By John Patrick Pullen
January 26, 2015

You’re cruising along the Internet, mouse in one hand, coffee in the other, and then — wham — like Wile E. Coyote hitting a brick wall, your computer has stopped you in your tracks. “Low Disk Space” reads the flag on your PC’s system tray. Or, if you’re on a Mac, you get the alarming alert window that says, “Your startup disk is almost full.”

“Because computers are so flexible now — from music and videos to pictures they’ve downloaded from their phone — there’s just a lot of sources of data that end up on your PC,” says Jamie McGuffie, president of Plymouth, Mich.-based EdgeRunner, which produces SpaceMonger, a great Windows-based tool for seeing how much space your files are taking up.

But before you need a program like his, there are several other steps you should take to put your hard drive on a diet.

Step 1: Empty Your Trash

This will seem like a no-brainer to most of the people reading this article, and that’s why it’s the first step. So, if you’ve forgotten to dump that overflowing bin in the corner of your screen, do so now. While it’s possible that you’ll can free up enough space to solve the problem, it’s unlikely to be the case. You got here out of years and gigabytes of neglect, and it’s going to take more than one click to fix the problem.

Step 2: Dump Your Download Folder

Whether you’re on a Mac or a PC, download folders are like their own special little episode of Hoarders. Remember that AOL Instant Messenger download, your resume from that job you applied for in 2007, and the photos your friend took from that concert you went to three summers ago? They are all in here, having a party that’s raging so hard that it’s wrecking your computer.

It’s time to kick some of these files to the curb. If you’re on a Mac, you’ll find your Download folder next to the Trash Bin in the Dock. If you’re on a PC, you can find it by navigating to c://users/username/appdata/local/temp. Sift through the files in there and toss the ones you no longer need into the trash. If you’re a frequent Internet user, you’ll be surprised at not only how many files are in there, but also by how much space you free up.

Step 3: Eliminate One-Time Files

McGuffie points to one-time files as a serious disk space offender for people looking to recover some real estate on their hard drive. “Files are bigger in general because people are using their PCs as multi-purpose tools, with graphics, video, and music files,” he says. “You can just leave things out there and forget about them, but there are some significant amounts of storage tied up there over time.”

While the Download folder is the chief offender in providing refuge for most of these files, you’ll find them all over your hard drive — especially in your media libraries. Videos you’ve taken with your phone but never looked at since, your salivating collection of dessert photos, and the music albums that are so last year — all these files are squatting in your hard drive, and it’s time to evict them.

But the worst of the worst are movie files, downloads of cinematic films that you bought (you did buy them, right?) online. Those can take up anywhere from one to five gigabytes each. And if you did actually buy those movies, there’s little reason to keep them on your computer, because all the major online media stores let you re-download your files after the initial purchase.

Step 4: Clean Up Your Cloud Storage

Cloud storage is a great tool for people to access their data no matter where they go. But if left unchecked, it can gobble up space in your computer’s hard drive like a cancer. “People forget that automatic backups are very big,” says McGuffie. “Things that are backed up by mobile devices and synced from the cloud take up a lot of space.”

But thinning out your backups and cloud storage can be a challenge. Start by going into the cloud storage and eliminating files you don’t need anymore — those files are also on your computer, and when you delete them from the web, the service will sync and remove them from your hard drive. It’s also a good idea to look for entirely duplicate cloud libraries on your computer. Sometimes, when services upgrade how they work, they leave behind libraries from versions past.

In addition—especially if you’re using an iPhone or iPad, go into iTunes, select Preferences, and look at the Devices tab. There you will find a listing of all the backups for your iDevice. Delete all but the most recent one. “It seems like every device is cross-syncing to every other device and that’s where you’re getting a lot of storage being consumed,” says McGuffie.

Step 5: Audit Your Entire Computer

This is where programs like SpaceMonger come in. This PC app, and its competitors WinDirStat and TreeSize, scan hard drives and allow users to look at their storage allocations in several different ways. Using a Treemap visual, users can quickly see what directories are taking up the most space on the drive, and drill down into those folders to even discover the individual files that are the culprits. These programs are great for finding far-flung files that are mucking up your machine, like the horde of email attachments from when you bought a home back in 2004.

On Macs, DaisyDisk also breaks down storage into an easy-to-browse, pie-chart like interface.

Step 6: Archive onto An External Drive

Once you’ve combed through the previous steps — and all your files — you’ll have a great idea of what’s hogging all the blankets on your computer. Though items like your photo and music libraries default to being stored on your computer’s internal hard drive, you can actually move these to external drives (at least on a Mac), giving the rest of your system the elbow room it needs to zip around like the Road Runner, not his unfortunate adversary.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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