13 Ways You're Screwing Up Your Computer

We're not here to judge. Really, we're not. I have, however, been fixing computers, in one capacity or another, for well over two decades, and I see the same thing over and over....

People are constantly screwing up their own computers!

Some computer problems are due to hardware failures or lemons, exactly how your microwave or dishwasher might fail due to age, wear, or maybe a factory defect. While there are things you can do to identify and even help prevent these sorts of problems, we'd never say you've screwed something up just because you have some bad luck.

Computer problems

Beyond that, though, is almost every other problem: the ones we cause ourselves, mostly by ignorance, which hopefully we can solve for you here.

Sometimes, however, procrastination is the enemy. We put off a computer maintenance task because we don't have time, or tell ourselves that we'll back up our stuff next week instead.

Regardless of where you sit on the ignorant-to-procrastinating scale, let the following 13 tips remind you of some of the most important things you can do to stop screwing up your computer!

We even rate your screw up from 1 to 10. You're welcome!

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You're Not Backing Up Continuously

Image of cloud backup terms on a chalkboard
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One big way to screw up your computer, and by extension yourself, is to back up in some way that's not continuous.

This is a LEVEL 10 SCREW UP!

Yes, you should be backing up your data continuously, as in virtually nonstop... all the time... at least once per minute. It sounds excessive, but it's true.

This is one of the biggest way you're screwing up your computer (and your smartphone, and your iPad, etc.).

Your data is the most important stuff you own. They're your irreplaceable photos and videos, your expensive music, your school paper you've invested hours and hours in, etc., etc., etc.

While it's possible to use traditional backup software to back up continuously to an external hard drive or a network drive, it's easier to get started with, and safer on several levels, to back up continuously with an online backup service.

We've reviewed dozens of these online backup services, and take a fresh look at each one again every month. All are great choices and prevent just about any chance of you losing your important stuff.

Backblaze and Carbonite are our favorites, backup non-stop, and both allow unlimited space for surprisingly affordable prices.

So, stop screwing up your computer and start continuously backing up to the cloud! Most smartphones have built-in auto-backup capabilities, so be sure to turn those on, too!

(Wait, you're not backing up at all? Here's your chance to get started, and do so the right way from the get-go.)

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You're Not Updating Your Antivirus Software

Photo of a virus indication key on a computer keyboard
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Another "good" way to screw up your computer is to not keep updated that antivirus program you took the time to install or even purchase.

This is a LEVEL 10 SCREW UP!

Those nefarious malware authors out there make new viruses every day, change how they work, and find new ways of avoiding antivirus software. In response, antivirus software has to respond just as quickly.

In other words, your antivirus software only worked 100% the day you installed it. Kind of depressing, isn't it?

Most antivirus software, even free antivirus programs (of which there are plenty), automatically update their definitions, the term used to describe the set of instructions the programs use to identify and remove viruses and other malware.

That said, there are sometimes pop-up messages that ask you to do this manually or notices that appear on screen about needing to update the core program before definition updating can continue.

Unfortunately, we see people screw up all the time by closing these...without reading them at all! A message that shows up over and over is usually a good indication that's it's important.

So, stop screwing up your computer's ability to fight the bad guys and make sure your antivirus program is updated! Just open the program and look for the "update" button.

If you think you may have been running your computer with a significantly outdated antivirus program, learn how to scan your computer for malware for help making sure nothing slipped in while your computer's defenses were down.

(You don't even have an antivirus program installed? GO INSTALL ONE RIGHT NOW! There are lots of free antivirus tools out there, ready and waiting.)

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You're Not Patching Software Right Away

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Similar to the not-updating-your-antivirus mistake from above, putting off those software updates, especially the operating system ones, is a great way to screw up your computer.

This is a LEVEL 10 SCREW UP!

(Yes, three Level 10 screw ups in a row! We're getting most of the really important stuff out of the way first.)

