Organizing files in Catalina

Since I date back to the Mac SE, I have always organized my folders and files directly on the hard drive. Create folders, put files in, etc.

I’ve just upgraded an older Macbook Air to Catalina and am discovering that I cannot do this anymore. When I try to drag files onto the hard drive I see a circle with a slash through it.

I’ve tried changing permissions on the hard drive but when I try that I get an error message that I don’t have permission to do that. My account is an admin account.

Some searching reveals that this is a feature of Catalina?

Is there a workaround, short of setting up my usual file structure inside my user folder (which is clunky because I have to drill down several levels to find anything).

There is likely a workaround involving disabling System Integrity Protection, but I wouldn’t recommend that, it will almost certainly cause more hassle than it saves.

Setting up your usual file structure inside your user folder is a much better idea and really has been since Mac OS X debuted. (I also had a specific file structure I used in the root of the hard drive on classic Mac OS, but it was a different system for a different time.)

It doesn’t have to be clunky, as you can set things up so that you have direct access to your file structure:

  1. (optional) In the Finder menu, if you go to Preferences and choose the General tab, you can disable Hard disks so it no longer shows on the desktop (since you’re not storing files in there directly).

  2. In the same tab, change New Finder windows show: to the top level of your file structure (or your home folder or your Documents folder, whichever you prefer).

  3. While holding down cmd-opt (⌘-⌥), drag the folder at the top of your file structure to the desktop. This will create an alias and when you double-click it you will open directly into your file structure, as you used to when it was in the base level of the hard drive.

  4. (optional) Drag the top level folder in your file structure to the top of the Favourites in the Finder window sidebar. This will make it one click away in open & save dialogues too.


You’re no longer allowed to put anything at the root of the drive…but a folder named Users/Shared gets created and that’s where a lot of people are putting their formerly root level folders. It’s easy to add /Users/Shared to the sidebar or aliases on the desktop or whatever though. Your user’s folder works too but if you have multiple users and run (as any good IT security guy will recommend) your daily driver account as non admin then putting them in /Shared gives every user access to them.

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There is a menu item in the Finder that simplifies accessing files for me. In the Go menu, the View Recent Folders button often brings me to a recent folder that is close in the hierarchy to where I want to be.

Ah – thank you all for clearing that up. Guess it’s time to get with the slightly more modern program…

Question – I’ve been organizing all of my folders/files in a single folder on my desktop. Is it OK to leave that folder there, or should I move it inside the users/shared folder?

It is possible to create a folder that appears at root level, by configuring /etc/synthetic.conf. It isn’t necessary to disable SIP. I followed Rich Trouton’s page: Creating root-level directories and symbolic links on macOS Catalina.

But I’m not sure whether to recommend this here really. For example - do double check that backups are functioning in the location you set up. Somewhere in your user folder might be a better idea.

An idea about avoiding having to “drill down several levels to find anything” - have you considered adding the folder to the Finder sidebar? (EDIT: oops - Jolin already suggested this.)

I was going to make the same recommendation. Up through Mojave it was acceptable to create folders at the root level – and I did that for all my photos (e.g. /PhotoLibrary).

You might want to look at this article:

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I’m with @ashley on this one.

I’d avoid the temptation to create (BTW the file doesn’t exist on a stock macOS Sonoma system, and may not for earlier systems either) and modify /etc/synthetic.conf unless you really, really can’t avoid it. It always seems that the more you deviate from a “stock” macOS configuration, the greater the chance that a future update of macOS will introduce a problem because you made a modification that Apple didn’t expect.

I’m on macOS 12.4, and when I did this, /etc/synthetic.conf didn’t exist initially - I had to create it. Apple have documented it in a man page (see man synthetic.conf).

But yes, I’m hesitant to recommend it either. Eg there are a few commenters on Rich Trouton’s page reporting that their Mac didn’t boot after they tried to configure this (I think due to making small syntax errors in the file), and they had to use Recovery mode to fix it.

Perhaps something to be considered as like a very sharp tool (in the UNIX tradition!).

Some things come to mind:

  • UNIX is a very user friendly operating system. It’s just very picky about who its friends are.
  • As a very sharp tool, you can make precision cuts, or poke your eye out.
  • McCroskey: “Johnny, what can you make out of this?” Johnny: “This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl…”

Comments on various sites indicate that the problems have been due to user-generated formatting and syntax errors–not the method itself. The most common problem is using spaces instead of tabs between the fields in the file. I’ve tested this on an iMac running Sonoma and it works as advertised.

I’m not advocating that this is the best or only solution–only that it is an Apple-certified solution.

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True, but it’s still what I’d consider a critical bug. A malformed config file should not prevent normal system startup. Especially not for something that is documented (that man page) and therefore supported.

It should either ignore the malformed line(s) or ignore the file, but it should not prevent the system from booting and allowing a login.

Just because you can does not mean you should.

It might be documented by Apple and hence “supported” at some level, but it’s pretty obscurely documented, Makes you wonder how much Apple really wants it to be used given the only place it seems to be “officially” documented is in the man pages.

“Stealth features” like this have a way of coming back to bite you because they can change at Apple’s whim.