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Do icons on my desktop mean programs are running or will they otherwise slow down my system?


I have [a lot of applications on my desktop}. Would my desktop load
faster if I put all of these apps and utility programs into one desktop
folder rather than having all the icons appear on my desktop? Seeing
them doesn’t bother me and my desktop loads pretty fast, but my kids
are horrified by all they see on my desktop. They say that even though
these apps are not listed in my Startup Menu or in Start Programs and
even though the apps don’t appear to be running in Task Manager
processes, they are running and using valuable CPU. Can you enlighten
me and my kids?

I’m with your kids, sort of. I’m horrified, but not for the reasons
that they’re horrified.

And even though I am, if I were you I’d likely not change a

I know that seems like contradictory advice, but it all boils down
to being a matter of taste, and nothing more.

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The short version is this: icons that are displayed on your desktop
are not running programs and they do not take any additional resources,
with one tiny exception. That very tiny exception is that it takes a
teeny tiny amount of time to draw the icon itself on the desktop each
time the desktop is displayed, particularly when you start up. But
that’s it.

“… icons that are displayed on your desktop
are not running programs and they do not take any additional resources

Other than that, having an icon on your desktop is almost exactly
the same as having an item in your start menu somewhere. It does
nothing until you actually use it.

So why am I, like your kids, horrified? Well, like I said, it’s for
a completely different reason.

I’m a neat freak when it comes to my desktop.

In fact, here it is:

Leo's Desktop

In case you’re wondering, I put my taskbar on the far left – it
makes the most sense for my dual monitor setup which gives me a full
desktop that spans the two monitors looking like this:

Leo's Full Desktop

As you can see, I have exactly two icons on my desktop: “My
Computer” (which I renamed to the machine name, so I can keep my
machines straight when I’m looking at them), and the Recycle Bin.
That’s it.

Why am I so anal about this?

It’s actually very simple: what’s the point in putting shortcuts to
things on the desktop which is completely hidden by running programs
most of the time? Shortcuts are much more useful in the quick-launch
area (which you can see in the image above has quite a bit), and in the
start menu itself. If I have to minimize or move a bunch of windows to
access the shortcuts on my desktop then it doesn’t seem like much of a
“short cut”.

But that’s just me.

Like I said above, it’s a matter of taste.

I regularly see machines where the desktop is completely covered
with icons, and typically with no organization whatsoever. I shudder
not only because of the aesthetics, because I wouldn’t know how to go
about finding anything in that mess.

But again, that’s just me. Clearly the users of those computers are
quite comfortable with their setup.

So there’s your answer: if you like the way things are set up, don’t
bother changing it. You’re not impacting your computer’s performance in
any way that matters.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in getting more organized,
then by all means … organize away.

Do this

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24 comments on “Do icons on my desktop mean programs are running or will they otherwise slow down my system?”

  1. Thanks for your answer, Leo. It makes perfect sense to me and I’m glad to have been proven right at 58 and the Mom of 3 grown children who were SURE they knew better! Your suggestion to access shortcuts from the quick-launch area is a great idea. Can you enlighten this less than savy Mom on how to clean my desktop by moving shortcuts from the desktop to quick-launch? Thanks a million!

    Make sure that the taskbar is unlocked (right click on an empty area on it to see in the popup menu), and then just drag-and-drop shortcuts into the quick launch area.

  2. Sandy, simply dragging the shortcuts from the desktop to quick launch would do the job.

    Pressing the “ctrl” key while selecting would let you select all of them one by one, and dragging any one to quick launch would drag all of them.

    But the desktop shortcuts would remain there and you’d have to delete them manually once all have been sent to quick launch. Unless someone else know a better way.

  3. For those of you who are not as neat as Leo, and like to fill your desktop with tons of files and other stuff, there is a quick and instant way to get to your desktop.

    Simply press: WIN+D

    That means press the the windows key + D.

    (An easy way to remember this is that the letter D stands for “desktop”.)

    It will instantly show you the desktop, and you can then click your programs and files there.

    Press Win+D again to return to the program you were originally working on.

    Otherwise if you are a neat freak, then you are better off following Leo’s example!

    (But in my experience most people don’t spend time tidying their desktop. I guess their more of the mad-artist types, as opposed to the engineering-scientific type! So if you are one of mad-artist personality types then use the Win+D combination to reveal your chaotic desktop. It works great.)

  4. I create a folder called ‘Toolbox’. All the shortcuts to the programs that use on a regular basis go into the Toolbox. Leeps my desktop from being too too cluttered. I even have people copying me on that idea at work.

  5. You can also add a “Desktop” quick launch on your taskbar by right-clicking on your task bar and choosing “Desktop.” This will give you a pop up menu on your taskbar that contains all your desktop items. This way, you don’t have to minimize anything to get to the desktop item of your choice.