The majority of software patches these days, especially the ones Microsoft pushes for Windows on Patch Tuesday, correct "security" issues, meaning issues that have been discovered that could allow someone to remotely access your computer!

Once these vulnerabilities in Windows have been discovered, a patch has to be created by the developer (Microsoft) and then installed (by you) on your computer, all before the bad guys figure out how to exploit said vulnerability and start doing damage.

Microsoft's part of this process takes long enough so the worst thing you can do is extend that window of opportunity any longer by procrastinating on installing these fixes once provided.

Windows Update is probably installing these updates for you automatically but you can check for this, and change the behavior, any time you want. See How Do I Change Windows Update Settings? if you need help.

It's the exact same situation with your Mac or Linux computer, your tablet, and your smartphone...just different details. However you're notified that an update is available to iOS, your smartphone software, or your Linux kernel: promptly apply the update!

Other software and app updates are important, too, and for similar reasons. If your Microsoft Office software, iPad apps, Adobe programs, etc., ever ask you to update, just do it.

(You've never installed updates to Windows? Like I said above, they may be installing without your knowledge, but you should check to be sure. Learn how to install Windows updates if you have no idea where to start.)

of 13

You're Not Using Strong Passwords

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We all use passwords. Most of the devices and services we use require that we do.

What they don't (usually) require is that the passwords not suck. A "strong" password, in case you didn't know, is a password that doesn't suck...in some specific ways.

Hopefully you know that passwords that include your name, simple words, 1234, etc., are all "bad" passwords. Information security experts call these types of passwords weak passwords.

Weak passwords are easy to "crack" with special software. Very weak passwords are even easy enough to guess. Yikes.

This is a LEVEL 9 SCREW UP!

Maybe you've guessed your own simple passwords or even hacked into your own computer, both things you may be happy to have the ability to do when needed...but every other expert computer user can also do it.

See what makes a password weak or strong if you're not quite sure how great, or not-so-great, your passwords are. If they don't meet that "strong" criteria, there are tips in that article to help you make something better.

Do yourself one better and use a password manager to store your hard-to-remember passwords, leaving you with just a single, strong password to memorize. There are plenty of free password manager apps, programs, and web services out there.

(Logging in to Windows or some other service without a password at all? Set one. Please!)

of 13

You're Still Running Windows XP

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Windows XP was probably Microsoft's most successful product of all time, certainly its most successful and popular operating system.

Unfortunately, in April of 2014, Microsoft ended pretty much all support for it, meaning that those important security holes that are patched every month on Patch Tuesday are not being created for Windows XP!

This is a LEVEL 8 SCREW UP!

If you're still using Windows XP then your computer is still vulnerable to all of the security issues that have been found, and corrected in later versions of Windows, since May of 2014!

This is a Level 8 screw up and not a Level 10 because there are a few ways you can keep yourself relatively safe and still use Windows XP.

See Support for Windows XP Ended April 8, 2014 for more on what changed that day, and some links to some great pieces about how to keep using Windows XP in the most responsible way possible.

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You Still Haven't Updated Windows 8 to 8.1 'Update'

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One easy to way to screw up your Windows 8 computer, especially if you did update Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, is to skip that next update to Windows 8.1 Update.

"Huh?" It's confusing, I know...let's explain below.

This is a LEVEL 8 SCREW UP!

These two updates to Windows 8, 8.1 and 8.1 Update, are completely free, moderately-sized updates to Windows 8 that fix all sorts of problems.

That's great and all, and wouldn't normally constitute someone like me freaking about it, but Microsoft put their collective foot down in April, 2014, and said something to the effect of this:

"Hey there! If you updated for free from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, we need you to do us a solid again and update from Windows 8.1 to Windows 8.1 Update. If not, well... we'll stop pushing important security fixes to you. Bummer, we know. Thanks!"

So yeah, that's it in a nutshell.

