Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cleaning Up and Organizing Your Computer

As we work our way through the process of getting started with our family history research, we are learning that, no matter how much we might prefer paper files to computer files, there is no way to completely avoid it anymore. Stuff is going to end up on your computer whether you want it to or not. So staying organized is more important than ever.

Now is as good a time as any to clean up and organize your computer. It is a good idea to do this regularly, and the start of a new, big project is a great place to begin. I know this may sound like a daunting task, particularly if you haven't done it in a while (or ever?). But it doesn't have to be.  Iolo, which develops computer maintenance software, among other things, recently published a quick six-point list of how to clean up your computer quickly and efficiently.

In addition, you can click here to access yesterday's slide presentation.

Step 1: Tidy up the desktop

As a general rule, the state of your Windows desktop is a pretty good indicator of the overall organization of your PC. If your desktop is littered with shortcuts and files, getting rid of that clutter is a good first step to take.
  • Treat your Windows desktop like you would your physical one. You wouldn’t keep stacks of old files on your office desktop, so why clutter up your virtual one? Important reference tools, immediate-response items, and frequently-used files can stay out on your desktop, but old documents, files, installers, or programs should either get deleted or filed away elsewhere.
  • Take out the trash. Emptying the Recycle Bin—especially if you haven’t done it in a while—can free up hard drive space on your PC that could be better used for files and programs that you use and need (as opposed to those you’ve discarded).

Step 2: Clear out old or unnecessary files

Over time, people tend to amass all kinds of documents and files on their work computers. Some of them are important to keep around while others don’t necessarily stand the test of time.
  • Determine which files are important for you to save. Important files that are worth saving or having around just in case usually include:
    • Tax documents and financial statements. While you don’t need to keep these around forever, it’s a good idea to have your recent financial records and statements at hand. These can be filed away in a separate folder, marked by year (or by month, depending on your needs). 
    • Files with sentimental or personal value. Whether it’s a picture from your daughter’s fifth birthday, a note of support from a good friend, or a draft of that novel you’ve been working on, there are some files that you know you can’t afford to lose. Make sure these are clearly labeled so that you won’t accidentally delete them. Ideally, you should also have a few copies backed up in a secure location (see Step 3below).
  • Determine which files are dispensable.
    • Check the dates. When you look through the list of the files on your computer, check the date that each document or file was last modified. If you notice that a document hasn’t been modified for over a year, you should consider whether you need to update them or discard them.
    • Long-finished projects. If you still have projects from a year or two ago still lurking on your hard drive, ask yourself whether or not you need to keep them around. Do you still use them for reference? Can you see yourself returning to them at a later date? If not, delete them. 
    • Ephemera. These include the silly e-mail forwards and pictures that your friends may have sent along to you, fliers for events that have long passed, and so on. Unless they possess any sentimental value for you, it is a pretty safe bet that you can delete them.

Step 3: Back up and save important documents

If you have documents that you’d like to keep around but don’t necessarily need to have on your everyday work or home computer, back them up or save them to an external drive or online storage source. (Ideally, you should back up your information in more than one location.)

  • Save to an external hard drive. External hard drives are usually very capacious and are particularly useful for storing entire collections—music collections, video and image galleries, and so on. If you have a large quantity of this kind of material on your hard drive, consider storing them on an external drive to free up space for new projects on your primary PC.
  • Use a secure online backup source. It’s always a good idea to back up your documents online—whether that means emailing important information to yourself or using an automated online backup program. This way, you can be secure knowing that your most important files won’t disappear even if your PC gets lost or crashes.

Step 4: De-clutter email inbox

Your email inbox is one of the places that can amass the greatest amount of clutter in the shortest amount of time. As a result, de-cluttering your inbox isn’t just a matter of clearing out all of the junk mail, inter-office memos, listserv posts and forwarded chain letters every couple of weeks–it’s also a matter of organizing your folders and setting up your email filters ahead of time to save you headaches later.
  • Delete old emails. First, go through your current inbox and purge old and unnecessary emails. Don’t forget to also delete old items from your “sent mail” folder—especially files with large attachments—since these tend to build up over time. Getting rid of these emails will free up a lot of space in both your email program and on your hard drive.
  • Organize folders. If you haven’t done so already, creating and using email folders to sort your mail into different categories can help you organize your emails more quickly and easily than before. Some people like to sort their email by project or category (e.g. keeping different folders for work projects, client correspondence, personal email, mailing lists, and so on), while others prefer to sort their email in order of urgency (e.g. keep one folder for emails that need an immediate response; another for long-term projects, and yet another as an archive of important information).
  • Set up email filters. With most email programs, you can set up filters to make sure that emails from particular addresses or domains are immediately directed into their relevant folder–automatically organizing your inbox for you! With filters, you can make sure that all of the emails coming from your clients get sent directly into your “clients” folder, the emails from your boss get directed to your “tasks” folder, and emails from your husband or wife get sent into your “home” or “personal” folder.