  6. Leo, as a way to reduce the number of icons on my desktop, I created a couple new folders, one called “Utilities,” another called “Often Used.” I then dragged the appropriate icons into each folder and ended up with a cleaner desktop.

  7. Because I’m fairly competent regarding computer software — OK, I’m a geek — I am often asked by friends to help them with some problem or other on their computer. It has been my experience over these many years that the organization of the icons on the desktop is a pretty good predictor of how much work I will be doing. A messy, disorganized desktop usually indicates a messy, disorganized approach to using the computer. Those folks tend to download every program they see, and they download them to the desktop. They don’t run AV, backup, or any other utilities. And they just tend to view the computer as some “magic box” that will take care of itself (possibly too many Star Trek episodes). Most of them are very intelligent, but have unrealistic expectations regarding their silicon friends. On the other hand, people who take the time to organize their icons in some way, any way, tend to have fewer problems. When they do have problems, they tend to be less severe. Whether their organization consists of grouping icons on the screen, or using folders, or by using the Quick Launch tool bar, they just seem to understand the need for some care and maintenance when it comes to their computer. I do believe there is a lot of that right brain/left brain concept in this. The folks who are more creative and artistic seem to have a less-organized computer than those logical, objective types. I know it’s dangerous to generalize, but when I see a monitor that is covered from top to bottom with dozens (hundreds?) of icons, I just know I’m in for a long session.

  8. I have 8 Icons on my desktop, for some reason years ago I download pycons (Monty Python icons) I use the police dog for security programs, a sheep for games, Wanda the fish for unused (2), A musical symbol for my music files, and a file folder for my word/works documents. I have found I can find what I need fast, without too much on the desktop. But then I also change my pictures on my desktop regularly to pictures I like.

  9. Your neat Desktop articles were very informative…..I would like to know however, Where can I get new Icons, besides the usual window’s Icons so I can change them to more likable ones.

  10. I organize my desktop into 4 regions, each occupying a corner. They are machine maintenance stuff, Internet related programs, media programs, and the productivity.

  11. I always thought that the more items you had in the quick launch area, the longer your computer takes to start. Is that not true?

    Oh, and I’m with you, Leo, I positively HATE a messy desktop!

    Quick Launch is pretty much like the desktop itself. It might take a miniscule amount of time to draw the icons, but other than that there is no appreciable impact on startup or running time.
  12. Funny, I am a nerd with a very messy desktop. I save all temporary (useful for a few weeks, or to decide if they are useful)files to desktop, that way they annoy me,and I get around to cleaning them up once I can’t fit anymore on there.

    Also I advise clients/friends to use desktop, that way I can see what they have tried to get to work, and they know it is there.
    Visual is helpful. Folders get lost.

  13. I love a clean desktop.
    I use Quick Launch for frequent apps, and I have a folder in My Documents full of Shortcuts that I’ve added as a Toolbar (and shrunk, so it’s like a mini start menu, but bigger).
    Then a Slush Folder/toolbar.
    And finally, one for Desktop so I can still use the drag and drop to the desktop conveniently. I just hide my desktop icons so it stays pretty.

  14. I too am a tidiness freak. To keep icons off the Desktop I created 2 folders into which I put Shortcuts to often used programmes, other folders, websites, etc. I then dragged and dropped one on the extreme left side of my screen and the other on the right. You can also put one at the top of the screen, but this can get in the way. When dropped at the extreme margin of the screen these folders become toolbars which can be set to always be on top and/or auto hide until you touch the edge of the screen with your mouse. These toolbars can be dragged to just a thin bar (mine are 6mm – 1/4 inch) wide. The icons can be large or small. So my often used stuff is always handy without getting in the way. I don’t have to go hunting for stuff in the Start Menu, Explorer, or Firefox when my Desktop is filled with programme windows.

  15. I’m almost the exact polar opposite of Leo: I hate cluttering the Task Bar, but don’t at all mind putting things on my DeskTop. I have my DeskTop icons “divided” into five loose areas.

    Top left of screen: “Selected Utilities” area (which actually includes shortcuts to various drives and my ISP, as well as actual utilities such as Defrag).

    Top right of screen: “Security” area (shortcuts to run, update and “FullScan with” my Norton AntiVirus, a shortcut to AdAware 2008, a shortcut to a folder of shortcuts for updating various aspects of my computer (Microsoft Update, Firefox, printer software, etc.), plus an actual encrypted textfile containing my bank account information, so that if I need to update an online store account I have that information handy.

    A blank row, then Upper middle of screen: Shortcuts to infrequently accessed but important folders — folders which I don’t much need to access but for which, when the need arises, immediate and ready access comes in very handy. This includes of folder of camera photos and another of scanned documents, etc.

