Cut Desktop and Menu Clutter
Before you can get to work on any job, you need to organize your tools and materials. But sometimes Windows makes it hard to tell what tools you have. By removing icons duplicated in the Start menu, in the taskbar's Quick Launch toolbar, and on the desktop, you'll more easily find what you need. You may want to have some icons in multiple locations, but the simplest arrangement is to just choose the best launch location for each individual icon, and remove it from the others.
Icon See You From Here
Uninstalling the trial and feature-limited software that came with your PC is a good start, but it won't remove every pointless shortcut. Thankfully, Windows XP introduced a handy tool for cleaning up unused desktop icons. Right-click the desktop, choose Properties, click the Desktop tab, and click the Customize Desktop button. Click Clean Desktop Now to launch a wizard that finds the icons you haven't used recently and moves them to an Unused Desktop Shortcuts folder. If you have just a few items left on the desktop (such as the Recycle Bin), link them to your taskbar so you won't have to minimize your running applications just to get to them: Right-click the taskbar and choose Toolbars, Desktop. Then right-click the new toolbar's name. (If 'Lock the Taskbar' is checked, select it to uncheck it, and right-click the taskbar again to add the Desktop toolbar to the taskbar.) At the top of the right-click menu, you'll find options that change the size of the icons and turn on or off the display of the toolbar's title or its icons' names.
The Windows Start menu is highly configurable--right-click the Start button, click Properties, choose the Start Menu tab, pick either Start menu (which is XP's default) or Classic Start (which changes the menu to something resembling that in Windows 2000), and then click the corresponding Customize button to see the wealth of options. Most are a matter of personal taste, but you can get rid of two duplicated icons in the nonclassic Start menu by unchecking the Internet and E-mail options (links to those programs appear in your Quick Launch toolbar by default). Click the Advanced tab to see more streamlining options. If you seldom click the Start menu's Favorites, Search, Set Program Access and Defaults, Help and Support, or other links, you can make them go away by unchecking them in the 'Start menu items' list and clicking OK.
The Quick Launch toolbar, located to the right of the Start button, is the handiest way to launch oft-used applications--you can fire up your favorite programs with one click. (If your Quick Launch toolbar isn't visible, right-click the taskbar and select Toolbars, Quick Launch.)
Remove any seldom-used icons (right-click them and choose Delete). You can also resize the Quick Launch toolbar (drag the bar that appears on the toolbar's right when the taskbar is not locked), arrange the icons (drag each one), and hide the toolbar's title and icon names. Most programs, when you install them with default settings, plop their icons on the Desktop, in the Quick Launch area, and in the Start menu--it's overkill. To prevent future icon clutter, always choose the 'custom' option when you install a new application so that you can decide whether it should create Quick Launch or Desktop icons.
System Tray Surgery
Uninstalling superfluous applications will reduce the number of system tray icons competing for your attention, but you can probably streamline things even more. Windows, hardware devices, and system utilities install icons to offer instant access to settings or to display the status of one thing or another. Simplifying the system tray frees space on the taskbar for more important stuff (see "15 Icons You Can Dump"for some examples of the most common possibilities).
Tackling the system tray is easier when all of its icons are visible: In Windows XP, right-click the Start button, choose Properties, click the Taskbar tab, uncheck Hide inactive icons, and click OK (you may want to reenable this when you're done). Left- or right-clicking each icon may reveal configuration options (every icon behaves differently). Even if the software doesn't let you disable its system tray icon, Windows can hide it using a slick system tray customization feature (see the Outlook item in "15 Icons You Can Dump").