A complete guide to digital spring cleaning
Blow away those digital cobwebs.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 18, 2018.
If you want to keep your house clean, you need to dust it regularly; if you want your car to run well, you should service it annually; and if you want your computer to stay speedy and responsive, it needs its own maintenance—a digital spring clean.
We’re not just talking about wiping down your keyboard, but also clearing up the digital clutter accumulating inside your system, including the apps and files you no longer use. Here’s how to get started.
Get rid of older apps
What’s the harm in leaving unused applications on your computer? These programs take up precious storage space, and they also make your operating system work harder than it needs to. They force your computer to create shortcuts, sift through settings files, and install updates for programs that you’re not actually using. In addition, each application on your system can become a target for hackers or data-mining companies, so the fewer you maintain, the better.
Take the time to identify the programs you no longer need and uninstall them—you can always reinstall them later if you change your mind. On Windows, open the Start menu, go to the Settings screen, and then click Apps. You can sort apps by name, size, or install date to weed out the ones you don’t need, or filter by the hard drive they’re installed on. Then just click an app and select Uninstall to remove it. On macOS, open Launchpad, click and hold on any app, then click the X on its icon when all the apps start to vibrate. Some programs might require you to launch an uninstall utility. To do so, open Finder and search “uninstall” along with the app name. If it doesn’t have one, find the Applications folder in Finder and drag the app’s entry into the Trash.
While you’re sifting through your applications, you’ll find some that you want to keep. For those, download updates to make sure you’re running the latest versions.
Clear away digital clutter
It’s an inevitable consequence of modern-day computing that as you use your device, junk files will build up: items you’ve created and forgotten about, temporary files generated by the operating system or applications, and more. You can’t stop this from happening, but you can stay on top of the mess with a regular clear-out.
Unless you really know your way around Windows or macOS, it’s a good idea to get assistance from a third-party program for this task. CCleaner (for Windows and macOS) has long been one of the best free options in this department, and we also like CleanMyMac X (macOS) and System Mechanic (Windows), though those two aren’t free.
If you’d prefer not to rely on these programs, you can probably do some simple cleanup yourself. Sit down and spend an hour or so deleting those photos you’re never really going to look back on or clearing out old documents and spreadsheets that are no longer relevant.
Tidy up your browser
We spend a lot of our computing time inside a browser, and this is another area where you can do some serious tidying. The aforementioned CCleaner does a good job of clearing out digital garbage that your browser doesn’t really need, but each browser has options of its own that you can also employ.
In Chrome, go to Settings and click Security and privacy followed by Clear browsing data to erase cached files, browsing history, plug-in data, and more. This should make your browser a little lighter on its feet. On Firefox, the option is under Preferences, Privacy & Security, and Clear Data under Cookies and Site data. In Microsoft Edge, you’ll need to go to Settings then Privacy, search and services, and then scroll down to Clear browsing data. Finally, in the Safari navigation bar, go to History and choose Clear History.
While you’re slashing and burning, check your downloads folder for files you’ve forgotten about. Delete the ones you don’t need to free up more space.
Finally, removing unused browser extensions can have the same benefits as uninstalling unused applications. This will streamline your browser, lowering its demands on your computer’s resources and keeping you safer as well. Open up your browser’s extensions or plug-ins page and see if there are any add-ons you can do without.
Organize your system
Keeping your folders organized means less work for your OS and applications, and less time for you to find important files. Plus, if everything is organized neatly, you’re less likely to accumulate forgotten apps and tools that will eat up hard drive space.
Sort your system by using the designated user folders (like Documents) and you’ll notice the benefits the next time you need to open something quickly. In particular, you should try to avoid keeping masses of files and shortcuts on your desktop, as it gives your computer extra work. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes clearing up the Start menu (Windows) or the Dock (Mac), to make sure only the shortcuts you really need are available.
A whole host of cloud services, including Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and iCloud, can store your files on the cloud and allow you to delete local copies. This is a handy way to free up some hard disk space and lighten the load on your operating system at the same time. Just be sure you keep the online versions and don’t delete both the local and cloud-based copies of your files at the same time (each service has instructions on how to do this).
Physically clean your equipment
While you’re tackling a computer spring clean, you may as well do some physical cleaning at the same time. It will make your machine look shiny and fresh, and in some cases, it’ll actually prevent future problems, like having the insides of your desktop clogged with dust. You don’t need expensive equipment or even that much time.
Start by powering down and unplugging your computer. Then grab a can of compressed air to blast dirt off of keyboards and ports. If you want to go all the way, you can read our full keyboard-cleaning guide here. Next, take your time to clean the screen of your laptop or monitor. No matter their make, screens are delicate, so you should be mindful of the product and tool you use. Don’t worry—we’ve got a dedicated guide for that, too. When you’re done, use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe down the outside of your machine and any of its peripherals, such as mouses and keyboards. Cotton swabs are another helpful tool in the computer cleaner’s arsenal, as they help you clear away built-up dirt from nooks and crannies.
[Related: How to clean a TV screen]
For a more comprehensive clean, lightly dampen your cloths or swabs with isopropyl rubbing alcohol. Plain old water can work too, but remember you’re dealing with electronics, so you’ll need to gently dampen your cloths and swabs and remove any excess rather than getting them completely wet. If you’re dealing with a desktop PC and you know your way around it, you can dismantle certain parts to really get into those dusty corners, but this step isn’t essential.
With the digital and physical spring cleaning complete, you can power your computer back up and enjoy the benefits of your rejuvenated system—at least until next year.