Woman cleaning laptop with a yellow cloth

10 Tips to Clean Up Your Computer

Follow These Steps for Better System Performance and Fewer Issues

Your computer is a tool to support your busy life. But 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. January has been designated Clean Up Your Computer Month. Here are 10 great tips to 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), duplicating files to the cloud, or by mirroring your hard drive on an alternate disk. Many new computers come with more than one drive, and there are free software packages 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.

2. Organize Your Documents
Are you one of those people who have a million icons on your desktop? Especially when in a hurry, it is common to stick files and folders on your desktop, or allow file names that are not recognizable. Not only does this build into an unorganized mess, it can drastically slow down your computer. 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 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 these settings). Similarly, using System Restore will return Windows to a 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 time to set up folders under My Documents (PC) or your Home folder (Mac). While you’re at it, delete any files you don’t need.

Tip
Set up new folders on your desktop, drag files into the new folders, then move the folders to My Documents or your Home folder.

3. 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 10 to 20 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 timesheet 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 keeping saved emails organized for later retrieval.

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 text in an email folder 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 nonbusiness communications in my work email. That video of a goat singing the national anthem is better suited to a personal Facebook or YouTube page.

Clean white laptop

4. 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 sites require a password. A password manager such as Keychain (for Macs) or Windows Live ID (for PCs) is fine for many sites. But 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.

5. Prevent Unnecessary Programs From Starting
You may have periodically installed apps or programs to execute certain functions or file operations without knowing it. Those downloads can attach themselves to the start-up menu, and eventually slow your computer’s start 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 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.

On a Mac, navigate to System Preferences, then Users & Groups. Click your username, and then click on the Login Items tab.

Tip
You may not recognize all program names. Google an unknown name before deleting.

6. Uninstall Programs You Don’t Use
If you’ve had your computer a while, you may have accumulated programs 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 more than 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.

Robot cleaning laptop with broom
Man recycling computer data

7. Delete, Delete, Delete
So, you are diligent about deleting unused files (or are committed to doing this). 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 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. To delete temporary files stored on your computer, use Disk Cleanup (Windows). On Mac, simply rebooting will eliminate temporary system files.

While on the Internet, temporary file information is stored in a cache, and cookies track sites and pages viewed. Deleting cookies and cache frees disk space, improves performance, and also aids in security by removing history more easily accessible to hackers.

Here are two examples of how to delete files created while browsing:

1. Google Chrome
+ Click the button with the three horizontal lines (below the X button)
+ Go to Settings
+ Click Show Advanced Settings on the bottom
+ Under the Privacy section, click Clear Browsing Data
+ Make sure that Empty the Cache and Delete Cookies and Other Site and Plug-in Data are checked
+ Click Clear Browsing Data

2. Firefox for Mac
+ Select Preferences
+ Select the Advanced panel
+ Click on the Network tab
+ In the Cached Web Content section, click Clear Now
+ Close Preferences box

8. 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, then 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.

9. Appearances Count
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.

Tip
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 liquid near the 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 off your computer’s case 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 when I noticed a loud fan noise. It’s quick and cheap and makes all the difference.

10. Don’t Procrastinate
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.

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