Geek Warning: This article is intended for the non-professionals out there. The non-IT folks. So if you are an uber computer expert this article will likely bore you to tears.
Final note: Rather than following the typical pattern of most common to least common, I'm ordering this by least-often recommended tips to most-often recommended. Why? Because the sometimes the least-often recommended things are because people forget to recommend them, not because they're least important. Okay, on with this...
1. Clean Up!Desktop computers are notorious dust magnets. The cooling system relies on one or more fans to circulate air through the case, which draws in hair, dust, dirt, and small alien planets. This coats the mesh screens, cooling fins, and pretty much everything inside your computer, making it run hotter. As it runs hotter, the fan has to run more often. The net result is you draw more electrical current, and help make your electric bill higher and you poorer.
What to Do: Run down to the Best Buy, Target, Walmart, OfficeMax, Office Depot, Lowe's or Home Depot and buy a can or two of compress air. Power off your computer (don't just pull the plug out!), then unplug everything from the case, and take it outside (don't do this indoors!) and spray every opening with the compressed air to blow out the dust and dirt. This is the only item on my list that potentially costs money.
2. Fight the ClutterOne more way to keep your computer clean and running cooler is keep away piles of junk from around your computer. Stacks of paper, books, bags, food containers, cups, crackpipes, and used condoms, can obstruct the cooling efficiency, and may be helping channel additional dust into your computer.
What to Do: Keep your desktop clear! If you have your computer case on the floor, vacuum the rug or carpet around it, and keep the floor around it clear as well.
3. Clean Out The Garbage
This needs to be done before you do step 4 (below). As you use your computer, it opens and modifies files, registry settings, and downloads TONS of junk in the background to supposedly "speed up" your computing experience. The problem is that a lot of that junk never gets cleaned out. As it builds up, it fills up precious disk space on your hard drive, making the performance slower over time.
What to Do: Run the Disk Cleanup utility. Click on the Start button, click All Programs / Accessories / System Tools / Disk Cleanup. Run it at least once every month, maybe even weekly (if you use your computer every day)
4. Defrag Your Hard DriveAs you use your computer, it opens and closes files, reads and saves settings and all of that requires reading and writing information to the hard drive. Over time, this information gets scattered around the disk platters inside the hard drive, making the "head" (the little part that does the reading and writing) have to fly all over the place to find all the pieces each time it needs a particular chunk of information. This scattering is called "fragmentation". The more fragmented the disk becomes, the more the head has to spaz out flying around to find things, making your computer run slower and slower.
What to Do: If you have a Windows XP computer, click the Start button, go to All Programs / Accessories / System Tools and click on Disk Defragmenter. Run the Analyze feature and then run Defrag. You can schedule it to run automatically, which many computers already have configured. But if your computer doesn't have it scheduled, it might be a good idea to set it to run at least weekly.
5. Uninstall the BullshitChances are good that you bought your computer from a retailer or from a vendor online. These sellers often load their own piles of doggy poo on everything they sell. Chances are also good that you will NEVER use 90 percent of it, ever. Even worse: Many of their so-called "performance utilities" actually do a poorer job of things than the tools that already come built into Windows 7 (or Windows 8). Disk and Memory "cleaners", anti-virus and anti-malware products, browser plug-ins, tutorial apps, and so on. If you received a disk with your computer which contains all that crap, you can always reinstall it later if you need to.
What to Do: In this case, it really depends on your computer savvy level. If you feel confident about what you do and don't need, by all means go for it. Otherwise, enlist the help of the nearest teenage computer nerd or a computer-savvy family relative, and be sure to bribe them lavishly (beer, food, all work well).
6. Backup and ArchiveThere's a good chance you have a lot of important files stored on your computer. There's also a good chance you haven't backed them up somewhere recently (or ever). Ask yourself if your house burned down while you were at work tomorrow, what would you lose on your computer that you could never get back? It's a very real question to consider.
Even worse: Maybe you backed up your stuff to an external hard drive or a USB thumb drive. That's good. But where do those items actually sit? If they're still inside your house, that's not really much of a backup plan. Have you considered online backups? There are plenty of options available, both free and paid, which can help you safely backup your files. Most vendors offer a limited amount of storage space for free, and offer paid features as you go up in space requirements.
What to Do: Check out Mozy, Carbonite, iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and compare their offerings and pricing. Also, be SURE to read their usage terms so you fully understand what "rights" they have with your files.