Ultimate Spring Cleaning, Day 20: Clean Out Your Computer

by Michael on April 10, 2010 · 0 comments

Don't forget to sort your punch cards.

Ultimate Spring Cleaning is a project to clean and declutter not only your house, but your life. Each day you’ll get a housecleaning assignment, an assignment that involves the world around you, and a project to clear your mind. You can start anytime at the Ultimate Spring Cleaning main page.

The focal point of your home office area is probably your computer. Since we’ve got another day to finish tidying and organizing your office, let’s make sure your machine is as clean as everything around it.

Your Home: Clean Out Your Computer

Chances are you use your computer for a few very specific things: e-mail, web browsing, Facebook, one or two apps for work like Word or Excel, and maybe gaming. However, you might be surprised at the number and size of files you can create with just this simple usage. Every page, image and PDF you open online gets stored, either temporarily or permanently. Old e-mail can include large attachments. Word and Excel create temporary files that don’t always get deleted.

Clean your computer in three basic steps:

  1. Clean up your desktop. Delete all files and shortcuts you don’t use. If you don’t have a system for storing your online files yet, make a Temp folder and use it to store the files you have to keep until there’s a better place to put them.
  2. Clean and defragment your hard drive. For this you’ll need some software help. Apps that will help you to locate and remove cluttering files include Belvedere for Windows and Hazel for the Mac. Lifehacker has a great tutorial for Belvedere. Another app for Mac (this one free) that won’t delete all temp files but does a great job in keeping OS X running smoothly is Onyx. Then to locate bigger files, use Disk Space Fan or WinDirStat (Windows), or Disk Inventory X or GrandPerspective (Mac). Finally, your Windows machine will respond well to a good defragging. You can use either Windows’ own Defrag command, or download the free Defraggler.
  3. Get a filing system. Don’t leave hundreds of files loose in the Downloads or My Documents folder. You can create a system of folders like the one you created with cardboard yesterday, or use one of your own creation. Consider the option of not having files on your computer at all: you can store files “on the cloud” using Gmail, you can create, edit and share files using Google Docs instead of buying Word or Excel, and for an amazing organization application, consider Evernote. The free version lets you store image, MP3 and PDF files, and the Premium version lets you store a variety of files, and retrieve them easily by keyword. Evernote has another great feature: if you want to store a handwritten document, scan it or hold it up to your computer’s camera – Evernote will read the document and let you find it by searching for the text!

Your style and amount of clutter will vary, but at the very least you should run a cleanup program like Belvedere once in a while.

Your World: Organize Your Online Life

While we’re on the computer, it might be a good time to organize the places you visit regularly online, and make sure you’re secure in your browsing.

  • Make sure your online passwords are strong. People are trying to hack your e-mail, Facebook and other online passwords, and you want to foil them. At the very least, never use names of people, places or things someone might guess. Don’t use other proper words either. If you can create a long and random password you’ll be better off. Use a password storage application like Keepass (Windows) or the Mac OS X Keychain and all you need is one local password to retrieve the passwords for every online service and application on your computer. Your Web browser also has a function that lets you autofill the passwords to the sites you visit.
  • Use RSS to speed your daily reading. All blogs and most other sites offer an RSS feed, which lets you read either a teaser or entire story in the software of your choosing. This allows you to combine all the sites you read regularly in one place, browse through every article and click only if you’re sure you want to read more. I use Google Reader to store my RSS feeds, and I browse about 100 sites per day in around 15 minutes. I can even do it from my iPhone while I’m shaving and brushing my teeth in the morning.
  • Organize your bookmarks. Most browsers give you the ability to create folders and subfolders for your bookmarks, so that you can easily look for a site in a specific topic.
  • If you have a home wireless network, make sure you’re using the strongest possible security. The subject is too long to go into here, but you’ll find some helpful tips courtesy of the folks at About.com.

The goal is to decrease the time you spend looking for sites and content online while making sure you don’t lose time and sleep to hackers.

Yourself: Look at Your Finances

This is another computer task: how organized are your finances? Do you have a budget? Are you on track in your retirement savings? Are you paying too much in credit card rates?

Just as we’ve freed up time and space during Ultimate Spring Cleaning, today it’s time to take one step toward freeing up cash. If you just deposit a paycheck and pay bills without thinking about where your money goes, it’s about time you started looking at your financial health.

First, I recommend getting and using financial software to keep you on track. There’s an incredible free online tool called Mint that tracks your spending by consolidating your bank accounts, credit cards, loans and investments in one place. You enter your online passwords for your financial services, and it logs in, downloads your transactions, and shows your spending by category. You can set a budget and Mint will send you an alert when you’ve exceeded it.

Although Mint has layers of security and safeguards to make sure your information can’t be stolen, if you’re concerned about entering your bank passwords there you might instead choose software like Quicken that keeps your passwords on your local machine.

Once you know where you stand, it’s time to plan. How much do you need for retirement, and how much should you deduct from each paycheck? GoSimplifi is a free financial planning site that enables you to try different scenarios and see what you really need to do in order to be more financially secure. Right now you might just want a back-of-the-napkin number, but at some point you’ll want to look at your investments and take an active role in making sure they’re solid.

Finally, look at your bills. Are you happy with the services you get for the money? Can you switch to another provider? Do you use all the channels you’re getting from your cable provider? Have you called your credit card company to ask them to lower your rate (many times it’s just that easy) or considered switching to a different card? Should you refinance your home? With each and every bill, ask yourself what you can do to lower the amount you pay. You may be surprised at how much you can save with just a little bit of thought.

And in case you’re feeling especially motivated, try going through this New York Times checklist for financial health.

Let’s review: saved time, check; saved money, check; made your computer a lot easier to use, check. Let’s see if tomorrow we can’t save some more space.

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