The 13-Step Digital Declutter

Running out of storage, overwhelmed by spam or worried about your privacy? These tips will help you clean up your online act


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The 13-step digital declutter” was written by Darien Graham-Smith, for The Observer on Sunday 30th July 2017 08.00 UTC

1. Use free tools to clear out bloat

If your laptop is running low on storage, Windows’s built-in Disk Cleanup tool can find and wipe unneeded files – just search for it in the Start menu. Mac OS Sierra has a similar feature, but it’s well hidden: to find it, open the System Information tool, then open the Window menu and select “storage management”. You’ll see options for saving space and clearing out clutter.

For Android smartphones, there’s a good range of third-party cleanup apps; iOS isn’t so well served here, since apps can’t remove files created by other applications.

You can, however, free up space manually by clearing your Safari cache, via Settings > Safari > Clear History and Website Data. Consider streaming music and podcasts rather than downloading them for offline playback – and see 11, below, for our advice on photo storage.

2. Track down space-wasting documents

Old, innocuous-looking files can gobble up huge amounts of space on your laptop, such as backups that are no longer needed, or big downloads that you’d forgotten about. And since these files are unique to you, generic cleanup tools are likely to miss them.

It’s easy to track them down, though. Windows users can use a free utility called WinDirStat; the Mac equivalent, also free, is called Disk Inventory X. These tools scan your hard disk and generate a visual map showing the relative sizes of all folders and files. There’s also a list view, which you can sort by size, to instantly reveal the largest folders. Deleting two or three big unneeded files can often free up more space than clearing out thousands of cache files and cookies.

3. Audit permissions on your mobile apps

Even if there’s plenty of space free on your smartphone, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on which apps can access your personal information, or do costly things such as make phone calls or send text messages. On iOS you can easily check which apps have access to what under Settings > Privacy. To audit the permissions used by a specific app, open Settings, scroll down and tap on its name.

Android users meanwhile can go to Settings > Apps, then tap the cogwheel icon to access App Permissions. Here you’ll see a breakdown of permission types – such as Calendar, Camera, Contacts and so forth. Tap on any one to see which apps have access to those permissions; you can revoke permissions by tapping the switch next to an app’s name.

4. Clear out browser extensions

Browser extensions may slow down your online experience, and they can even compromise your security, since they can spy on every site you visit. It’s a good idea to disable or uninstall any you’re not using regularly.

On desktop browsers this is easy to do. In Chrome, you can check your installed extensions by typing chrome://extensions into the address bar. In Safari, the list is under Safari > Preferences > Extensions. In the new Microsoft Edge browser, click the menu icon in the top right of the window and select Extensions.

Chrome for Android doesn’t support extensions, but apps can add “activities” to Safari for iOS. You can review these by tapping the Share button inside Safari, then scrolling right and tapping on More; you’ll see a list of all installed activities, with switches to disable or enable them individually.

Take charge of Facebook permissions to protect your privacy.
Take charge of Facebook permissions to protect your privacy. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

5. Check your connected apps on Facebook

Facebook apps are another privacy concern – plus they can pester you with annoying notifications. To review which apps you have installed, open Facebook in a desktop browser, click the dropdown arrow at the top right of the window and select Settings. Then, in the page that opens, click Apps in the left-hand pane. You’ll now see all your connected apps; click on one to see what personal information they can access, and to choose whether or not each one can send you notifications. Click the “X” next to an app’s icon to remove it from your Facebook profile. Tweeters can similarly check which apps are connected to their Twitter account: open your Twitter timeline in a desktop browser, then click your user icon in the top right, select Settings and privacy, then click Apps in the left-hand column.

6. Free up space in your Gmail account

Enormous attachments can clog up your inbox but it’s easy to find and purge them. Open up Gmail in a desktop browser, then click the down arrow at the right of the search bar. Tick “has attachment”, then click Search to view all emails with attachments. Optionally, you can specify a size limit, to show only the very largest messages; annoyingly, though, to remove an attachment from your inbox you have to delete the whole message.

To make it easier to organise your inbox in future, you can create filters that automatically tag large messages for review. To do this, create a search that finds all the emails you’re interested in, then click the More button, select “Create filter” and click “Create filter with this search”.

7. Get off unwanted mailing lists

Email services weed out a lot of spam, but you probably still get dozens of promotional messages and newsletters every day. Gmail helps by moving promotions and updates into separate views; if you don’t have this feature, click the cogwheel icon and select “Configure inbox”.