This Windows 8.1 Update thing was just another item in Windows Update, so if you've been diligent about that (ahem...see #3 above...) then you're probably in great shape.

Microsoft's newest operating system is Windows 10. It was available for free for the first year (through July 29, 2016) but no longer is. If you have the budget, the super-smartest thing to do would be to upgrade to it instead: Windows 10 Pro (Buy on Amazon), Windows 10 Home (Buy on Amazon).

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You're Downloading the Wrong Stuff

Cartoon image of a man paying for software after a trial period
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Another very common way to screw up your computer is to download the wrong types of software, filling your computer up with stuff you never wanted, including malware and adware.

This is a LEVEL 7 SCREW UP!

As you probably know, there are tens of thousands, maybe more, completely free software programs and apps out there.

What you may not know is that there are different levels of free software. Some are completely free, often called freeware, while others are only "sort of" free, like trialware programs and shareware programs.

Some sites trick users by advertising that the download is free when in reality the only thing they're saying is that the actual download process is free. (Well duh!)

What all of this confusion does is help you end up with something other than what you thought you were getting. It's frustrating, I know.

of 13

You've Left Junk Installed...and Probably Running!

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A pretty easy way to screw up your computer is by installing, or leaving already-installed, junk software on your computer, the worst of which is the kind that runs in the background all the time.

This is a LEVEL 7 SCREW UP!

The bulk of the blame for this one is with your computer maker. Seriously.

Part of the reason some companies can sell their computers at such a low cost is by taking money from software makers to include trial versions of their programs on your brand new computer.

Unfortunately, most people have little to no use for these programs. What the majority of new computer users will do, at most, is just delete the shortcuts to these programs. Out of sight, out of mind.

What some people don't realize is that these programs are still installed and wasting space, just hidden from your daily view. Worse yet, some of these programs start up in the background when your computer starts, wasting your system resources and slowing down your computer.

In fact, preinstalled, always-on software is one of the biggest reasons for a sluggish overall computer experience.

Fortunately this problem is easy to fix, at least in Windows. Head to Control Panel, then to the Programs & Features applet, and promptly uninstall anything you know you don't use. Search online for more information about any programs you're not sure about.

If you have trouble uninstalling something, check out these free uninstaller programs, full of great, completely free programs that can help you get rid of other ones you don't want. (One of them is even called PC Decrapifier!)

of 13

You're Letting Needless Files Fill Up the Hard Drive

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No, it's certainly not the most important thing you can screw up, but letting needless stuff fill up your hard drive, especially with today's smaller solid state drives, can impact how quickly some parts of your computer work.

This is a LEVEL 5 SCREW UP!

In general, having "stuff" on your computer that doesn't do anything but take up space is not anything to worry about it. When it can be an issue is when the free space on the drive gets too low.

The operating system, Windows for example, needs a certain amount of "working" room so it can temporarily grow if need be. System Restore comes to mind as a feature that you'll be happy to have in an emergency but that won't work if there's not enough free space.

To avoid problems, we recommend keeping 10 percent of your main drive's total capacity free. You can check free hard drive space in Windows if you're not sure how much you have.

Having hundreds or thousands of extra files also makes it harder for your antivirus program to scan your computer and makes defragmenting more difficult.

In Windows, a really handy included tool called Disk Cleanup will take care of most of this for you. Just search for that in Windows or execute cleanmgr from the Run dialog box or Command Prompt.

If you want something that does even more of a detailed job, CCleaner is excellent. It's also completely free.

Oh, and don't worry, it's usually by no fault of your own that these files accumulate over time. It's just part of how Windows, and other software, works.

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You're Not Defragging On a Regular Basis

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To defragment or not to defragment...not usually a question. While it's true that you don't need to defrag if you have an solid state hard drive, defragging a traditional hard drive is a must.

This is a LEVEL 4 SCREW UP!

