Personal Finance: Get PC clutter under control

Clearing out closets is one thing. But the biggest clutter trap in your home or office could be sitting right in front of you: your computer.

Most of us have computers stuffed with aging e-mails, unneeded downloads and scads of file folders scattered like confetti across the computer’s desktop.

“The more things you install on your computer, the more clutter it has,” everything from trial software and toolbars to old programs and all that old e-mail, said PC tune-up expert J.J. Schoch of Los Angeles-based iolo technologies LLC. “There’s a natural clogging that takes place, just from regular computer use.”

That clutter affects everything from your computer’s ability to quickly load up and search Web sites to your ability to find that family recipe you stored – somewhere.

The problem is, “Nobody ever schedules time to do a computer cleanup,” said Schoch, whose company creates cleanup software. “You need to be nudged into doing it.”

Well, here’s the nudge you’ve been waiting for: Monday is national Clean Out Your Computer Day.

Where to start:

De-clutter the desktop

Every little icon on your computer’s desktop – whether it’s a PDF document, a photo or a PowerPoint – needs a home. Dennis Duffy, a computer training expert who volunteers with the Sacramento PC Users Group, says he often troubleshoots for individuals who’ve got a computer screen filled with dozens of icons, many of them duplicates.

“It’s like going into a person’s cubicle and seeing hundreds of Post-its scattered around. It’s not a very practical way of doing things.”

Instead, he recommends that PC users align all those loose icons alphabetically on their screen’s left-hand side (right-clicking on the desktop starts the process), then renaming them with shorter names based on subject. Next, create new desktop folders based on categories: Games, Clients, Recipes, 2020Reunion, etc. Then drag the icons into the appropriate folder. Voilà: a blizzard of 100 icons is tamed down to a manageable 10 or 20.

Deal with e-mail

It’s all about making a decision the first time you open an e-mail. Richard Applebaum, a state worker who teaches free Apple computer classes in Sacramento, says he treats his inbox as a giant “To Do” list from which he deletes, forwards or files incoming mail.

He’s so efficient that he’s got it down to the bare essentials. Despite getting dozens of daily incoming e-mails, his current inbox always contains 30 or 40, he says. That’s total e-mails.

The rest? He’s a big believer in hitting the “delete” key to eliminate the unnecessary. The rest get filed and sorted as they’re opened and read.

That’s not how most of us operate. Applebaum says one of his Caltrans colleagues routinely keeps 10,000 e-mails in her inbox.

Not a wise idea. “As the number of e-mail messages grows larger, the higher the risk of irrecoverable data. Files can get corrupted,” he said.

To corral all that e-mail takes practice and discipline. The essence is sending it into appropriate folders, renamed for subjects, people or projects.

Some organizers recommend creating folders for even mundane topics: “Things I Want to Read” or “Stuff I Want to Buy.” That way, when a tempting e-mail arrives, you can forward to the appropriate file folder.

Chances are you’ll never look at it again, but at least it’s filed where you can retrieve it easily.

File it away

Think of your computer files like the paper file folders on your desk. To simplify, use the same computer file names and labels as those in your paper filing cabinet.

Duffy suggests short names, preceded by a date, such as 20100207 (that’s 2010, February 7 – without the slash marks). “I always start with the date, then an underscore, then the shortest name possible. Use the least number of characters and upper- and lowercase letters because it’s easier to read, like ‘MyDog.’ “

Whether they’re organized by task, project, priority or some other pattern, use a logic that works for you. For instance, Applebaum has a “Song Lyrics” folder that’s broken into subfolders by “Artist,” then “Album,” then “Songs.” When he wants to find lyrics to “Here Comes the Sun” on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, he knows right where to go.

You don’t want files saved with generic names. In 20 years of teaching computer classes, Applebaum says it’s not uncommon to find folks who’ve labeled their folders “MyFolder1” and “MyFolder2,” or “Untitled 1” etc.

Use a title that will mean something six months or a year from now. Otherwise you’ll be searching through dozens of vague-sounding folders for that client project or kitchen remodeling file.

Seek out a computer class or users group if you need help.

Back it up

While it may not sound like decluttering, backing up your computer documents is one of the single most important tasks, computer experts say. It’s especially crucial for those “cute photos of your grandkids or that document you took 10 weeks to create – those can’t be easily replaced,” said Applebaum.

Above all, cleaning out a computer – and keeping it cleared out – requires some upfront effort to nail down some organizational skills and then build those habits, says Duffy. Otherwise, he notes, you’re “wasting valuable time, whether it’s yours or your company’s. Look around and you’ll see people who are spending lots of time on the computer but aren’t getting much done because they haven’t learned how to do things efficiently – the first time.”