Saving dotfiles with symlinks on OSX

I’ve always been impressed with folks who have their dotfiles all backed up to git somewhere, and I’ve finally worked out how to do it myself. The magic answer is symlinks!

STEP 1: DOTFILES

So, dotfiles are basically ‘hidden’ files that contain information about settings you don’t want to keep setting every time you try to do something. Lots of programs use dotfiles to keep track of user-specific configurations. For example. in ~/.gitconfig, Git stores information like your username and user email (and much, MUCH more).

STEP 2: Collect dotfiles into a Git repo

Mostly, dotfiles live in your home directory. But, you don’t really want to put everything in your home directory under git’s watchful eye, so the easier step is to collect all the dotfiles into a git repo that lives elsewhere. Pick a folder, ANY FOLDER! For best experience, I suspect it should live somewhere under your home directory. I’m currently keeping mine in ~/code/dotfiles.

Dotfiles you might want to keep under version control:
– Git config (~/.gitconfig)
– terminal config (~/.bash_profile, ~/.bashrc, ~/.zshrc, etc)
– basically anything were you’ve set prefs that are stored!

Hint The First

In order for the next step to work, you can’t have an existing copy of your dotfiles in your home directory. So if you want to put your .gitconfig under version control, for example, it is better to MOVE it instead of COPYING it.

Hint The Second

The ultimate point of this whole exercise (for me) was to have all my dotfiles backed up somewhere. If (like me) you are not yet ready to publicly publish your dotfiles on Github, there are a number of other Git-based services that will provide private repos for free.

STEP 3: Symlink!

The ln command is used to create links in your (unix-based) system. Use the --help command to get more info on the myriad of options available to you. Just using the ln command creates something called a ‘hard link’, which is not what we want. We want a ‘symbolic’ link instead. The syntax is ln -s + actual location of the file + name and location you want to see that file under.

Example:

ln -s ~/code/dotfiles/gitconfig ~/.gitconfig

will result in the gitconfig in the dotfiles directory to be accessible from the ~/.gitconfig location, which is where Git is expecting to see all the Git preferences you’ve set.

STEP 4: PROFIT!

RESOURCES:

I stumbled across this great article called How to Create and Use Symlinks on a Mac that made the lightbulb go off and instigated this whole song and dance.

4 thoughts on “Saving dotfiles with symlinks on OSX

  1. Hi Thanks for the tutorial, trying to track my emacs and git preferances but getting the following error when I try to view the newly sim-linked file:

    cat: /Users/kyle/.emacs.d/config.org: Too many levels of symbolic links

    Do you have any suggestions on how i could fix the issue?

    Thank you for taking the time to reply.

    Regards,
    Kyle Cotton

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