You change your car’s oil every 5,000 miles. You go to the doctor for a physical once a year. Every six months you get your teeth cleaned. And every April 15, you make sure to file your taxes.
So if you’re so responsible in all these other aspects of your life, why aren’t you setting aside time to give your computer an annual once-over, too?
The way everything runs through our computers, smartphones, and tablets these days, unchecked electronic overgrowth can grind your life to a halt without a moment’s notice. “Digital clutter is insidious,” says Valeri Hall Little, owner of Intandem, a Toronto-based productivity consulting firm. “We can’t see it, and if we can’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t know it’s there.”
Instead of turning a blind eye to your digital disarray, give your devices an annual checkup with these expert tips.
The Five-Minute Fix
If you’re overwhelmed (and who isn’t?) but only have a few minutes, start by tackling the easy-to-see spots on your computer. For starters clean off your system’s desktop. “Your desktop is not a storage area,” says Little.
By organizing (or deleting) those files, you may already begin to feel less overwhelmed. Move onto other easy-to-clean areas by emptying your trash or recycling bin and clearing out your documents and downloads folder.
Zap Your Apps
Our world has become overrun with apps. According to Little, the 80-20 rule applies nicely with these computer-stuffing programs. “We only use 20 percent of our apps 80 percent of the time,” she says. If you haven’t used a program within the last year, she recommends deleting them from your system.
Of course, you should assess each app individually, but don’t let unimportant programs bloat your machine. That photo editing software you never use that came with your expensive camera? It’s worthless unless you actually put it to use.
The same can be said for smartphones and tablets. Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims removed every app from his iPhone that didn’t bring him joy. That may be an extreme, but if a tech writer can get by with just a handful of programs, cutting Shazam and Words With Friends might be beneficial to you, too.
Go Hardcore on Your Hardware
If you’ve got a drawer or a box full of old phones and cords, now is the time to unload them. “I’m a big proponent of recycling electronics,” says Little, who recommends wiping the devices clean, matching them to their cables, and bringing them to either a local electronics shop (many have drop boxes) or community recycling program.
As for the rat nest of cables that remains, “get out that label maker and label those cords,” says Little. Not only will this give you peace of mind when you’re looking for something, but labeling cords helps to make sure they don’t wander off, as they are prone to do.
Don’t Fear Your Photos
Since the advent of smartphones, digital photos have quickly become the number one thing choking your computer to death. Every selfie and every sunset take up at least 3.5 megabytes of space on your system, whether you store your pictures on your PC or in the cloud. And while there are many online services that will give you more storage space than you could ever use, the challenge comes in eventually finding that great snapshot once you finally need it.
Little recommends organizing your images on an ongoing basis, not once a year. And whether you use a desktop program like Apple’s iPhoto or a cloud-based service like Google Photo, be sure to use the tagging features like facial recognition and GPS location data. “That makes them very searchable,” says Little.
But if you need an annual reminder to keep your photos tidy, Little recommends making an end-of-the-year album of your best shots and favorite memories. Not only will the project force you to organize those photos into an easy-to-find album later, but you’ll have a great, physical keepsake.
Scrub Your Social Media
If there was ever an avenue crying out for periodic intervention, it’s the always-growing octopus of social media. Whittling down your friend list once a year is a good way to make sure you’re getting the most vital information in your news feed. Seventh grade locker buddy? Gone. Jamberry page run by your cousin’s friend? Bye bye. Meerkat Manor’s Facebook page? Unsubscribe. “Keep your circle tight and relevant to you,” says Little.
Also, use this opportunity to review your account’s privacy settings. If there are a bunch of old apps accessing your information, disconnect them from your account. Farewell, Farmville!
Don’t Detail Your Email
When it comes to battling information overload, Little subscribes to Graham Allcott’s Think Productive method, which promotes keeping your inbox as free from clutter as possible.
One way to achieve this “Inbox Zero” state, recommends Little, is to make a folder each year and stuff all your emails in it. So, name it 2015, select all your messages from last year, and file away.
How is this being organized? Well, its more about managing time than managing messages. “You are going to spend countless hours trying to organize it,” says Little. Instead, use your email program’s search functionality to find what you need, when you need it. These programs are always improving their search skills.
Tune It Up Before It Tunes Out
This last suggestion may seem old school, but its alternative — a total computer meltdown — is a timeless problem. “If you’ve noticed that your computer is glichy or is slowing down, it might be time to take it in for a little tune-up,” says Little.
While that might seem like a total time-killing, productivity drain, Staples guarantees next-day PC repair (or it’s free), and they can do everything from improve performance to backup and recover files. Likewise, Best Buy’s Geek Squad provides everything from virus and spyware removal to hardware repair. Whatever your specific issue is, it’s best to not let it linger, because it could suddenly break, says Little: “With computers, it’s either working or it’s corrupted and it’s done — get it checked out.”