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In Defense of Fuzzy Finders

·4 mins

It took me a while to admit it, but with a little upfront time investment, the command line is probably the fastest way to get most tasks accomplished. For me, most tasks means short, one-off, common file operations, such as:

  1. Trying to find that one damn file that’s nested somewhere down all those folders
  2. Figuring out what version(s) of python I have installed, and making new virtual environments
  3. Downloading files from a link and unzipping the results
  4. Examining and editing the contents of a file

Can an IDE or VScode offer all this to me? Yup. Those tools are awesome, but when I’m on the phone with someone, and they say “hey, can you pull up that one thing real fast?” I don’t have time to boot JetBrains, nor do I want to dig through VScode menus. I pop open the terminal, fuzzy search where I need to go, and hit the file with vim if it’s text or open1 if it’s something like Excel or PowerPoint. The process of getting that file open from a cold start is around 10 seconds. Here’s an example where I’m looking for a copy of the Python logo:


fzf here indexed over a million files on my computer, but because I was able to find it using just a few key words I knew were in the file path or name.

Let’s say it takes on average around 30 seconds to find a file clicking through a file manager.2 That’s 20 seconds of savings per file. Suppose we only look for around a dozen files like this per work day. Back of napkin math tells us:

    20 seconds/file
  * 12 files/day
  *  5 days/wk
/ 3600 s/hr
     0.33 hours/wk

So assuming you work with roughly the numbers above, one hour of getting comfortable with fzf will pay for itself in under three weeks. Scale this against the number of files you open, and how deeply nested down a mounted SharePoint folder they might be, and the dividends are much faster. If your work looks anything like mine, you’re sifting through at least several dozen spreadsheets, presentations, and source code files every day, many of them with similar names but with v3.pptx or v_FINAL.xlsx tacked on the end.

Does everyone need to use a fuzzy-finder to find and open files? Certainly not. Some Unix die-hards abhor the use of fuzzy-finders in their workflow, but I just can’t seem to get a pure “unixy” way to work nearly as fast as ctrl+t followed by slapping the keyboard with letters that might be somewhere in that file name.3 I also don’t think comments in the spirit of the linked /u/romainl comment have the same set of assumptions about what a “typical” data science setup looks like. I haven’t worked professionally as a website developer, but I have a feeling we work in very different environments. Often I’m sitting in front of a data warehouse I’ve never connected to before, with 2,000 unique table names, each with possibly 200+ columns. Usually the first thing I do is write a small fzf window that lets me search columns or table names. “Are there any features related to customer age? Did an excel sheet from last month make it into the data lake?” Interactive, visual feedback as I type these things, followed by a ctrl+u to clear the search bar is way faster than building a pipe with find and/or grep and examining the results each time.

Resources #

  1. fzf installation instructions
  2. kitty terminal – This is how I can icat an image in the terminal

  1. This is a macOS command. On Windows, just type the name of the file. For Linux I usually am on Gnome desktop, which uses gio open ↩︎

  2. I’d love some actual hard numbers here, but I’d consider this a conservative estimate ↩︎

  3. That said, find . -name "whatever.csv" is definitely still useful in a lot of cases ↩︎