Hacks to clean and de-clutter your computer (inside and out)

Your computer needs the Marie Kondo treatment. Here's how to do it.
Messy desk with computer
There's one not so little aspect of our daily lives that we might be forgetting to spruce up as we deep clean and de-clutter our spaces: our computers.zoranm / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Nicole Spector

As Marie Kondo fever sweeps the nation, many of us are in an intense tidying up mode. We’re bidding adieu to clothes, books and miscellany that doesn’t “spark joy,” as organizational guru Kondo would say, and embracing a more minimalist mindset that emphasizes gratitude for our belongings and our homes.

There’s just one not so little aspect of our daily lives that we might be forgetting to spruce up as we deep clean and de-clutter our spaces: our computers.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been a while since I properly cleaned my laptop. The track pad and keyboard are likely coated in bacteria (which studies have found can not only be gross, but potentially harmful). I’ve also been less than diligent about organizing my digital documents and de-cluttering my desktop, which ultimately hinders my productivity as I waste time looking for buried PDFs and waiting for files to load amid the crowds.

My procrastination here isn’t totally rooted in laziness; it also stems from a general cluelessness. I don’t know how to physically clean a laptop without being sure I won’t harm it, and I don’t know what it is required (beyond emptying the recycle bin) to de-clutter my computer so that it runs smoother.

How does one tackle this two-fold cleaning mission to get their computer in pristine shape inside and out? We consulted cleaning and tech experts to learn.

Phase One: Decluttering Hacks

Just as physical clutter can impact our performance, digital clutter can impact a computer’s. Here’s how to get your laptop to work its best and free up digital space, which should in turn boost your productivity.

Move those files off the desktop

“Storing files on your desktop can create clutter, but it can also slow your computer down. We are all guilty of it,” says Burton Kelso, blogger behind The Technology Expert via Integral Computer Consultants. “Get into the habit of saving those files in their proper places. Both Windows and Mac computers have folders assigned for specific types of files (documents, photos, videos).

Make folders that make sense

“Keep things simple and keep like with like,” says Kait Schulhof, author of the blog “A Clean Bee”. “For example, create a ‘Home’ folder to house documents related to your house, then create sub-folders such as ‘Improvements’ to house receipts for the repairs you've made to your house and ‘Ownership Documents’ for mortgage documents.”

Backup to cloud — and organize there, too

“For safekeeping of your files, it is always good to have a cloud-based back up systems such as Carbonite or Backblaze, which offer redundancy in the case that your files are ruined on your device,” says Kelso.

Note that you’ll want to keep your cloud files efficiently organized too, using the same folder system.

Get rid of duplicate photos with Google Photos

“People are forever misplacing their photos and are constantly dealing with duplicate photos,” says Kelso. “Google Photos is the perfect place to organize these. You can setup your smartphones and tablets to automatically save your photos to Google photos, as well as the photos on your computer. This way you have one place where your photos are stored, and you get unlimited space for free. Plus, you can use Google photos to find and delete those duplicate photos.”

Discard the downloads

“Running out of space? [Check] your downloads folder,” says Navin Manglani, professor, Information Systems at NYU Stern. “Many times, we think a program or other file may not have downloaded properly and may download multiple copies. Or we may not even need the dmg or exe file after we have installed the program. These programs can eat up a significant amount of space on your hard drive in your downloads folder. PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, pictures, videos and other such documents that you're not using may be there as well eating up precious space.”

Update your router if needed

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While cleaning up the contents of your computer, check to make sure your router is up to date.

“If it’s more than a few years old, it could be slowing your connection down,” says Eric Schaefer, SVP and general manager, Broadband, Automation and Communications at Comcast. “Consider replacing it or requesting an upgrade from your provider.”

Kick out unwanted devices on your WiFi

“Review the devices on your WiFi network and disconnect the ones that you don’t recognize,” says Schaefer. “You can access your router’s interface online by entering the IP address into your web browser’s address bar and pressing enter.”

Phase Two: Cleaning Hacks

Once your computer is freshly organized and you have everything you need backed up, you can focus on making it squeaky clean in the tangible sense. Fortunately, this process is much quicker than the more tedious act of de-cluttering.

Before doing any of this, make sure your computer is not only turned off, but also unplugged.

Compressed air for nooks and crannies

Our keyboards are magnets for dust and crumbs. To get rid of these little particles, use a compressed air duster.

“Blow compressed air into the nooks and crannies in your keyboard,” says Schulhof. “Don’t forget to dust in the USB and HDMI ports as well.”

Maglani recommends holding your laptop upside down while dusting to “have gravity assist you.”

Clean screens only with a microfiber cloth

“It's tempting to grab a Kleenex to clean your screen, but don't do it — standard paper towels and Kleenex can ruin your screens,” warns Kelso. “The best way to clean the screens for all of your electronics is with a microfiber cloth.”

It’s also tempting to grab a disinfectant wipe, which Kelso also advises against, noting that these can damage your tech.

DIY this cleaning solution — and apply without spraying

When cleaning the screen, you’ll want to avoid anything like Windex or plain water. Schulhof recommends the following solution:

“Mix one part isopropyl rubbing alcohol and one part distilled water. Distilled water is ideal because the minerals in regular tap water can leave streaks on your screen.”

A computer screen is extremely delicate, so rather than spraying the solution on it, dab or spray it onto the microfiber cloth. “Then use the damp cloth to gently wipe any fingerprints and smudges from your screen,” says Schulhof.

Wipe down the track pad and other surface areas

You can use this same technique for wiping down the track pad, keyboard, and areas around the keys.

“When typing, most peoples' hands rest on either side of the track pad and the oils from the skin leave behind gross buildup,” says Schulhof. “Use the same cloth and cleaner you used on the screen to wipe it all away.”

Get in between the keys with a Q-tip

If you’re still seeing some buildup on your keyboard after using the microfiber cloth, use a Q-tip. Manglani recommends using one with a little bit of alcohol to get the gunk out.

Tidy up with cable ties

Once you’ve got your computer in spiffy shape, you’ll want to take care of any cord clutter by investing in a few zip ties.

“Zip ties [aka cable ties] are your friend,” says Jean-Philippe Taggart, senior security researcher at Malwarebytes. “Use them to tidy up the cabling and allow better airflow.”

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