Step 5: Clean up internet files

Cleaning up and organizing your internet browser program can help you find and access your favorite sites more quickly and easily than before. What’s more, regularly clearing out your browser cache can help your browser run more quickly and securely than before.
  • Organize your bookmarks/favorites. You bookmark your favorite sites to make them easier to access from the browser window, but if there are too many bookmarks for you to scroll through before you find the right one, then it seems almost counterproductive. Besides, do you still need to have all of these sites bookmarked? Take a few moments to get rid of the bookmarks you no longer need, and organize your bookmarks into folders so that you can access them more quickly and easily than before.
  • Empty your internet and browser cache. It’s a good idea to clean out your browser cache every once in a while to get rid of all the junk file and clutter that may have accumulated over time. Additionally, if you work on a PC with multiple users or are vigilant about maintaining your internet privacy, it’s a good idea to clean out the cache on a regular basis to make sure that your passwords and other saved information gets deleted.

Sep 6: Get rid of unused and redundant programs

Chances are, you don’t use all of the programs that are installed on your PC. In addition to the programs that you use on a regular basis, there are a number of programs that may have come pre-installed on your computer, as well as other programs that may have sneakily “piggybacked” in on one of the programs you downloaded and installed.

Getting rid of these unused and redundant programs not only helps to free up hard drive space and keep your PC streamlined and organized, it can also prevent the freezes and crashes that occur when two programs with duplicate functions compete over the same resources.
  • Use the Add or Remove Programs function in the Control Panel to review a list of the programs you have installed on your PC. You may be surprised at the number of programs that you have installed on your PC that you no longer use! If you know which programs you can safely uninstall from your PC, then you can do so from this screen.
If you do regular computer housekeeping, it will make you life easier and help your computer to run more efficiently.  This can easily be accomplished by making it a routine habit.  My routine is not perfect, but it works well for me.  

Every Friday morning, before I do ANYTHING else on my computer I:
  1. Run a clean-up program.  I use the free version of CCleaner and have been using it for years to clean up the crud on  my PC.  Takes about 5 minutes to run and does a great job.
  2. Run a malware program to make sure nothing untoward has snuck into the system when I wasn't looking.  I use the free version of Malwarebytes for this.  It takes about 20 minutes to run on my PC and will find any malware lurking in the corners of my hard drive.  I don't use a subscription security service.  Instead, I use Windows Defender (a built-in program on Windows PCs) in conjunction with CCleaner and Malwarebytes.
  3. I have long subscribed to a paid program called Carbonite which continually backs up my computer files to its cloud-based system and allows me to access those files from any device with internet access.  In addition, my subscription allows me to make a "mirror image" of my computer continually or on-demand.
  4. I make that mirror image of my entire PC on a peripheral hard drive every Friday.  A mirror image is different from a file backup.  A mirror image backs up the ENTIRE contents of your computer, including all our software.  In the event of a crash, which I experienced last year, I was able to reconstruct my entire computer to a new hard drive simply by running a reconstruct program from the mirror-image backup on that peripheral hard drive.  Saved substantial time and $$$$. 
  5. In addition, I use Dropbox as redundant storage.  Never hurts to be a bit redundant when it comes to backing up your stuff.
My Friday routine takes less than 30 minutes.  While my clean-up and malware program is running, I go through my computer files and look at anything I have added in the last 7 days (you can sort your files by creation date) and delete any I know I won't be using again.  

I also have file filters that automatically file my incoming email into the appropriate folders. You can set up your Gmail to do this very easily (  You can also use extensions such as Zapier or IFTTT (If This Then That) to help you get and stay organized.  I never have more than 20 emails in my inbox and clean out my spam and trash folders daily.  

All of this may sound like a lot of work - and setting it all up to work efficiently will take a little time. But once you set it up and establish a routine to keep up with it, it works pretty seamlessly, 

As genealogists, we create a lot of research and accumulate a lot of files, photos, and documents along the way.  We spend a lot of time and sometimes a substantial amount of money doing this. Having a clean, well-organized, virus and malware-free computer will make the job much easier and a lot more fun.

-- submitted by Denise Doyon

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