Files and Folders Disappeared from Desktop Mac – How to Recover?

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Files and Folders Disappeared from Desktop Mac – How to Recover?

So, your files and folders disappeared from your desktop on your Mac. Now what?

If you keep your desktop cluttered with files and folders, it might come as quite a shock to find them missing out of the blue.

Macs are supposed to be reliable computer systems. However, a Mac is still a man-made machine, therefore occasionally being susceptible to glitches that can severely impact our daily lives.

Sometimes, desktop Mac users report that their files and folders disappear completely, seemingly for no reason at all. Thankfully, there are several easy methods that can help you restore lost files and folders from your Mac.

You can do most of these by yourself at home, only taking up a few hours of your time at most. Let’s talk about a few potential fixes before you need to worry about going to the Apple store for service.

Your files and folders may have “grown legs and walked away,” but they may still be on your computer, just hidden in an unlikely area.

We are often the cause of our own problems. People frequently move things around their desktop and then forget about them moments later.

Spotlight Search is incredibly easy to use. It’s built into macOS, letting you easily search your whole system for files.

Spotlight Search can be found on the upper right-hand side of your screen. The icon is a magnifying glass.

open spotlight search mac


Click the magnifying glass icon to begin your search.

Step 2: Locate Files And Folders

This part is easiest if you know the name or keywords of your file or folder. You should be fine, even if you only vaguely remember its name.

spotlight search for files and folders mac


Spotlight Search will also pull up websites for those keywords. Simply scroll down a bit to the section titled ‘Documents.’

Step 3: Move The File Or Folder

You can move the file or folder back to its original home at this stage. You can also open the document to open it.

Check Your Trash Bin

When was the last time you checked the files in your trash bin?

Many people leave their trash bin completely untouched until they need to empty it out to free up storage space.

Lost files and folders may be the result of accidentally moving them to the trash. Still, it could feel like the sock fairy has found a new home. Now it is targeting your computer documents instead of your sock drawer.

Step 1: Open Trash Bin

Select the trash icon at the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. You may have also moved the trash bin to a different location, but the icon should look the same.


Step 2: Sort Through Files And Folders

You’ll be able to see each file and folder immediately once your trash bin is open.

view folders on mac


It may be beneficial to sort your documents as a list instead of icons if you’re searching for one by name. Click on the icon with two arrows to open the filter menu.


Step 3: Find The Files

It’s extremely important that you reorganize your files once you find them. Hopefully, you named your files something memorable. But if you don’t remember the file name, it can be tricky to identify the ones you need in a trash bin full of similar files.

If you’ve found them in the trash bin, you can drag and drop your file from the trash to your desktop. Alternatively, you can right-click on them and select “put back.”


Once you’re done with this step, you can empty your trash bin to free up extra storage space by pressing the ‘Empty’ button.

Use Time Machine to Revive Backup Files

There are plenty of movies that advise us against time travel, but it’s necessary in some cases. Time travel is completely safe on your desktop Mac–so long as you’ve remembered to back up your important files.

Though, if you’re struggling to find files or folders now, odds are you’ll take up the habit of backing up data to prevent future headaches.

Step 1: Access Your External Hard Drive

This method requires you to have access to an external hard drive with your files on it. If you have been updating it regularly, you should be able to find what you’re looking for.

Plug in your external hard drive to your desktop Mac and watch as the magic happens.

Step 2: Launch The Time Machine

You won’t need to learn rocket science to operate your Mac’s time machine, but it would be pretty cool to take some lessons from Marty McFly.

You can find the Time Machine in the ‘General’ section of your ‘System Preferences.’ 

time machine settings mac


Your external hard drive will show up as the ‘Backup Disk’ if you have updated it with the Time Machine.

Step 3: Recover Files

Your files and folders will appear as a list by date. Simply click the file or folder that you’ve been looking for and press ‘restore.’ 

Time Machine is a rather unique backup tool because it also allows you to restore previous versions of your documents if they had been backed up with your external hard drive.

iCloud Settings

ICloud is an incredibly well-known backup software. It is so well-known that it has been memed and translated into our regular conversational vocabulary.

Even Android users love to talk about iCloud, and they have been known to also refer to it as the backup software. While Windows users have OneDrive, Mac users have iCloud. Like any integrated backup software, it has its pros and cons.

The bad news is that iCloud settings can get users in a bit of a pickle, even with its massive popularity. Your files and folders might be disappearing due to a simple mishap with your iCloud settings.

Step 1: System Preferences

Launch your ‘System Preferences’ and select ‘iCloud.’

files and folders icloud settings


Step 2: iCloud Drive

Select ‘iCloud Drive’ from the ‘Apps Using iCloud’ menu.

files and folders icloud


Step 3: Change Settings

Make sure that you’ve toggled the ‘Desktop & Documents Folders’ on. If this button is toggled off, you may ‘lose’ your desktop files and folders.

Thankfully, if this is the cause of your problem, nothing has actually been lost. There were simply some settings hidden within your ‘System Preferences’ that moved your files and folders off your desktop.

These settings are also a bit hidden, so it might have been difficult to diagnose iCloud as the culprit. It is important to keep your iCloud up to date as much as possible.

As you can see by our screenshots, we need to update our iCloud soon, since its storage is full!

Why Are My Files And Folders Disappearing From My Desktop Mac?

There are a number of reasons why your important files and folders are suddenly disappearing from your desktop Mac. 

Some of these reasons are controllable, while others are not.

