As we rack up apps and files, logins and subscriptions, our digital spaces get as cluttered as that piled-up corner of the garage. Over time, our digital footprint expands and even clogs up the physical storage on our computers and other devices, as well as suck up our valuable time and energy sifting through endless icons and lists of files and programs.
Getting the electronic clutter in check takes more than a one-time cleaning spree. It takes ongoing maintenance through a few basic routines. By following this digital housekeeping checklist on a regular basis, you can organize your electronic life and reduce your digital footprint now and into the future. You can also download this checklist for easy reference at the end of the article.
Close unused accounts
A great place to start is to deactivate online accounts that you don’t use. Data suggests that the average American has 150 online accounts. You may have a plethora of accounts you created for a specific purpose in the past but haven’t touched for a few years: old utilities accounts, former service providers, one-time online shopping sprees, tech tools and services, social media, and more. Think about accounts that became irrelevant because you changed jobs, moved to a different city or state, or stopped following a particular social media platform or activity.
A quick web search for your name or username(s) is one way to see where you show up that you may have forgotten about. You can also search your email archives to find “welcome” emails from sites where you created accounts. These are all great opportunities to clean house.
Consider closing any account that you haven’t used for more than a year. This will not only cut down on the number of emails coming into your inbox, but will also increase your online security. How? Well, if you’re like nearly half of all Americans, you reuse passwords for a number of account logins. If an old account that you never use gets hacked, you’re not likely to notice, and now that hacker has access to some of your personal data and could potentially crack other accounts that use the same password. So, do two things: tighten up your password security, and close out all those unneeded accounts.
Uninstall unused apps
If you’re like a lot of people, you may like to download multiple apps for the same purpose and try each one out before picking your favorite. That’s fine! But don’t forget the important step of going back and uninstalling the ones you decide not to use. These can take up valuable space and memory on your tablet or smartphone. Think about any apps that simply don’t apply anymore, or that you used for a short time and then ditched.
It’s a good idea to take a close look at all of your mobile apps every few months and uninstall any that you no longer use. You can do the same on your personal computer — scroll through the full list of programs in your computer’s control panel or settings, and uninstall any that you previously installed but no longer use and are unlikely to use in the future.
A word of caution on clearing out applications on your laptop or desktop computer: If there’s a program on the software list that you don’t recognize, don’t uninstall it without first doing a bit of research. You can run a quick online search on the name of the program to find out what it is and what it does. When in doubt, leave it alone and ask for help, as you may cause unintended problems by removing software that is necessary for your operating system or peripheral devices to run properly.
Unsubscribe from mailing lists
How many mailing lists and email newsletters to you receive each week — 5, 15, 50? Whatever the number, how many of those did you actually sign up for and how many did you start receiving after a purchase, when the retailer added you to their email list? The more active you are on the web, the more likely you are to receive emails you never specifically asked to receive. Over time, you might lose track of what’s even coming into your inbox, and all this clutter can make it harder to see the important email that truly needs your attention.
You may also have the best intentions of reading informative newsletters that you did sign up for. But, if you’re simply not getting to them, this can add to feelings of stress and even guilt. Take some time to go through your inbox, be honest with yourself, and do yourself the favor of clicking on that little “Unsubscribe” link at the bottom of any email newsletter that you are not reading or marketing blast that you never really wanted in the first place.
Declutter your email
It’s usually necessary to have at least two email addresses these days, as platforms like Gmail and Yahoo require a backup email in case you get locked out of your account. Having too many accounts, though, makes it hard to keep up with your email.
So if you’ve got multiple email addresses, get it down to just two or three, if possible. For example, you could have one account for work/business or study, one for personal use, and one that you use as a junk address for mailing lists and shopping. Most platforms today allow you to route all of your email accounts to one application and view them all in one inbox. This can make it much easier to keep up on your email.
Next, make use of your email application’s labels, folders and filters to get your inbox organized and work toward the elusive “inbox zero” ideal. For instance, designate a category for nonessential newsletters and create a filter to direct all email newsletters into it automatically, so you can get to them later if you want to, without seeing them pile up in your inbox.
Keeping email decluttered comes down to your reading and responding habits, too. Experts generally agree it’s best to check email less often throughout the day, but to allow time to truly deal with your email as you read it the first time — by either doing the required task right away, filing it into a “to do” list or folder if it will take more time, forwarding it to the appropriate person, or responding on the spot. The goal is to keep your inbox slim and work through that list of new messages daily or often.
Clean up your desktop and downloads
Do you often save things to your desktop so that you can find them easily? If so, you’re not alone. But over time, this can backfire as your desktop gets clogged up with dozens of files and icons. Every month or so, sweep your desktop — file away the things you need into appropriate folders, and delete everything else.
The same goes for your downloads folder. As you download images, programs, and other files, your downloads folder can gradually grow, gobbling up data storage and making it hard to track down files. Clean this out often by saving what you need in other locations, and deleting what you no longer want.
Move your data and photos to the cloud
Many people wonder about the benefit of moving their data to the cloud. The top benefit is that your data is backed up automatically in a secure location, so you won’t lose everything if your hard drive crashes or your phone falls in the toilet. But another huge benefit of the cloud is that your files are available wherever you are. You can access them from your phone, laptop or tablet with ease, and when you make changes from one device, you don’t have to worry about updating it everywhere else.
Another great feature of the cloud is the ability to automatically back up all photos and videos from your phone. You can do this through apps like Google Photos, Apple Photos, Microsoft One Photo and others. Turning on the auto back-up feature in any of these apps will ensure that if you lose or damage your phone, you will not lose your photos. You can even use settings to automatically delete photos and videos from your phone once they are securely backed up to the cloud, clearing up more space.
Scan for viruses and malware
Viruses and malware can cause all kinds of insidious problems. If you are lucky, they will just slow things down, but at their worst, they can make your device unusable. It is critical to have anti-virus software running on your computer and other devices at all times. If possible, set up the antivirus program to run automatic scans every week. If your software doesn’t have a schedule option built in, then set a reminder on your own calendar to run a virus and malware scan weekly or as often as you can.
Many of these tools can also be used to help find all sorts of things that slow down your device performance — not only malicious files, but cookies and junk files that clog up space and affect performance. You may notice a big difference in your computer’s speed and responsiveness after a cleanup, and by staying on top of this, you can prevent worse problems from developing and keep your devices running better over time.
All these tasks may feel like one more thing to manage, but it’s worth it. Every item on this checklist will help simplify your virtual life and shrink your digital footprint. Try working them into your routines, one at a time if necessary. As these practices become habit and your electronic clutter is reduced, you’ll notice a bit more space open up on your devices, and in your brain. Happy housekeeping!
Lastly, don’t let used devices pile up in a digital graveyard in your closet! Do everyone some good and learn how to recycle or donate your old and outdated electronics.