be familiar with labels. This is Gmail’s system for organizing messages into categories. Most email systems use the convention of mailboxes or folders and only permit a particular message to exist in a single mailbox.

Gmail, however, permits multiple labels per message and maintains an index of all messages and how each message is stored. As a result, when interacting with third-party email apps, a single message may appear to be in two places at once.

If you’re considering a migration to Mail and prefer the ability to multi-tag messages such as with Gmail’s labels, you might want to try MailTags by Indev Software. This add-on’s convention of “keywords” to tag messages supports a range of tag data including Gmail labels, Finder tags, and several others. MailTags integrates seamlessly into Mail’s interface, making it easy to use without a steep learning curve.


Disk Image IconAnother common culprit of storage woes in the Downloads folder is installers. On the Mac, where the App Store trend hasn’t caught on as strongly as on iOS, many applications and updates are still delivered via websites.

People manually download a file that contains either the new application version they want to use or a package that installs the application, utility, plugin, etc. Most of these downloads are delivered as a disk image (.dmg), a type of digital file that mimics the behavior physical disk. Others arrive as compressed zip archives.

When you open a disk image, what appears to be a disk mounts in the Finder and often opens a window containing the thing you want to install. The next instruction is to either drag the application to your Applications folder or to open an application or package that will install the application. For the former, many developers include an alias to the Applications folder to make this step easy.

Once you have completed this installation step, you can eject the disk and move the disk image to the Trash. There’s rarely a reason to hold onto a disk image like this. To eject, select the disk or its window and press Command+E, choose Eject from the File menu, drag the disk icon to the Trash, or click the eject icon next to the disk on the sidebar of a Finder window.

With zip files, opening a file generally expands the archive and plops its contents or a folder containing them next to the original archive. Like disk images, there’s little reason to save a zip archive so you can just move it to the Trash. However, you can save a step by telling Archive Utility, the app that opens your zip files, to trash or delete an archive after expanding it.

To do this, switch to the Finder and choose Computer from the Go menu. (Did you know there was a Go menu?) Click your main hard drive (“Macintosh HD” or whatever you renamed it) and navigate to System > Library > CoreServices > Applications. Open Archive Utility and then open its Preferences. Set as desired.

Archive Utility Location

Cleaning Habits

To quote Bill Cosby in his excellent “Complete Noah Act”:

You’re supposed to know all and see all, like I said before. You let me go out there and do all this stuff, and you never even looked in the bottom of that ark. Have you looked down there? No! Who’s gonna clean up that mess down there?!

Heeding the wisdom hidden in Cosby’s inquiry, I encourage you to start a practice of keeping your Downloads folder clean. Admittedly, I have three items in mine right now, all of which have been calling for my attention for months.

With Mail holding onto email attachments that didn’t need to get filed elsewhere, no webmail systems stealing my productivity, and strict habits of deleting installers and emptying the trash, I keep my Mac storage freed up for the things that matter. How about you?



Mac + Sustainability Coach at Sustainable Computing
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