Ah, the beginning of a new year: What better time to clean up, start fresh, and make sure your various work spaces are primed for productivity?
Making your physical desk presentable is all on you (seriously, pal, would it kill ya to do a little dusting once in a while?), but when it comes to that virtual office in your pocket — y’know, that shiny ol’ smartphone of yours — I’m here to help.
A handful of simple-seeming steps can go a long way in clearing out the virtual clutter, y’see, and turning your Android phone back into the optimal work companion it oughta be. And best of all? It shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes to complete.
So pop open your hood, put on the nearest pair of coveralls, and get ready to get your hands metaphorically dirty: It’s time to step into the garage and get your mobile device in tip-top shape for 2019.
Step 1: Uninstall unnecessary apps
Time required: 2 minutes
This first step may sound silly, but believe you me, it can make a world of difference: Whether they’re apps that came preinstalled or programs you downloaded once upon a time, there’s a decent chance you have at least some unused items taking up space on your phone. And guess what? Those forgotten icons do more than just collect dust; they actively work against your efficiency-oriented interests.
First, superfluous apps take up space — both in the physical sense of your phone’s internal storage and in the sense of clutter in your app list making it harder to find the things you actually need. But beyond that, abandoned apps often take a toll on a phone’s performance and stamina by needlessly eating up resources. And beyond that, they open the door to some easily avoidable privacy problems.
You can probably scan through your app drawer pretty quickly and figure out which programs you haven’t opened in the past month or two. If you see something you aren’t using — or something you really don’t need (cough, cough, third-party security suites) — touch and hold it and then drag it up to the “Uninstall” command at the top of your screen.
If an app can’t be uninstalled, it probably came preinstalled on your device and is baked into the system courtesy of your phone’s manufacturer and/or carrier. You should still be able to disable it, though: Either long-press it and then touch the “i” icon that appears or find and tap its title within the “Apps & notifications” section of your system settings. Then, look for the “Disable” command, tap it with gusto, and send the thing off to unwanted app hell, where it belongs.
Bonus tip: Want a helping hand in identifying your unused apps? Grab Google’s standalone Files utility. It’ll monitor your app usage and let you know which apps haven’t been opened in at least four weeks, then give you a simple way to select from that list and uninstall any or all of those unused programs right then and there.
Step 2: Lock down battery drainers and background data abusers
Time required: 5 minutes
Maybe there’s an app you genuinely do use but that drags down your phone with over-the-top background activity — in other words, doing stuff you don’t need it to do while you aren’t actively using it. Facebook and Instagram are both notorious for this sort of obnoxious behavior, and they’re anything but the only offenders.
Lucky for us, though, even when an app is poorly designed in this way — with abusive background activity and no easy option to stop it — you can still reclaim control. Start by opening up the Battery section of your system settings and looking at the app-by-app battery usage breakdown. (If your phone is running the Android 9 Pie release, you’ll have to tap the three-dot menu icon in the upper-right corner to find that option.) This’ll work best if you do it toward the end of a day, when your phone has plenty of activity to analyze.
Tap any app with high battery usage and then see how much of its activity is happening in the background — while you aren’t actively using it. For any programs with high amounts of background activity, ask yourself: Is this app doing something in the background that actually matters? For instance, do you really need Facebook, Twitter, or other social media and news tools to be refreshing their feeds while you aren’t looking at ’em? Probably not. But many such apps do exactly that by default and end up draining your device’s battery and sometimes even taking a toll on its performance as a result.
For any such items you come across, you’ve got two options: Look in the app’s own settings to see if there’s a way to turn off its background activity (something that’s possible in Twitter and many news apps but, naturally, not in Facebook or Instagram) — or, provided your phone is running Android Oreo or higher, use Android’s own background restriction option on that same screen within your phone’s battery settings to shut it down at the system level.
Let’s check one more place, just to round things out: Head over to the Network & Internet section of your system settings and tap the line labeled “Data usage.” Now tap the line labeled either “Mobile data usage” or “App data usage.” Select any apps with high amounts of use and see how much of their data transferring is going on in the background. If an app is using a significant amount of background data for no apparent reason, take away its ability to do so by deactivating the “Background data” toggle on that same screen — which in turn will free up precious processing power and battery juice in addition to stopping the needless toll on your mobile data plan.
