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I want a quick and simple way to execute a command whenever a file changes. I want something very simple, something I will leave running on a terminal and close it whenever I'm finished working with that file.

Currently, I'm using this:

while read; do ./myfile.py ; done

And then I need to go to that terminal and press Enter, whenever I save that file on my editor. What I want is something like this:

while sleep_until_file_has_changed myfile.py ; do ./myfile.py ; done

Or any other solution as easy as that.

BTW: I'm using Vim, and I know I can add an autocommand to run something on BufWrite, but this is not the kind of solution I want now.

Update: I want something simple, discardable if possible. What's more, I want something to run in a terminal because I want to see the program output (I want to see error messages).

About the answers: Thanks for all your answers! All of them are very good, and each one takes a very different approach from the others. Since I need to accept only one, I'm accepting the one that I've actually used (it was simple, quick and easy-to-remember), even though I know it is not the most elegant.

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20 Answers 20

up vote 163 down vote accepted

Simple, using inotifywait (install your distribution's inotify-tools package):

while inotifywait -e close_write myfile.py; do ./myfile.py; done

This has a big limitation: if some program replaces myfile.py with a different file, rather than writing to the existing myfile, inotifywait will die. Most editors work that way.

To overcome this limitation, use inotifywait on the directory:

while true; do
  change=$(inotifywait -e close_write,moved_to,create .)
  change=${change#./ * }
  if [ "$change" = "myfile.py" ]; then ./myfile.py; fi
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I've encapsulated all of this (with quite a few bash tricks) in a simple-to-use sleep_until_modified.sh script, available at: bitbucket.org/denilsonsa/small_scripts/src –  Denilson Sá Aug 30 '10 at 0:57
while sleep_until_modified.sh derivation.tex ; do latexmk -pdf derivation.tex ; done is fantastic. Thank you. –  Rhys Ulerich Dec 15 '11 at 16:49
inotifywait does not play well with temporary files. If you save a file with vim (:w) you'll get 2 CREATE and DELETE signals, as well as 2 MOVE signals. stackoverflow.com/questions/10527936/… –  puk May 10 '12 at 22:30
inotifywait -e delete_self seems to work well for me. –  Kos Oct 1 '13 at 11:29
It's simple but has two important issues: Events may be missed (all events in the loop) and initialization of inotifywait is done each time which makes this solution slower for large recursive folders. –  Wernight Apr 29 '14 at 13:00

I wrote a Python program to do exactly this called when-changed.

Usage is simple:

when-changed FILE COMMAND...

Or to watch multiple files:

when-changed FILE [FILE ...] -c COMMAND

FILE can be a directory. Watch recursively with -r. Use %f to pass the filename to the command.

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@ysangkok yes it does, in the latest version of the code :) –  joh Oct 11 '12 at 16:35
Now available from "pip install when-changed". Still works nicely. Thanks. –  A. L. Flanagan Jan 8 at 18:37

entr (http://entrproject.org/) provides a more friendly interface to inotify (and also supports *BSD & Mac OS X).

It makes it very easy to specify multiple files to watch (limited only by ulimit -n), takes the hassle out of dealing with files being replaced, and requires less bash syntax:

$ find . -name '*.py' | entr ./myfile.py

I've been using it on my entire project source tree to run the unit tests for the code I'm currently modifying, and it's been a huge boost to my workflow already.

As of May 2014 it's still in active development, with new flags like -c (clear the screen between runs) and -d (exit when a new file is added to a monitored directory).

entr can now also be found in in Debian Jessie/Sid, although it's not got the -d flag there yet. (Building from the author's repo was pain-free anyway.)

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that works great and seems to be actively maintained. –  nikola Mar 10 '14 at 14:28
available in aur aur.archlinux.org/packages/entr –  Victor Häggqvist Jul 1 at 16:33

Solution using Vim:

:au BufWritePost myfile.py :silent !./myfile.py

But I don't want this solution because it's kinda annoying to type, it's a bit hard to remember what to type, exactly, and it's a bit difficult to undo its effects (need to run :au! BufWritePost myfile.py). In addition, this solution blocks Vim until the command has finished executing.

I've added this solution here just for completeness, as it might help other people.

To display the program output (and completely disrupt your editting flow, as the output will write over your editor for a few seconds, until you press Enter), remove the :silent command.

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How about this script? It uses the stat command to get the access time of a file and runs a command whenever there is a change in the access time (whenever file is accessed).


### Set initial time of file
LTIME=`stat -c %Z /path/to/the/file.txt`

while true    
   ATIME=`stat -c %Z /path/to/the/file.txt`

   if [[ "$ATIME" != "$LTIME" ]]
       echo "RUN COMMNAD"
   sleep 5
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Bonus points for simplicity and using basic build-in unix tools :) –  CJBrew Oct 18 '13 at 10:54

For future visitors, if you happen to have npm installed, nodemon is probably the easiest way to get started, especially on OS X, which apparently doesn't have inotify tools. It supports running a command when a folder changes.

