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How to clean and declutter your smartphone (inside and out)

Improve your smartphone's performance and security with this cleaning and de-cluttering plan.
Image: Cellphone
leungchopan / Shutterstock

Spring cleaning season is nearly here, but many of us have gotten an early start thanks to Marie Kondo, whose organizational techniques have gone viral (again), upon the release of the hit Netflix series, “Tidying up with Marie Kondo.”

Kondo’s decluttering methods are brilliant for the home, but they do miss a spot: our technology. We recently discussed how to tidy up your personal computer, and now we’re looking at how to do the same with your smartphone.

These handy devices may not take up much space in themselves, but they can fill up and get disorganized quickly.

“Like our cars, our homes and our bodies, our tech can get a little bogged down,” says Andrew Moore-Crispin, director of content at Ting Mobile. “Whether you call it routine maintenance, a spring cleaning or a tech cleanse, there are things we can do right now that will help to improve performance, speed and efficiency on our mobile phones.”

Here’s how to tidy up your smartphone — inside and out:

Back it up!

First, you need to backup the files on your phone. You can do this by plugging into a computer or a hard-drive (typically using a USB cord).

This step isn’t just space-saving, it’s safe-making.

“Your phone is a portable computer — a lot of folks don't necessarily recognize that,” says Gregory Touhill, former United States Chief Information Security Officer for the Office of Management and Budget, president of Cyxtera and adjunct faculty member at Andrew Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “You've got your banking, your scheduling, your storage of sensitive info, emails, [etc.] on it — all these different things that bring joy into your life, as Marie Kondo would say, but it’s a lucrative target for criminal groups who lust after that info.”

Simply put, by removing files from your phone, you’re freeing up space, which can help you keep your iOS and apps updated.

“Security has to be a first job for the phone, if you don't have space for that, you need more storage or a different device,” says Touhill.

Have you tried turning it off and on? (No, really)

You’ve heard it a million times from tech support: “Have you tried turning your device off and then on again?”

This can be an annoying question when you’re having a tech problem, but rebooting is “ good practice as a first step before you dive a little deeper into these tips,” says Moore-Crispin.

Move photos to cloud storage

I have a strange superstition about photos and videos. I feel afraid to delete them, even if I know they’re backed up on a separate hard-drive. But photos take up a lot of space.

“It doesn't take long for our device's internal storage space to run short. At best, this is annoying as we run out of space for pictures and videos. At worst, it slows down your phone as apps and the operating system are left with no space to cache. The photos and videos we shoot are often the biggest offenders,” notes Moore-Crispin, who recommends solving this by backing up photos and videos to the cloud.

“On Android, Google Photos offers free cloud storage for all your photos with a small compromise in image quality. In Google Photos, just tap the hamburger menu on the left and choose ‘Free up space.’ You can regain gigabytes of storage in just a few seconds,” he says. “If you have an iCloud account (5GB is free, anything more comes at a cost) you can offload your pics this way. Go to Settings > Photos > Optimize iPhone Storage. Now, when your device starts to run low on storage, it will automatically offload your full resolution images to iCloud while saving a much smaller phone-optimized photo on your iPhone.”

Organize the needed apps — and delete the superfluous ones

I have this die-hard belief that one day I will open and use Keynote, whatever that is. I think it’s time to accept that if this day does occur, I will have to re-download this app. For now, it’s just taking up space.

“Apps abound. Take a look at your apps list and get rid of any you don't use,” says Moore-Crispin, adding that superfluous apps can also eat up battery life.

“On Android, you can tap and hold any app then tap Uninstall. For a list view of all apps, go to Settings > Apps > See any app you haven't used in a while and tap Uninstall,” he says. “On iPhone, you can just tap any app until it wiggles then tap the X to uninstall. For a list view, go to Settings > General > Storage, tap any app, tap Delete then tap to confirm.”

For those you do use, tidy them up by moving them into folders on your home screen. You can do this on iPhone and Android by long-tapping an app and then dragging it on top of another to make a folder, which you can then name.

Update all software

“Keep your apps and operating systems up to date,” says Touhill. “There’s a very active black market for phone exploits. People find vulnerabilities and post them out on the internet. When these [apps and systems] are up to date, they are as hardened as they can be against known vulnerabilities.”

Deleting useless apps is also just “good cyber hygiene,” Touhill adds, noting that though there has been some research that suggests that new software updates can shorten the lifespan of your phone, this concern shouldn’t stand between you and your phone’s security.

“[Additionally,] if you’re not using an app, it’s not bringing you joy,” Touhill says, highlighting how Marie Kondo’s methods can apply to your tech as well as it does to your closets.

Clear the ‘digital detritus’

We collect a lot of “digital detritus” on our phones, Moore-Crispin says, noting that this can be made up of browser cache, app data and so on. “Clearing this out can help give your phone a new lease on life,” he adds, offering the following instructions:

“In Android, go to Settings, then Apps or Applications. You'll see how much space your apps are using. Tap on any app then tap Storage. Tap "Clear storage" and "Clear cache" for any apps that are using a lot of space. On iPhone, you'll have to take matters into your own hands, deleting and reinstalling any apps that seem to be bogging things down.”

For the outside, use a microfiber cloth

Our phones are magnets for bacterial contamination, so it’s important that we keep them clean on the surface, but this can be tricky since these devices are so fragile. “The best way to clean the screens for all of your electronics is with a microfiber cloth,” says Burton Kelso, blogger behind The Technology Expert at Integral Computer Consultants.


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