Dotfile Setup

Published by James Frost.

How I manage my configurations.

Dotfiles are configuration files (typically starting with a .) used by many different programs on Linux for storing user preferences. One can spend quite a while getting their setup just as they like it, but it is moot when they have to use a different computer. One way around this is to have a system to manage and synchronise these dotfiles.

My dotfile setup is a slightly adapted variant of the one described at This means that the only hard dependency is git (though curl and sh are nice to have for the restore script). It also doesn't cause confusion by making my entire home directory appear to be a git repository, which Drew DeVault's method does).

For completeness (and preventing death by 404) I've rewritten the method on this page. The key changes I've made are as follows:

The key to this method is using a bare repository with a custom alias of git that sets the working dir to $HOME.

I've been using this method for a few months now, and I've found it works really well. I've also started adding useful scripts and utilities to the dotfile repo so they are shared as well.

First time setup

This is for creating the repository the first time, and should only be necessary once.

git init --bare $HOME/.dotfiles
alias dotfile='/usr/bin/git --git-dir=$HOME/.dotfiles/ --work-tree=$HOME'
echo "alias dotfile='/usr/bin/git --git-dir=$HOME/.dotfiles/ --work-tree=$HOME'" >> $HOME/.bashrc
printf '\n*\n' >> $HOME/.dotfiles/info/exclude
dotfile config --local status.showUntrackedFiles no

Then push to a remote like GitHub.

Adding configs

Adding configurations is quite simple. The only difference from normal git usage is the force add.

Restoring to a new system

This involves bare cloning the repository, checking it out, and setting up the aliases. I've created a script to do this with an interactive installer. This can be run directly with:

curl -LsSf > && sh

The install dotfiles script checks out the repository and sets everything up. The only prerequisites are that sh and git are installed, and that SSH authentication is setup with the repository remote. (Only required if you want write access, otherwise HTTP can be used.) The dotfiles are installed in the current working directory, so you should probably first change to your home directory. (cd ~)

Machine specific configs

These can be stored on separate branches. The idea with dotfiles is to have a unified config everywhere, so there shouldn't be a huge amount of difference from the main branch, but it can still be useful to have some. Branches should be regularly rebased on main, perhaps by CI?

Known issues

~/.gitconfig cannot be managed across identities

A gitconfig file contains many useful aliases and tweaks for git. Unfortunately this dotfile manager cannot handle this file, at least not across systems. Contained within a gitconfig file is the committer identity and a reference to the signing key git uses. This will always be per system, as the private signing keys should not leave the system they were generated on.

Unfortunately the standard method of having per system branches does not work as many git operations checkout these branches and fail when they can't find the correct signing keys due to the gitconfig being reread mid-rebase.

Perhaps it would be possible to make a special copy for dotfile to use during a rebase, but its not really worth the added complexity.

Alias only provided for bash

As bash is the only shell I use, I haven't put any logic in the restore script for adding the dotfile alias in other shell startup files. You can do it manually by adding the below line to your shell startup file. You will have to reopen your terminal for it to take effect.

alias dotfile='/usr/bin/git --git-dir=$HOME/.dotfiles/ --work-tree=$HOME'