Fragmentation happens naturally as your computer's hard drive writes data all over the place. Having a bit here, and a bit there, makes it harder to read that data later, slowing down how quickly your computer can do a lot of things.

No, your computer isn't going to crash or explode if you never defrag but doing it on a regular basis can most certainly speed up pretty much every aspect of your computer use, especially non-internet related tasks

Windows has a built-in defragmentation tool but this is one area where other developers have gone the extra mile, making easier-to-use and more effective tools.

See our list of free defrag software tools for a ranked and reviewed list of these programs, all of which are completely free to use.

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You're Not [Physically] Cleaning Your Computer

Photo of a computer keyboard under soapy water
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First of all, don't dunk any part of your computer in a sink full of soapy water! That image is for illustration purposes only!

Not properly cleaning your computer, however, especially a desktop computer, is an often overlooked maintenance task that could eventually screw up your computer something severe.

This is a LEVEL 4 SCREW UP!

Here's what happens: 1) your computer's many fans collect dust and other grime, 2) said dirt and grime build up and slow down the fans, 3) the computer parts cooled by the fans begin to overheat, 4) your computer crashes, often permanently.

In other words, a dirty computer is a hot computer, and hot computers fail.

If you're lucky, your operating system will warn you that certain pieces of hardware are overheating or you'll hear a beeping sound. Most of the time, you won't be lucky and instead your computer will start to power off by itself and eventually never come on again.

It's easy to clean a computer fan. Just go buy a can of compressed air and use it to clean the dust from any fan in your computer. Amazon has tons of compressed air choices, some as cheap as a few dollars a can.

In desktops, be sure not to miss the ones in the power supply and in the case. Increasingly, video cards, RAM, and sound cards have fans, too.

Tablets and laptops usually have fans as well, so be sure to give them a few puffs of canned air to keep them running smooth.

See the many ways to keep your computer cool for lots of other ways to prevent overheating, from computer placement to water cooling kits.

Yes, keyboards and mice need cleaning, too, but dirty versions of those devices usually don't cause serious problems.

Do be careful cleaning that flat screen monitor, though, because there are household cleaning chemicals that can permanently damage it. See how to clean a flat screen computer monitor for help.

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You're Putting Off Fixing Problems That You Can Probably Fix Yourself

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You may be rolling your eyes a little right now but we're serious. You (yes YOU) can fix your own computer problems! The huge majority of them, anyway.

This is a LEVEL 2 – LEVEL 10 SCREW UP!

Yes, this one has a range of screw-up-ness thanks to the wide variety of consequences that your procrastination — due to your fear of DIY computer repair — might have on your computer's health.

I often hear from people that they've been putting up with a problem for days, weeks, or even years, because they didn't think they were smart enough to tackle it or couldn't afford to have someone look at it. How sad is that?!

We have a secret that your techie friend you rely on might not tell you and that the women and men that work at that big computer repair service most certainly won't:

Most computer problems are pretty easy to fix!

No, not all of them, but most...yes. In fact, I often tell people that 90 percent of the problems I hear about these days can be fixed after trying one or more super-easy things!

Wondering what they are? See these five simple fixes for most computer problems. No doubt you're familiar with the first one, but the rest are almost as easy to try.

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You're Not Asking for Help When You Need It

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Last, but certainly not least, and very much related to the last big screw up you just read about, is not asking for help when you need it.


Don't feel bad! This is something just about everyone screws up on.

If you think you might be able to fix a problem that pops up yourself, you run to your favorite search engine for help.

Maybe you ask a friend on Facebook or Twitter, or maybe your 12 year old is a wiz and fixes everything for you.

All of those things are great. Consider yourself lucky that they worked out.

What if, on the other hand, you're not that great at even knowing what the problem is so you're not even sure what to search for? What if you don't have a 12-year old computer genius living upstairs? What if none of your social media friends are techie types?

Lucky for you, there are plenty of places to get free computer help, such as tech support forums.

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