January is designated as Clean up your Computer Month

Your computer is a tool to support your busy life. However, if you don’t take care of it once in a while, it could slow down or even fail- likely when you need it most. Getting organized and backing up files will help you get 2018 off to an efficient start on a productive new year.

  1. First, backup

Best practices suggest that before you start clearing the clutter on your computer, you back up all of your data. You can do this either to an external drive (many have auto backup features), or by mirroring your hard drive on an alternate disk. Many new computers come with more than one drive and there is free software available to do this backup method. You can also do it yourself. Windows Central has a good tutorial on how to set up a mirrored volume. Even if you just make a copy of important personal, school and work files, backing up prevents loss of important data should something be accidentally deleted.

  1. Organize your documents

Are you one of those people that have a million icons on their desktop? Especially when in a hurry, it is common to stick files and folders on your desktop, or give files names that aren’t recognizable. Not only does this build up into an unorganized mess, it can drastically slow down your computer. For example on Mac, the Quick Look feature, which allows quick previews of items, will temporarily keep previews of desktop items in RAM, slowing down your system over time as you add more and more to the desktop.

More importantly, files on your desktop may not be as well protected when something goes wrong. Some backup programs do not automatically back up the desktop (though you can typically change settings to include the desktop). Similarly, using System Restore will return Window to specific previous state, but may not include items on the desktop. However, items in folders such as My Documents and My Pictures will be preserved.

It is worth taking the time now to set up folders under My Documents. While you’re at it, delete any files you don’t need. Quick Hack: Set up new folders on your desktop, drag files into the new folders, then move the folders to My Documents.

  1. Get a handle on email

Not only is it important to be diligent about deleting emails you don’t need, the ones you want to keep can be organized into folders and subfolders within your mail server. Working on a distributed team for a large company that sent out a ton of communications taught me to be diligent in this practice. There were about ten emails a day with opportunities for additional project work. If I were looking for more work that day, I would respond, otherwise these would be deleted without review. Client communications were answered immediately and filed under a client folder. Payroll items, such as time sheet verifications, were moved without review to a payroll folder. By continually deleting or distributing emails to a dozen folders, the inbox was kept clutter free while preventing you from spending time hunting for important emails.

Spam is another demon of the inbox. If a message from an unwanted sender leaks into your email, use the email unsubscribe feature, and mark it as spam so it won’t appear again. I also keep stock messages in a file to help reduce unwanted messages. One kindly asks people outside of work to not send a group email revealing everyone’s email address, and another message gently reminds people that I don’t accept jokes or non-business communications in my work email. That video of a goat singing the National Anthem is better suited to a personal Facebook or YouTube page.

  1. Organize online folders and passwords

Using tools in your browser, you can speed up access to sites and searches. Bookmark sites you use regularly, and delete unused bookmarks. Tip: Rename your bookmarks when saving them to something that makes sense to you.

It seems that more and more sites require a password. A password manager like Keychain (for Macs) or Windows Live ID (for PCs) is fine for many sites. However, be aware that ANY passwords stored online are vulnerable. Personally, I do not keep any financial or sensitive client passwords online. Also, don’t use the automatic password save feature in Windows or web browsers. A person with access to your computer at home or at work could retrieve these passwords in seconds.

  1. Prevent unnecessary programs from starting up

You may have periodically installed apps or programs to execute certain functions or file operations without even knowing it. Those downloads can attach themselves to the start-up menu, and eventually slow your computer’s starting up process or ongoing operation. Go into your start menu and type “msconfig” in your search bar to bring up the “System Configuration” window (in Windows 10, System Configuration is a desktop app).

Click on the “Startup” tab to see a list of programs. Uncheck the box next to any programs you don’t want running when you first start your computer. Tip: You may not recognize all program names. Google an unknown name before deleting.

  1. Uninstall programs you don’t use

If you’ve had your computer for a while, you may have accumulated programs that you no longer need, and if they are free apps, you can always get them back when needed. Do some early spring cleaning and delete everything you have not used in over a year, including games you don’t play anymore.

New computers are notorious for “bloatware,” or programs that come pre-installed that you didn’t ask for. These should be deleted when you are first setting up your computer.

Deleting unused or unwanted programs is another way to increase disk space and performance.

  1. Delete, delete, delete

So you are diligent about deleting unused files (or are committing to). That’s good, but there is a lot more to delete. The recycle bin is a good holding place to retrieve files you deleted by mistake, but just like a full trash bin next to your desk, every once in a while, it needs to be emptied. Emptying the trash will free up disk space and help your computer’s performance. On Windows 10 you can automate this under Task Scheduler. For Mac it is under Preferences in the Finder menu.

Each action you take on a computer creates a small temporary file so the computer can retrieve information faster while you are working. While on the Internet, information is stored in a cache, and tracking cookies are used for generally the same purposes. Deleting temporary files, cookies and cache frees up disk space, improves performance, and also aids in security by removing history more easily accessible to hackers. Here are two examples of deleting files created while browsing:

Google Chrome

  • Click the button with the three horizontal lines(below the X button)
  • Go to Settings
  • Click Show Advanced Settingson the bottom
  • Under the Privacy section, click Clear Browsing Data.
  • Make sure thatEmpty the cache and Delete cookies and other site and plug-in data are checked
  • Click Clear browsing data.


Firefox for Mac

  • Select Preferences
  • Select the Advancedpanel
  • Click on the Networktab
  • In the Cached Web Contentsection, click Clear Now
  • Close Preferencesbox

To delete temporary files stored on your computer, use Disk Cleanup (Windows). On Mac, simply rebooting will eliminate temporary system files.

  1. Find unused spaces

A disk defragment compresses all of the unused space between files, leaving more disk space and speeding up processes. In Windows 10, disk defragment is included as a desktop app. On older operating systems, right click on the drive you want to defragment, go to Properties>Tools>Defragment Now.

Mac has a better system of file organization, and you should not need to defragment your system if you are using OS 10.2 or above.

  1. Appearances count

Even in the cleanest environments, computers trap dust and debris. If a computer tower sits on the floor, there are pets nearby or other environmental factors, the computer will get dirty faster, which can greatly impact its performance. To balance the heat generated by processing, computers have built in fans that suck in outside air, along with dust, dirt and grime.  Before cleaning, turn off power and unplug your computer.

A cheap and easy hack: Pick up a TV screen cleaning kit that includes spray, a cleaning brush and anti-static cloth to clean the computer’s exterior, keyboard, and screen (plus pull double duty cleaning your TV). Note: don’t spray any liquid near computer fan or other openings.

It is also a good idea to keep a small can of compressed air near your desktop. Turn your keyboard upside down and spray out all the crumbs and dust that can make keys stick. Vacuum around (not inside) your computer). If you feel confident, you can open your computer chassis and spray dust out with compressed air. See these tips at How-to Geek for cleaning inside your computer. If taking your computer’s case off is too daunting, keep the exterior environment clean, and have a professional clean the inside once a year. I started getting my workhorse laptop professionally cleaned once a year when I noticed a loud fan noise. It’s quick and cheap and makes all the difference.

  1. Do it now

It is easy to build up unorganized files or unwanted programs on a computer. By taking the time now to clear the clutter and set up a simple file organization system, you can celebrate Clean Up Your Computer Month, and have a more productive year.