For a quieter life, it’s best to get off those mailing lists altogether. A free service called Unroll Me can help: visit http://unroll.me and your inbox will be scanned for promotional emails. You’ll then see a breakdown of all the mailing lists you’re on, with the option to unsubscribe with a single click. To cancel more than five lists, you have to post a link to Unroll Me on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s a small price to pay (and you can always delete it afterwards).

8. Check and clear your voice assistant history

If you’ve got an Amazon Echo or Google Home, you might be wondering exactly what it has been recording. Google users can find the answer at myactivity.google.com, which provides a comprehensive record of your interactions with all Google services. To browse, replay and delete audio recordings, click “Filter by date & product” and select “Voice and audio”.

Amazon Echo users can review their interactions within the Alexa smartphone app, or at alexa.amazon.com. Whichever route you take, the process is the same: open Settings, then scroll down and tap History to browse recognised phrases, play recordings and delete individual items. If you want to wipe your history completely, you’ll need to drop by the Amazon website: go to “Manage your content and devices”, switch to the “Your devices” tab and click on the Action button for your Echo.

9. Deactivate unused online accounts

Over the years, you have probably signed up with dozens of online services that you no longer use. It’s a good idea to close these accounts; not only will this ensure that you don’t get hit with unexpected fees or marketing messages, it will also reduce the risk of your personal information being leaked in the future.

Deleting dozens of old accounts individually can be a chore, however. Account Killer is a free service that can help you quit hundreds of popular services with a few clicks. Simply type in the name of a website – or browse the complete list provided – and you’ll see a colour-coded button. For “white-listed” services, Account Killer provides a link directly to the relevant deletion page.

“Black-listed” accounts don’t provide an easy removal option, but Account Killer will provide an email address which you can contact to request deletion.

10. Remove optional Windows features

Removing these, along with preinstalled apps, can free up disk space, and it also makes life harder for hackers seeking vulnerabilities to exploit. Search the Start menu for “Turn Windows features on or off” and you’ll see a list of optional components. Disable as many of these as you like – you can always turn them back on if you need them. To review and remove installed language packs, open the Start menu and type “lpksetup”.

Windows 10 also comes with numerous preinstalled Store apps. Clearing these out involves typing in a few commands but it’s easy to do: see here for instructions. For the nuclear option, search the Start menu for “Reset this PC”: this will remove all installed apps and revert your PC to a pristine state, while keeping your personal files safe.

Move photos to the cloud to save space on your devices.
Move photos to the cloud to save space on your devices. Photograph: Chris Clor/Getty Images/Blend Images RM

11. Keep your photos in the cloud

Photos tend to eat up a lot of space on a smartphone – but clearing out old images can be a wrench. Who wants to lose their precious memories? The answer is to move them into the cloud. The free Google Photos app for Android and iOS automatically transfers your photos to Google’s servers, for you to browse and download whenever you like. You get free, unlimited storage for photos of 16 megapixels or smaller; larger pictures count against your 15GB of free Google Drive storage.

Apple users can use the iCloud photo library. It works in a similar way, automatically collecting together all the photos from your iPhone, iPad and Mac. The catch is that it uses your regular iCloud storage, so you only get 5GB of free space. A 50GB upgrade costs 79p per month.

12. Prevent programs launching on startup

Lots of programs start automatically every time you boot your PC or Mac. This can eat up resources and slow down everything you do. On Windows 10, it’s easy to audit your startup items: simply press Ctrl+Shift+Escape to open the Task Manager, then click the “Start-up” tab (if you can’t see it, click “More details”). You’ll see a long list of auto-starting programs, with an estimate of each one’s impact on performance. Click on anything extraneous and hit the “Disable” button to stop it from launching.

Mac users can do the same thing via System Preferences > Users & Groups. Click on your user name, then click to view the “Login Items” tab on the right. You can remove any item from the list by selecting it, then clicking the minus sign button.

13. Clean up your feeds

So you’ve streamlined your email – what about your Facebook feed? Next time you see a low-quality post, click the dropdown arrow at its top right and select “Hide post”; this removes the post from your timeline, and tells Facebook you don’t want to see similar content in the future. You can also unfollow the friend who shared the post, so their posts won’t appear on your feed, or block the original creator of a shared post, so that – for example – you no longer see news from sources you don’t consider reliable.

It’s also possible to silence specific people on Twitter: click the dropdown arrow on any tweet, and you’ll see the option to “mute” the poster. Muted users don’t know they’ve been muted, and if you’re following them then you’ll still get notified if they mention you in a tweet.

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