    Skip a row, then lower middle of screen: Shortcuts to commonly used folders. This includes (1) A “Utilities” folder contains ALL my links to ALL my utilities (provided I remember to put an link there when I first install the utility, which admittedly I don’t always remember to do! — but in principle, it is at least SUPPOSED to contain links to “all” utilities, all gathered in one place); (2) “Internet & Online” shortcut to a folder containing shortcuts to all programs which require or use Internet access; (3) shortcut to a “File Editing” folder with shortcuts to various programs for creating and editing files, including Nero Sound Editor, MS Paint, WordPad, and so forth and so on; (4) a shortcut to my “Music” folder; (5) a shortcut to my “Downloads” folder; and (6) a link to the “Glenn’s Files” folder which contains all my textfiles and other important files.

    Below this there is (supposed to be) only empty space, but there is usually one or two programs or files there temporarily, waiting for me to attend to them, and which are usually deleted (or moved) elsewhere afterwards. For example, I might have a text file of URL’s I want to take a gander at. (The URL to THIS page happened to be in exactly one such file, cut & pasted there from a “Ask Leo!” newsletter I’d recently read!).

    Of course, my icons are small, so all this “clutter” actually takes up no more than half the screen. Gives a Pleasingly Live-In Look to my DeskTop. And I’m quite sure that Leop would absolutely hate it. :)

  16. Like my icons (tastefully arranged by type). The main reason I have them is ease of access, either thru minimizing open apps and then clicking on desired icon or (even better) using hot keys to open a new item without leaving the app I’m already working on. Particularly love the option to quickly open the MRU Word doc.

  17. I created colorful desktop graphics that allow me to have up to twenty icons at a time, and still be very organized. Since I love to “play” with graphics,” I’ve created several hundred (some are simply different colors), as well as matching screen saver graphics for use with 3D Maze. I created desktops for the four seasons, holidays, days of the week, etc., so I can change the theme and/or color according to my mood.

    Hey, Leo, do I get the prize for most anal-retentive desktop organizer? :o)

  18. I am just wondering if I get into quick launch then i would get space possively half centimeters it depends. And it would greatly affect my whole desktop for the rest of applications. for me it would be better if I could just put it in my desktop. Its just for me anyway. thanks.

  19. Hi Leo….re: the Desktop Icons…The questions & answers that you provide are “outstanding”. I’m “impressed by your” Newletter(s)!! Therefore I continue to provide you with Latte’s, etc….KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!! A Long Time Sr.Citizen Supporter!! Aloha, from Hawaii PS: Come see us again…soon!!

  20. Hi there, i have sorted out my laptop and deleted alot of programs i did not know what they were!! i know silly me, now i cant use web pages as a shortcut tomy desk top?

    any suggestions..

  21. a empty folder which name is “my music” which i was not saved in my desktop, but its automatically comes in my desktop.rather i also delete it but its comes again.i know its happened due to virus, so what i will do plz tell me.

  22. Hello

    Thanks for making a post/webpage about this question.

    I knew the Icons on the desktop where NOT causing the programs to run in the background… what I was looking to find out was how to make the Icons load faster.
    I believe I found my answer with in your Neat Freak comment and the comments of others.

    I have done everything to make my computer load faster and run faster, I am a gamer.
    Such as: turning off everything possible in MsConfig Startup, running CCleaner, defragging, running SpyBot, Malwarebytes, Ad-Aware and two other Free Cleaners, and a little Free program called Startuplight. But the Desktop Icons still loaded somewhat slow.

    I now believe I now have my answer as to why they load so slow.
    I have 46 Icons on my desktop — LOL yes 46! That’s about two-thirds of my desktop.
    I may not be a Neat Freak as you define one, but believe me I am a Neat Freak, all 46 Desktop Icons are setup in perfect order and category. They are all used weekly. I got a big kick out of how you have only two Icons on your desktop and I have so many. To each his own, thanks again!!


  23. How do you alter desktop to make “not messy”? I have downloaded a programme but there is no icon – why? thankyou again Leo. artysmithy

  24. @Arty
    To make your desktop “not messy,” you can simply delete the shortcuts icons you don’t want there. Shortcuts are tiny files which simply point to the location of a program or a file. You have another copy of all of them available in your Start menu under Programs. But just to be sure I’d check to see if you have each program listed in the Start menu before deleting it from the desktop. One other caveat is, make sure that that icon on the desktop is really only a shortcut and not an actual data file or folder. Shortcuts normally have a small arrow in the lower left hand corner. If you’re not sure you can right click on the icon and select properties and click on the General tab. If it is a shortcut the type of file will be shortcut (.lnk).
    As for the program shortcut not being on your desktop, that’s because most but not all programs install a shortcut on your desktop. They should put a shortcut in the Start menu, though.


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