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How to declutter your computer

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SmallBusiness.com How-tos are step-by-step instructions for specific small business tasks. They are created and edited by readers like you. You can help edit this How-to or you can create your own. Find more How-tos at the SmallBusiness.com How-to Hub.


Introduction

Just like trying to work on top of a messy office desk, it can be difficult to be efficient and productive with an unorganized, cluttered computer. If you find yourself searching endlessly through a desktop cluttered with hundreds of random documents or running out of hard drive space, you probably need to take a few minutes to clean up your computer.

Hints to get you started

While your method of organization will ultimately depend on personal preference, here are some hints to help you start getting things in order:

Remove unused programs

The Windows operating system is notorious for coming bundled with tons of useless software demos, and deleting them is a great place to start recouping valuable hard drive space. To delete these or any other programs you don't want on your computer anymore, go to the Control Panel (found under the Start menu) and select "Add or Remove Programs." When the list of programs housed on your computer appears, you will be able to choose which ones to remove. Be careful not to remove important system programs or software suites in which you do use certain applications (for example, even if you never use Power Point, don't delete Microsoft Office if you still want access to its other applications like Word or Excel). If you're not sure what it does, leave it alone if it doesn't take up too much space.

If you use a Mac, a free utility program, WhatSize scans your hard drive (and any external hard drives you might have connected) and lets you to see how much space everything on your computer is taking up. You then can tell WhatSize to delete any unneeded files and software.

Delete or archive old files

Once you've gotten rid of any programs you don't use or need, start going through your documents, images, movies, and music and decide what you don't want to keep. Graphics files such as Photoshop documents, Quark or InDesign layouts as well as high-resolution pictures can eat up an enormous amount of space on your hard drive, so if you don't refer to them often, consider housing them on an external hard drive. If you don't use them at all, but still want to keep them, burn them to a CD or DVD.

If you use a Windows machine, you will most likely notice a collection of .tmp files scattered throughout your hard drive. Certain programs create these temporary files while you're working. These programs don't delete the temporary files when you close the actual file, however, leaving you responsible for cleaning up after them. While .tmp files don't generally take up too much space, they are essentially useless, so search your C drive and delete the ones that are more than a few weeks old.

Organize what's left

Once you've deleted or archived any unused programs and files on your computer, it's time to organize what's left. While your filing system will depend on what you're comfortable with, the general idea is to create folders and subfolders inside your main documents folder to help you keep your work organized. Many people prefer to organize by project name or time sensitivity, and create folders for items needing immediate attention as well as for those on hold, currently in progress and for reference. Try not to get too deep in subfolders (experts suggest no more than three levels), or you'll begin to have difficulty finding things in a hurry. Also, if you find one folder accumulating more than 20 to 25 files, it's probably time to create another folder.

And finally, if you're using your desktop as a place to store files, you are both slowing down your computer and minimizing your own efficiency. Think of your computer desktop like your office desktop: You wouldn't be very productive if your desk was stacked high with hundreds of papers, so keep it as tidy as possible.

Summary

While cleaning up your computer might sound like a daunting task, it will run more smoothly -- and you'll feel more productive -- when it's done. Keep in mind that the longer you wait to organize, the worse the mess will get, so taking a few minutes every week or so to reorganize will save you tons of time -- and stress -- in the long run.

More info

  • Mac-How - the knowledge base for Mac