Mac Desktop Icons Keep Refreshing (WTF)

Recently I noticed that the desktop icons on my MAC keep refreshing constantly/randomly while I was working.  I Googled the issue after work and 90% of the threads I encountered suggested that “Google Drive” was the problem.

Nothing else refreshed on my Mac – just the desktop icons. The refresh intervals were NOT predictable (e.g. every 15 minutes). Sometimes they’d refresh a few times within a 20-minute span – and other times they’d refresh once every few hours. (Zero rhyme or reason).

gotta stay fresh

What did I do? Uninstalled Google Drive (I never used it anyway and wasn’t sure why it was even installed).  Did this fix the problem? No. So I continued brainstorming potential reasons as to why my Mac desktop icons continued “refreshing” at completely unpredictable times.

The article below is a byproduct of my troubleshooting and brainstorming. Eventually I did fix the “constant refreshing” but am not entirely sure what specific intervention(s) helped most.

Before doing anything: ask some questions…

  • When did you first notice the refreshing of Mac desktop icons?
  • Did it begin after installing a new application or software? (If this is the case, try closing or removing the application/software – and see if the refreshing “stops”).

How to fix: Mac desktop icons keep refreshing…

Understand that the reasons the desktop icons on your MAC keep refreshing may differ from the reasons mine or someone else’s keep refreshing.

The first thing most people do when this occurs is to search Google for the issue and read what “worked” for others.

The problem with this is that the underlying cause of the ongoing desktop refresh for you may differ from others – and thus the recommendations won’t help.

Before doing anything: Disconnect from the internet. Why? If your Mac is somehow hacked or running malware – disconnecting from the internet should interrupt the process by preventing further outflow of information.

1. Check for malware & viruses

It is generally thought that most people with Mac computers don’t need to worry as much about malware and viruses as PCs running Windows. The reality is that Macs can still get infected with viruses and malware.

Malwarebytes: This is one of the most-recommended software options for individuals concerned about viruses/malware on Macs – and comes with a free trial.

The first thing you should do is run Malwarebytes and determine whether there are any shady/malicious programs or files running on your Mac. If everything checks out – move on to the next step of troubleshooting.

2. Check for software & application updates

  • System Preferences > Software Update > Check for updates
  • App Store > Updates > Update All

Failure to update Mac software or applications in a timely manner may result in functionality issues which might somehow indirectly contribute to desktop icons refreshing sporadically.

On occasion, simply downloading/installing the latest updates will stop this from occurring.

Why? It may be that the latest updates fix “bugs” that were contributing to desktop malfunction – or that the process of completing large software updates (which often involves closing apps & computer restart) remedies the issue (particularly if you haven’t properly shut down your Mac in days/weeks).

Note: Sometimes weird issues like “refreshing of desktop icons” can occur after an update. This is because the update probably has some “bugs” that need to be worked out. If actually caused by an update – it’ll generally resolve with subsequent updates.

3. Check available storage (GBs) & clear if necessary

Macs can occasionally experience lagging and/or functionality issues if storage space is nearing maximum capacity.

Check available storage by

  • Transfer files: To an external HD or USB – then delete.
  • Delete files: Any files or programs that you don’t need should be deleted.

Remove files to clear space if necessary. Recommended method? Deletion if files deemed unnecessary OR store on an encrypted external HD – then delete.

You could also transfer files to “iCloud” if you have enough available storage and prefer using cloud storage.

How much storage should be available? I’d say at least 10-20 GB. I’ve noticed that under 10 GB sometimes causes frequent refreshing, application errors, and other system glitches.

4. Close all applications/programs

Many people have had desktop icons on Macs continuously refresh due to certain applications running in the background.

Why? Some of these applications may: (A) not be fully compatible with Macs, (B) be outdated and need updating; and/or (C) may be hogging RAM (such as to induce various glitches).

To determine which applications are running – click on the Apple icon (upper left) and “Force Quit.” Close all applications that you don’t need to be running and if any application looks suspicious – investigate.

A very common application that has caused a lot of problems for Mac users in the past is “Google Drive.” Many have reported that closing Google Drive completely fixes the desktop refresh (but this didn’t do much for me).

5. Restart and/or Shut Down Mac

If you’re the type of person (like me) who liberally puts your Mac in “Sleep Mode” rather than doing a complete “Shut Down” – you probably should try a shut down or restart to see if it helps fix the desktop refreshing problem.

Before restarting/shutting down you may want to check and see if there are any software updates (macOS) that need to be installed so that you can effectively kill 2 birds with one stone (as restarting your Mac is often required with large updates).

On multiple occasions I had issues with glitches on my Mac (minor stuff) and a simple restart fixed the issue.

6. Fix Mac desktop file congestion

If you have 1000 files spread across your Mac desktop, this desktop congestion might cause the desktop to refresh frequently or unpredictably.

Recommended method: Create specific folders and move files into those folders.  If you don’t need the files – simply delete them. If you need the files but don’t want them on your desktop – consider moving them to a USB or external HD.

7. Evaluate browsers (tabs, extensions, etc.)

  • Browsers: Which browser(s) are you using to surf the net? How many browsers are you using simultaneously. Try to stick to one at a time.
  • Windows: How many windows do you have open within each specific browser?
  • Tabs: How many tabs do you have open? Try to limit this number.
  • Extensions: Disable and/or remove all extensions. (Most shouldn’t be trusted)

I suspect that browsers are culpable for many individuals experiencing frequent Mac desktop icon refreshing. Specifically, things like: too many tabs (particularly of pages with video ads/video content) and/or shady/unnecessary extensions.

