Save Time with Search-First Navigation

Cover Image for Save Time with Search-First Navigation

Imagine saving an hour each week just by changing how you look for files and apps on your computer. Sounds too good to be true? Let me explain.

We've all been there: searching through nested folders trying to find that one file. You're pretty sure you saved it under 'Work'—or was it 'Projects'? After a minute of clicking, you give up and type the file's name into the search bar. There it is!

Most people use what I call Memory-First Navigation.

Memory-First Navigation: First, you try to navigate the folder structure to find the file. If you can't find it, you use the search bar as a fallback.

I'm here to convince you to use Search-First Navigation.

Search-First Navigation: You use the search bar to open every file. Even if you know where it is.

How I Saved Time with Search-First Navigation

I adopted Search-First Navigation everywhere I could around a year ago.

To enforce the habit of using search for everything, I stopped opening even my most frequented files via shortcuts. With practice, I found there to be no time difference between clicking an icon and searching for the name of a frequently used file.

In most software, I've found Search-First Navigation to work extremely well. The search provided by my OS, mailbox, text editor and even my image library turned out to be surprisingly accurate and quick.

In some software, the experience was not so optimal. For example, I found OneDrive's search to be too unreliable and slow. When possible, I switched to different software. If that wasn't possible, I reverted to Memory-First Navigation.

Overall, I'm very happy with the switch and haven't looked back. The journey has been similar with a few of my friends who tried the approach when I recommended it to them and have stuck with it ever since.


Here's what I learned from using Search-First Navigation over the last year.

Reliably Fast

Sometimes, you overestimate your memory and think you know where some file is, but you can't find it. I've caught myself and my friends staring at their screens trying to find that file that must have been there.

The main benefit of using the search bar is that it always leads to the correct result within a couple of seconds, with no outliers.

In other words, using the search bar for files is an O(1) operation, meaning it takes constant time. In contrast, looking inside subdirectories has a variable time complexity—O(?). I'm putting a question mark because who knows how deep you've buried that file?

Not Mentally Taxing

With practice, using the search bar does not require you to context switch. This is in contrast to Memory-First Navigation which sometimes requires your full attention.

Even brief interruptions created by shifting between tasks can cost 40 % of someone's productive time.

If you're aiming to boost your productivity, minimizing context switching is key. By adopting Search-First Navigation, you're reducing unnecessary mental load, allowing you to focus on tasks that genuinely require your full attention.

Less Conflict In Teams

When you're working with a team and everyone has access to the same folder, Memory-First Navigation often fails. Why?

Your colleagues may not organize files the way you do, and files could be moved without notice.

I've seen teams waste hours debating folder structures—a problem solved by switching to Search-First Navigation.


After adopting Search-First Navigation, I was no longer using my folders and app shortcuts. So I decided to do away with them. Here's how:

Single Folder Strategy

I keep all my documents in a single folder named "Files," with no subfolders.

If my past self heard this, he'd be horrified. When my friends hear this, they are horrified. But hear me out—once you rely on the search bar, you realize that there is no point in categorizing your files manually anymore.

Screenshot of my documents folder, showing a single Files folder containing everything

Similarly, all my emails end up in a single "Archive" folder.

Screenshot of my mailbox showing only two folders, inbox and archive


The single folder strategy makes it harder to apply different backup frequency and retention strategies to your files. A simple solution is to partition your files based on the backup strategy used.

As you noticed in my screenshot above, I keep my git repositories in a separate folder, since they are already backed up by git.

No Shortcuts

After getting used to Search-First Navigation, I decided to do away with all app and website shortcuts. This had two major benefits:

First, It forced me to adopt the habit of using Search-First Navigation, which made me more productive overall.

Second, it added a slight amount of friction to my habitual app and website checking, reducing distractions.

The slight added friction was enough to deter mindless browsing or habitual app checking. My time spent on Instagram, X, Reddit, and many other social media sites plummeted by 80 % to under 30 min/day.

On my iPhone, I removed all home screen shortcuts. I pull down on the screen to reveal the search bar and search for every app I want to open.

Screenshot showing my iPhone home screen with no app icons

On my Mac, I use Cmd+Space (Spotlight) to open every app and file. I have no shortcuts on my desktop or on the dock.

Screenshot showing my Mac Desktop with no shortcuts

On my browser, I open websites using the address bar. I have no bookmarks.

Screenshot showing my browser with no bookmarks

You Should Try It!

If you've made it this far, you're probably intrigued by the potential time and mental energy you could save. So give it a try!

I recommend you begin with a specific software or platform where you frequently hunt for files. For one week, commit to using exclusively the search function on that platform.

After a week, you can reflect on your experience. Did you save time? Was it less mentally taxing? If the answer is yes, consider expanding this strategy to other areas like your email, image library, and operating system.

You may also want to take a look at your shortcuts—both on your computer and mobile device. Ask yourself if they really serve you or simply act as distractions. Experiment with removing them and see how it affects your focus and productivity.

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