With both parts of this step, just be sure to use common sense and avoid disabling background permissions for any system-level tools — things like your Phone app or “Android OS” — as well as for any apps that genuinely need such capabilities in order to operate (like a messaging app, for instance, which wouldn’t be able to look for new incoming messages if it didn’t have background data and battery access).
Step 3: Nuke annoying notifications
Time required: 3 minutes
This next part of our tune-up is less about system performance and more about your own sanity and ability to get stuff done. Notifications are distractions, after all — and odds are, your phone’s giving you plenty of attention-grabbing alerts you don’t really need.
Think about all the notifications that show up on your Android device — and then think carefully about how many of them give you truly pertinent info that warrants the interruption. Do you need to know about every breaking news story the second it happens instead of finding that info when you actively seek it out on your own? What about social media mentions or incoming emails? Only you can decide what makes sense for you, but I’d be willing to wager you have at least a couple types of notifications you’d be better off without.
If you think of any such examples, head back into the Apps & Notifications section of your system settings and tap the line labeled “Notifications.” There, you can select any app installed on your phone and then select the line labeled “Notifications” or “App notifications” to turn off its alerts at the system level. If your device is running Oreo or higher, you can even selectively disable certain types of notifications without zapping ’em all — for instance, leaving on notifications for direct messages in Twitter but shutting off all of the app’s other types of alerts.
Bonus tip: If your phone is running Pie, there’s an easy way to find your worst notification offenders: In that same Apps & Notifications section of your system settings, select “Notifications” and then scroll down and select “See all from last 7 days.” Tap the blue bar at the top of the screen and select “Most frequent” — and then, you’ll see an ordered list of exactly which apps are interrupting you the most. You can tap on any app’s name from that list to jump directly to its notification controls and tell it to hush.
Step 4: Clean up your storage
Time required: 3 minutes
Android phones frequently have a limited amount of local storage — so the next step in our tune-up will clear out the cobwebs and free up some of your device’s local space. That will give you more room for future downloads and can also help your phone run a bit more smoothly, especially if your available storage is getting low.
The biggest storage-sucking culprit, not surprisingly, tends to be content from your camera — so if you aren’t already using Google Photos’ excellent and (generally) free cloud-syncing capability, head into the app’s settings and set that up now.
The rest is easy as can be: Remember that Google Files app we talked about a second ago? Open it up and look through the cards on its main screen. They’ll give you a bunch of smart suggestions for stuff to clean up and delete, ranging from junk files and duplicates to already backed-up photos, videos, and other files you aren’t using and likely don’t need. You can review all of its suggestions and then click a button to sweep any of the associated files away without ever leaving the app.
Bonus tip: If your phone is running Oreo or higher, look in the Storage section of your system settings for the “Smart Storage” option. Activating it will allow your phone to automatically remove backed-up photos and videos whenever your storage is running low or after they’ve been on your phone for a certain amount of time.
Step 5: Spruce up your home screen
Time required: 2 minutes
Last but not least, a tune-up step that’s all about organization and efficiency: getting your home screen tidied up and in optimal working order.
An organized home screen makes it faster and easier to get to the stuff you use the most — and realistically, for most of us, that’s a relatively small number of items. Look at every item on your home screen and think carefully about how often you use it. If it isn’t something you open at least once daily (or close to it), take it off. That way, your home screen will be an uncluttered launching board for your most essential apps, shortcuts, and widgets — the stuff you actually access on a regular basis — and then everything else can be pulled up quickly as needed via your scrolling alphabetical app drawer.
Bonus tip: If you’re using an older phone or a non-Google device, consider a third-party launcher that’ll upgrade your home screen environment. The free Lawnchair Launcher provides a nice balance of simplicity and functionality, using Google’s basic Pixel home screen interface as a base and then adding in plenty of extra options and opportunities for customization.
And with that, my dearest darling, your annual Android tune-up is complete. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back and grab a well-deserved donut; your phone is ready to pull out of the shop and rev its engine all over the world.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]