You Accidentally Deleted Them

You’d be surprised at how many important documents are lost every day because users accidentally empty their trash bins too early.

Otherwise, people are often careless with the contents they dispose of in their trash bins.

There are many instances where we haphazardly dispose of a Word document only to find out later that it contained our million-dollar business idea.

Everybody makes mistakes.

Your Power Went Out

This is out of anyone’s control. 

Severe weather events like rain or windstorms can knock the power out quickly.

Millennials recall their parents shouting at them to press the save button every 15 minutes–just in case.

They were right to do so. 

Now, apps like Google Docs automatically save your work periodically, so this is less of an issue.

However, some offline work can be compromised during power outages, regardless of the outage’s cause.

You Changed Your Password

Less frequently, Mac users have reported that files go missing after their administrative password changes.

Your Apple ID isn’t the culprit, but the password you use to log into your Mac.

Your desktop computer should be password protected, and you should change that password at least once a year, but this can occasionally lead to glitches that remove files for you.

iCloud Failures

ICloud is a helpful and important tool. However, it can be pretty buggy, especially if you’re backing up large quantities of data.

We often don’t pay much attention to every detail of iCloud backups. Instead, we let the system run and assume it’s smart enough to do what it’s told.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes cause you to lose files that didn’t make the cut with your recent iCloud backup.

How To Prevent Lost Files and Folders On Desktop Mac

Simply put–back up everything

That’s right–back up every single file and folder that you store on your Mac to the best of your ability.

There are some reliable built-in resources that you can use to back up your files, but it’s important to have a backup of your backup.

It may sound redundant, but we shouldn’t rely on technology too much, as tempting as it may be to do so. The best method for backing up data is creating redundancy. In other words, if one backup fails, you should have another standing by.

Many experts suggest keeping a physical copy and a cloud copy of your data. You can easily do this using an external hard drive and a cloud backup service.

External Hard Drives

Your best bet is to invest in an external hard drive. They have become increasingly more popular and accessible in recent years.

Most users don’t need to spend more than $100 on a hard drive for their personal Mac. You can even schedule next-day delivery or same-day pickup from most retailers.

All it takes is one inconvenience to scare you straight into getting excited about buying a shiny new external hard drive. Before you lose any data, you should spend a few bucks to copy it to an external drive to keep it safe.

But if you don’t have the money to spare, it is better to do something instead of nothing. If you have a flash drive lying around, you can still copy your most important files. The real cost-effective method, though, is cloud backup services.

Cloud Service Backups

There are apps outside of the ones you already have on your Mac that can easily back up your important data. So, if you don’t want to rely on Apple’s built-in iCloud, you can turn to a host of other cloud backup services instead. Google Drive is a popular one.

Unfortunately, Google Drive does require a subscription fee, but it gives you a lot of data for a low cost. The most basic plan starts at around $2/month. For that price, you get 100GB of storage. Not too shabby!

This is a great option if you have a lot of photos in your camera roll. 

Your iCloud storage will do an okay job at keeping them, but Google Photos is a great “hack” if you need to ensure thousands of images (even if they’re all of your dog at different angles) are kept safe for years to come.

College students also benefit from Google Drive subscriptions because it leaves more room for files on Google Docs. Plus, you get other tools like Sheets and Slides.

Another popular cloud backup is Dropbox. They have plans starting at $10 per month for 2TB. So, it is effectively the same cost per GB as Google. But you don’t have access to the rest of Google’s ecosystem, making it a little less convenient.

Either way, you’re better off choosing any cloud service than relying solely on a physical backup of your data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did all my files disappeared from my desktop Mac?

There are several reasons why your files and folders are disappearing from your desktop Mac. Thankfully, they may not have “disappeared” at all. Instead, you may have moved them haphazardly without thinking too deeply about it. You can use the Finder or Spotlight Search in this instance, especially if you remember the file’s/folder’s exact name.

Sometimes, power outages can cause files to disappear from Mac. You can’t control these instances, but most programs will offer to recover the file for you if it had been saved recently. You may lose a bit of work, though. Other seemingly random glitches can cause disappearing files, too, like changing your admin password for the account you use to log into your Mac.


How do I get my files back on my desktop Mac?

In many cases, you can find files and folders using Spotlight Search or Finder. Granted, you will need to know a few keywords to describe what you’re looking for, but it should still only take a few minutes.

Similarly, files and folders that have disappeared may be located in your trash bin if you haven’t emptied it out. However, the best way to fix files and folders disappearing from your desktop Mac is to back up your computer whenever you have the chance.

You can use iCloud, Time Machine, or other software, but it’s crucial that you run regular backups. We recommend that you invest in an external hard drive to keep your files and folders even more secure.

Why are all my folders suddenly gone from desktop?

This could be an iCloud issue. You may have your iCloud settings to keep your Desktop and Documents files/folders exclusively on iCloud. This would move them from the icons you typically see on your desktop to your iCloud storage.

You can fix this by simply going into your iCloud settings from your ‘System Preferences’ and selecting ‘Options’ from the ‘iCloud Drive’ section.

What to do when files disappeared after update?

Although it is rare, sometimes an update can cause your files to get relocated or even disappear completely. Oftentimes, macOS will create a ‘relocated items’ folder on your desktop. If you can’t find this folder, you might need to rely on your previous backups.

This is when having a Time Machine or backup can come in handy. Start by reverting to a previous date in your Time Machine to restore your system to an earlier state. Once you do that, make sure to back up your files and try the update again.

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