Your best bet is likely to disconnect from internet. Force quit. Clear all browsing data. Remove all extensions. Use something like Brave browser (for auto-ad blocking). And make it a habit of never having too many tabs open simultaneously.

8. Check RAM hogging applications (?)

  • Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor

Know how much RAM your Mac has… and when the refreshing of desktop icons occurs – check which applications are using a lot of RAM.

RAM hogging apps could explain why you’re experiencing continuous refreshing of icons. Essentially when all the RAM gets used up – other system processes don’t work as well or at all and things can glitch.

If you identify certain applications that are using an extensive amount of RAM – you can either: close them or “force quit” OR keep them open and attempt to determine why (particularly if the application isn’t supposed to be using so much RAM).

9. Remove certain apps (e.g. Google Drive)

I recommend removing any unnecessary “apps” that you have on your Mac. One of the most problematic apps with regard to causing desktop icons to refresh is Google Drive.

There are countless reports dating from the 2010s to 2020s about Google Drive causing Mac desktop icons to refresh or glitch.

If you want to take things a step further – remove every last Google application from your Mac (e.g. Drive, Gmail, etc.). Then restart the Mac and determine whether the refreshing stops.

10. System restore (?)

If you have system restore enabled… Restore your Mac to an earlier “checkpoint” when your Mac did NOT have any issues (e.g. desktop did NOT refresh randomly).

If the desktop icons no longer refresh – then obviously files/programs must’ve been removed that were causing the problem (e.g. malware, an application, software update).

If you notice that a specific application/program that you use is no longer present on your Mac after the system restore – then it should be considered a potential cause of the refreshing.

11. Upgrade your Mac if outdated/old…

Old Macs may be problematic in terms of both software AND hardware.

  • Outdated software: Older Macs may be ineligible for the latest critical software updates (preventing “bugs”). Old software with bugs could be a reason as to why your desktop continues “refreshing” unexpectedly.
  • Failing hardware: Older Macs may also have certain hardware components that start to fail. Hardware failure would probably be accompanied by other signs (e.g. strange noises, frequent error messages, files “read only,” overactive fan, etc.).

A technician should be capable of identifying both software and hardware problems with your Mac. If things look bad – it’s probably best to buy a new Mac, transfer files/data onto it from the old Mac, and completely wipe/nuke the old Mac before discarding.

When my Mac desktop icons kept refreshing… (Possible causes)

  • Browser tabs (hundreds): 3 different browsers, 3-4 windows (per browser), 15-30+ tabs within each window… this means I had 135-360+ tabs total (many of these eat up RAM since ads weren’t blocked on 2 of the browsers – and some of the ads were “video” format).
  • macOS update available: macOS Monterey 12.3.1 needed to be fully installed which required a restart.
  • Application updates available: Had like 6 applications that needed to be updated in the App store.
  • Sleep mode for weeks without restarts/shutdowns: This has caused some issues in the past (e.g. glitches) for myself and other Mac users that I’ve chatted with.
  • Google applications (e.g. Google Drive) installed: Google applications – particularly Google Drive can cause this problem. I deleted all Google apps from my Mac (don’t use them anyway).
  • Desktop cluttered with files: Mac automatically organizes desktop files by type – but there were hundreds.
  • Aged Mac (~7 years old): Perhaps my Mac is just getting old and hardware isn’t functioning as efficiently – thus causing problems. Software shouldn’t be an issue given that I still am eligible for all of the latest updates.

Most likely causes of Mac desktop refreshing (my case)…

After a combination of closing all browser applications (which closed the hundreds of open tabs); updating macOS software and applications; and restarting my Mac – no more desktop refreshing occurred. (Knock on wood).

Too many browser windows & tabs: I suspect having way F’ing too many windows & tabs open simultaneously across 3 browsers was primarily to blame. Some of the pages I had open were running video content/video ads which eat up RAM.

Failing to update software/apps: I hadn’t checked for a software/application update in a while – and had like 6 apps that needed updating. I think I had been neglecting installation of the latest software update for at least a couple weeks.

Not shutting down/restarting for months: Has caused issues before and a simple restart fixes everything. Was forced to restart upon updating macOS software to the latest version.

I don’t think that Google Drive (or other Google applications) had anything to do with my issue – because I never used them and the refreshing continued post-deletion. I also don’t think the number of desktop files had any causal impact.

How I fixed my Mac icon desktop refresh problem… (Recap)

Below are things I did that eventually resulted in a fix (stoppage of the desktop icon refresh).

  • Cleared all browsing data & closed all browsers
  • Updated macOS & applications
  • Restarted Mac
  • Deleted unnecessary desktop icons
  • Organized desktop icons (deleted unnecessary files as well)
  • Deleted Google applications
  • Browsers/windows/tabs minimalism

I cannot guarantee this will work for everyone – but this is what worked for me.

Have you experienced Mac icons continuously refreshing?

  • Did you figure out the reason(s)?
  • Does your desktop refresh occur randomly or at specific time intervals?
  • Have you tried the recommendations above? (If any worked – which provided benefit?)
  • Can you think of any other reasons (not mentioned here) as to why Mac desktop might keep refreshing?
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