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However, it only watches .js and .coffee files. –  cormacrelf Jul 20 '12 at 10:27
The current version seems to support any command, for example: nodemon -x "bundle exec rspec" spec/models/model_spec.rb -w app/models -w spec/models –  kek Apr 10 '13 at 15:15

Here's a simple shell Bourne shell script that:

  1. Takes two arguments: the file to be monitored and a command (with arguments, if necessary)
  2. Copies the file you are monitoring to the /tmp directory
  3. Checks every two seconds to see if the file you are monitoring is newer than the copy
  4. If it's newer it overwrites the copy with the newer original and executes the command
  5. Cleans up after itself when you press Ctr-C

    tmpf="`mktemp /tmp/onchange.XXXXX`"  
    cp "$f" "$tmpf"  
    trap "rm $tmpf; exit 1" 2  
    while : ; do  
        if [ "$f" -nt "$tmpf" ]; then  
            cp "$f" "$tmpf"  
        sleep 2  

This works on FreeBSD. The only portability issue I can think of is if some other Unix doesn't have the mktemp(1) command, but in that case you can just hard code the temp file name.

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Polling is the only portable way, but most systems have a file change notification mechanism (inotify on Linux, kqueue on FreeBSD, ...). You have a severe quoting problem when you do $cmd, but fortunately that's easily fixable: ditch the cmd variable and execute "$@". Your script is not suitable for monitoring a large file, but that could be fixed by replacing cp by touch -r (you only need the date, not the contents). Portability-wise, the -nt test requires bash, ksh or zsh. –  Gilles Aug 27 '10 at 22:22

Have a look at incron. It's similar to cron, but uses inotify events instead of time.

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If your program generates some sort of log/output, you can create a Makefile with a rule for that log/output that depends on your script and do something like

while true; do make -s my_target; sleep 1; done

Alternately, you can create a phony target and have the rule for it both call your script and touch the phony target (while still depending on your script).

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while sleep 1 ; do something ; done is slightly better than while true ; do something ; sleep 1 ; done. At least it stops easily when pressing Ctrl+C. –  Denilson Sá Aug 28 '10 at 4:59
@StevenLu: no, the sleep is not a busy wait. The problem is that if the sleep is in the body, Control-C will kill the sleep and the loop will start over. Power usage of starting the loop over is insignificant. Try it yourself in a terminal. You need to hold Control-C for it to work, if you have sleep in the body. –  Janus Troelsen Sep 19 '12 at 11:25

For those of you who are looking for a FreeBSD solution, here is the port:

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Under Linux:

man watch
watch -n 2 command_to_run

will run the command every 2 seconds.

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What happens when the command takes longer than two seconds to run? –  thirtythreeforty Feb 24 at 6:53

Another solution with NodeJs, fsmonitor :

  1. Install

    sudo npm install -g fsmonitor
  2. From command line (example, monitor logs and "retail" if one log file change)

    fsmonitor -s -p '+*.log' sh -c "clear; tail -q *.log"
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Look into Guard, in particular with this plugin:


You can set it up to watch any number of patterns in your project's directory, and execute commands when changes occur. Good chance even that there's a plugin available for that what you're trying to do in the first place.

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A little more on the programming side, but you want something like inotify. There are implementations in many languages, such as jnotify and pyinotify.

This library allows you to monitor single files or entire directories, and returns events when an action is discovered. The information returned includes the file name, the action (create, modify, rename, delete) and the file path, among other useful information.

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I like the simplicity of while inotifywait ...; do ...; done however it has two issues:

  • File changes happening during the do ...; will be missed
  • Slow when using in recursive mode

Therefor I made a helper script that uses inotifywait without those limitations: inotifyexec

I suggest you put this script in your path, like in ~/bin/. Usage is described by just running the command.

Example: inotifyexec "echo test" -r .

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if you have nodemon installed, then you can do this:

nodemon -w <watch directory> -x "<shell command>" -e ".html"

In my case I edit html locally and ship it to my remote server when a file changes.

nodemon -w <watch directory> -x "scp filename jaym@jay-remote.com:/var/www" -e ".html"
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For people who find this by Googling for changes to a particular file, the answer is much simpler (inspired by Gilles's answer).

If you want to do something after a particular file has been written to, here's how:

while true; do
  inotifywait -e modify /path/to/file
  # Do something *after* a write occurs, e.g. copy the file
  /bin/cp /path/to/file /new/path

Save this as, for example, copy_myfile.sh and put the .sh file into the /etc/init.d/ folder to have it run on startup.

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Improved upon Gilles's answer.

This version runs inotifywait once and monitors for events (.e.g.: modifiy) thereafter. Such that inotifywait doesn't need to be re-executed upon every event encountered.

It's quick and fast!(even when monitoring large directory recursively)

inotifywait --quiet --monitor --event modify FILE | while read; do
    # trim the trailing space from inotifywait output
    REPLY=${REPLY% }
    filename=${REPLY%% *}
    # do whatever you want with the $filename
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A oneliner answer that I'm using to keep track on a file change:

$ while true ; do NX=`stat -c %Z file` ; [[ $BF != $NX ]] && date >> ~/tmp/fchg && BF=$NX || sleep 2 ; done

You don't need to initialize BF if you know that the first date is the starting time.

This is simple and portable. There is another answer based on the same strategy using a script here. Take a look also.

Usage: I'm using this to debug and keep an eye on ~/.kde/share/config/plasma-desktop-appletsrc; that for some unknown reason keeps loosing my SwitchTabsOnHover=false

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