I keep losing important files on my Mac. What's the simplest way to locate missing documents, pictures and so on?

Losing a file, document or folder in Mac OS X can be a real pain. You're all ready to work on something, or somebody needs a document, and you just can't remember where you left it.

Thankfully Mac OS X has some really powerful tools for helping you to locate missing files. As with all such systems, you can search by filename, but OS X files also have metadata. This is all the other information a file has. A music file could have the name of the artists, genre and song; a document could include the name of the application used to create it, the date it was created and the size of its file.

On top of this you can also search through the actual text of documents, even documents that you can't normally edit (such as PDF files). So there are a lot of tools at your disposal for finding a missing file on a Mac. Here's where you start.

See also:

Use Mac OS X Spotlight search to find missing files

Use Spotlight to find files

The first point of call for many people is to open Spotlight and look for the file:

  1. Press Command-Space to open Spotlight.
  2. Enter the name of the file you are looking for.
  3. The results appear in the list below.
  4. Hold down the Command key to view the path directory. Click a file while holding down Command to open Finder at that file's location.

Using document text to find lost files

Using Spotlight's document text

If only it was always that easy to find files. Unfortunately, there are often problems with this approach. The file you're looking for may not be accurately named, or you might not even remember the filename. You might only have a vague idea of what you called it.

In these instances it's better to expand your search to the document's contents. If you can remember the content of the file, or if you have a printout, try typing a sentence from the document into Spotlight.

Using metadata to find a lost file in Spotlight

Using Spotlight metadata

Another approach to finding a file is to search using a combination of metadata. If you know the type of document you're looking for, and the date you created it, you can combine these using date and created filters. Here's how to look for a PowerPoint document created on 13 September 2013:

  1. Press Command-Space to open Spotlight.
  2. Enter "kind:powerpoint created: 13/09/13".

This Apple Support page has some great advice for finding documents using Spotlight metadata. Even though it's listed as advice for Mountain Lion it still works effectively in Yosemite. Some of the suggested search queries include:

  • trip kind:document (searches for the word “trip” in documents only).
  • author:tom (searches for all items written by Tom).
  • meeting date:tomorrow (searches for meetings you have planned for tomorrow).
  • kind:images created:5/16/08 (searches for images created on a specific date).
  • kind:music by:“glenn miller” (searches for music by Glenn Miller).
  • modified:<=6/29/08 (Searches for files modified before a certain date).

How to find a file's metadata

Finding a file's metadata

Another trick you can use to find a lost file is to open a similar file and check its metadata. This enables you to view the metadata associated with that file. Follow these steps to view a file's metadata:

  1. Highlight a file similar to the one you want in Finder.
  2. Press Command-I (or choose File > Get Info).
  3. Look under the General and More Info areas for metadata.

You can then use similar metadata items with Spotlight searches to locate the item you are looking for.