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10 suggestions for better organising and tidying up your PC and digital life

Taking charge of both your mess and your messy ways can be absolutely liberating – it doesn't matter if the junk you accumulate is in your garage, closet, or hard drive. If your technological life is sloppy, disorganised, or just plain overwhelming to even consider, it's not too late to turn it around! In fact, it can take as little as a few minutes.

The following checklist is a suggestion of things to tidy up in your digital life. You don't have to do them all. Picking just a few and following through on them could seriously revolutionise the chaos that you might refer to as your desktop.

Here are ten suggestions of ways you can clean up your messy digital life right now…

Start with the simple

These first three suggestions for reorganising and cleaning up your digital life are, to me, the most essential. Do these first before any others.

1. Sort your computer files by year

If your computer, server, or other storage space is a royal mess, sorting your files by year is the quickest and easiest way to get a grip on organising things. It takes almost no time to do, but causes immediate and dramatic visual results. All you have to do is create a few folders and name them by year, such as 2012, 2013, 2014. As you look through your files and folders, drag everything into the appropriate year.

What this chore is actually doing is preparing you for and facilitating further clean up later. This step can take less than 10 minutes and will make you feel like you've already accomplished a big task when you're done, even though you've only just started. Getting yourself into that state of mind – feeling like you are making progress – can be monumentally encouraging for continuing a clean-up effort. (For more on folder organisation, see: How to use folders to keep your desktop organised).

2. Find the bottom of your inbox

Finding the bottom of my email inbox is a weekly chore for me, as part of my own personal tactics for avoiding email overload. If you haven't seen it in ages, start by setting aside 15 to 20 minutes to get the first stretch of the job done. Use a timer and really utilise the time you're giving yourself. Shut down all other programs, or if you're in a web browser, close all other tabs. If you can block incoming mail for this time period, do that, too. Then take those 15 to 20 minutes to really focus! Delete, archive, or file away old messages. Don't even worry about answering email. Just file away the stuff that's already long done. If it's not long done but it's also not a priority, file it into a folder. Do not leave it in your inbox.

You may not see the light today, and you may need an hour or more to finish the task, but you will at least start to get the hang of figuring out what methodology you'll use for determining what to keep, delete, or archive. This chore is an especially good one to do any time there is a slow day at work, like when all your business partners are gone for the holidays.

3. Change your passwords

Unless you've done this in the last six months, it’s important to change your most important passwords. You don't have to clean up all your passwords, but start by tackling the most important ones: Your financial accounts, email accounts, and computing devices (desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet).

Each password should be unique. Do not use the same password more than once! If you have a hard time remembering strong passwords, use a password manager. We’ve got a handy roundup of the best password managers if you’d like recommendations of which service to use.

Clean up your hard drive

The next three steps make sense to do together as a set, and they involve getting your hard disk in order.

4. Dump your cache

Dumping your Internet browser's cache – history, cookies, and other site data – can make a difference in the amount of space your computer uses and how fast the machine runs. You should empty the cache periodically, like once a month, but if you didn't know that yet or you haven't done it in a while, now is the time.

This complete step-by-step guide for emptying the cache, provided by Indiana University, covers all major browsers on both Windows and Mac OS, as well as instructions for iOS devices (iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad), and Android devices. If you only use Internet Explorer, Microsoft has a free tool that will do the work for you automatically in two or three clicks, as well as a video tutorial if you'd rather do it yourself.

5. Delete unnecessary files

On most computers, there are more unnecessary files to delete aside from just your Internet browsing cache, such as clipboard memory and recent file lists in some programs. CCleaner from Piriform looks for those extraneous files and deletes them for you. There's a free version for both Mac and Windows computers.

6. Offload some files (backup and delete)

Now that you've scrubbed the junk out of your computer, you can think about how you want to store the real data – the files you access frequently as well as the files you need to keep but don't necessarily open very often at all.

One major reason computers get messy and start to run more slowly is because users hold onto things they don't need locally. Photos and music are typically the big offenders. Back up a block of files to an external hard drive, DVD, or cloud-based storage system so you can delete them from your computer. If you've performed step one in this article and sorted your files by year, perhaps you can back up and offload anything more than two years old.

Note, too, that best practices say to back up all your files, but to be perfectly realistic, and for the purpose of this article, it's okay to focus on just backing up the files you intend to delete right now. It's okay to clean up one step at a time! You don't have to make your computer "perfect" today – small steps count.

7. Tune up

Everyone should tune up their computer regularly, but if "defrag" is not in your vocabulary and the idea of tuning up your computer by yourself is simply not on the cards, there are plenty of tools that can automate the process for you. Check out our article on tuning up your PC for computer novices. If you’re happy to get stuck into a deeper manual tune-up, then see: How to perform a DIY tune up of your PC.

Clean up elsewhere

Here are three more places, besides your hard drive, where a little organisation can make a big difference in the long run.

8. Kill off or consolidate old email addresses

Do you still have an old email account that you don't use? Now's the time to either kill it off or have all the messages forwarded to the account you do use. One reason you might leave it open and have the mail forwarded is if you ever used the address on a CV or professional networking site.

9. Update your profile picture

Pick a great photo of yourself, or take a new one, and use it consistently across key social media sites. It may sound odd if you're a shutter bug, but the consistency can be very valuable in terms of helping people identify you. Some people don't realise that Facebook uses your knowledge of your friends' profile pictures as a way to test whether you are who you say you are. I tested a feature that had me identify my friends, and it was nearly impossible when my friends' profile pictures showed their new-born babies or a group shot instead of their own face. If you want to make it easier for potential friends to find your account, use a real picture of yourself.

10. Turn on the date, time, and location features for your cameras

Sounds easy enough, but why do it? Photo editing/management software and online photo hosting sites increasingly rely on date and location when sorting your photos for you. If you take a few moments to make sure the settings are enabled on your camera, you could save yourself dozens of hours of work later because the program(s) will be able to intelligently sort your photos for you.