Hazel: Essential Mac Automation Tool

Hazel is hands-down one of my top Mac productivity software tools. And it’s one of those tools that tough to describe exactly why you would want it, because what it does is up to the user. In its most simplest form, Hazel is a utility that watches folders you tell it to watch, and does things to files that meet the criteria you set up. A very small set of actions it can perform are things like setting the color label of the file, renaming a file, moving files into subfolders, moving files to other folders (including the Trash), run AppleScripts and Automator actions, import files to iPhoto or iTunes, open files, set Spotlight comments, and lots more.

If you’ve ever used Smart Playlists in iTunes, then you’ll understand how Hazel works. But Hazel goes a step further and lets you perform actions on the files that meet the criteria in the “Smart Playlists”. If you are familiar with Folder Actions in OS X, Hazel is like Folder Actions on steroids. The best way to explain Hazel is to give you a few of my usage examples, but keep in mind that there are not “built-in”, nor are you limited to these actions. They are just some of the many things I use Hazel to automate on my Mac.

The screenshot below from the Hazel website gives you an idea of how rules are constructed for a folder which you’ve told Hazel to monitor:

That should give you a good idea of how rule sets are “built” and what kind of actions you can have Hazel perform. The top section is the “if the file meets this criteria” and the bottom section is the “do these things to those files”.

A good example folder rule set is the “desktop cleanup”. It’s a simple set of rules you build that look for files whose Date Added metadata is older than say, a month. You can tell Hazel to move any files that have been added to the desktop over a month ago to a folder on the Desktop named “Hazel desktop cleanup” or whatever you prefer it to be named. Hazel runs in the background (and does not slow down your system, I’ve been using it for years), and polls the files for the folder it’s been told to watch. When files on your desktop are older than a month, Hazel will automatically move them to the “Hazel desktop cleanup” folder you specified earlier. You could additionally tell Hazel to set those files with a Finder color label of Red, to give a visual indication that they’ve been processed by Hazel.

Once you get a feel for how Hazel works, it actually becomes fun to devise these Rube Goldberg setups to automate anything you do repetitively on your Mac. Lets go with another example.

Say you like to save a copy of all your screenshots to Dropbox. It’s a waste of time to manually drag them from the default location over to your Dropbox folder of choice. Instead, set up a Hazel rule that watches your screenshots folder for new images, and have Hazel copy any image files whose color label is not Green to your chosen Dropbox folder. And then have Hazel set the color label to Green so that file is not copied the next time.

Here’s another great one: Hazel can actually determine the source URL for files saved form the web. So if you save PDF receipts to your downloads folder, you can tell Hazel to move only those that came from the phone company website to your Receipts folder which you created in your Documents folder. I like to take this one step further, and have Hazel add today’s date to the end of the file name so I can see which bill is for which month, since usually those PDFs are always saved with the same generic file name.

Once Hazel “clicks”, you’ll start looking for ways to use it to automate things. It actually gets to be a bit fun. And with support for running Automator actions and AppleScripts, you can get deep down the Hazel rabbit hole with your automation.

One of the more advanced rules I use in Hazel is for my cartooning client folders. I always use the same structure for subfolders within each client project folder: Sketches, Documents, Reference, and Vector Art. I got tired of manually creating these every time I added a new client, so I used a combo of Automator and Hazel to automate the process. Hazel watches my main Clients folder of new folders added in the last minute, and runs the Automator action which creates the new subfolders within each individual client folder. It then sets that client folder’s color label to Green so Hazel will not run this rule again.

The possibilities for Hazel are truly endless, and much of the way you use hazel depends on your specific needs or workflow. If any of this sounds like something you might like, trust me once you “get” Hazel, you will place it high on your must-have Mac software lists as I have. There’s a free demo version available and a ton of Hazel articles, reviews and user workflows listed on the site, so there’s no reason not to give it a go.

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